Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
Use of Weapons is a rare book, in that it’s one that I didn’t finish. I just couldn’t. I got two thirds of the way through it and just had to give up. It’s not that it’s a bad book per se; in fact it’s pretty well-regarded generally. But I just couldn’t get on with it. I wouldn’t personally recommend that you read Use of Weapons, but if you have read it and liked it, I’m not going to look at your like you’re a lunatic.
Use of Weapons is the third in the Culture series. I was ambivalent about the first in the series, Consider Phlebas, so I waited well over a year until I read the second, The Player of Games, which I loved. So I didn’t wait as long on the third one, and I suspect the delay before reading the fourth will be a fair bit longer.
The plot is concerned with the gloriously named Cheradenine Zakalwe, a former agent of The Culture’s Special Circumstances (SC) Division, and current SC Agent Diziet Sma’s efforts to recruit Zakalwe back into active service to get information from one of his old acquaintances. But the plot is split into roughly two and a half streams. The first is the plot described above. The second is a flashback telling the story of Zakalwe’s leaving SC, which I think is either told in reverse chronology or random chronology – it never seemed 100% clear. In fact, I’m not sure that it was all a flashback – some could have been set in the future. These are told in alternating chapters. And every so often, a flashback is thrown in to give information of Zakalwe’s childhood.
The main plot isn’t the problem with Use of Weapons. It’s interesting, Zakalwe is an entertaining protagonist, the repartee between him, Sma and the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw is excellent, and it feels like this part of the plot has legs. The second plot is, however, a problem. It’s just a chore to get through, not least because Zakalwe is no longer entertaining in these (he’s a depressing bore), so every other chapter robs whatever momentum was built up in the previous chapter. It did feel like it was building up to some sort of twist, but not one that I was hugely interested in finding out about. The flashbacks to his childhood were interesting, without every really feeling like they fed into the rest of the book.
It feels unfair to be too critical of a book that I disliked enough to not finish. That sounds odd. But I didn’t think it was a terrible book. Like I said, it just wasn’t for me. So instead, I’ll go with praise for one part of it: I absolutely love what Banks does with drones in the series. Drones are artificial intelligences in robotic bodies, and it could be difficult to convey emotions of robots, given the basic lack of human body language or what-have-you, which could then rob them of character depth. But Banks gets around this brilliantly by using the drones’ “fields”.
Basically, the fields (or auras) are a small coloured ring that surrounds the drones, which changes colour depending on their emotional state – red for humour, white for anger, blue for formality and so on. Initially the description will be something like “the drone’s aura went white with anger as he said…” but once the basic colour scheme has been well established, it becomes more subtle, along the lines of “through his white field the drone snarled…”. It works really well, giving information on the drones’ emotional states without having to resort to saying “…the drone said angrily.” It’s subtle enough that it avoids the problem described by the Robot Devil in Futurama: “You can’t just have your characters describe how they feel – that makes me feel angry.”
Obviously though, it was used better in Player of Games, because Player of Games was a better book, and a drone was the main supporting character. But I thought it worthy of noting here, mainly because it was probably the aspect of Use of Weapons that I found most consistently enjoyable.
In conclusion, I wouldn’t say that I’ll never read a Culture novel again. I’m fairly sure I will. But just as Player of Games made me want to read the next in the series fairly quickly, Use of Weapons made me eager to not bother with another for a while.
Why you should read it: it’s undoubtedly well written, and pretty interesting at times.
Why you shouldn’t read it: Every other chapter is dull.
Next up: Turn Coat by Jim Butcher