Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

*Spoilers Below*

I find the Culture novels rather hit or miss. I know they are adored by many, but I've never quite gotten above a faint admiration. They feel a bit distant, I guess, but the ways they examine ideas are not exciting. Which is making them sound worse than they are. I don't mind reading them. I just feel very little emotional attachment.

Starting Use of Weapons was a particular problem. I found the prologue opaque, the writing style uninviting, and had no freaking clue what was going on. Luckily, once we got into the meat of the story, it became much less difficult to follow. However, while I think Use of Weapons is an okay book, I think it relies far too much on shocking you with a reveal that I had at least suspected for over half the book.

Without an effective twist for an ending, for me, I'm left with a vague admiration instead of a deep connection.

Banks is doing some interesting things with form, to be sure. There are two stories, one proceeding more or less linearly forward, and the other proceeding what initially appears to be linearly backwards, but there are a lot of flashbacks thrown into that, so it's much more of a mishmash, in the end.

The story appears to be about...you know, it's funny. There's lots of stories where I feel confident in talking about what they're about, or at least what they're about to me. I'll go on and on about the ideas they sparked in me, how they dovetailed with my own experiences, where paths started in the book led me. For this book, I was always just trying to figure out what Banks wanted, and didn't have the attention to spare to play with the ideas on my own, and that is a pity.

I guess I just prefer more generous authors.

So yes, as I said, the twist at the end is both grotesque, on one level, and something I utterly expected from nearly the first time we met the children, on the other. I can't tell you what it was that tipped me off, but as soon as we met the two boys, I started wondering which of them the character in the future was. I didn't find a lot of support for that particular theory, but then when it turned out to be the case, I was very much less than surprised.

Although it does make trying to find Livueta less about asking forgiveness, and more another monstrous act of cruelty, where the main character's pain is worth making her relive the worst horror again and again, when it cannot be forgiven. Now that's megalomania, deciding that your desire for forgiveness is more important that letting someone else get on with their life.

Wow, I have not talked at all about the story. It's the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, who works for the Culture sometimes as a military leader, in trying to edge new societies to places where they would be more amenable to Culture overtures. Or at least, less likely to nuke themselves in the process of growing up. He's a cipher, probably deliberately, haunted by something to do with chairs. Alternate chapters move backwards in his life, while the main story takes place between them.

So it's a bit of a spy novel, and a bit of a military novel, and a study of guilt, although we are not given enough to explore guilt with the main character. He keeps it all inside, the author keeps it all away from us, and so it becomes a gotcha instead of a study of that emotion, of what it can do to a human being. We see the result, but even the revelation does not let us inside Zakalwe.

So yeah, not my favourite book. It's not terrible, but I prefer books where the author is less jealously guarding their playground.

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