Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Zakalwe enfranchised;
July 21, 2012 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Guardian Book Club: Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks, Week one: John Mullan discusses the twist

Iain Banks: Use Of Weapons, interview (41:48)

Previous Guardian book club on The Wasp Factory:
Behind it all, John Mullan on the use of explanation as a device
Guardian book club - Born free, Iain Banks's debunking of the 'noble savage'
Out of this world, How practising with SF led to The Wasp Factory
Shock tactics - Readers' responses
Podcast Iain Banks speaks to John Mullan and takes questions from the audience at the Guardian book club.

Related - M John Harrison: a life in writing
posted by fearfulsymmetry (50 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
I bet he's a woman, that bloke. You think it's the future, but it's actually set in the past. It's not Earth. It's all a dream. They're all clones. He's his own brother. Everyone's a ghost.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:51 AM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


(the weirdness of everybody's names is a signifier of their remoteness from us in time and space)

I think the fact that the author felt it necessary to explain this signifies his remoteness from me in time and space.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 11:00 AM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I just started reading Use of Weapons again today after years of beginning it and stopping, beginning again and skimming, and eventually paging to the end in frustration and then selling my copy after being unimpressed by the ending. I would say I was revolted, but I would be giving the choices made by the author more attention than they deserve. Let's say I was revolted on the level of novelistic craft. But I can't keep from touching a lukewarm stove, so now I have another copy and I'm reading it all the way through even though I dislike the ending more than I dislike the ending of any other book I can think of at the moment.

I think it's time to admit that the brilliance of Use of Weapons is that it isn't really a spy story or war story; it's a comedy of manners starring a polysexual secret agent and a drone.
posted by Handstand Devil at 11:14 AM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


You sound at bit upset by the ending. Maybe you should sit down, have a chair.
posted by Artw at 11:27 AM on July 21, 2012 [39 favorites]


[By the way: the "discusses the twist" article doesn't actually give away what the twist is, if you're trying to avoid spoilers]
posted by Infinite Jest at 11:36 AM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh but it is a beautiful day and I want to go outside. But, Iain M Banks's best book!
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 11:44 AM on July 21, 2012


All the Culture books I've read have been depressing and awesome. Seems like that's his thing.
posted by bpm140 at 12:05 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just started reading Use of Weapons again today after years of beginning it and stopping, beginning again and skimming, and eventually paging to the end in frustration and then selling my copy after being unimpressed by the ending.

It took me a long time to finish Use of Weapons, using the same sort of start-and-stop process, but I ended up with the opposite impression: I loved the last quarter along with the ending (and particularly the coda), but the book didn't spark my interest until at least halfway through. It's hard to care about anyone or anything until Zakalwe's mission starts to heat up... which is probably a stylistic choice, but makes it the kind of book you enjoy in retrospect rather than in the moment. So far my favorite is Player of Games.
posted by vorfeed at 12:08 PM on July 21, 2012


Use of Weapons is one story which is absolutely ruined if you skip ahead to the end. Banks does a lot of stuff in many of his stories which just looks gratuitous unless you have worked up to it through the experiences of his characters.

To me the magical thing about the ending of Use of Weapons is imagining the look on Diziet Sma's face when Livueta tells her the truth. We have watched them campaign together for hundreds of pages, each learning to absolutely trust the other, Sma representing the Culture with its vast resources (and, as we learn in Excession, the literal ability to read human minds if they want to badly enough), Sma is already feeling like shit because for the first time ever her superiors put Zakalwe in a position where he was expected to lose and he's not taking it very well, and then Livueta makes that act of betrayal seem like a small time college frat prank and makes the entire Culture look like idiots for not catching it.
posted by localroger at 12:09 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also my favorite Banks book. The real twist to me is that the Culture knows the truth about Zakalwe all along - they have multiple ways of knowing this beforehand and the Culture ultimately doesn't care about the twist-issue at all. He uses weapons, they use him, and around you go.

Whether or not Sma knows the truth is yet another story. Off to re-read some Banks...
posted by Farce_First at 12:09 PM on July 21, 2012


F-F, from the way Staffen-Amtiskaw is acting during the final chapter, it seems very clear that neither it nor Sma know the truth. As for the Minds, I would suppose that they neither know nor, when they find out, care for the reasons you give. And of course we now know that they forgave him and his career continued.
posted by localroger at 12:15 PM on July 21, 2012


My high school English teacher had a poster for "Use of Weapons" up on the wall, I think it was the UK paperback cover blown up. He had never read the book, or heard of the author, he just liked the image. When I saw the book in a used bookstore I picked it up because of the cover. It rather blew my mind as a teenager, and I've read it a few times subsequently.

Zakalwe is a monster and it's always pretty clear he's a monster. There's a scene where he's writing poetry. He does it by writing what are described as field reports about the world around him, then erasing words until he gets to something that looks like the poems he's read. When he reads books about writing poetry, they just confuse him.

Banks makes you root for this monster and sympathize with him. Then there's the twist. What I like most about the novel though is the implication that nothing really changes for him because the Culture finds out. I got the sense that it was all just a data point that helped them predict his behaviour.

It in that sense it reminds me of "Consider Phlebas" which was set outside of the Culture and had a protagonist who was highly critical of it. Zakalwe isn't critical of the culture, but he is on some level a criticism of it. Zakalwe is the Culture's weapon; even if they are rather more moral about their goals, they're just as amoral and pragmatic about using him as he is about using his weapons.

Which brings me neatly to the one thing that really gets on my nerves about Bank's writing, it's how self consciously clever he can come across. Minor nitpick really. But yeah, it's something I notice a lot in his writing.
posted by Grimgrin at 12:15 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Culture books can be read as an argument over the pros and cons of interventionism, never quite coming down on one side. Zakat we is the tool of intervention.

Inversions and Surface Detail make interesting follow up reading.
posted by Artw at 12:25 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is UoW Banks' answer to the Zevon song "Excitable Boy"? Or do I have the wrong book?
posted by ergomatic at 1:01 PM on July 21, 2012


He's been musically influenced before.
posted by Artw at 1:05 PM on July 21, 2012


Nice title to the post! For those who don't recognize it (shame!) it's the first line to Diziet Sma's "Slight Mechanical Destruction", which is basically USE OF WEAPONS summed up as a poem.
Zakalwe enfranchised;
Those lazy curls of smoke above the city,
black wormholes in the air of noontime's bright Ground Zero;
Did they tell you what you wanted to be told?
Or rain-skinned on a concrete fastness,
fortress island in the flood;

You walked among the smashed machines,
and looked trough undrugged eyes
for engines of another war,
and an attrition of the soul and the device.
With craft and plane and ship,
and gun and drone and Field you played, and
wrote an allegory of your regress
in other people's tears and blood;

The tentative poetics of your rise
from a mere and shoddy grace.
And those who found you,
took, remade you
('Hey, my boy, it's you and us knife missiles now,
our lunge and speed and bloody secret:
The way to a man's heart is trough his chest!')

- They thought you were their plaything,
savage child; The throwback from wayback,
expedient because
Utopia spawns few warriors.

But you knew your figure cut a cipher
trough every crafted plan,
and playing our game for real
saw trough our plumbing jobs
and wayward glands
to a meaning of your own, in bones.

The catchment of these cultured lives
was not in flesh,
and what we only knew,
you felt,
with all the marrow of your twisted cells.
posted by Justinian at 1:42 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


The typos on "through" are mine (ok, the page I pasted from) rather than Banks'. Obviously.
posted by Justinian at 1:45 PM on July 21, 2012


I liked Use of Weapons. Not my favorite Culture novel (that would be Excession), and the twist is visible in the distance for a while as you come down to the end, but overall does a good job of taking a standard trope (the "merc with a mouth") and humanizing it, showing what sort of impact that lifestyle would really have on a person.

Now, cue discussion of whether the whole novel existed solely to set up the last line of Surface Detail...
posted by ubernostrum at 2:54 PM on July 21, 2012


Some books have appendices. In contrast to the human appendix, they are usually useful. This article is indeed an appendix to Use Of Weapons, as in useless and ultimately discarded and forgotten.
posted by Splunge at 2:58 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


whether the whole novel existed solely to set up the last line of Surface Detail...

I am extremely certain that Surface Detail was not even a gleam in Banks' eye when he wrote Use of Weapons.

We seem to have gotten Culture novels in three waves. The first few books (Phlebas, Games, Weapons) established the parameters and set the Culture in its context between the little cultures like our own and the bigger players of the galaxy and Universe. Then there was a break, and we got a few books (Excession, Inversions, Windward) exploring limits and extremes at the macro and micro scale of the Culture's goals. Finally we get the modern bunch (Matter, Detail) which so far are more about personal extremes within the context of the Culture and its uberverse.

Of the bunch I think the objective best novel is Use of Weapons but the one I prefer to re-read when I feel down is Player of Games. The later novels I don't feel the need to re-read.
posted by localroger at 3:14 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


btw, to tie in with this Guardian book club thing, Iain Banks is discussing Use of Weapons in London on the 1st of August.

Read Use of Weapons many many years ago and absolutely loved it.
posted by memebake at 3:15 PM on July 21, 2012


I actually just finished Use of Weapons yesterday, and found the ending both surprising and satisfying. I've read the first three books in the series and am about to start State of the Art.

As an aside, I absolutely love The Culture novels for their setting, it's super fascinating to me (even though there's absolutely no conflict, some of my favorite parts of the book are the future-porn sections of Banks' novels which happen *in* the Culture). Are there any other novelists or series with similar utopian-esque settings which I may enjoy?
posted by Strass at 3:31 PM on July 21, 2012


whether the whole novel existed solely to set up the last line of Surface Detail...

I think, overall, that Surface Detail is the best Culture novel since the early bunch but that last line was heavy handed and unnecessary. Realizing what was going on was part of the book's greatness and bludgeoning the reader like that was an off note.
posted by Justinian at 3:43 PM on July 21, 2012


So where does one begin with the Culture novels? The Player of Games seems to have the most interesting summary out the early books, but is it better to start with Consider Phlebas? I seem to remember a couple of people on the blue not thinking too highly of it.
posted by ersatz at 3:57 PM on July 21, 2012


Are there any other novelists or series with similar utopian-esque settings which I may enjoy?

If I may indulge in a self link I wrote a few stories. It will be obvious why The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect couldn't find conventional publication; Mortal Passage eventually did in Bull Spec #5.
posted by localroger at 4:02 PM on July 21, 2012


So where does one begin with the Culture novels?

I advise Player, Weapons, Phlebas, Excession and then the rest whatever.
posted by localroger at 4:03 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sadly, as I've said before even knowing these are the "Culture novels" kind of spoils Consider Phlebas. By far the best starting place is CP... but only if you've never heard of the books before.
posted by Justinian at 4:04 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Player of Games seems to have the most interesting summary out the early books, but is it better to start with Consider Phlebas? I seem to remember a couple of people on the blue not thinking too highly of it.

I started with Phlebas and don't regret it. It's a much more straightforward read than either Player or Use of Weapons, and I think it does a better job of introducing the world for those unfamiliar with it.
posted by vorfeed at 4:05 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, the thing to do with the Culture books is to start with one that isn't mostly about or set in the Culture. That lets it be more of a background-y thing that you can learn about by contrast to what the rest of the universe is doing, and then the books that are mostly about/in the Culture make a bit more sense.

Consider Phlebas takes that to an extreme; the Culture is really just background noise through almost the entire novel, and you won't learn much that's relevant about the Culture universe from reading it, other than getting some understanding of history for Look to Windward and the Culture's later attitudes toward war and self-defense.

The Player of Games, on the other hand, feels like a better introductory book because it has some setting that's actually in the Culture, and also presents a pretty clear clash of values, to give a real idea of what the Culture is about and how it does its dirty work.
posted by ubernostrum at 4:13 PM on July 21, 2012


I started with Use of Weapons, loved it, then read Consider Phlebas, loved it too, then moved on to Player of Games and the rest and quickly discovered Banks to be eminently readable and quite enjoyed the manner in which he structured his novels and created his universe.

The questions about redemption that were raised through Use of Weapons I found to be particularly fascinating. Is the Zakalwe at the end of UoW the same Zakalwe from the family manor house at the beginning? What defines a person and what condemns them?
posted by dazed_one at 4:14 PM on July 21, 2012


Which brings me neatly to the one thing that really gets on my nerves about Bank's writing, it's how self consciously clever he can come across

I really loved the hat scene in Use of Weapons.
posted by Sauce Trough at 5:07 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


That scene gets me every time. Every. Time.
posted by Justinian at 7:15 PM on July 21, 2012


I read Use of Weapons for the first time a couple of months ago. I was reading it in a bar when the penny dropped right at the very end. I was so shocked - I reread the section twice to make sure I had it right... and then ordered a stiff drink.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 7:22 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I loved Use of Weapons and re-read it immediately after finishing it. I'm really looking forward to digging through these links, fearfulsymmetry, thanks for posting them.
posted by harriet vane at 7:29 PM on July 21, 2012


Justinian: I think, overall, that Surface Detail is the best Culture novel since the early bunch but that last line was heavy handed and unnecessary. Realizing what was going on was part of the book's greatness and bludgeoning the reader like that was an off note.

One person's bludgeoning is another's surprise reveal, I guess - I had no idea what was going on. (Well maybe at a high level, as in "surely the Culture are actually doing more than they say", but I'd never have guessed the ending. I should go re-read it and see how it's signalled).
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:39 AM on July 22, 2012


Sadly, as I've said before even knowing these are the "Culture novels" kind of spoils Consider Phlebas.

I learned it by watching you! Ahem. Thanks for the recommendations, everyone!
posted by ersatz at 3:36 AM on July 22, 2012


isn't there a new Banks book out soonish? someone on the site posted something about seeing some proofs go by in their workflow last spring, iirc. If so, could this current spate of media activity presage a book tour? Because I would attend a reading in the context of such.

answer: The Hydrogen Sonata is due in October.
posted by mwhybark at 10:07 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am extremely certain that Surface Detail was not even a gleam in Banks' eye when he wrote Use of Weapons.

Maybe useful edit:

I am extremely certain that 2010's Surface Detail was not even a gleam in Bank' eye when he wrote Use of Weapons in the early 1970s as an unpublished 20-year-old.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:08 AM on July 22, 2012


I smash-read all the Culture novels in a week before interviewing Banks... this was 1998, for the release of Inversions. Of them all, I think Use of Weapons impressed me the least. No, actually Inversions impressed me the least, but the narrative progression of Use of Weapons just seemed kind of obvious. I've not reread any of them since, nor read any of the later ones.
posted by Hogshead at 3:04 PM on July 22, 2012


Smash-reading anything by Banks is not the way to go.
posted by localroger at 7:38 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you enjoyed the mind-blast of Use of Weapons I would encourage the reading of his non-scifi fiction novel A Song of Stone.

No spoilers from me though, beyond the similarity of the emotional feeling that both books provide.
posted by Severian at 9:32 PM on July 22, 2012


I've always proceeded on the baseless but not impossible assumption that A Song of Stone is set on Zakalwe's homeworld.
posted by Justinian at 1:13 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Justinian, I got the impression that Song of Stone wasn't intended as a Culture story, and that Banks probably wrote Inversions to actually do what everyone thought he was doing in Stone.
posted by localroger at 1:46 PM on July 23, 2012


Well... considering that his personal idiom is to write all his SciFi under the "pen name" Iain M. Banks, and everything else under Iain Banks I would say that by that measure Song of Stone isn't a Culture novel.

But, he could just be pulling our legs.
posted by Severian at 7:44 PM on July 23, 2012


I said it was baseless. But you can't prove it isn't true! Nyah.
posted by Justinian at 5:14 PM on July 24, 2012


Iain M Banks’ Heroes And Inspirations
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:51 AM on July 26, 2012


Week two: John Mullan discusses scale
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:26 AM on July 28, 2012


Week three: the author describes the long gestation of his best SF novel
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:42 AM on August 4, 2012


It's based around the idea of concentricity, and if you open the book right in the physical middle, you should find the section of the narrative that goes furthest back in time, and the image of somebody repetitively throwing stones into water …

Heh, that is precisely the "at least halfway through" I got to before I started to care about Use of Weapons -- I still remember bringing the book to the laundromat for one more try, running into that part, and finishing the rest of the book within a week or so. Guess it was deliberate, then!
posted by vorfeed at 11:49 AM on August 4, 2012


Week four: John Mullan on readers' responses
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:30 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


« Older Morton and Vicary on the Categorified Heisenberg A...  |  Heavy Breeding.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments