Use of Weapons
Author – Iain M. Banks
Pages: 512 pages
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: Feb. 1st, 1990
It had always seemed to him that the ideal man was either a soldier or a poet, and so, having spent most of his years being one of those â€“ to him â€“ polar opposites, he determined to attempt to turn his life around and become the other.
So opens Chapter VI of Use of Weapons a militaristic Science Fiction novel that many consider to be one of Iain M. Banks’ best works. Coincidentally, this passage also very accurately describes Banks as both a writer and a storyteller.
Use of Weapons balances the fine line between being a poetically over-complicated piece of literature and a frenetic tale of revenge and warfare. The tale often hops back and forth between the two styles and with each change I found myself jarred out of the experience. Part of this is the result of the actual structure of the story, which is, in many ways, a short story collection wrapped around a longer piece of fiction, each short story adding to the longer overall narrative.
The main narrative is a rather standard Science Fiction tale â€“ a Special Circumstance agent, Cheradenine Zakalwe, has to recover a recluse politician, the only man capable of starting a galaxy-wide war â€“ which follows a more-or-less linear path through the novel. The ‘short stories’, however, are flashbacks, told in reverse order and, to be frank, are rather hit-or-miss. Some of them are fantastic little pieces of fiction, adding to the story and mythos of Zakalwe, while others read more like a poetic mess, ripping me out of any sort of connections I may have been forming with the story.
So it was that when I was reading the more formal narrative of the novel (of which there’s really only enough story to fit a novella, or even a long piece of short-fiction), I had trouble understanding why I should care about any of what was going on. I could get little sense of who the characters actually were, and what I did see of them I didn’t much care for. Add to this a battle they were waging in an underdeveloped universe, and I had trouble seeing any sort of significant consequences at all.
Use of Weapons is a standalone novel, but set within a universe that Banks had already created before in earlier novels. Perhaps if I was more familiar with his work, more familiar with his universe, I would have had an easier time finding the empathy needed to care about the happenings in the novel, but as it was Use of Weapons felt, more or less, like an out-of-context short story collection.
One of the things that kept me going to the end of the novel was the supposed twist at the end; a twist that was supposed to throw the whole perspective of the story for a loop. The twist is there, and I certainly didn’t see it coming, but I was also found myself disappointed. Coming in the very last pages of the novel, I’m not really sure of the purpose, other than to throw the reader for a loop and, well, it didn’t really do a whole lot to change my perspective on the events of the novel and, more than anything, just confused things even more.
Events, global scale wars even, seem to take place arbitrarily, just to show us how much of a badass Zakalwe is. Being a Special Circumstances agent, he holds the fates of worlds in his capable hands, but is so damn non-chalant about it all that the reader can’t help but feel the same way. Banks was certainly able to fill these scenes with some frantic, exciting action, but we always knew that Zakalwe would find a way out and move on to the next big thing.
I very much wanted to like Iain M. Banks, and Use of Weapons came highly recommended, but I can’t say I’ll be eagerly getting out there and seeking out more of his work. An interesting narrative structure and deft, creative prose couldn’t save the novel from falling rather flat with me.