- Stone, Irving — The Agony and the Ecstasy (439 of 763 pages)
- Morpurgo, Michael — The Mozart Question (68 pages)
- Unsworth, Barry — Stone Virgin (312 pages)
- Phillips, Caryl — The Nature of Blood (212 pages)
- Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (549 pages)
- Lockwood, Richard & Steve Potz-Rayner — A Little Book of Lies (170 pages)
- Vickers, Hugh — Great Operatic Disasters (65 pages)
- Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (574 pages)
- Rennison, Nick — 100 Must-Read Classic Novels (164 pages)
- Augustine of Hippo (John K. Ryan, translator) — The Confessions of Saint Augustine (422 pages)
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott — The Great Gatsby (146 pages)
- Harrison, Fraser — Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota (188 pages)
- Banks, Iain M. — Consider Phlebas (466 pages)
- Banks, Iain M. — The Player of Games (307 pages)
- Carter, W. Hodding — Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization (239 pages)
- Mandela, Nelson — Long Walk to Freedom (750 pages)
- Banks, Iain M. — Use of Weapons (411 pages)
- Page count
Iain M. Banks' reputation as a writer of literary science fiction is not overstated. Hell, his reputation as one of the literary giants of the last 30 years is cemented even if one considers only his non-genre work, so it stands to reason that his genre writing should be of similar calibre.
But perhaps this third Culture novel was a bit too literary, if ever there were such a thing. I found Use of Weapons difficult to get into. (Yet it's widely praised as perhaps his best science fiction novel — and in retrospect, I really cannot argue against that; I just didn't find it his most enjoyable.)
I don't mean to imply that Use of Weapons is bad or that I didn't ultimately enjoy it. It just took me a good chunk of the book to get my bearings, and I don't like feeling disoriented as I read. As, bit by bit, the pieces began falling into place, my comprehension and appreciation increased.
Unusually for this genre, Use of Weapons is not a plot-centric novel. It's a probing psychological character study. The novel is organised into two strands. Chapters numbered "One," "Two," et cetera, relate the main plot, such as it is, in chronological order. Alternating chapters numbered in descending Roman numerals, starting with XIV, reveal disjointed scenes which we eventually figure out are important memories or experiences from the protagonist's past, presented mostly in reverse chronological order. Eventually the two strands converge, recurring imagery from both strands makes increasing sense and becomes increasingly charged, and we begin to understand the internal moral conflict facing our "hero," leading to a shocking revelation at the end.
When the curtain is pulled aside at the end and the complete picture is finally viewed in full light, the reader's assumptions are turned on their head. As I've come to discover reading the Culture series, Banks' books are about ideas, and many of the same questions continue being asked in his stories, but from different angles or in different contexts. This, to me, is part of what makes his books such satisfying reads, even when, as with Use of Weapons, they take a little longer to get into. The main questions seem to be: Is this pan-galactic, post-scarcity utopia known as the Culture really a good thing, or have people's lives and the Culture as a whole lost their sense of purpose? Is Contact's (essentially the Culture's diplomatic service) clandestine arm (known as Special Circumstances) really bringing about good when meddling in other lesser civilisations to steer them in the "right" direction? And even if they are for the most part doing good for all the right reasons, is it justified? While I suspect I know what Banks' answers might have been, the novels themselves never give an unambiguous answer. The best possible answer might simply be, "It's complicated." These are essentially the same types of questions the "hero" of Use of Weapons struggles with on a deeply personal and psychological level, and both conclusions we draw from his struggles, pre- and post-reveal, are applicable to the Culture as a whole.