Discussion is now open on this book.
Discussion is now open on this book.
This one is my top standalone sf novel and I read it end to end more than 15 times so I know quite a lot of it by heart.
The prologue makes sense only after you read the book and answers a central question left open at the end of the book, while the epilogue could have been the prologue.
Originally the book was even more complicated but Mr. Banks was at the beginning of his career so he made it more accesible. Matter (2008) supposedly has the complicated multidimensional structure UofW was supposed to have, so I am eager to read it.
After the prologue which again you can skip and read as an epilogue, you get thrown in the action and see the man called Cheradenine Zakalwe former Culture Special Circumstances agent trying to do the job that powerful AI minds find hard to do, failing miserably and reverting to SC type action.
You also see Diziet Sma Culture agent and Zakalwe's handler with her inimitable partner the drone Skaffen Amstikaw with a taste for black humor and Zakalwe's sparring discussion partner (the back and forth between the two has some of the most memorable lines in all of sf - when Skaffen gifts Zakalwe a hat I almost choked with laughter and each time I read that scene it makes me laugh - you gotta read the book and see why). Both are on a crucial mission on some back end planet, when they are recalled to get Zakalwe back in the saddle since the s..t is about to hit the fan in a cluster (megamillion deaths on the horizon) and only Zakalwe can persuade the right man who can save the day to come from retirement. Of course if they can find Zakalwe in time and persuade him to do one more mission.
From here on, the book alternates between chapters going forward in time with the said mission, and chapters going back in time with Zakalwe's earlier missions, and then his past are presented in more detail. Among other things Zakalwe has an obsessional hate of chairs and once you read the book, see why, and reread the book you see Mr. Banks mastery at revealing things at the right time to create a truly memorable reading experience...
Dark, funny, and with 3 of the most memorable charcters in all sf, especially Zakalwe and Skaffen Amstikaw with Diziet a bit more of a secondary character, though still with great lines, it's a book to be read again and again...
Hmmm... was it ArthurFrayn in another thread who called this book a real 2x4 to the head? I'll agree with that.
I was impressed by the fact that even though I felt in the dark by a lot of what was happening as I was reading, it was still so darn engrossing... I was content to read along anyway feeling confident that by the end the clues would add up (and they do deliver, though I think there is some deliberate misdireciton along the way). I think I would have to read it again, though, to get the most out of it and to be able to discuss it in greater detail.
This was my first reading of anything by Banks (mainly because here in the US his books are not widely available; had to buy this one from 3rd party seller). I did have to do some research on the Culture to understand some of the politics, and still felt like I was missing the implications of certain things.
I also liked Banks' dark humor and dialogue. There was one line about an alcoholic crew member reaching a state of grace with his enthusiasms that I thought was quite funny. I also thought the drones/Minds were scene stealers. I liked that fact that Banks gives them personalities, but in a way appropriate to AIs.
I loved Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games and so was very much looking forward to Use of Weapons. It gets off to a promising, rip-roaring good start, but I found my initial delight somewhat diffused by the time-juimping twin narratives. It was confusing at first but, as the story progressed, I caught on and the problem became not so much confusion as the continuous interruptions and flow of the narrative. The fact that a couple of the flashback chapters were told out of sequence only brought be back to "somewhat confused". Still, Use of Weapons is characteristic of Banks's writing: richly drawn multi-layered characters, clever dramatic developments and dialogue, and a phenomenally complex universe.
Perhaps owing to my initial confusion and subsequent attempts to get it all straight in my head, I didn't see the end coming (I usually do!) and was blown away. I set the book aside and realized that this is one of those rare novels that demands a second reading. And I imagine that when I do, I'll have a newfound appreciation for Banks's not-wholly-linear storytelling and Use of Weapons will find its place alongside Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games in my Top Twenty-Five.
Last edited by LordBalthazar; September 2nd, 2007 at 01:33 PM.
An interesting SF novel. A few years before Banks wrote a couple of good novels. I don't know why he has stopped this habit ?
I have to say I enjoyed this novel, as I do all of Banks' novels, but did not get particularly engrossed in it. Yeah it was good, it was a nice twist at the end though not an especially original or mind-blowing one for me, perhaps because I found it quite difficult to engage with Zakalwe's character.
It read like a reasonable mainstream novel made slightly more exciting by being dressed up in SF clothing. I couldn't get this feeling out of my head the whole time I was reading it. There's no doubt that the Culture universe is very cleverly constructed and interesting but it was very much 'scenery' in Use Of Weapons, unlike, say, Look to Windward where it is at the centre of the entire plot and explored in detail. That could be because UOW is an earlier novel though. This might also explain the slightly childish dialogue that goes on between the characters, especially the stuff early on about not wanting to upset Sma by revealing the extent of the mission to her. Banks' ruminations on love don't wash with me either, I find his love sub-plots a bit cliched.
I picked up another novel by Banks straight after UOW, this time a 'mainstream' effort, Walking on Glass, which actually read just as much like a SF novel as anything else I've read by him (in a Christopher Priest kind of way). I found it much more interesting, much more wholesome and engrossing. I think I just prefer Iain Banks to Iain M Banks.
I like this book very much. In a thread a while back I remember talking about using a literary approach to writing SF and what that entailed in terms of responsibilites on the part of the author. Here's a perfect example of an author meeting those responsibilities with great skill and confidence. The subject matter of the novel is neatly established at the outset, by the title. It sounds like the title of a military treatise or manual and though it thematically encompasses the novel it maintains a curtly ironic distance from the moral discussion at the the heart of the book.
This is a novel about the Faustian bargain in a military context. If one makes the decision that one has to win at all costs, then the concept of what can be used as a weapon is broadened to include people themselves as the ultimate weapon, and when that realization is reached, there is no turning back. The consequence of using this ulitimate weapon,is a loss of one's own humanity. This is symbolized by the chair motif. The "people as furniture" concept is used to hideous effect here, has also been used in other things, such as Richard Lester's post apocalyptic satire The Bed Sitting Room , and it also recalls the atrocities committed in the concentration camps during the second world war.
In a very real way, the novel almost reads like a description of Zalkawe's stay in Hell: eternity spent in servitude as a weapon himself, with no hope of redemption.
There is also an implication that in using a monster such as Zalkawe to obtain their ends, the Culture hegemony is losing their humanity as well -using him as their weapon in conflicts in which the ulitmate goal becomes less and less clear, but has the consequence of threatening to make goals beside the point - and allowing institutionalized barbarism to become a way of life.
And, it's quite clear to me, that Banks feels that once you make the decision "by any means necessary" and act, there is no hope of redemption. At that point the conception of what it means to be a civilized human being begins to unravel and ceases to have any meaning. It's one of the things that surprises me that this novel is seemingly popular with gung ho types. The novel is structured to make you feel horror,and the guilt of complicity, and is a far cry from the cavalier nihilism of a thematically akin film like The Dirty Dozen.
I like the episodic non linear structure of the novel, and I like the subtle shift in writing style from section to section-for example the halucinatory description of his attempt at living like a hermit, and the terse action style that characterizes the section on the mission to Voerenhutz, which is the central episode of the book.That felt a lot to me, like the other Ian (Fleming) - especially the beautifully handled fight scene in the car when he escapes with Tsoldrin.
I personally liked the coy, humorous banter he engages in with Diziet Sma and the robot, as it is so incongrously at odds with what the novel is truly about.
Nothing like a little flirty chat with Cesare Borgia.
All in all, a piece of SF writing better than 9/10s of what is out there.
Last edited by ArthurFrayn; September 10th, 2007 at 02:23 PM.
Hm. I'm not a sci-fi girl. I've read less than a handful, and something leaves me cold about this half of our beloved genre. And yet, reading what you've all so thoughtfully said, I think I'm going to rush out and buy this...
See you soon!
This comment reminded me of one of my favorite scenes in the novel: the dream leaf. Very trippy and hallucinatory.I like the subtle shift in writing style from section to section-for example the halucinatory description of his attempt at living like a hermit, and the terse action style that characterizes the section on the mission to Voerenhutz, which is the central episode of the book.That felt a lot to me, like the other Ian (Fleming) - especially the beautifully handled fight scene in the car when he escapes with Tsoldrin.
Actually it will be interesting to see what a resolute fantasy reader makes of this novel. I think it should be a match, but I could be very wrong.Hm. I'm not a sci-fi girl. I've read less than a handful, and something leaves me cold about this half of our beloved genre. And yet, reading what you've all so thoughtfully said, I think I'm going to rush out and buy this...
I guess we'll have to wait and see...
It's odd. My reaction to this is odd. I'm not sure what I'm meant to think. There are three sci-fi books I can remember reading: I read the first, oh, about 16 years ago, when I was about 14. Don't remember the plot, just that it was weird. I don't think I finished it - I wasn't ready to be weirded out so completely. Then I read a fairly basic YA one with some guy on a space ship. Finally, there was one Stars Wars book a decade ago. So, I came to this book with no layers of previous reading experience to contrast and compare. It was all dazzly lights and newness heh.
Is this typical of decent sci-fi? Is it ok to say 'I'm still a teeny bit confused about the prologue and the question it's meant to answer'?
I loved the twin narratives. There was much of this that I could relate to purely from all the contemporary fiction reading I do - twin narratives, how very posh. The time theme wove it's way in and out of the book like a quiet river - something so eternal and finite, to us, became something other. I liked that.
I really enjoyed Zakalwe's segments..the snapshots of his experience, particularly in parts 2-3. In part 1 we really have no timeline to slot those experiences into. In part 2, there are hints..or things get explained by either his, or Sma's, reflections. And in part 3, we know what's coming, and we know that the last one will revolve around what exactly happened with that chair. So, I loved that out-of-place feeling in the first two parts. The dream-leaf, and the hermit segments were just fantastic.
Zakalwe's chapter iv I had a small problem with, in that it seemed obvious to me that Banks was really trying to stress 'everyone else builds/creates/embraces something - whether it's a ship, or cleaning a table - while Zakalwe just destroys, and floats along.' So, in retrospect, that's a bit of foreshadowing overkill.
Taken as a whole, however, oh I know I'd need to reread this novel once again, maybe more, to really get right into the guts of it. Which is ok - often I like that about books. I suppose I need to read a 'standard' sci-fi novel to really understand the departure from the norm that I think occurred with Use of Weapons.
"He rested one hand on the surface of the great table, and put the other up to and over his scalp, as if through thick long hair, though in fact his head was shaved"
At the end of the book Skaffen Amstikaw is trying hard to save his life and shaves his head among other things...
Not that it's a pressing concern, but it looks like this discussion thread for the September 07 BOTM slipped through the cracks, and is not listed in the book club thread above ...