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Iain Banks science-fiction novels - The first: An epic tale introducing us to an alien culture in conflict with another over domination of a galaxy. From Mega-ships to Minds we were set alight by Banks' enthralling ideas from a perspective outside what we would later realise to be the main - The Culture. It was full marks on the off-set. Then, came the second: From inside the Culture we centred on an esteemed individual with a talent for games, and a growing boredom, a wonder of the significance of that talent. We learnt more about the ways of the hyper efficient, 'fair' Culture with its sentient drones and GCU's (amongst much, much more) - and I at least was well and truly captivated by both the gaining of this fictional knowledge and the progression of the main character through the great game of Azad. Now, we come to the third novel in the series and the expectation is high for another page turning adventure. But will Iain Banks succeed in matching the previous? That was my thinking before reading. Prologue: At the beginning we find our main character Cheradenine Zakalwe drunken, and in a room of a substantial house in the middle of what seems to be a war torn city. Zakalwe appears not to be a meaningful part. He and his friend Cullis argue over a indeterminate bet and the whole scene is left rather unknown to the reader. After a while bombs start to drop and the pair make their escape in a half-track military vehicle outside. I liked this aggressive introductory prologue despite you not finding out anything much about the main character (it was written well) -but what I liked most was the contrast between the prologue and the actual beginning which comes after... We find Sma who is seemingly a women of un-Culture-like aristocratic power submerged deeply in the structure of a planetary society. She is a 'princess' carrying out her daily ceremonial doings and (for obvious reasons) the difference between the prologue and now couldn't be more different. It is written differently too, and the flow of speech and narration is smooth and settled as a pose to rough and... unsettled. It's when Skaffen-Amtiskaw the drone with the turbulent past is revealed to the story that you realise Sma's obvious Culture connection and that she is infact a poser - attempting to alter the path of one place to better suit the Culture's ways. As the story unfolds you see the similarity between Zakalwe and Sma, for they are both Culture Special Circumstances operatives (one recruited by the other) with the occupation of swaying societies of every kind. The link between the two characters is made early on as to draw the reader into the action. It is revealed that Zakalwe is missing and required for a new mission involving one, Tsoldrin Beychae (the former president of a cluster [group of occupied solar systems] now in turmoil). Sma is tasked with finding Zakalwe and convincing him aboard the mission to turn the fait of the cluster, and this is where the adventure begins. The book is all about the mission, involving Sma (and Skaffen-Amtiskaw), Zakalwe and Beychae. But the book is about much more than just this, it's about the past. Throughout, you read snippets (often whole chapters) transporting you into Zakalwe's past, his childhood, his completed missions, his joining with Special Circumstances, his relationships. Banks tries to connect you with the man's life by giving you a full view of it - so it seems. At first I loved how Banks did this - and why he did this. It was different and the writing style fit with the overall novel layout. But then it became too much. It wasn't so much confusing as it was unnecessary to have so many individually planted segments trying to give you an overall picture which in its self doesn't appear to be all that interesting. Zakalwe is a messed up character and that much is clear, but there weren't enough logical connections between the segments and though I can't give it away, I found the big ending twist to be unsatisfactory. Another irritation I had with the book was that it didn't give me as much Culture fuel as the last two. I didn't learn much new about the society (though Banks does dabble into gene-technology being used by the Culture, and the whole idea/argument over conciousness - such as, whether replacing every gene in your body anew but identically makes you the same person. And I love that area of philosophy). Zakalwe is a good character to write about. He is a military minded intellectual with un-paralleled skill and cunning (for an organically minded being), and Banks clearly has fun with the character. Perhaps my favourite part was a segement in which Zakalwe is heading an army of a nation on the verge of defeat -Banks gives you a thrilling insight into Zakalwe's thoughts and his love for the challenge, and his love for the adrenaline of a fight. Yes I did enjoy the character(s) but... Overall I just feel there wasn't enough build up of suspense. I didn't feel any real loyalty or willing feelings for any of the characters. The 'sketchy' feel to the overall story-line wasn't to my liking and the final twist wasn't great. I would still recommend reading this because the Culture is a fascinating setting and there are some fantastic bits in the book, it's just that overall I've read much better from Banks! Rating: 3.5/5 Pages: 368 (paper back) AVAILABLE: Amazon.co.uk Thanks for reading!
I love books, they’re great. There are not many feelings much better than slouching out on the sofa, soft music tinkling away gently in the background, and opening a new book for the very first time. My eyes run over the first line and I take a mental leap through the author’s looking glass into a fictional world where my imagination can run riot. Sometimes, of course, I am disappointed. I get halfway through a book and suddenly it is a struggle, an uphill fight against a torrential flow of words that the author surely thought full of meaning but which, to be honest, can sometimes be just plain dull. Nevertheless, I persist. A bad book can be a challenge, an unfinished book an admission of defeat. And then there is the opposite. Those books that grab you on the first page and just won’t let go. I want to sleep but just have to get to the end of the chapter first, then I read on a bit further, and then I’m hanging on until the end of the next chapter. Or I find myself wishing the bus would get stuck in a traffic-jam so I could read just a couple more pages, or (as has happened on occasion) I miss the stop entirely. Now, there are never any guarantees in life, but if I want to be sure the book I pick up is the second type of book, one that I will be unable to put down, there is a small circle of authors who I trust not to disappoint me. One of these, as you may have guessed, is none other than one Iain (M) Banks, author of a novel entitled “Use of Weapons”. (For more, see my “Top Ten Sci-Fi” op!) First, we need some background. Why the brackets in his name, for a start? Well, Banks publishes under two names, as Iain Banks he writes off-centre but generally “straight” fiction, while as Iain M Banks he lets himself go and indulges in galaxy-spanning sci-fi extravaganzas – which includes “Use of Weapons”. (As Banks himself has put it, adding the M to his na me surely puts him in the running for the world record for “Most Penetrable Pseudonym”). Second, you need to know a little about the Culture (note the capital “C”). So far, Banks has written six novels set in the Culture – his own vision of a sci-fi utopia where people, aliens and machines live together in harmony. The Culture is a society that is as near perfect as it is possible to get, and it knows about it. There is no crime, no money (to the Culture, money is a sign of poverty), no illness, none of the nasty little things about life that get in the way of having fun. The day-to-day running of the Culture is carried out by Minds, super-intelligent sentient machines that pilot the spaceships, build new habitats, and take most of the important decisions. The average human Culture citizen has nothing more important to worry about than what clothes to put on on a morning or whether to take a couple of years out of their hectic life of partying to go on a space-cruise to get a better view of an imminent supernova. Which all leaves the Culture with a little too much time on its hands. The Culture long ago reached the level where it was perfectly happy with the way things were running within itself, then turned its attention to the rest of the galaxy and, to put it bluntly, was more than a little disappointed with the way things were being run outside its sphere of influence. So, it began “helping” other races and societies – whether they liked it or not. If the Culture sees an oppressed minority, it will do its best to swing events in their favour. If the Culture sees a planet at war it will send in a covert Contact team to help its favoured side win. If the Culture sees a planet that might benefit from a war……. – well, I’m sure you get the idea. Which is where I (finally) get to the novel in hand – “Use of Weapons”. You see, the Culture doesn’t like to get its hands dirty. It has a Contact section for monitoring the development of other races and, within Contact, the euphemistically named Special Circumstances for dealing with slightly more controversial or sensitive matters, but at heart the Culture likes everything to be nice and neat and tidy. If there is anything messy to be done it likes to be able to look the other way and at least pretend that it is not involved. “Use of Weapons” centres around one of the people chosen by the Culture to do their dirty work for them, one Cheradenine Zakalwe – a soldier rescued from death in some inconsequential little war by a Culture agent and offered the chance to work for them. The Culture want Zakalwe for his tactical expertise and willingness to fight for whatever side they happen to be supporting; Zakalwe in turn uses the Culture in an attempt to set right a horror from his past of which the Culture is blissfully unaware. At first sight, the book is a mishmash. It starts with a prologue that takes place in the future, then the story begins in the middle and ends at the beginning, which is also the end, although the prologue continues after the story ends, then a new story begins with a prologue that probably takes place some time during the rest of the book – you following me? Think the film “Memento” with multiple storylines and you are getting somewhere close. It is only when you finish the book and you sit back to contemplate what you have just read that you realise how cleverly all the separate pieces interact. Banks is excellent at this sort of thing – stories with twists in the tale and managing multiple timelines so that they all converge at the same time. The story itself is sci-fi with a brain. Yes, the huge spaceships are there; yes, the characters run around with laser guns; yes there are lots of names that are impossible to pronounce, but despite these things appearing clichéd, Banks somehow injects them with new life and a certain amount of humour. Take the whole name issue, for instance – Banks doesn’t settle for half measures and so gives one of the main characters the seemingly ludicrous name of “Rasd-Coduresa Diziet Embless Sma da’Marenhide”, although she goes by “Sma” for short. (If you think this is just nonsense, Banks actually explains the Culture naming process in another novel – basically a Culture name is a combination of family tree and address). And what about a sentient decommissioned warship that has christened itself "Xenophobe"? Banks isn’t one to smear his literary credentials just because he is writing sci-fi. In a radio interview, Banks once said that his greatest fear was that someone would run an analysis of his books that would prove he used “longer words” in his straight fiction than in his sci-fi. “Use of Weapons” opens with a poem and finishes with a poem – quite a daring innovation in the science fiction arena. The main character – Zakalwe – attempts life as a poet for a while when he realises that the ideal man is either a soldier or a poet and much of his life seems to be an oscillation between these two extremes. The dual timeline of the novel means that Banks can present many different aspects of Zakalwe’s character. The reader sees him fighting wars for the Culture, at times being on the winning side, at other times loosing despite his best efforts, although it is precisely this defeat that the Culture has conspired to bring about. At other times Zakalwe tries to get away from it all, writing poetry, living in a shack on the beach, having himself frozen for half a century. And then there is Zakalwe acting on his own, a loose cannon trained to be the best in his field and causing untold damage through nothing more sinister than good intentions. There are a number of supe rb set-pieces in the flashbacks we see of Zakalwe’s time working for the Culture. One war is played out on a massive iceberg – large enough for two entire armies to hide from each other; another time Zakalwe is escorting the Chosen across the desert to safety and takes part in the local ritual of taking hallucinogenic drugs that bring his past actions crashing back to him; the reader sees him trapped in a crumbling palace, unable to break out as enemy forces advance; and in another crumbling citadel as enemy shells bring the structure crashing down around him. Banks’ inventiveness is breathtaking at times. Through all this, a past begins to appear. A recurring symbol – a chair – slowly but surely gains in importance, childhood memories are drip-fed to the reader, what is the significance of a grounded battleship called "Staberinde"? Who is Zakalwe, where does he come from, why does he carry out the Culture’s will so blindly, what can they possibly offer him in payment? The weapons referred to in the title become all too apparent, the way that anything can be turned into a weapon of some kind, the destruction brought about through their use. With increasing momentum, the book spirals towards its conclusion, pulling all the strands of the story together and shocking the reader with one final revelation. I don’t want to say anything more about the plot. I could, I would love to write more, but it would just spoil it too much for anyone who then wanted to go out and read the book. And now for some advice – don’t read this book if you are new to the Culture. Although it is a standalone book – as are all Culture novels – it really is better is you already have some background within which to place it as much of the action takes place on the fringes of the Culture. My advice is to read “Consider Phlebas” first for a general overview (the first Culture novel published) , then have a bash at “The Player of Games” to see how Contact operates and how sneaky it can be. Then, and only then, would I advise graduating to “Use of Weapons”. One final point, before I wrap up. Banks originally wrote this book before managing to get a single novel published and yet it was the third sci-fi book he brought out. Initially, he was not going to even try to get it published – the manuscript ran to over 250,000 words and rambled on far too much. It was only when he showed the manuscript to a friend and fellow sci-fi author Ken McLeod that he was encouraged to bring “the old warrior out of retirement” as it says in the acknowledgements. The different timelines were also introduced as part of the rewrite “fitness programme” also referred to there. All I can say, is “thanks Ken” and look forwards to the next Culture novel due out some time in 2004.
Ian Banks would appear to be incapable of writing a bad book, but with this one he has surpassed himself. Powerful, intelligent, immensely enjoyable and ultimately devastating, it stands as not only Banks' finest novel to date but also one of the greatest novels of our time. If it wasn't for the illogical, outdated and ignorant stigma attached to science fiction in the literary world, people would be queueing up to pay this book the respect it deserves. As an allegorical work about the weakness of man, the evil of which we are capable and the ultimate futility and insanity of war it deserves mention in the same breath as Catch-22. As a page-turning thriller, it puts the pulp-pedalling likes of Grisham and Clacy firmly in their place. As a devastating, shocking and powerful masterpiece, only a swift, hard kick to the testicles matches its effect. I consider this review a conservatively worded piece of understatement. If you haven't read Use of Weapons yet, everything in your life is wasted time. Go, go now and read it.
If you read no other book by Iain M Banks, try this one ! It has breathtaking farfuture technology, very fast pace and lots of intrigue. If you dont laugh out loud at the AI's gift of a hat to the main protagonist, I'll eat mine <G> The narrative jumps around in time and space and there really is never a slow moment. Does the end justify the means ? And just why can this chap not sleep with a chair in his room ? You'll never guess....
I want to kill tomKiernan because he has one ball i want to KIll him with a German Maxim machine gun, a Tactical nuclear misile, a greener twoband rifle, a 24 double barerld shot gun,a double ended light saber,a double ended dildo, a danish remmington rifle, a lee magasin rifle, agrens carbine,a sharps carbine rifle, a swartz Arzlose, a glue gun, a staple gun, a flame thrower, a SA 80,a MP44 asult rifle, a sub machine gun, a lancaster rifle, a soldering iron , a smith and wesson, a Pompom machine gun, a costello, oozi, anti tank rifle, anti air craft machine gun, needle gun, self loading pistle, vickers machine gun, enfield hand revolver, crag cournel
Use of Weapons takes place in Iain M Banks' 'Culture' sci-fi universe, and is the story of Cheradenine Zakelwe, a burnt-out agent of the Culture. The book shrouds Zakelwe's origins in secrecy, which it gradually reveals using a clever chapter structure (Every other chapter recounts an earlier segment of his life until the secret in his past is revealed). Without giving too much away, Zakelwe is called out of semi-retirement for one last job, which he only agrees to because it involves the only man he has disclosed his secret to. As the story progresses, he becomes invloved in a war he is not supposed to win... As the book slowly trickles the main protagonist's history to you, you begin to understand Zakelwe (if not his ultimate motivation) and I actually found myself caring for him. The ending builds the tension magnificently, and the final revelation is superb. I had become so involved with the characters that I felt physical shock and had to put the book down to have a drink. The only criticism I can level at the book is that it could be a little confusing if you haven't read any of Banks' Culture novels before, so I would recommend that anybody new to his books reads some of the others first. This is without doubt the best Culture novel, so it's worth reading it last so you understand all of the nuances properly.