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Iain Banks, Use Of Weapons - Elf M. Sternberg
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Iain Banks, Use Of Weapons
Few people are passive about Iain Banks. Some people love his work, some people hate it, some are confused by it, and then there are those of us who can't stop reading him even if we loathe the themes about which he writes. His stories rarely, if ever, have "endings." They merely come to a conclusion.

I just finished reading Use Of Weapons, and I have this horrible sinking feeling that I shall be reading it again very soon. To understand the story series, you kinda have to understand The Culture, the near-Singularity civilization that is at the height of its power and its vibrancy, and in a soft and subtle way it seeks to uplift the civilizations at the limits of its reach to its own enlightened state of being. Often, to do this it employs mercenaries. Our hero, Zakalwe Cheranadine, is one of those mercenaries.

The book has a very Bankian structure, with the prologue happening somewhere in the middle of his life, and then the chapters that advance the plot alternating with his mercenary adventures going backwards until they reach the moment with The Chair, and The Ship... and the moment when Zakalwe became Zakalwe.

I just realized-- the structure and pacing of this novel is quite similar to that of Banks' first book, The Wasp Factory. The ending twist is not as well handled, but the horror event that precipitates is every bit as disturbing, perhaps even more horrific, than the one in The Wasp Factory, and mercifully the twist in Use of Weapons is left doubly ambiguous. We may never know who was telling the truth. And that's probably for the best.

I understand why this books gets the praise it does. It is a literary masterpiece, Banks can draw pictures of misery, horror, indulgence and excess with a minimum of effort, and he succeeds somehow in making it all fit together. It's not the clockwork mastery of Bujold, but something more organic, more humane, even while you realize that his underlying themes are as ruthless, vicious, and inhuman as any you can imagine.

A lot of Banks's later works, like the almost irrelevant Excession, don't deserve much attention. But Use of Weapons is Banks at his best. The Wasp Factory had a happy ending, of a sort; I can't say that about Use of Weapons. The Wasp Factory stayed with me for a long time, though, and made me feel depressed and horrified at the state of the world, despite the discoveries its plucky and interesting protagonist went through. I highly recommend Use of Weapons for the same reason I recommend The Wasp Factory, but be prepared to be depressed for a long time afterwards.

Current Mood: recovering
Current Music: Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, Debbie Gibson is Pregnant with My Two Headed Love Child

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Comments
lproven From: lproven Date: August 26th, 2004 05:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
[A passing visitor, directed here by dougs.

Well said. It is, I think, his finest hour - though I confess I have only read a few of the "no-M" books. Literally and exactly a Great Book.
elflet From: elflet Date: August 26th, 2004 08:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting you should mention Banks; his next "M" novel is due in October: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/feature/story/0,13026,1290570,00.html>

It's not a Culture novel, though some of the themes sound similar. I must confess to being underwhelmed by the synopsis, and you're right that the recent books have gone downhill ("Look to Windward" and "Inversions" were both less than memorable.)

I agree that "Use of Weapons" may be his richest work. What's funny is I can remember "Consider Phlebas" and "The Player of Games" well, but "Use of Weapons" is a bit of a blank spot in my mind despite being such a rich book. (And yeah, "The Wasp Factory" is quietly depressing.)
alexmc From: alexmc Date: September 1st, 2004 03:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sadly I cannot remember anything about UoW. I guess I ought to go back and re-read it. Cheers.

alexmc From: alexmc Date: September 1st, 2004 03:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
(also here because of dougs who plugged this article.)
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