I recently had the great pleasure of reading Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks for the first time. He’s an extraordinary writer and this is an extraordinary book. He masterfully handles two timelines unfolding in alternating chapters, slowly converging, each telling part of a richly detailed and ultimately heartbreaking story.
As in much of his work, Banks is not holding the reader’s hand. He leaves it to us to negotiate jumps in time and space, but I sense that he doesn’t want to give his readers a stressful experience. It seemed most natural to let the changing cast of characters and places, bizarre events, humour and tragedy wash over me instead of obsessively worrying about keeping track of each detail. Use of Weapons is an unhurried book and I didn’t fight it.
I would say that the story plays its hand close, but it’s hardly playing a game. The concealment of the true nature of certain characters and events isn’t a cheap gimmick here. Banks is not out to deceive the reader. He is honest about what he’s doing, and eventually shows us that it was done in the service of a higher purpose. Trust and patience is rewarded.
I often think about how the reading experience is impacted by the physical nature of a book: a reader can literally see and feel the unread section of a book growing smaller, and this surely has some psychological effect on how we read a novel and anticipate its ending. As the pages disappeared in Use of Weapons I knew that answers must be coming, but, as is usual in his work, Banks will not present them neatly packaged. Each timeline in is infused with a hazy sense of something-not-quite-right from the start, and I became almost weary with dread as the book progressed but refused to accelerate.
Answers came in shocking bursts. I wept hopelessly at the book’s most shocking reveal and again at its devastating conclusion. It was a punch to the stomach followed by a liver shot.
Banks has a precious gift: he shapes and directs his readers’ emotional responses with incredible delicacy and intelligence. His books aren’t packed with explicit themes and subject matter, but he knows how to deliver sudden moments of unbearable horror and pain and bittersweet sadness that leave an indelible impression. The enormity of events becomes clearer the further away I get from them. I’m still turning this book over and over in my mind, weeks after I finished it.
The story is like a grand saga – not in the sense of some massive modern-day multi-book series, but a myth, a cultural artifact. It feels temporally ambiguous, standing outside any particular time and place. It’s already happened and might never happen at all. Unlike much science fiction, it’s not about one single world- or galaxy- or universe-changing event, but about people and history and purpose. Small details and minor plot points contribute to the sprawling story as much as its most impressive turns, and the whole becomes an offering to the tragic figure at its centre. (See the end for a comment that is also a spoiler). I didn’t feel like a participant in this book, but a witness to its events.
I’ve been reading science fiction since my early teens but I’m glad that I came to Iain M Banks a bit later in life. I’m not sure my younger self would have known how to appreciate his work quite so fully as I can now. Each time I pick up a Banks book I haven’t read, I’m a little sad. Excited to read it, of course, but aware that what we have now is it. I’m savouring the unread titles. He is missed.
To be clear: the tragic figure, to me, is Cheradenine Zakalwe, not Elethiomel. When the twist was finally revealed, I was completely heartbroken. I like to see Use of Weapons as an atonement of sorts for Cheradenine’s grim life and death. I don’t think Iain M Banks would necessarily agree with this interpretation, but I’m incurably soft-hearted with this sort of thing.