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 toward 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.
©1990 Iain M Banks (P)2013 Hachette Audio
Say something about yourself!
This is one of the Culture Series books, best introduced by "Player of Games" if the series is not familiar. Use of Weapons has a complex, non-linear structure that can be difficult to follow in audio format. The prolog establishes an event at a particular point in time, call it time t-zero. The story then begins at time t plus 13 and is told in alternating chapters, half of them moving backward toward t-zero, and the other half moving forward from time t plus 13. You arrive at the end of the book when the backward narrative reaches t-zero just as the forward narrative reaches a climax that reveals the real meaning of the events in the prolog. It is cleverly done, but you really do have to pay attention. This one is not for casual listening while you multitask. I would also suggest re-listening to the beginning of the book after you have finished it. Knowing the whole story really changes the meaning of the events at the book's opening. Brilliantly done, and exquisitely handled by Peter Kenny, who does not just read the book, he performs the story.
The Culture series is one of my favorites, and this book is no exception (although Player of Games is still my favorite). Of the Culture books that I've read though, this one's story is the least linear and most disjointed, which, in my opinion is trickier to follow on audio.
The book is set up with an ongoing storyline in the present, with each chapter followed by a (critical) section detailing a portion of the main character's history, each section further and further into the past. It's a great way to tell a story, but I almost need to re-listen to this book now that I have a better picture of the story as a whole. Typically keeping everything straight isn't a problem for me when I just read a book and am able to speed up and slow down a little more naturally (compared to somebody reading to book to me at their pace).
That being said, if you enjoy the Culture series, I really do think that you'll enjoy this book too. Consider reading the book, and not listening to the audiobook, but either way, you'll still be pleased.
I'm a Hard SF & Space Opera-loving, alien android from the future. I bring gifts of SciFi eBooks & accessories for your leader's Kindle. Take me to him/her/it.
After over twenty years, this still holds up as a Sci-Fi masterpiece character study into the dark soul of its protagonist, a mercenary named Cheradenine Zakalwe. At first, the unusual story structure of two asynchronous story lines, alternating between the present and an episodic sequence of thirteen key moments in Zakalwe's past (revealed in reverse chronological order), can be confusing. However, it quickly clarifies, and is an absolutely ingenious way of examining the roots of the character's motives, phobias, and mannerisms in such a way that maximum surprise is extracted at each 'reveal'. Of course, as you've guessed from the profession of Mr. Zakalwe, there is no shortage of action throughout, and a good deal of James Bond 007 (I'm picturing Daniel Craig, not the other blokes). The biggest lost opportunity here was to explore, in the book's many settings and locales, some truly alien cultures, philosophies, and biologies, but sadly we see only a large collection of human civilizations in various stages of technological development. At least Gene Roddenberry slapped some prosthetic facial adornments on his humanoid aliens! Nevertheless, the story succeeds in elevating character over deus ex machina; no easy feat considering the persistent omnipotence of the Culture standing behind the mercenary, but here kept at a welcome arm's length, maintaining a high-stakes identification between the reader and the protagonist.
If your every listened to Banks novel "Consider Phlebas", well, you're in for the same kind of thing. If you want to hear a story told from the perspective of an AI persona -= THIS AINT IT. The story was well written (technique was 1st rate), but it did make me wish they would just tell me why the protagonist was so messed-up (you learn that at the VERY END of the story). Also, the narrator does a good job, as always. I have to say that I rated it a 4 (instead of a 5), because it was not up to the standard of other Culture novels such as "Player of Games" or "Surface Detail" (both 1st rate; buy them now if your haven't listened yet). But, I this novel was still a whole lot better than a lot of other stuff that I rated a 4.
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
This would my fourth Iain M. Banks Culture novel, and I enjoyed it well enough, though I’m not sure I understand the reverence that many hold for the man’s work. I find his books thought-provoking, but also somewhat self-indulgent and not as deep as everyone seems to think they are. Also, I’m skeptical that the Culture would *work*. Would immensely intelligent machines feel motivated to care for huge populations of human dependents, who do little besides consume resources and amuse themselves? Maybe, but it’s debatable. Personally, I’d probably get bored with maintaining a tame ant colony and dump it in the woods to fend for itself.
That out of the way, I've been told that Use of Weapons is one of Banks’s best books, and I think that's probably true. The protagonist is a sort of 007-ish super agent named Zakalwe, whom the Culture has recruited to run coups and proxy wars in less advanced states that it’s trying to gradually bring into its benevolent sphere. Just as most Americans don’t pay much attention to the various dirty deeds the CIA does in the name of keeping them safe and comfortable, most Culture citizens are too wrapped up in their hobbies/drug use/grotesque parties to notice. However, all the wars are blurring together for Zakalwe and he’s getting a bit unhinged. A culture agent named Diziet Sma and the snarky drone that accompanies her (drones are a feature of all these books) manage to recruit him for another mission.
This novel is really a character study of Zakalwe, who is an expert warrior, but is haunted by events in his past, events which shed light on why he does what he does. And why he wants to stop, but maybe can’t. Towards this end, Banks wrote the book with an unusual structure. There are two narratives, the first moving forward in time, and the second moving backward (on a chapter-by-chapter basis -- think Memento) from the point where the first begins. Gradually, we get more and more hints about who Zakalwe really is, until a twist in the last pages puts what we know in a different light.
And here, I get to the arguable weaknesses of the book. First, readers seem divided on whether the twist is shockingly brilliant or just forced. I lean in the latter direction and would have liked the character motives to have been developed just a bit more. And while the twist raises some worthwhile questions about the moral meaning of one's actions, as well as about the Culture and its choices, it's the only really interesting thing going on in the plot. Everything else that happens until then is either just set-up or repeated expression of the theme that war is ultimately kind of meaningless. As in Player of Games (the Culture book you should start with), I felt that the point could have been made with a shorter novel. Lastly, I got a little bored with Banks’s use of societies that were basically just stand-ins for 20th/21st century Earth countries, with similar attitudes and patterns of life. Couldn't the aliens have been a little more, I dunno... exotic? Does everyone really proceed through the same technology tree?
I'd hardly call this a bad book, though. Banks was an undeniably intelligent and witty writer, and I'd give UOW a solid 3.5 stars. But, it often felt like the world-building, characters, and storytelling played second fiddle to the things the author wanted to get off his chest. As usual, I "read" this one in audio format, which, given the odd structure, requires paying close attention, but it's doable.
Enjoy the adventure
This is a Sci-Fi novel about a mercenary. He is employed by an advanced civilization that dislikes violence, but understands the necessity of force to maintain peace. The book contains two story lines. One follows the mercenary’s current life and the other his memories from the past. Begging the question, are humans are one part now and one part past?
I read this book when it was first published and was blown away by the civilization’s technology and the physical enhancements that people added to their bodies to improve quality of life. No surprise, many enhancements are designed for pleasure. Mine would be eating all my favorite foods without getting fat.
I particularly enjoy that machines (think cell phones, androids, toasters, etc) are sentient and enjoy interacting with humans much as I enjoy hanging out with a dog. What is that idiot going to do next? Let’s throw a ball and watch the dog chase it
It might be easier to follow in text, but the format did make for an interesting change of pace, and allowed the setup and execution of the excellent ending.
This is written with a "Memento" chapter construction: two parallel plots with one going forward and one going backward. But this version doesn't do a good job of differentiating between the two plots and even puts them in the same audiobook chapter. (It doesn't help that there are flashbacks and substories in both plot lines.) I had a hard time figuring out the transitions and found the story pretty confusing at times.
As other reviewers have said, this book can be tricky to follow in audio format. It gets hairy because half the chapters count down in reverse to a critical moment past, while the others tick forward through the after effects, and their resolution. On top of that, various characters deliver exposition and experience flashbacks within each kind of chapter. If it were text you could flip back and compare an early flashback to a reverse-time later chapter for instance. Stick with it, the loose threads stitch closer together as the story goes on, and the final chapters shed light on the whole tapestry.
Although a bit of a challenge to listen to (see other reviews addressing the book's structure,) this is a great examination of the contradictions and resulting conflict the Culture generates as it seeks to exert maximum influence with minimal intervention in maturing societies. Especially when imperfect humans are added to the mix.
The unusual structure of the story makes it a very unique and enjoyable listen. Exploring the path back to the beginning as the current story progresses - creates a very interesting simultaneous anticipation of both the past and the future.
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