I’ve just read The Use of Weapons. It’s the third of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and as good as the first two. (This Link leads to his Wikipedia page.) Unlike The Player of Games (and more like Consider Phlebus), this novel is difficult to plough through at times: the basic structure of alternating chapters is an obstacle to putting the story together for the first third or more of the book, and even once an over-arching story begins to form, the chronology is fragmented enough that entire segments feel disconnected from the rest until well into the book’s final third.
And yet the writing is crisp, controlled, and evocative, and the world described is simply fascinating. This book—and the series—is a great read. That said, if you are thinking about reading it, don’t follow the jump, because there are spoilers.
The Use of Weapons is a good old fashioned twist novel, but taken to an extreme. The novel is told along two different timelines. One set of chapters are numbered forward, another numbered backwards. The forward chapters follow the present, the backward chapters dig up the past of the protagonist, at times moving apparently deeper into his past, but at others moving forward. By the mid-point of the book, who he is and his relationship to the Culture begins to come together and the story of the novel seems to shift. No longer is the question “Who is this man and what is he doing?” By that point, the trauma that launched him on his present course has been revealed: he’s an orphan adopted by nobility, raised and brutalized by a brother who is a bother only in name. From that point on, the novel begins to look more closely at the Culture, its way of life, and its values. In chapter IV (the roman numerals countdown), we get the first clear extended view of the Culture (The Wiki page for the Culture.) as seen by a new-comer who ask directly questions the reader will have as they try to understand this socialist-libertarian civilization. Perhaps most importantly, the latter half of the novel raises explicitly questions about how an enlightened society protects itself and coexists with civilizations that are different from itself. The Culture’s use of the protagonist to further its ends and its method of using him are complex and raise interesting questions about the political possibilities, material requirements and educational basis of liberal toleration. The novel’s title is a reference to these problems of protecting tolerance.
And then in the final pages, the stories we’ve been following come together and to a close. The protagonist–a wounded, troubled, pathetic figure for whom we feel sympathy of the sort we feel when faced with someone quite messed up by events they didn’t cause and didn’t deserve–is revealed as someone other than the person we believed him to be. He is not, it turns out, an orphan tormented by his adopted brother. He is instead that adopted brother, who tortured his brother as a child and as an adult, killed his sister and used her corpse as a weapon against his brother, provoking his suicide. All the stories we have read, off the torments of memory, are the life he led after assuming his dead brother’s identity to escape a war his side is losing. With this information, the novel we’ve read snaps into place differently, the loose ends begin to tie up in a new fashion, and everything we had understood changes.
To create an elaborate multi-layered novel of large scope and to handle it with precision and confidence is already an achievement. To wrap the novel up in a way that makes each of those layers mean two things–one from one end of the novel, another from the other–is simply an incredible feat.
I like craft and this is a really great example.