Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Use of Weapons

AuthorIain M. Banks

Pages: 512 pages
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: Feb. 1st, 1990
ISBN-10: 0316030570
ISBN-13: 978-0316030571

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 – to him – 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 – a Special Circumstance agent, Cheradenine Zakalwe, has to recover a recluse politician, the only man capable of starting a galaxy-wide war – 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.

  • Nick September 17, 2008 at 2:53 am

    You are clearly insane. I love this book and I love Iain M Banks…

  • aidan September 17, 2008 at 10:38 am

    I love you, too.

    Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I really wanted to like the novel more than I did.

  • Lynette September 17, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Oh man, I can’t imagine starting with “Use of Weapons”!

    I love Iain M. Banks and I’ve read almost all of his Culture novels and I will not hesitate to admit that this was my least favourite. It is most ‘out of character’ for his style and not at all representative of the rest of the series (I know they are all actually stand-alones but I can’t not think of them as a series for some reason).
    Don’t give up on him though!!

    “Consider Phlebas” is fantastic, and as the first one it gives you a lot of information about a war that has a huge impact on the development of ‘the Culture’ and is heavily referenced in the later books. Plus its just awesome.
    I also recommend “The Algebraist” (I started with that one, hooked me completely) and “Excession” which was cool because it focuses a bit more on the ship minds and technology but in a surprisingly relatable way.

    I know exactly what you mean about the jarring feeling “Use of Weapons” has and it is counter productive in a world you really have to dive into to fully appreciate. This immersion is necessary for his other novels as well, but well worth it as they will leave you with the sense of satisfaction that “Use of Weapons” lacks.

  • Tim B September 17, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    I only made it halfway through Use of Weapons before dropping it. I just didn’t care enough about the characters or events to get to the “twist” ending.

    I couldn’t get into a good rhythm with it. I ended up putting it down after almost each section. I’ll most likely try again someday because of the hype, but I understand the sentiments of your review.

  • grey_tinman September 18, 2008 at 7:28 am

    I felt the same level of disappointment when I read Player of Games. The reviews talked about all this excitement at the end and all the drama, but I was never able to care about the story or the main character. I’m still a little surprised I finished it. I guess I won’t be picking this up either.

  • Todd September 19, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    My first Banks was The Algebraist, as I was intrigued by the mathematical possibilities, but it was clear he wasn’t up to the challenge. I thought there were a few nuggets of possibilities there, but overall badly paced, badly plotted, and characters that were paper thin, especially the antagonist. I’ve heard good things overall about Banks, but The Algebraist may have been a bad first pick – it really soured me on trying again.

  • jeff vandermeer August 21, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Wow. I utterly loved this novel and it is in no way a bunch of short stories. The style wasn’t at all jarring to me. It’s a brilliant and passionate novel.

  • aidan August 21, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    That’s how I had hoped to feel about the novel, Jeff. But, I suppose there’s no accounting for taste, eh? I know I’m unusual in my opinion of the novel.

  • […] when I reviewed Banks’ Use of Weapons las year, I was not a fan of it. At all. It’s been my only […]