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Culture #3

Use of Weapons

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The man known as Cheradenine Zakalwe was one of Special Circumstances' foremost agents, changing the destiny of planets to suit the Culture through intrigue, dirty tricks and military action.

The woman known as Diziet Sma had plucked him from obscurity and pushed him towards his present eminence, but despite all their dealings she did not know him as well as she thought.

The drone known as Skaffen-Amtiskaw knew both of these people. It had once saved the woman's life by massacring her attackers in a particularly bloody manner. It believed the man to be a lost cause. But not even its machine could see the horrors in his past.

Ferociously intelligent, both witty and horrific, USE OF WEAPONS is a masterpiece of science fiction.

411 pages, Paperback

First published March 1, 1990

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About the author

Iain M. Banks

61 books5,410 followers
Iain M. Banks is a pseudonym of Iain Banks which he used to publish his Science Fiction.

Banks's father was an officer in the Admiralty and his mother was once a professional ice skater. Iain Banks was educated at the University of Stirling where he studied English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology. He moved to London and lived in the south of England until 1988 when he returned to Scotland, living in Edinburgh and then Fife.

Banks met his wife Annie in London, before the release of his first book. They married in Hawaii in 1992. However, he announced in early 2007 that, after 25 years together, they had separated. He lived most recently in North Queensferry, a town on the north side of the Firth of Forth near the Forth Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge.

As with his friend Ken MacLeod (another Scottish writer of technical and social science fiction) a strong awareness of left-wing history shows in his writings. The argument that an economy of abundance renders anarchy and adhocracy viable (or even inevitable) attracts many as an interesting potential experiment, were it ever to become testable. He was a signatory to the Declaration of Calton Hill, which calls for Scottish independence.

In late 2004, Banks was a prominent member of a group of British politicians and media figures who campaigned to have Prime Minister Tony Blair impeached following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In protest he cut up his passport and posted it to 10 Downing Street. In an interview in Socialist Review he claimed he did this after he "abandoned the idea of crashing my Land Rover through the gates of Fife dockyard, after spotting the guys armed with machine guns." He related his concerns about the invasion of Iraq in his book Raw Spirit, and the principal protagonist (Alban McGill) in the novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale confronts another character with arguments in a similar vein.

Interviewed on Mark Lawson's BBC Four series, first broadcast in the UK on 14 November 2006, Banks explained why his novels are published under two different names. His parents wished to name him Iain Menzies Banks but his father made a mistake when registering the birth and he was officially registered as Iain Banks. Despite this he continued to use his unofficial middle name and it was as Iain M. Banks that he submitted The Wasp Factory for publication. However, his editor asked if he would mind dropping the 'M' as it appeared "too fussy". The editor was also concerned about possible confusion with Rosie M. Banks, a minor character in some of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels who is a romantic novelist. After his first three mainstream novels his publishers agreed to publish his first SF novel, Consider Phlebas. To distinguish between the mainstream and SF novels, Banks suggested the return of the 'M', although at one stage he considered John B. Macallan as his SF pseudonym, the name deriving from his favourite whiskies: Johnnie Walker Black Label and The Macallan single malt.

His latest book was a science fiction (SF) novel in the Culture series, called The Hydrogen Sonata, published in 2012.

Author Iain M. Banks revealed in April 2013 that he had late-stage cancer. He died the following June.

The Scottish writer posted a message on his official website saying his next novel The Quarry, due to be published later this year*, would be his last.

*The Quarry was published in June 2013.

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Profile Image for Joel.
553 reviews1,596 followers
May 19, 2011

Stars were barely visible through the tiny oval. The reader looked up from his novel, blinked. Checked his watch -- still hours to go. His wife sat slumped next to him, still asleep. Some people could sleep on planes. Some people couldn't.

"What are you reading?" asked the man on the reader's left.

The reader checked himself before the sigh escaped him. He hated it when people talked to him on planes. Especially when he was trying to read. Especially when he was reading a book with a spaceship on the cover.

"Oh, just a sci-fi book," he muttered.

"What, like a Star War?" the man asked, his eyes now bright with attention. "My kids love that Clone Wars show."

This time the reader wasn't quick enough to stop himself.


The man looked up from the small gray device in his hand. He rubbed his eyes, tired from spending the last several hours staring at a text readout on the object's dull display. He sighed. "At least there wasn't any glare. I could have read that in direct sunlight. Not that I have been outside today."

His finger lingered over a small button on the right side of the device. Somehow he felt like clicking that button didn't offer the air of finality he wanted after such a sustained period of concentration. His mind wandered over what he'd just read. It had been, intermittently, a powerfully moving experience. It had also been a bit tedious from time to time, but in that it was like his life. "At least I had a comfortable chair. A... chair."

He rose quickly, twisting around and nearly knocking over his small desk chair. "Made of metal. Good."

He sighed, relieved.


It had been a good meeting, Joel thought. The group members had really seemed to enjoy China Miéville. Good. It had been nice to see them respond positively to a book he'd loved, especially after the mixed reaction to The Player of Games.

That still seemed strange, Joel thought. "How could anyone not love that book? I could read 10 Culture books just to get more of the drones and talking spaceships!"

Perdido Street Station seemed a better candidate for a divided audience, longer, more violent, and more a fantasy novel than sci-fi. But everyone had loved it. David Brin had a hard road ahead of him if he expected to top it. Even with the talking dolphins.

Talking dolphins. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Hugo Award. Nebula too. But after sentient cactai and slake-moths, intelligent marine life didn't seem as... novel.

Joel scanned his bookshelves, quickly calculating. A month until the next meeting. Plenty of time to fit in a different book before moving on. His eye wandered to his sci-fi collection, which had been growing rapidly as of late, a good sign as any that It was behind him.

He made a snap decision: why not read an entire book just for more drones and talking spaceships? He picked up Use of Weapons and studied the cover.


"That was really quite an interesting novel," the man said later. The drone looked at him blankly, emanating an orange sheen the man had come to understand was the drone's way of communicating indifference.

"I quite enjoyed it. Iain M. Banks Culture universe is always fun to play around in. I love the fact that you never really know where the book is going. This one switches main characters halfway through while telling separate, linked stories across multiple time frames. A prologue and an epilogue that both take place after the end of the book. One of the story threads is even moving backward! Really, just on a simple narrative level, it was quite ambitious."

"Meow," said the drone.


"Sometimes I could really do without these drones."


Joel drove in silence. For once, no audiobook was playing over his car's stereo. He hadn't even turned on the radio.

The book club meeting had been a disaster. He should have known. Why was he expecting this time to be any better, after that Philip Roth fiasco, after trying to discuss the complexities of One Hundred Years of Solitude in a noisy pub with six people who hadn't finished the book, who were more interested in their fish and chips.

But this time... why had he even bothered? James Joyce? Really? Who starts a new book club by reading Roth, then Marquez, then Joyce? But he knew: a sad pseudo-intellectual girl who couldn't stop talking about the single year of a graduate program in literature she'd managed to complete.


He hadn't wanted to join the group. The name had been warning enough: Serious Readers of Oak Park. He didn't want to read something serious. He wanted to read... but no. He couldn't allow himself to think of It. A man, his shirt torn, a small gun in his hand. Already, revulsion was coiling in his stomach. He cast the memories aside, and focused on his anger.

"I mean really, who just DECLARES that everyone will have to read Moby Dick for June? Can we not VOTE??"

He pounded the steering wheel, which meant the car threatened to go into a spin when he reflexively slammed on the brake. In the middle of the road, and just feet from his bumper, illuminated in the beam of a single working headlight, stood a woman. She was dressed strangely, in a skin-tight black suit, wearing a collar trimmed with white fur. Even in the dim light, Joel could see that was holding a book, a trade paperback.

"Joel," she said. He could hear her clearly over the silence of his engine, which had shut itself off dutifully when the car came to a stop. "I have been looking for you. I understand you are a special man, a man of discriminating taste."

She held up the book. Even in the dim light, Joel could just make out the title. The Player of Games.

The woman smiled. "Let's talk."


Days later, and the man was still thinking about the book. He found it hard, in fact, to continue on with his reading of another interesting-sounding novel that was nevertheless utterly failing to grab his attention. "How can you make talking space dolphins dull?"

While making dinner, he pondered the meaning of what he'd read, ignoring the insistent bleats from the two drones winding around his legs. There was that title: Use of Weapons. So many possible interpretations. There was the obvious answer, having to do with the different tools the protagonist ("Well, one of them..."), Zakalwe, used to accomplish the goals of his missions on behalf of the Culture. Then there was the way the Culture itself used Zakalwe, who had been recruited to the cause rather than born a citizen of the Machine-controlled utopian society, as a tool to impose its will upon the universe's "lesser" races.

There were also subtler, perhaps more compelling interpretations as well. "Iain Banks really goes above and beyond what you would expect from the ghettoized stigma of the genre writer," the man mused. "It isn't just the thematic richness on display, but also the deft precision of his prose. Why, take the masterful twist ending, in which we learn AUGGGGH!"

The man tripped over one of the squawking drones, the smaller one. It shone black and white in alternating blotches, indicating amusement.


Joel stepped out of the sun and heat and into the full force blast of air conditioning. The weight of exams was finally off his shoulders. He had a full week before he had to head home and figure out what he was going to do with his summer. He needed something to read.

He wanted the aisles, picking up titles from the display tables, looking for something long enough to last him several lazy, responsibility-free afternoons.

Infinite Jest? No. Perhaps too long. Also, rather pretentious for a college student to be seen with that one, no? And anyway, he had a copy on his shelves at home, in the small bedroom where It had happened, all those years ago. Someday, maybe, he would go back and retrieve it. Not today, but still: no reason to spend the money.

His eye fell upon a promising-looking paperback, perched on an endcap. The cartoon cover called out to him: The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay. He picked it up, glanced at the back. "Comics... sounds fun. Won the Pulitzer? Cool."

His eyes wandered to the rest of the display. He gasped and stumbled backwards, dropping the book. "LITERARY/GENRE CROSSOVERS!" proclaimed the banner, but that wasn't what had filled him with fear. It was the small list of words below it: Fantasy, Horror, Graphic Novels, and... Sci-Fi.

"Sci-fi! No! No, it's too soon! I can't! I thought I could but..."

Joel ran from the store, pushed out again into the sweltering Chicago sunshine.

A clerk walked by, glared at the discarded book with annoyance.

"Customers," she grumbled. The roll of her eyes was almost audible.


The man settled into a warm bath, moving gingerly in deference to his sore muscles, his knee bruised where he had banged it against the kitchen cabinet. "Fucking drones." As he let the heat wash over him, leeching the ache from his joints, he considered the fact that, in his experience, it was the presence of drones -- and all the other trappings of the Culture -- that he was really looking for in an Iain M. Banks novel. Even after three books, there was still something undeniably amusing about super-intelligent machines that nevertheless had snippy, all-too-human personalities. It was also funny how they were constantly making fun of their flesh-and-blood counterparts in the Culture. Obviously the drones (and the Machine Mind overlords that control the Culture) didn't really need humans. They just... allowed them to stick around, because the Culture, what, found them amusing?

Clearly, judging by a few brutal action sequences, it would take a single drone only a few minutes to disable even the best human fighter. "Knife missiles. Good thing that orange one doesn't have any knife missiles."


A silent hallway. Three doors, one closed. A man paced nervously, rubbing his temples. He started as the door nearest him began to open. A tired-looking woman emerged, closing the door silently behind her. "How is he doing?" the man asked.

"I don't know," the woman sighed. "He seems the same. He keeps muttering to himself and staring blankly into space. His mind just seems to be broken."

"Let me go in," the man said. "I have to try."

The woman looked at him with eyes empty of all but grief. "I don't know if it will do any good."

Steeling himself, the man turned the shiny gold knob, letting himself into the room. It was dim, the only light entering through cracks at the edges of a heavily curtained window. The air stank of regret.

The man looked down at his son, folded into a ball on the bed. He hadn't moved since they'd found him that way, clenched and shivering, a day before. Doctors had been called, but the roads were still impassable.

"Joel?" he whispered. "Joel, I'm here." Already, he was choking back a sob rising in his throat, threatening to escape. He sat down in a small chair by the bed, suddenly weary. "If only we knew what happened..." he muttered. "What were you doing that caused this?"

Leaning forward to rest a palm against a small, clammy forehead, he felt his shoe brush against something heavy that had fallen, unnoticed, under the bed. He bent and picked it up. A book. A big book. He turned it around and peered at the cover, which featured a bare-chested hero holding a laser gun. "Battlefield Ear..."

The man felt a strong jerk on his forearm. He almost dropped the book right into the lap of his son, who was now sitting up in the bed, ramrod straight, clutching his father's wrist so tightly his fingers were bone white.

"Don't! Don't!" the boy cried.


Really, he thought, all of the Culture novels had been variations on a theme: the merits of interventionist politics. What right do we have to intervene in the affairs of another culture? If we see wrong being done, must we correct it? Is it our place to say which side is even in the wrong? We like to think of ourselves as the good guys, but the answer is rarely as easy as the world would like us to think. Probably that was why Iain M. Banks' novels were fascinating but hardly ever as fun as he wanted them to be. These are dark books, with weighty themes.

But, the action sequences. But, the wholly creative worlds and worldview. But, the mouthy robots.

Yes. But. But, how many more variations on a theme could there be? The man sighed. Lost in his thoughts, he didn't notice the small drone, still radiating black and white, flashing toward him, twin multi-bladed knife missiles extended.


"Wow, are we landing already?"

Closing his book, the reader glanced at his wife, attempting to stretch her limbs in the cramped confines of her seat. After folding his tray table, he slid the novel into the seat pocket in front of him, scratched absently through his shirt at the raised scars that covered his back. "Yep, you were out like a light the entire trip."

As the plane touched down, the cabin filled with activity, the sounds of passengers yanking their carry-on bags from under seats, turning on their cell phones to reconnect with the world on the ground.

There was no activity in the seat to the reader's left. Even as the couple squeezed past him to retrieve their bags, the man remained motionless, his head lolling, his chin pressed to his chest. The woman regarded him quizzicaly as they moved down the aisle.

"Man, that guy must have taken something strong," he said. "He didn't budge. His seat belt was still on!"

"I noticed," the reader said. "Oh, I almost forgot -- here's your pillow. I... borrowed it while you were sleeping."

"Oh, were you able to nap at all?"

"Nope. It was nice and quiet. I decided I'd finish my book instead."

The reader smiled.

Full of Stars

Adam Palmer wandered the aisles of the bookstore. Or more accurately, what had once been a bookstore -- the shelves, where shelves had not been removed, replaced by gaping holes of gouged plaster, held only a meager supply, the tattered remnants of an "everything must go!" sale that had long gone.

Adam, already discouraged after fighting through a teetering wall made up of dented copies of America By Heart and A Shore Thing, held out little hope for finding much better at his ultimate destination: the barran wasteland that had once been Sci-Fi/Fantasy.

It was, indeed, not a pretty sight. He'd thought himself prepared; still, he stumbled as he rounded the Horror shelves, where a battered copy of a Dean Koontz Frankenstein novel lay, forlorn and forgotten. The shelves were in ruins. Asimov, Clarke, Brin, even Bova -- the first section was entirely bare. In the distance, he could make out crushed boxes that had once held various installments of The Wheel of Time; though lacking true substance, those empty, yet weighty volumes had been consumed by hungry readers seeking sustenance. Curiously, a whole shelf of Goodkind sat pristine and untouched, save for a single missing copy, clutched in the bony hand of a withering corpse. Curiously, there was no stench of decay. The books seemed to be calling to him, their bright covers promising... Adam turned quickly away.

He rounded another corner and gasped. How could this be? There, in the tie-in section, an entire row of torn, but still readable Star Wars books. His joy quickly dissolved as he scanned the spines: A Truce at Bakura? Shadows of the Empire? Children of the Jedi. He grimaced. Not much. But it might be enough to last him to the next shuttered Borders. It was just a few miles...

A soft laugh behind him. Adam jumped and whirled around, heart hammering, still holding something with a cover so creased he could barely make out the name: Kevin J. Anderson. There was a woman standing just a few feet away, dressed in a strange, skin-tight black suit, wearing a collar trimmed with white fur. She was holding a single thick novel, a trade paperback. "se of Weap" was all Adam could make out.

"Adam Palmer?" the woman said.


"I have been looking for you. I understand you are a special man, a man of discriminating taste."

Adam smirked. "Maybe. What's the point, these days? Unless you want to get an e-reader. Or... order online."

"It is true," she agreed. "Still, I think I have something you'll be interested in. Where I come from, we have a... different way of doing things. But you'll have to trust me."

She turned and began walking away. Adam caught another glimpse of the book in her hands. "A Culture Novel." Intrigued, he began to follow.


The woman had stopped suddenly, turned.

"You'll need to leave that here," she said, taking the Star Wars book from Adam's hands. He gripped it for a moment, surrendered. "You won't be needing it."

She smiled. "Let's see if we can't find you a proper science-fiction book."
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
400 reviews2,179 followers
March 2, 2020
It's better for me to say nothing other than:

"This is an absolute masterpiece. Read it."

2020 reread edit: Yep, it still stands. On a second read there are just an amazing number of subtle nuances throughout this thing that I didn't pickup the first time through.
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,631 reviews4,997 followers
January 25, 2018
WATCH OUT, SPOILERS! but I will try to keep things vague.

the name of the game is Influence. you're a good progressive super-society, you don't want to interfere too much, just enough, in the small but important ways that will put this little not-so-super-society onto the right path. on the path towards respect for life and individual liberty, on a path away from domination and plutocracy. you want to work from the outside of it all, subtly, whispering in this ear, supporting that action, slowly moving and manipulating things in just the right direction so that things end up just the right way. you can't do it yourself of course, that would be too obvious. so you employ an agent. you have suspicions about this agent but in the end it does appear that your goals align. but what you don't know is that the agent in question is playing his own game, and the name of that game is Self-Abnegation.

 photo thoughts_zpsvrmldfri.jpg

if you are about to read this book please keep in mind this note about its structure: Use of Weapons employs two narratives in alternating chapters. the first narrative moves forward in time. the second narrative is composed of flashbacks in reverse-chronological order. plus a prologue and two epilogues that occur entirely outside of the narrative.


okay, the novel itself. in a word: brilliant. the characters are interesting and sympathetic. the structure is absorbingly complex. nearly half of the novel is composed of separate mini-adventures in a variety of locales with a changing set of premises and characters. these almost-short stories are wonderful to read, in particular if you can slow down and take them as they are: separate adventures. but they are all a part of a whole; their inclusion is not random. they share similar themes on such topics as the futility of trying to achieve true justice, the futility of understanding human nature, the futility of trying to find meaning in either the movements of history or the actions of an individual. that's a lot of futility, but Banks makes these little adventures so thoughtful and moving and often ambiguous that the futility is masked by the pleasure a reader can take in witnessing an author at the height of his powers construct a multi-leveled story that is telling many stories simultaneously.

the overarching narrative itself is quite compelling but rather half-baked as well. Banks clearly doesn't have much interest in creating a story that is all about satisfying resolutions and triumphant climaxes. he creates a thesis and then explores it, expands upon it; creating a cohesive or emotionally satisfying story is a subordinate goal. his theses will always dominate his narratives. at the end of Use of Weapons, the reader learns that everything is cyclical and so will be happening again and again and again. societies will hurt their citizens and societies will hurt other societies; individuals, even the bravest, the cruelest, the most righteous... are simply that: one individual in a whole universe of individuals and so what can one individual truly do; human nature is fucked up. all weapons will always be used, especially the human ones.

and so I closed this rich wonderful book with all of its amazing adventures... and I felt deflated, melancholy, depressed. Banks doesn't make it easy for anyone - not his characters, not his societies, and certainly not his readers.
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.5k followers
November 9, 2009
I'd prefer to sit on the floor, thanks. No, really! I'll feel more comfortable that way.

I'm sorry? Oh, just something I read. It doesn't matter. To be honest, I'd rather not talk about it.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,908 followers
February 10, 2017
This is a rather surprising novel. I mean, on the one hand, it is filled with glorious ultraviolence, satisfying all atavistic tendencies, but on the other hand, it's almost poetry, devoted to all the ideals that the Culture is known for. Peace, objectivism, minimalistic good, and respect.

Where does war really fit? Well, in the end, there's always a niche for everything, and, indeed, everyone.

So what was so damn surprising?

I can't, I won't, tell you.

*sigh* It's a long story, full of daring-do, future-feeling, peace-striving effort.

It's also a story told backward, a reflection of now told one scene in the past going further and further back, fleshing out and building the character of the One Who Uses Weapons, eventually ending the book where he began.


I'm sorry. This was and exhausting tale, thrilling and surprising.

I just have to sit down a moment.

(Thanks, Manny, for the beautiful notion.)

This book, like all that I've ever read by Iain M. Banks, is brilliant. By all rights, it shouldn't be. It's full of action, smart dialog, and overt messages. That should be enough for most tales. But no, he always goes that one extra step and pulls a twist. Bravo! A virtuoso performance! It's a real art.

This chair isn't really that comfortable, but I did have to sit. I think it'll go very nicely in my living room.
Profile Image for Dirk Grobbelaar.
550 reviews1,051 followers
November 15, 2021
The Minds did not assume such distinctions; to them, there was no cut-off between the two. Tactics cohered into strategy, strategy disintegrated into tactics, in the sliding scale of their dialectical moral algebra. It was all more than they ever expected the mammal brain to cope with.

Okay, so this gets off to a rocky start: the early chapters in this book are a bit odd, almost as if they were written by someone other than Banks. Or is it just Banks being Banks, and giving the reader the old one-two? (because he was known to do just that). But: once it becomes clear that you’re dealing with a rather unique linear-forward and linear-reverse story structure it is somewhat easier to start putting things in perspective. Or is it?

Let’s see. What we have here are two stories being told, in alternating chapters, one moving forward in time to its conclusion and one moving backwards in time to its conception. They’re related, mind, so things make sense once you get into your stride. In fact, they are inextricably linked, because the one is concerned with the main story (as per any normal novel) while the other is concerned with the emotional state of the protagonist. In other words: who is Cheradenine Zakalwe?

Or something like that.

A dark crop of stars reached out towards him, picked him up softly between vast fingers like some delicate ripe fruit. In that immense enfolding he felt deliriously sane, and understood then that in an instant - any instant, and with only the most minute of efforts - he might understand everything, but did not desire to. He felt as though some awesome galaxy-quaking machinery, always hidden under the surface of the universe, had somehow connected itself to him, and dusted him with its power.

This, the third (third?) Culture novel is an extremely good book, but not the easiest to digest (both in terms of subject matter and narrative). It is upheld as one of the finer Culture novels by many, and deservedly so, but it certainly isn’t the most entertaining one (so far, for me, that distinction still goes to Consider Phlebas ).

He opened the cottage door wide. You could see anything in the rain. The individual drops became streaks with the slowness of the eye; they merged and re-emerged as cyphers for the shapes you carried inside you; they lasted less than a heartbeat in your sight and they went on for ever.
He saw a chair, and a ship that was not a ship; he saw a man with two shadows, and he saw that which cannot be seen; a concept; the adaptive, self-seeking urge to survive, to bend everything that can be reached to that end, and to remove and to add and to smash and to create so that one particular collection of cells can go on, can move onwards and decide, and keeping moving, and keeping deciding, knowing that - if nothing else – at least it lives.
And it had two shadows, it was two things; it was the need and it was the method. The need was obvious; to defeat what opposed its life. The method was that taking and bending of materials and people to one purpose, the outlook that every-thing could be used in the fight; that nothing could be excluded, that everything was a weapon, and the ability to handle those weapons, to find them and choose which one to aim and fire; that talent, that ability, that use of weapons.

A remarkable book with an interesting paradox at its centre.
4 stars
138 reviews2 followers
May 22, 2013
Ian Banks is one of the most overrated authors in science fiction.

Allow me to qualify that. He is not a *bad* writer. (This book is just about interesting enough to complete.) It's very sad that he is currently dying of cancer. I guess it's good that he attracts fans of the literary genre to read sci-fi. But the god-like reverence with which he is praised is entirely unjustified.

I had read Consider Phlebas years ago and dismissed Banks as uninteresting. The recent news of his impending death brought out a lot of fans online, and many admitted that Phlebas was not great, but the majority recommended Use of Weapons as their favourite Culture book.

Maybe the Culture was pretty groundbreaking in the 80s. It's hard to judge now. It doesn't feature any ideas that would excite a hard sci-fi fan in 2013. The focus is on the characters rather than any technology, but only the protagonist's character is actually interesting, and even that is achieved mostly by the cheap method of making him a cypher who is slowly revealed by flashback sequences throughout the book. Some of these stories within a story are good, but there is also a huge amount of waffle that could have been cut by a good editor.

Really the only reason to plough through the boring narrative to the end is to get the flashbacks for the full revelation of the protagonist's past. But it makes me suspect most of the preceding dull story was invented just as filler to provide the final twist. I guess Banks is making the point that all wars are the same and blur together, and it doesn't really matter which side wins. But a book where all the plots are the same and the outcomes don't matter is not interesting to read! Even the final revelation is unsatisfying - we finally get a complete list of the events of his life, but we still don't know his motivation or understand exactly why he did any of those things. We can guess - I suppose 'literary' readers like to read between the lines and speculate so they can feel clever - but I think that is the author's job.
2 reviews10 followers
April 21, 2008
Probably Bank's best science fiction novel and one of his best works generally. Cheradinine Zakalwe, Diziet Sma and Skaffen Amiskaw are, together, his most interesting group of characters.

The structure of this novel makes it worthy of note on its own. Written in interwoven chapters, it is made up of two alternating narrative streams - one indicated by Arabic numerals and the other by Roman ones. One moves forward chronologically, while the other moves in the opposite direction; yet both are about the central, tragic character, Cheradinine Zakalwe.

Despite being the third of Banks' "Culture" science fiction novels to be published, he wrote a much more complex version of this story in 1974, before any of his books saw print. He later said it was so complex it "was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions". He credits fellow Scottish author Ken McLeod with getting him to sort this baroque novel into a publishable form.

Zakalwe is a rogue, a military genius, an assassin, a sad case and an utterly sympathetic character all at the same time. A mercenary shaped by his experiences as the perfect soldier, he's taken, refined and utilised by the supposedly benign and pacific Culture for their nastier dirty tricks operations. The moral ambiguity and ethical contradictions of this are not lost on Zakalwe himself or on his Culture handler, the "Special Circumstances" operative Diziet Sma.

Gloriously grostesque, sharply observed, bleakly satrical and written with Baink's unique ability to make the most vile aspects of war and violence lyrically beautiful and richly ironic at the same time, this is the great Scottish master at his finest.

A book to loan to anyone who thinks science fiction is "dumb".
Profile Image for Felicia.
Author 16 books128k followers
June 1, 2010
Ok, hard book to review. So, it's brilliant, but as you read it you might go, meh this is a little boggy. Then you get to the end, and, well. Just read it. *Mind Blown*.
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,684 followers
June 9, 2013
June 9, 2013

It's a sad day for me. I won't speak for anyone else on the passing of Iain (M.) Banks. I will only speak for myself, and for myself this is a sad, sad day.

I came to Banks circuitously. A close friend of mine was teaching Wasp Factory in a class he'd designed about serial killer literature, and of all the books on his syllabus he told me to read Wasp Factory, so I did, and I loved every page. And then I drifted away from Banks for a good long while until my sister moved to Scotland and told me she'd bumped into him at her Borders, so I picked up Complicity and loved it and drifted away from Banks again until China Miéville kicked me in the ass and told us all, in his list of fifty works all good socialists should read, to read Use of Weapons, so I did, and I more than loved it; it became a part of me, and my drift away from Banks was over.

I've been devoted to his work ever since. His books are always looming over my head in the stack beside my bed, but more importantly they are always hovering in my mind, working on me in my deepest recesses, making me ponder the world around me in ways I didn't before. Use of Weapons is probably the book of Banks' that has affected me most. Zakalwe is not a man I would like to be, like Ursula LeGuin's Shevek, but he is more like the man I am. I get him, I empathize with him, and I work on me the way he worked on himself. It's a funny relationship that I have with Zakalwe, because it is a relationship I also had with his creator.

I never knew Banks, not really, and he never knew me (although he knew me all too well), and now we will never know one another. But my non-relationship with Iain Banks exemplifies what I think matters about writers, their writing and their readers. In his way, Banks meant as much to me and who I am every day as my parents, my ex-wife, my wife, and my kids and all those others I've loved. Just like my teachers and coaches and priests and friends, Iain Banks was my family. We were metaphysical blood. I will miss him until I die.

I wish the Culture had uploaded his consciousness today. I wish they'd made him the Mind of a General Systems Vehicle (GSV) called "In Search of the Perfect Dram." Then I could climb aboard and mess with some alien races for Special Circumstances and join in the search for the perfect whiskey. That would be heaven.

Fantasy aside, I hope you are resting in peaceful oblivion, Iain. I loved you. You will be in my mind ... always.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,906 reviews1,232 followers
February 10, 2017
I wish I could give Use of Weapons more stars and the appreciation some people are able to heap upon it. I understand where they’re coming from, but I just wasn’t able to focus enough on some of the details of this novel to grasp it. I need to read it again—and probably try reading the Roman numeral chapters backwards, since I didn’t realize they were chronologically reversed—to appreciate it more. For now, though, all I can say is that this is a thorough book. Iain M Banks demonstrates a versatility that would make a trained singer weep.

See, I liked The Player of Games because it had a strong main character I could enjoy. I needed that, because the Culture’s defining characteristic is a kind of aggressive, generic facelessness: the Minds and even the citizens, to some extent, are interchangeable. No one individual is really essential to the operation; most people don’t really make a difference, because everything is run behind the scenes by the machines. So having that one, exceptional person around as an anchor can really help.

Neither of the main characters really do that for me in Use of Weapons. We don’t spend that much time with Sma once the main plot of the novel kicks off. She sets up the plot and comes along for the ride, but then we follow Zakalwe—and he’s something else entirely. Without spoiling the magnificent twist at the end, Zakalwe is not who we think he is, and probably not who he thinks he is either. In him, Banks has created such a naughty, knotty, complicated creature. He still doesn’t quite capture my attention the way Gurgeh did, but I can admire what Banks does with Zakalwe’s psychology.

Not of the Culture directly, Zakalwe comes to work for them after finishing his own private little war. He is good at war—so good it scares people, including him. He becomes a skilled member of Special Circumstances, the branch of the Culture’s Contact division that cleans up messes (or creates them). Then, after a mission goes awry, he decides to retire by going AWOL. Now Sma has been sent to retrieve him, because he’s the only one who can help defuse war brewing in another star cluster.

The politics are a little byzantine, and there’s that constant sense, as with most Culture novels, that they don’t really matter. If the cluster goes to war … well, that won’t harm the Culture. We’re left to accept that the Culture just likes to meddle and go with it. What this part of the story does is set up a contrast between the way Zakalwe is proceeding now and the way he has operated in the past, as revealed in the flashback chapters with those descending Roman numerals.

I don’t regret reading the entire book from front to back the first time through. After all, Banks could have put the last chapter with Roman numerals (which, chronologically speaking, is the first) at the front of the book. He chose not to. So there’s something to be said for playing along and experiencing it this way, even if the narrative itself makes a little more sense going the other way around.

Use of Weapons, as the name implies, paints us a picture of the various ways to deploy force and manipulate people into achieving one’s ends. The weapons here include not just ordinance but also individuals—those in armies, and the big thinkers at the top, such as Zakalwe, who come up with ways to get the armies killed. There are numerous scenes throughout the book that emphasize Zakalwe’s status as a weapon, a kind of loaded pistol that is always threatening to go off.

I guess my main issue with this book is that I eternally felt like it hadn’t actually begun—and then it was over. I kept turning the page, waiting for the main plot to happen and something interesting to occur, and I was never quite satisfied. There are some great moments—such as the chapter when Zakalwe rescues Tsoldrin Beychae only for their means of escape to be shot down—where I enjoyed the scene for what it was. Overall, however, Use of Weapons just feels very flat as a narrative, and that distracted me.

I’d like to re-read it one day and give it another hearing. While I can honestly say I enjoyed it this time around, it didn’t quite leave me with the impression it has left others.

My reviews of the Culture novels:
The Player of Games | Excession

Creative Commons BY-NC License
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for William.
229 reviews34 followers
October 31, 2020
Use of Weapons is the third volume in Iain M. Banks’s “Culture” series. It is the tale of highly talented rogue operative Cheradenine Zakalwe as he seeks to facilitate a regime change in a culture deemed potentially aggressive by his employers, The Culture.

Use of Weapons starts on the same lines as the previous volume, The Player of Games, with the Culture’s Special Circumstances division sending an operative to meddle in the affairs of another culture deemed potentially dangerous. It should be evident to anyone reading this series that the Culture is a purely hedonistic mostly-human society that has ceded its governance to artificial intelligence. These so-called “minds” direct the Culture to meddle in other civilizations’ affairs and sometimes even destroy them toward their ends. Most readers should quickly identify real-world analogs. Zakalwe, unlike Jernau Gurge, the operative from The Player of Games, is not a Culture citizen and has an even more tenuous connection to the Culture’s meddling. He has been highly effective in the past but finds himself increasingly sympathetic toward cultures he is tasked to infiltrate and modify or destroy. Zakalwe, suffering severe psychological effects related to repeatedly betraying people he has befriended to further the Culture’s needs, must be reluctantly (by both sides) brought out of retirement for one last mission.

Use of Weapons asks the question, “is it right for more advanced cultures to meddle in the affairs of less advanced ones?” even more urgently than The Player of Games. In Use of Weapons, Banks drives home the paradox of an ostensibly enlightened and technologically advanced culture and one protecting its pursuit of hedonism by directly intervening in the affairs of others. Further, there is a growing sense of mistrust between the Culture’s “minds” and its other citizens. When will they transcend simply meddling in different civilizations and start modifying the Culture itself? Or have they already? The sense of helplessness humans and drones feel at not having any recourse against the minds adds a layer of impending doom to the book’s already unsettling tone. I find the Culture both fascinating and monstrous. Could you imagine your current existence being affected adversely by space hippies and their AI enforcers who are more concerned with “their right to party” than your right to live? Beastie Boys indeed.

Banks takes his unique writing style to a new level by telling Zakalwe’s story both forward and backward in alternating chapters, which results in the climax being the merging of two stories. Possibly my favorite book ending ever, seemingly the result of two tidal forces crashing against each other, which quite simply “blew mah mind.” Banks’ trademark juxtaposition of delicate innocence, dry humor, and soul-wrenching horror are in top form, delivering a genuinely unsettling tone. Use of Weapons was a genuinely unique reading experience.

Almost as an aside, the book’s setting satisfies me in a way only rivaled by Alistair Reynolds. Banks uses the idea of a more advanced civilization interacting with lesser ones to create a backdrop of people and technology spanning eons and galaxies. For example, in Use of weapons, we see the sentient ships and drones of the Culture directly interacting with a civilization roughly on par with 20th century Earth. This uninhibited mingling of old, new, and bizarre never fails to make me smile and is a primary reason both Banks and Alistair Reynolds are among my favorite authors.

All of the Culture books share a setting but stand alone in terms of characters and chronology. While there is some reliance on the already established lore, readers new to the setting can use the Fandom wiki to read the books in any order with little difficulty. That said, I found reading them in publication order (I am currently reading Excession at the time of writing this review) a more organic way of building the lore in my mind.

I view Use of Weapons as required reading for anyone who enjoys smartly written sci-fi novels with deep, brooding, relevant issues and uninhibited imaginings. It is a unique book with no equal.

This review is also posted on my blog, Hidden Gems.
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,684 followers
November 12, 2019
ode to zakalwe

when all life is violence
rooted, bound, inescapable
everything is a weapon.

this cannot be overstated.

memory, worship, flesh, love
inhibition, action, demand, care
shoelace, knife, gun, nuke
blood, shame, slinky

the gas chamber kills more than
the good books kill more than
the chemical weapons kill more than
the pamphlet kills more than
the meltdown kills more than

no. never more than us,
for we are these weapons all.

the mind, our mind, our minds
the weapon, our weapon, our weapons
death? it's ineluctable

i kill, therefore i am
Profile Image for nostalgebraist.
Author 2 books417 followers
September 4, 2013
First, a few words about length.

Why would I need to talk about length in a review of this novel, which -- at around 400 pages -- is decidedly medium-sized? Because, for me, medium-sized books are the riskiest ones. I'm a slow reader. Some people might read a book like Use of Weapons in a few days; for me it takes more like a few weeks. When I pick up such a book I know it will accompany numerous subway rides, morning cups of coffee, and pre-bedtime half-hours. There's a nontrivial investment of time there, and with that investment comes risk and the possibility of regret.

Long books are different, because long books are long for everyone. The playing field is leveled. An author writing a long book knows that any ordinary reader is going to be making the sort of investment I described in the last paragraph, and feels (or should feel) a responsibility to make that investment worthwhile. Whether or not the destination is interesting, the journey must be, because your reader is going to spend many hours, of their own free will, making that journey.

Without that sense of responsibility -- without unusual length -- there's nothing to stop an author from writing an uninteresting journey that is putatively justified by its destination. Books that are largely reducible to their premises, to their central plot twists, to their gimmicks. This is one of the reasons I don't read many short stories -- they often feel reducible in this way. But at least a short story is short enough that it isn't much of an investment for a slow reader like me (though even then I often find myself wishing short stories were even shorter than they are!). A medium-sized book, a 400-page-or-so book, with the same problem is just exasperating. I'm never going to get those hours back.

You can probably see where this is going. Use of Weapons was, for me, a pretty extreme case of "an uninteresting journey that is putatively justified by its destination." It doesn't have much of a plot. Much of the book consists of unrelated military episodes, taking place in different wars on different planets, none of which really matter to the reader. The one thing stringing the reader along -- and it is clearly, exasperatingly intended to string the reader along -- is The Chair. See, the main character associates chairs with a ~mysterious, dark event~ in his past, something so dark he can't bring himself to think about it. So dark he can't even bear to look at chairs in the present day. When he sleeps in a hotel and the hotel room has a chair in it, he removes it. What could be so bad about a chair? What could the ~mysterious, dark event~ possibly be??? Oh, dear reader, wouldn't you like to know?

I should probably have stopped reading halfway through when it became clear that I wasn't actually interested in the (non-)plot or in any of the characters. But no: I had to know about The Chair. I couldn't just look up spoilers on the internet. I had to see if the big reveal would make it all worth it. I should have already learned my lesson: it never does.
Profile Image for Phil.
1,541 reviews87 followers
June 8, 2022
The Use of Weapons is one of my favorite Culture novels and rereading it after a decade or so only cemented that opinion. The story features one Cheradenine Zakalwe, an agent of Culture's 'special circumstances' division. The Culture is the loose amalgamation of 'humans' governed by Minds, or A.I.s, whose members live in a peaceful, hedonistic post-scarcity environment largely on massive orbitals or on gigantic spaceships. Taking a page from older space opera like E.E. 'Doc' Smith, most of the aliens that populate the galaxy are humans, or I should say, close proximity to humans. As the Culture expands, it often encounters such aliens.

The Culture offers much to these societies-- anti-aging treatments, incredibly high living standards for everyone, superior technology, etc.-- but not every society embraces the Culture, for joining it implies the replacement of social hierarchy with egalitarianism. Yes, it is the stubborn refusal of the elites that often causes these societies to 'hold out', or even more often, induces civil war. The Culture only offers, never takes, but still, it does interfere in these 'hold outs' via the use of Special Circumstances agents.

Zakalwe was born on one of 'uncontacted' worlds; the son of a rich, influential family, along with his two sisters and another boy who was raised with them. Use of Weapons takes a little to get into, due to Bank's use of repeated flashbacks on Zakalwe's career. The overall plot concerns his handler Diziet Sma and her Drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw, to find Zakalwe and set him on another mission in a distant star cluster. Yet, more than half of the book concern prior events in Zakalwe's life, from boyhood to the present. Zakalwe fits a certain niche for the Culture; he is skilled at rather primitive warfare (say, circa WWII) and an excellent general, so most of his missions involve traveling to a planet to guide one side of an ongoing war.

Banks is known for his meanderings along the way and that is here for sure, but this is much more focused than, say, Consider Phlebas, and the meanderings often concentrate on key existentialist questions and (you guessed it) the use of weapons. Zakalwe is damaged, having risked his live over and over for a cause he is not certain he can believe in. Is the Culture really superior? Should it be intervening in countless societies based on the logic of the Minds? Yes, the end goal is an egalitarian society of plenty, but what are the costs of getting there?

Most excellent fictional works on war contain a strong 'anti-war' sentiment, as wars involve 'commoners' killing one another for some lofty goal, or for the aggrandizement of their leaders, or whatever. War is always a choice (as Banks notes), even if your nation is invaded. Yet, it is a costly choice, leaving lives and families in tatters, along with the dead and maimed soldiers. Such ideas are clearly expressed here as Banks takes us from one fruitless war to another via Zakalwe's flashbacks.

Although this novel takes a bit of work by the reader, especially at first, it just gets better and better as it continues, and, unlike some authors, Banks really knows how to end a novel! While Banks does give us glimpses of the amazing tech of the Culture, most of this story takes place on alien worlds of (largely) 20th century tech. Again, that is Zakalwe's niche. I like Bank's politics and those come through here as well, although not blatantly; in other words, this is not a morality play. Yes, many of the societies possess decedent elites who are willing to forego the benefits of the Culture to maintain their petty fiefdoms and power; I see this as a social commentary for sure. Great stuff from a master of the craft! 4.5 stars, rounding up!!
Profile Image for Carly.
456 reviews185 followers
December 21, 2015
“There are two stories, but you know most of one of them. I’ll tell them at the same time; see if you can tell which is which.”
The hyper-advanced civilization that calls itself "The Culture" views itself as thoroughly utopian: post-scarcity, anarchistic yet pacifist, honest and easy-going, giving equal respect to all, whether mortal or machine. Out of beneficence--or boredom--the Culture has set itself the task of bringing a little of its enlightenment to the surrounding civilizations--but of course the altruism is entirely unadulterated by imperialism.

The Culture is far too noble to interfere directly, of course. Instead, it keeps its hands clean by using external agents--agents like Cheradine Zakalwe--as its weapons. A little influence applied to the current leaders, an assassination or two, a touch of deception, a military strategist who decides the outcome...it's all for the greater good, of course. As a member of the Culture's so-called S.C. branch explains,
"There is no certainty; least of all in Special Circumstances, where the rules are different [...] we deal in the moral equivalent of black holes, where the normal laws— the rules of right and wrong that people imagine apply everywhere else in the universe— break down; beyond those metaphysical event horizons, there exist ... special circumstances.”
But it is the Culture that chooses where the laws apply and where they bring these special circumstances to bear.

For years, Cheradinine Zakalwe has been one of the Culture's ablest weapons against their idealogical enemies. Zakalwe glories in pitting his wits against his opponents, and he is willing to kill, to deceive, to sacrifice his own soldiers, without a second thought or regret so long as it advances the cause. Take his introduction to the narrative, a quick hit on an irresponsible governor:
"I," said the man, "am called Cheradine Zakalwe." He leveled the gun at Ethnarch's nose. "You are called dead."
However, after his last mission went awry, something seemed to change for Zakalwe. He abandoned his position as one of the Culture's top fixers. It isn't easy to escape the Culture Minds, but Zakalwe was up to the challenge--with standard Zakwalwe style, his escape involved frying a supervisory missile in an MRI. Now, however, his Culture handlers have been given a mission that only Zakalwe can accomplish, and his life of isolated retirement will soon be broken.

The book itself is two stories, for Zakalwe's past is revealed in disjointed, reverse-chonological segments that alternate with the main narrative. The focus of the story itself is therefore squarely placed upon Zakalwe. It is the tale of a troubled genius, a man who glories in the exhilaration of war and destruction. Yet he is also a man seeking to outmanoeuvre his own past and his own guilt and find redemption. But how much redemption can be found in his tasks for the Culture? How much credit--or how much blame--can be attributed to the weapon rather than its wielder?

While I found Use of Weapons an intriguing read, it didn't have the same impact on me as Player of Games. Banks confronts some heavy themes: complicity and guilt, redemption and forgiveness; however, for me, some weaknesses in plot and characterization detracted from my ability to appreciate the more sophisticated aspects of the story. My biggest issue, I think, was that I simply could not warm to Zakalwe. He is terrifyingly willing to choose expediency over mercy, to use any method to manipulate his allies and foes; considering his life, he muses:
"He saw a man with two shadows [...] it was two things: it was the need and it was the method. The need was obvious: to defeat what opposed its life. The method was that taking and bending of the materials and people to one purpose, the outlook that everything could be used in the fight; that nothing could be excluded, that everything was a weapon, and the ability to handle those weapons, to find them and choose which one to aim and fire; that talent, that ability, that use of weapons."
I think I found Zakalwe's motivations and actions to be too pragmatic, too alien, to feel real. The slow revelation of his story only compounded my sense of this dissonance.

The plot itself seems to drift aimlessly from storyline to storyline, leaving each hanging thread incomplete and too quickly forgotten.

The story is not lacking in gruesome scenes and serious moments, but there is also plenty of humour to lighten the tone; we get a few new wacky names for the (now demilitarized) Culture-ship Minds, including "What are the Civilian Applications" and "Little Gravitas Indeed," as well as plenty of hilarious droid antics.

I think my favourite aspect of the book is that I think it is the first time in which Banks has really seemed to question the actions of his utopian Culture. How often is their definition of "good" simply "more like themselves"? How can this manipulation of societies, these machinations that cause the deaths of innocents, this winning and losing of wars, this manipulation of suffering, all for some "greater goal"--how can it truly be a righteous act? I am well aware of various real-world experiments in this direction; what sort of people can consider interference to be more acceptable simply because it is through an intermediary? But how can one choose to become a weapon in such a war? What type of man can walk into a different world, a different culture, and lay out a plan of who will live and who will die? As Zakalwe decides,
"You used those weapons, whatever they might happen to be. Given a goal, or having thought up a goal, you had to aim for it, no matter what stood in your way. Even the Culture recognized that."

~~Excerpted from my review on Booklikes, which may contain additional quotes, spoilers, and commentary that I was too lazy to copy over.~~
Profile Image for Krell75.
271 reviews15 followers
September 16, 2022
Dopo il deludente "Pensa a Fleba" e il buon secondo romanzo, devo ammettere che l'esperienza con Banks non rimarrà impressa nella mia memoria.

In questo terzo romanzo viene utilizzata una struttura narrativa alternata tra presente e passato.
Il protagonista è un mercenario al soldo della Cultura inviato su un altro mondo per evitare l'inizio di un conflitto.

Ogni capitolo alterna la missione che avviene nel presente ai numerosi flashback sul passato del protagonista che tuttavia rimane distante e abbastanza anonimo.

La trama non mi ha entusiasmato, neanche il finale.
Una spy story allungata come il brodo di pollo, ma senza pollo, da un'infinità di intermezzi utili solo ad aumentare il conteggio delle pagine che, invece di fornirmi informazioni, sono risultate poco brillanti.
Un romanzo in cui non ho trovato particolari messaggi da veicolare al lettore. La Cultura è presentata come la pacificatrice che si intromette nei destini delle altre culture grazie al loro "superiore livello di civiltà". Lo fa attraverso mercenari, per non sporcarsi direttamente mani, e con la supponenza di chi si crede superiore.

Purtroppo sta di fatto che continuavo, durante la lettura, a cadere in catalessi ogni manciata di pagine. Di questo romanzo l'unico ricordo positivo che serberò sarà la straordinaria comodità del mio divano. Forse l'ho letto nel momento sbagliato o forse alcuni romanzi dovrei iniziare a leggerli in piedi.
Profile Image for The Captain.
1,065 reviews357 followers
December 13, 2019
Ahoy there mateys!  Several years ago, I was lamenting that there were no standalones that were somehow intertwined in one universe or world.  Me brain is usually a sieve and lots of time in-between books in trilogies and such means that I lose details and sometimes have to start the series over.  I wanted the effect of extreme world building with a tied-up story in each book.  The First Mate suggested the Culture "series" in which every book is set in the same universe but all can be read as standalones and in any order.  And sci-fi to boot.  Arrrr!

I began reading this series in publishing order.  The first was consider phlebas which I have read twice and loved even more the second time.  The second was player of games.  Awesome.  Both got 5 stars.  I hadn't read a Culture book since 2017 and I was excited for this book which be the favourite for many.  All of me Goodreads crew gave this 4 and 5 stars.  And yet I hated it.  This book was pointless.  A lot of hate deals with the book's structure but the rest stemmed from the infuriating reveal and atrocious ending.  I shall explain.  This will be long.  Spoilers have warnings but read at yer own peril . . .

Structure-wise there be two major timelines and two minor ones.  To quote the Wikipedia page for the novel:
The book is made up of two narrative streams, interwoven in alternating chapters. The numbers of the chapters indicate which stream they belong to: one stream is numbered forward in words (One, Two ...), while the other is numbered in reverse with Roman numerals (XIII, XII ...). The story told by the former moves forward chronologically (as the numbers suggest) and tells a self-contained story, while the latter is written in reverse chronology with each chapter successively earlier in Zakalwe's life . . . Further complicating this structure is a prologue and epilogue set shortly after the events of the main narrative, and many flashbacks within the chapters.

The present timeline follows the main character, Zakalwe, who is basically a living weapon both physically and tactically.  He be a member of a society outside of the Culture who has been tasked by Special Circumstances to rescue an old colleague.  The past chapters dealt with earlier jobs Zakalwe did for Special Circumstances and then work their way back to the defining moment of how he acquired his massive self-hatred that defines the present.  The forward moving story was modestly interesting.  The chapters dealing with prior completed jobs were even better.  And I did want to know what the big mystery reveal was gonna be concerning Zakalwe's pathological fear of chairs.

While I understood what was happening with the plot in both the main streams, I had two underlying issues.  The first is that alternated chapters irked me.  I don't normally have a problem with this but for some reason I got tired switching back and forth.  I am not sure if that be because of the reverse narrative or what.  What I do know is that the second issue was the absolutely dumb flashbacks in both the present and past streams.  I didn't mind that Zakalwe had flashbacks.  He certainly has PTSD from his past but the flashbacks were repetitive, random, and halted the plot's momentum.  There were just so many of them.  I also could rarely place the flashbacks in terms of where they occurred in Zakalwe's timeline.  So annoying.  There could have been only a couple of flashbacks used to much better effect.

And if two timelines and hard to classify flashbacks weren't enough, Banks also had to add a prologue and epilogue to the mess.  I am not even sure what the point of either was.  Also, like the flashbacks, it be very hard to figure out where in time they occurred.  Arguments have been made about the issue but I just didn't care.  So ye basically have four separate time frames represented in the novel.  I felt that it was overly complicated and detracted from the war themes of the novel.  Was the author just trying to show his cleverness?  Or did it stem from something else?

Ye see, apparently, use of weapons was published third but was technically his first novel.  He originally wrote it in 1974 long before he published anything.  In this interview he says "The original 1974 draft of Use of Weapons was just absurdly complicated. It was packed with purple prose and it had this insane structure it was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions."  Over ten years later his friend (and fellow author) Ken MacLeod helped him restructure it into the novel we have today which included "putting the climax of the book at the end."  Was some of me dislike due to taking a first work and restructuring it?  Or did the climax and ending always suck?

So here be where the spoilers be mateys!

The Climax Hatred

Zakalwe's fear of chairs be because of a family dispute. Short version: He was the heir to the throne but his cousin, Elethiomel, staged a coup. Elethiomel kidnaps Zakalwe's sister, Darckense, and holds her hostage. A stalemate ensues. To end the stalemate, Elethiomel murders the sister, creates a chair out of her bones, and sends it to his cousin. The fear of chairs is because Darckense became one and he didn't save her. What kinda stupid thing is that? Turning her into a chair was just plain unbelievable and ridiculous! Dumb.

The Ending Hatred

So ye think ye now understand Zakalwe's fear of chairs and self-hatred and wish to make amends. Then the final chapter offers this tidbit. Zakalwe goes to visit his other sister Livueta and ask forgiveness for his past. But (surprise!) the Zakalwe that ye know is actually Elethiomel in disguise! The real Zakalwe committed suicide due to his grief. Elethiomel loses the coup somehow (not explained), has a change of heart (not explained), chooses to take his dead cousin's identity (not explained), and then chooses to make amends for his evil past. Of course after the reader finds out about the switch, Elethiomel has an embolism and ye don't know if he survives or not. Ummm what? Talk about stupid. It makes no sense! And of course all sympathy for the Zakalwe character ye have followed goes out the window. For me this ending negated all the philosophical debate brought up by the novel. Because the question changes to can Elethiomel be more than a monster? But with no background on how Elthiomel originally sees the error of his wicked ways, what be the point? I was livid that this author's choice basically made everything previously argued about pointless. Some crew may have thought this was mind-blowing. I just found it lame and exasperating. If this be the original climax then there should have been explanations!

There ye have it - why this novel sadly must Walk the Plank! Here's to hoping the next Culture novel goes much better.

Side note: A review by Abigail @ askingthewrongquestions does a great job of highlighting the philosophical questions raised about warfare by the novel and part of why the structure could work.  It also explains why the book fails.  Arrrr!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Mike.
478 reviews370 followers
March 27, 2018
Review for The Player of Games

I find the Culture series fascinating in how Banks approaches a theoretical post-singularity utopian civilization. In Culture most things are run by advanced and sophisticated self-aware artificial intelligences. But instead of getting a Matrix or Terminator result Banks envisions a society for humans where they can fully self-actualize. There is no want, strife, or unrest. If you want to pursue science even if you aren't very good at it you can. If you just want to wait tables you can do that too. All the joys of of post-scarcity with none of the thrill of machine doomsdays makes for a pretty boring setting for a story.

Which is why Banks tackles stories at the edge or beyond Culture's borders. They are by no means the only game in town and the same sort of benign utopianism they maintain in Culture they seek to foster in other space faring worlds. But not through conquest but subtle nudges here and there to the cultures. Sometimes that might be providing support for one political faction, other times it might be eliminating a particularly odious despot. Sometimes, though, they send in special circumstance agents who get their hands dirty. Use of Weapons is an examination of the life of one such person, both before and after his work with Culture.

The man is Cheradenine Zakalwe and we get glimpses both of his time on Culture missions, some successful some less so, and his life before Culture on his home planet. We get hints that there was some terrible trauma and disasters in his time on his home planet that led to his exile and eventual work with Culture. While he may have the outward appearance of a man with it all together there are deep, lasting wounds that inform his choices throughout the book. We get hints of them here and there but it isn't until the end we get the full, devastating history of the man.

Like the other books in this series Use of Weapons is self contained so you don't need to read the other books to understand what is going on in this one. I like that about this series because in the vastness of space there is no need (and it would in fact be somewhat constraining) to stick with one character or set of characters throughout. Use of Weapons succeeds both by telling Cheradenine Zakalwe's story and further fleshing out how Culture operates and relates to other space faring civilization. The story itself (both the contemporary and the flashbacks) is excellent and highly engaging with some colorful characters and well imagined worlds and cultures. Everything I was expecting when I picked up the book.

All in all a very enjoyable and engaging read. While not exactly high literature it does tell a story about a complex character in an effective and emotionally moving manner with plenty of action to keep the plot rolling. As with the previous two Culture books this read is well worth your time.
Profile Image for Stuart.
708 reviews262 followers
June 21, 2015
Use of Weapons: A dark and brooding tale of warfare, manipulation and guilt
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Use of Weapons (1990) is the third published novel in Banks’ Culture series, although it is actually a rewrite of a draft written much earlier that the author claims “was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions.” Well, for readers who generally dwell in just three or four dimensions, the narrative structure of Use of Weapons is fairly complex until you get used to it.

The story has two narrative tracks, one set in the present and moving forward in time (Chapter 1, 2, 3, etc), and a second track set in the past and moving backwards in time (VIII, VII, VI, etc). Both tracks focus on Cheradenine Zakalwe, a man skilled in warfare and military tactics who is recruited by a Culture agent from Special Circumstances, Diziet Sma, to be a military operative in various non-Culture societies and conflicts.

For readers of the previous CULTURE novels Consider Phlebas (1987) and The Player of Games (1988), the Culture’s clandestine interference in the affairs of various societies and worlds is familiar. As a post-scarcity utopian society run by super-intelligent AIs, the Culture sees its mission as trying to improve the lot of less developed societies. However, it generally pursues this goal behind the scenes, choosing to manipulate different political groups and movements, but with the eventual goal of encouraging more peaceful and democratic societies.

However, and this is a big caveat, the means that the Culture employs are often underhanded, deceitful, and involve the use of various pawns to achieve ends often too complex for humans to understand. This is where the novel’s title comes into play, since Use of Weapons refers to so many things in the story, whether it is the use of actual weapons in conflicts, the use of operatives to achieve the Culture’s cryptic ends, or in the case of the novel’s central characters, the use of loved ones to achieve tactical victories.

Use of Weapons makes good use of its dual-track narrative structure to slowly explore the diverging character arcs of Zakalwe. The forward track follows Zakalwe as he is recruited out of retirement by Diziet Sma for “one last mission,” that old chestnut, to infiltrate a moderately-developed society and extract a former political player, Tsoldrin Beychae, who has retreated from society into solitary study. The professed goal of the mission is to reinvolve Beychae in a brewing political battle between pro- and anti-terraforming groups. The Culture wants the former group to prevail with the help of Beychae. Sma sets up Zakalwe with unlimited funds to establish an identity as a mysterious and wealthy individual called Staberinde.

The forward narrative shows us Zakalwe’s various stratagems and setbacks in trying to achieve the Culture’s missions, and it becomes clear that although he is very proficient in his job, he also harbors some deep-seated doubts about the merits of the Culture’s interference. This puts the readers in a conundrum, because Zakalwe has a very jaded attitude towards his mission, even as he battles assassination attempts and kidnappings etc. This basically serves to distance the reader from the events of the story, because if Zakalwe hardly cares about the outcome, then why should we? It is exactly this ambivalence about the Culture’s motives that differentiates Banks’ novels from traditional space opera with clear heroes and villains. While this certainly appeals to a small but devoted fanbase that revels in moral ambiguity and questioning of one culture’s right to interfere with another, it also makes it hard to root for the protagonist. The same criticism applies to Consider Phlebas, in which the protagonist is actually an agent of the Idirans fighting against the Culture.

Meanwhile, I found the backward narrative track more interesting, partly because it is unusual and disorienting to slowly trace Zakalwe’s character arc into his past. We are first shown repeated attempts by Zakalwe to settle down and live a peaceful life away from his warlike past, but these invariably fail, and as we delve further back, we see him involved in various military operations for the Culture, backing one side or the other, but always with the same sense of skepticism and detachment. Again, Banks seems determined to not let readers fall into that blissful dream-momentum that space opera affords.

Midway through the backward-moving story arc, we discover that Zakalwe was the scion to an important aristocratic family, and grew up with two sisters, Livueta and Darckense, and was later joined by a cousin, Elethiomel, with whom he has many conflicts as a rival, which are exacerbated when Elethiomel has an affair with his sister Darckense. Eventually Elethiomel betrays his adopted family to seize power, and he and Zakalwe find themselves on opposite sides of a bloody struggle for control. Although they are both brilliant military strategists, Elethiomel is the more ruthless of the two, and as we get closer to the end of the book, we discover he has made the ultimate Use of Weapons to defeat his rival.

A surprise twist actually follows right after the big reveal (don’t worry, I wouldn’t think of spoiling it!), and throws our entire understanding of Zakalwe’s character upside-down. It’s a pretty impressive trick, and even after thinking it through, the ramifications are profound for the entire story. Hats off to Banks for pulling the rug out so skillfully.

Use of Weapons is a meditation on war, guilt, redemption, cruelty and the moral ambiguity of the Culture’s meddling in the affairs of less advanced civilizations. For many readers this is one of the best CULTURE novels, but although I give full marks for the eloquent writing and complex structure, it would be hard to say that I enjoyed the book. It’s consistently dark tone was only occasionally broken up by the comic relief of the sarcastic drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw.

In retrospect, it is certainly a book that demands and rewards the reader’s close attention, but after reading it I feel a strong need for something lighter, and preferably a conventional forward-moving narrative. But I am glad that Banks was willing to produce intelligent work in the SF medium and prove that speculative fiction can indeed be literate, philosophical, and emotionally challenging.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Peter Kenny, and he does a good job with this and all of the other Culture novels I've read. He understands the tone of this future universe and is consistent and versatile with various voices.
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews764 followers
January 13, 2012
My second Culture book. Iain M. Banks is probably the most popular author of space opera still working today, and I love Consider Phlebas, I found it gripping from beginning to end. Use of Weapons is often named—in forums and such—as the best book in this series (nine volumes published so far). With so many odds stacked in its favor what could go wrong? A portentous rhetorical question if ever there was one!

This is an interesting story about the life of the central character - Cheradenine Zakalwe (cool name), his trials and tribulations and his deep dark secrets. Some parts of it are quite humorous, especially anything scene involving a snarky drone (a robot to you Culture n00bs), my favorite jovial part is a scene about an "Injured Party" (that is so fudged up!). Most of the book is darker than the ace of spades though. What raises Banks above most sf authors is his literate prose style, many evocative passages here for the discerning readers. His character development skill is also second to none, even though the major characters are not necessarily likable, they are still fascinating and believable.

Unfortunately I find this book too clever by half, almost literally by half! The problem for me is the book's unusual structure, two alternating time lines, one moving conventionally forward and a flashback timeline that move backward (in chapter sequence that is, not people walking backward and spooning soup from their mouths into bowls). If you are going to read this book it is worth noting that the forward moving "present day" chapter numbers are shown in words (one, two etc.), the strangely backward flashback chapter numbers are in reverse order roman numerals (XIII, XII etc.). Forewarned is forearmed and I don't see how knowing this could possibly spoil the book for you. For me the book tend to grind to halt on the "flashback" chapters as their relation to previously read chapters only become apparent if you make the mental effort to rearrange the sequence in your head. For me it is too much exertion and plays hell with the sense of continuity. The most "relaxing" way to read this book is to not try to understand how each "roman numeral" chapters connect to the previous chapters you have read, just read them as you would read independent short stories, bearing in mind that the connection will become clear by the end of the book.

For me (I really want to stress the for me part) this book needs to be read twice for full appreciation, unfortunately while I quite like the book I am not so enamored of it that I would actually do that. I can almost rate this book at four stars, but I think 3.8 stars sounds about right. Given the prevailing consensus of opinion there is a very good chance that you will like it more than I do though, I can be a bit of a philistine sometime!
Profile Image for William.
675 reviews316 followers
August 23, 2022
As are most of Iain M Banks' books, this one is desperately slow and directionless for much of it's length. His writing style is good, but his disdain for his own characters leaves you cold.

Then suddenly, the last 10% of this book becomes an emotional obscenity, an assault of deepest cruelty, a celebration of hatred, and an abuse of the reader. I could never forgive Zakalwe for his deranged and horrific brutality, a sin of no possible redemption.

I resent Banks' rape of my mind in this book, the poisonous images burned therein.

I will hate him forever for this book, sick fck.
Profile Image for Adam.
558 reviews346 followers
August 22, 2008
Bank’s Culture always reminds me of Moorcock’s decadent but strangely innocent future in Dancers at the End of Time and the sections in this book featuring it confirm this thought, but a lot of this book reminds me of another Moorcock creation. The Jerry Cornelius stories where the main character dies and is reanimated in a new world where the only constant is war. But where those books are more experimental, this book for all its difficult structure holds together as a novel. People expecting an adventure might be a little disappointed as this is more of a character study with a complex and somewhat aggravating structure that constructs his story through flashbacks. Each of the threads in this book are interesting enough for their own book, but Bank’s uses them as dressing to tell his story with grand style and imagination. This book is also a meditation on war and violence like the Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse 5, where those use humor to confront the absurdity, this book despite some great wit from many of the characters is pretty relentlessly grim and tragic (and quite gory in many parts). So, a character story with a final heartbreaking twist (that I don’t even want to hint at), meditation on violence, and espionage story(the moral ambiguous dealings of a utopia with other civilizations that mirrors the sordid manipulations of 1st and 3rd world and Cold War/War on Terror), and a promise of what we can hope a science fiction novel or any novel can achieve. Also, kudos for the most disturbing party scene ever, and for making the funny drone cliché a complex and interesting character.
Profile Image for Alex.
26 reviews11 followers
August 28, 2008
Use of Weapons was the August 2008 pick for my sci-fi book club, and I enjoyed it immensely. It's a dense and challenging book to get through. The scattered timeline and the dreamlike quality of many passages put off some readers. Frustratingly, Banks leaves out what would have been the most revealing and emotionally fraught scenes. He provides us only with beginnings and middles, always cutting to black right after the climax, never giving us a resolution. But all of those apparent flaws are deliberate literary techniques, and I think that Banks uses them to great effect.

In my reading, Use of Weapons is a meditation on situational ethics, their use, and their cost. The book's title refers both to the way in which the main character, Cheradinine Zakalwe, ruthlessly uses every available weapon to win his wars, and to the way in which the Culture uses Zakalwe himself. As a weapon, Zakalwe will destroy whatever he is aimed at and he has no apparent morality beyond the morality of the purpose to which he is set. But he is haunted my memories of some unforgivable act which, at the time, he thought was necessary.

Zakalwe works for the Culture in order to redeem himself, fighting wars that will supposedly make the universe a better place. The Culture is an ancient, interstellar civilization that is governed by computers. They attempt to guide the fate of less developed societies in order to make them "more civilized", but the connection between Zakalwe's actions and the Culture's goals is never explored. Likewise, the reader is never given any sense of the goal which drove Zakalwe to commit his great crime. All of the action in the book is a means to an end that is never specified. We are left wondering whether any end could be good enough to justify Zakalwe's actions-- or whether he is truly beyond redemption.

The novel's central dilemma is thus a paradox: if the reader believes that the end justifies the means, then nothing Zakalwe did in pursuit of a moral goal could be immoral and, thus, he does not require redemption. But if the end does not justify the means, then Zakalwe can never be redeemed by fighting the Culture's wars.

I thought this was a thought-provoking and beautifully written book, but it's definitely not for everyone. I'd recommend it to anyone who has the patience to read it.
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,684 followers
November 25, 2017
This is my fourth review of Use of Weapons. I've not looked back on any of my previous reviews so there is every possibility I am going to repeat myself, so I apologize if you have read some part of this before, but this book is a fucking wonder.

Cheradenine Zakalwe.

I do not think there is a more fascinating character in the history of science fiction than Cheradenine Zakalwe, nor is there a more challenging. He is a man we slowly discover we should hate, yet he is a man I can't help loving. Has there ever been a rounder character than Zakalwe -- and I am talking in all literature now, not just in Sci-Fi -- with all his growth and folly and guilt and penance and ugliness and beauty? For me the answer is no. He is Macbeth and Caesar; he is Holden Caulfield and Jake Barnes; he is Ed Gein and Genghis Khan; he is Hawkeye Pierce and Jack Burton. He is God ... or, at least, a Messiah. He is everything at once, and I can't help loving him, even though I shouldn't, and that may be Iain M. Banks greatest literary achievement -- making us love Zakalwe. In fact, making Cheradenine Zakalwe likeable is a Herculean task, but that was Banks' goal and Banks' success and Banks' greatest achievement.

Use of Weapons gets better every time I read or listen to it (and Peter Kenny's reading is some of the best vocal acting I have ever heard), so please read it, friends, and tell me what you think. And if you don't agree that it is brilliant, read it again, then take your argument to China Mieville because he agrees with me, and he will do a better job of beating you down than I can.

And P.S. -- don't sit in small white chairs.
Profile Image for Emily .
714 reviews73 followers
November 20, 2017
My favorite Culture novel so far. At times it moved a bit slowly and I found the two timelines really confusing for the first 30% of the book (luckily I had seen other people's reviews that explained the roman numeral chapters were each going back farther in time while the numbered chapters were the current story). I really enjoyed Sma and the drone's interactions, and I spent the entire book just dying to know what Zakalwe's big awful secret was. What had he done that left him so broken? What was the terrible thing he didn't want to remember? but then that ending.... holy shit. My mind is blown. This is one that will have me thinking for a long time.
Profile Image for Hanne.
222 reviews317 followers
January 24, 2013
So this book introduced me to one of my new favorite drones: Skaffen-Amtiskaw. Still not quite as brilliant as Marvin the depressed robot from The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but close.

But first things first, let me take you on the rollercoaster that this book was for me:
Part 1: Oo, so cool. Fabulous drone. He's funny too. Love the ship! A crew member with a cold in scifi, how refreshing!
Part 2: Huh? Huh? How? What's the link? Huh? Don't get it. Don’t-get-it. Where? How? Uch, am I really bothered?
Part 3: No way, how wacky is his? Huh? Ooooo, ok. Huh? WTF????? Seriously, WTF???No! Yes! No!... Oo?

Maybe I should just stop here, and let that be my complete review.

On a more serious note, there are parts of the book I really like. I enjoyed his writing style; he writes very visually and so despite it being sci-fi, you can easily imagine everything while it happens and shape an entire world in your head. I thought there were a lot of interesting characters. And though the drones steal the show, the humans are well done too: very complex, slightly damaged and messed-up.
But there were some things I enjoyed less: the general structure of the book got me so lost and confused, and even right at the end I still feel like I would need a complete re-read.
Now I might have done this to myself though. I tried to read this as a stand-alone, and though I hardly ever felt like I was really missing world-building-background, it might have been the case anyway. On the other hand I read somewhere that this book is the first one Banks wrote, before any other Culture novel, so it should be perfectly ok to read it alone.

Now, on to my favorite part of the book: Skaffen-Amtiskaw, he's so fabulous. Here's a drone with a sense of humour, in a fight he turns into a Ninja-drone, when on the underground train he disguises himself as a suitcase.
And when Sma and Skaffen-Amtiskaw go to a party organized by the ship, Skaffen dresses up like the ship Xenophobe. When Sma learns something Skaffen and the ship wanted to keep from her, this is what happens: 'The ship drone, still held in Sma's paw, suddenly became the holo of a fish skeleton. Skaffen-Amtiskaw projected the model of the Xenophobe tumbling disintegrating and trailing smoke on the deck. They both flashed back to their previous disguises as Sma turned slowly and looked at them both.'
Our little drone can behave like an overdramatic toddler too.
Just stay away from the chair.

To end, I'll share with you one of my favorite chuckle-quote of this book: "The ship was over eighty kilometres long and it was called the 'Size Isn't Everthing'"

But seriously, stay away from the chair.
Profile Image for notgettingenough .
1,017 reviews1,168 followers
December 27, 2011
i BUT 7 So, in the end – not ‘the end’ but about 150 pages in, since that is my designated end, and why not in a book that starts where it does? – what is it about this writing ‘technique’? I still think it is true that having more than one story gadding about in different directions is a way of getting away with not having a story that is sufficient to fill up a novel. But at the same time, I’m starting to wonder if it is a way of letting pseudo-intellectuals who profess horror – or at least boredom – with the whodunit, have the same experience whilst telling themselves it is something superior. For this is what one does in this sort of book. You spend the whole time wondering what the fuck is going on…at some point you start picking up the clues and towards the end you feel like you have probably solved it in the way the author intended – but we’ll just read on to the end to check.

ii MAYBE 6 But it explains something. To me the book had nothing to do with the Culture book I had read and liked: Player of Games. And lo, it turns out this is no great surprise. It wasn’t a Culture book. It was shoved into the Culture series long after it was written. I wonder if simplifying it, if that is what the process of making it publishable meant, included the turning of characters into movie-style caricatures….Sorry, that’s how Sma, the overly cutesy drone with the name too long to write down and the hero (he’s got too many names, they change, to write down) seem to me. I’m guessing it would make a great movie, but I keep thinking that about his sci fi stories.

iii I’M 5 Tim, in his review http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... of this says:

Despite being the third of Banks' "Culture" science fiction novels to be published, he wrote a much more complex version of this story in 1974, before any of his books saw print. He later said it was so complex it "was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions". He credits fellow Scottish author Ken McLeod with getting him to sort this baroque novel into a publishable form.

So why isn’t that the book I got then? The publishable one? Can I get my money back?

iv JUST 4 Not that I got that far…I would not want to be seen to be writing this under false pretences. I’m just assuming that if I’d keep struggling on, it would finally have made sense.

v NOT 3 Sigh. ‘Bloody writers.’ Why can’t they write books how God intended? Why can’t they just start at the beginning and stop at the end, with a gradual progression from the one to the other? What’s with starting at some random page in the middle and heading out in shambolic way, ‘tying all the loose ends’ together at some point where finally, you think to yourself, ‘Ah. Things will be okay now. It will all start making sense’ and you turn the page and –

nothing. La musica, it is finished. Shit.

vi NEARLY 2 But I took a look around Goodreads and people seem, by and large, to consider this was a deliberate technique on the part of the writer.

vii GOOD 1 Sigh. ‘Bloody printing presses.’ That was my first thought when I noticed that there were two stories in this book and one of them was going backwards. It happens all the time, that sort of thing, they cock up the order in some way in the production process and you end up with something you have to stand on your head to read.

viii 8 ENOUGH
Profile Image for Jonathan.
Author 8 books83 followers
January 17, 2011
Fantastic. After I finish most books, I head to the book shelf and flip through the three or four books that I had in my mind as I was getting to the end of the last one. Not this time. As soon as I turned the last page, I gave this one some significant thought. I take this opportunity to also remind you that this is a science fiction novel.

I prefer, if at all possible, to avoid writing reviews with spoilers. In this case, this is going to be a challenge because much of what is wicked about Use of Weapons meets the spoiler test. Nevertheless...

There are some that claim that Iain Banks' Culture novels can be read out of order because while they all take place in the same Universe, they concern different characters and stories. While that may true, I tend to tackle such things in order. I hope it adds to my appreciation of both the author's development and any subtle early clues in that "universe". I'm glad I did so in the Culture series. Consider Phlebas is an excellent introduction by way of an enemy of the Culture and Player of Games is a story centered around a member of the Culture. Enter Cheradenine Zekalwe, a Culture agent and the protagonist in Use of Weapons.

Zekalwe is a badass. That much it clear from the start. He's also the most interesting character in the Culture series to date. He is not a member of the Culture (whatever that really means) but does their dirty work...for a price. From his present and past we learn about suffering, guilt, and attempts at redemption. We also learn of deceit.

The structure of the novel is part of its intrigue. In one forward moving storyline, we learn of Zekalwe's current "job" for his Culture employers. The second storyline moves backwards in time and explores his motivations, his relationship with the Culture and how he gets the hell beaten out of him repeatedly. The retrograde stories have a decidedly dream-like and dark quality. As with the previous two novels, we get cool glimpses into the Culture, technology, weapons, space travel and a whole GSV full of moral ambiguity.

Make no mistake: this is a dark story - Banks' penchant for torture and pain is wel-established. Yet somehow I laughed out loud on several occassions. Iain Banks can flip that switch and that's one of the reasons I love his writing.

For me it's a 4.5. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Paul O’Neill.
Author 3 books172 followers
December 27, 2016
Majorly disappointed in this one. The first Culture books are amongst my favourites but this is very flaky, confusing and a trifle boring. I will continue with the series, but this was a struggle.
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