Review: Use of Weapons

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
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My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars4 out of 5 stars
First Published: 1990
Read from: November 14 to December 16, 2012

Use of Plot Tricks…

“Use of Weapons” is the first book I’ve read by Iain Banks. I had heard the science fiction novel was one of the author’s best, and that it is an independent story taking place in a series of books about a futuristic society called the “Culture” that explores a super advanced society of humans and their AI creations that have spread across the galaxy. That certainly sounded like a book I ought to give a read.

My impression on the first half or so of the novel was that it was okay, but not great. The story had all the right trappings to at least be a fun sci-fi novel if not a ground-breaking or amazing one. There’s the tactical and strategic hero type, some hi-tech gadgets, even some comedic relief in the form of a smart-mouthed sentient robot. There is occasionally some thought-provoking and middle of the pool “deep” stuff going on too in regards to war and violence (either physical or psychological), and some exploration of humanity’s ability to “use” anything, including other people, as tools or “weapons” to achieve our victories, whatever they may be. But much like the citizens of the Culture, I just wasn’t being engaged enough and found myself wanting something else.

The Culture is a massive, super hi-tech and overly-‘civilized’ society of humans, AIs (and aliens?) that due to its extreme level of technological advancement lends to a society that at first appears to be anarchy on an individual level. But strangely the ennui or free time or lack of anything really challenging to do appears to create a massive back-spin… The Culture as a whole seems to be a very ordered social and law abiding place where humans have for the most part given governmental control over to AI Minds and scientists. People are free to do whatever they want, everything is provided for them, but to get a little meaning in their lives they often do things that help the society run, because “it’s fun” or because they feel its needed to continue letting everyone do their own thing.

Possibly due to this lack of anything to do and this need to “do good” the powers-that-be in the Culture superstitiously meddle with the affairs of the backwater and frontier worlds that are not a part of their civilization with what they believe are altruistic motives… But their meddling often seems to be attempts to mold each world into the Culture’s image. Unfortunately the citizens of this Culture have become so pampered and have known peace for so long that they don’t have the ability or mentality necessary to make the brutal and sometimes violent decisions necessary to further their goals in these relatively un-civilized and dangerous realms. So they enlist members of these frontier worlds to work as their agents. The protagonist of the novel is one of these agents who has been brought out of retirment to complete another dangerous missions for his Culture “handler”.

As I mentioned above, initially I found “getting in” to this book difficult, primarily due to its strange narrative structure. Chapters alternate counting up with regular numbers and counting down with roman numerals. 1, XIII, 2, XII… for example. The regular numbered chapters are the main plot going forward in time as the protaganist and his handler attempt to complete their mission to prevent a outbreak of interplanetary war in a “uncivilized” region of space. The roman numeral chapters are flash back sequences going farther and father back in time with each chapter from earlier in the main character’s career as an agent for the Culture, providing the reader back story on the main character and his universe. To further confuse things there are occasional flashback sequences inside both the forward-running and backward running plot lines, AND a prologue and afterword that are set in yet another time frame.

For me, this constantly shifting plot structure caused the book to really drag for the first half or more. Usually a real “page-turner” of a book will keep the narrative banging away one step after another so that you don’t want to put the book down because there is always one more corner to peak around. Even when a book has multiple plot threads they are usually all moving forward, and switching from one to another can add to the tension as you follow one thread while thinking about what is going on in the other. The alternating forward and backward plotlines in this novel (and a tendency in each one to have a LOT of character intropspection) did NOT make me want to turn the next page. Rather it forced me to struggle to keep plodding on.

But, I’m glad I stuck with it. As I got deeper into the character’s past and deeper towards the climax of the character’s mission the two plot lines began to merge and become relevant to each other. Also while many of the characters of the novel are pretty shallow, by this time you feel like you have gotten to really KNOW the main character. Finally there is a surprise ending… one in which that same narrative structure that first hindered the flow now causes to be all the more powerful.

In summary, my first impression was that this book deserved only at best a 3 out of 5. By the end of the book the structure began to come into its own and really started to engage my interest. And the ending was the icing on the cake. It may have been a bit of a bait and switch ploy, but the skill with which the magician performed his trick pushed Use of Weapons from being just okay, to being a very good read indeed.

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