Years ago, I joined a science-fiction and fantasy discussion group to try and broaden my genre reading beyond media tie-in novels and the giants in the field. One of the books we read in the group was Iain M. Bank’s “Excession,” set in the Culture universe. The story was a dense, complex and fascinating one.
During the course of our discussion of the book, one particular group member kept saying that while “Excession” was good, “Use of Weapons” was better and that it was a damn shame the book had gone out of print in the United States. He kept hinting about the huge twist at the end of the story that took the entire novel to a whole new level.
Intrigued, I set out on a quest to find a copy of the book. I haunted used books stores for weeks and months (this was in the days before the Amazon marketplace and E-Bay was in its infancy), so when I finally found a copy of the book, I’ll admit I was overjoyed. I immediately dropped the other books I was reading and began to devour “Use of Weapons.”
And I’ll admit, early on, I kept wondering why my fellow book discussion participant was so ga-ga over. Don’t get me wrong–the book was good, but it wasn’t great. But knowing there was something brewing in the novel’s final pages, I kept on going. And I’ll admit it–I got to the end, read the twist and was pretty much blown away by it. So much so that the novel jumped into my list of favorite books and one that I recommended to people when they wanted something more from their typical genre reading.
Fast forward to today and once again I’m in a reading group devoted to sci-fi and fantasy. I kept pushing for us to give “Use of Weapons” a chance, saying it was a major novel from a science fiction writer we’d neglected until now. I tried to keep my lips sealed that there a) was a twist and b)what it was in the hopes of my uninitiated friends finding out for themselves.
Reading “Weapons” again, I’m surprised at how well it holds up. It’s not a novel that I’d call easy to read simply because it has the story unfolding backwards and forwards. Banks asks his reader to pay attention to things and doesn’t spoon-feed the readers on what’s going on within the story. And I think the novel is a stronger one for that.
In many ways, the Culture comes off a warped version of the Federation from “Star Trek” here but instead of non-interference, they definitely do interfere in things–for their own gain. The morality and implications of this are explored a bit, but during the course of the story Banks doesn’t necessarily endorse whether pushing certain cultures in a certain direction is a good or a bad thing. As is the case in the real world, a case can be made for both sides of the equation.
Reading the novel again and recalling the twist in the final pages, it was fascinating to see how Banks sets up the final twist. It also shows how this story could only effectively work in the way Banks chooses to tell it.
It you’re curious about the Culture series, this may or may not be the best place to start. The novels are fairly self-contained, meaning you can start at any point. But I’ll be honest–this novel sets a pretty high bar for the series and if you start here, you may be disappointed by other entries in the series.