Thursday, June 28, 2007

Book Review: "Use of Weapons" by Iain M. Banks

In general, there's a tendency in the world of literature to look down on science fiction books and other "speculative fiction" literature. True, most scifi/fantasy is escapism and offer very little in the way of beautiful prose or other literary devices, especially during its infancy in the 50's/6o's when they were little more than "cowboys in space" or at best an interesting concept burdened with workman-like writing. But its been a long time since the days of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein. The genre has matured. And few books showcase this fact better than Iain M. Banks' "Culture" novels. Banks, already an established writer of "normal fiction" turns his literary skills to science fiction, creating an interesting world inhabited by the Culture; an extremely advanced race of genetically modified humans and sentient machines living in symbiosis and playing caretaker for the rest of the universe. I've yet to read all the books, but so far "Use of Weapons" is my favorite by a long margin.

Zakalwe is a highly regarded and skilled mercenary soldier who is constantly being recruited by Culture agent Diziet for jobs considered too dirty for the Culture to undertake by themselves. Riches beyond his imagination is constantly being promised, yet Zakalwe always asks for one reward, seemingly trivial. A reward that intrigues Diziet to no end. A dark secret lies in Zakalwe's past and Diziet is determined to find out what it is.

The thing I most like about this book is that it stands well by itself even without the trappings of science fiction. Remove all the space ships, robots and other paraphernalia and you would still have a very good and extremely well written book. The most interesting aspect is Banks' use of two narrative streams. One, traditionally enough, follows our protagonist's adventures forward in time. The other stream flows backwards, gradually delving deeper into Zakalwe's past. The two streams alternating chapters. If you've ever seen the movie Memento (if you haven't, you really really should) then this device might feel very familiar. Yes it can feel confusing at first, especially when you're not expecting it, but it flows logically afterwards. Both lines culminating, interestingly enough, into the same climax (in two different time lines).

For people who enjoy interesting to read books I can't recommend Use of Weapons enough, even if they don't usually read science fiction.


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