Ahoy there mateys! Several years ago, I was lamenting that there were no standalones that were somehow intertwined in one universe or world. Me brain is usually a sieve and lots of time in-between books in trilogies and such means that I lose details and sometimes have to start the series over. I wanted the effect of extreme world building with a tied-up story in each book. The First Mate suggested the Culture “series” in which every book is set in the same universe but all can be read as standalones and in any order. And sci-fi to boot. Arrrr!
I began reading this series in publishing order. The first was consider phlebas which I have read twice and loved even more the second time. The second was player of games. Awesome. Both got 5 stars. I hadn’t read a Culture book since 2017 and I was excited for this book which be the favourite for many. All of me Goodreads crew gave this 4 and 5 stars. And yet I hated it. This book was pointless. A lot of hate deals with the book’s structure but the rest stemmed from the infuriating reveal and atrocious ending. I shall explain. This will be long. Spoilers be hidden but read at yer own peril . . .
Structure-wise there be two major timelines and two minor ones. To quote the Wikipedia page for the novel:
The book is made up of two narrative streams, interwoven in alternating chapters. The numbers of the chapters indicate which stream they belong to: one stream is numbered forward in words (One, Two …), while the other is numbered in reverse with Roman numerals (XIII, XII …). The story told by the former moves forward chronologically (as the numbers suggest) and tells a self-contained story, while the latter is written in reverse chronology with each chapter successively earlier in Zakalwe’s life . . . Further complicating this structure is a prologue and epilogue set shortly after the events of the main narrative, and many flashbacks within the chapters.
The present timeline follows the main character, Zakalwe, who is basically a living weapon both physically and tactically. He be a member of a society outside of the Culture who has been tasked by Special Circumstances to rescue an old colleague. The past chapters dealt with earlier jobs Zakalwe did for Special Circumstances and then work their way back to the defining moment of how he acquired his massive self-hatred that defines the present. The forward moving story was modestly interesting. The chapters dealing with prior completed jobs were even better. And I did want to know what the big mystery reveal was gonna be concerning Zakalwe’s pathological fear of chairs.
While I understood what was happening with the plot in both the main streams, I had two underlying issues. The first is that alternated chapters irked me. I don’t normally have a problem with this but for some reason I got tired switching back and forth. I am not sure if that be because of the reverse narrative or what. What I do know is that the second issue was the absolutely dumb flashbacks in both the present and past streams. I didn’t mind that Zakalwe had flashbacks. He certainly has PTSD from his past but the flashbacks were repetitive, random, and halted the plot’s momentum. There were just so many of them. I also could rarely place the flashbacks in terms of where they occurred in Zakalwe’s timeline. So annoying. There could have been only a couple of flashbacks used to much better effect.
And if two timelines and hard to classify flashbacks weren’t enough, Banks also had to add a prologue and epilogue to the mess. I am not even sure what the point of either was. Also, like the flashbacks, it be very hard to figure out where in time they occurred. Arguments have been made about the issue but I just didn’t care. So ye basically have four separate time frames represented in the novel. I felt that it was overly complicated and detracted from the war themes of the novel. Was the author just trying to show his cleverness? Or did it stem from something else?
Ye see, apparently, use of weapons was published third but was technically his first novel. He originally wrote it in 1974 long before he published anything. In this interview he says “The original 1974 draft of Use of Weapons was just absurdly complicated. It was packed with purple prose and it had this insane structure it was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions.” Over ten years later his friend (and fellow author) Ken MacLeod helped him restructure it into the novel we have today which included “putting the climax of the book at the end.” Was some of me dislike due to taking a first work and restructuring it? Or did the climax and ending always suck?
So here be where the spoilers be hidden mateys!
Reveal the Climax Hatred
Zakalwe’s fear of chairs be because of a family dispute. Short version: He was the heir to the throne but his cousin, Elethiomel, staged a coup. Elethiomel kidnaps Zakalwe’s sister, Darckense, and holds her hostage. A stalemate ensues. To end the stalemate, Elethiomel murders the sister, creates a chair out of her bones, and sends it to his cousin. The fear of chairs is because Darckense became one and he didn’t save her. What kinda stupid thing is that? Turning her into a chair was just plain unbelievable and ridiculous! Dumb.
Reveal the Ending Hatred
So ye think ye now understand Zakalwe’s fear of chairs and self-hatred and wish to make amends. Then the final chapter offers this tidbit. Zakalwe goes to visit his other sister Livueta and ask forgiveness for his past. But (surprise!) the Zakalwe that ye know is actually Elethiomel in disguise! The real Zakalwe committed suicide due to his grief. Elethiomel loses the coup somehow (not explained), has a change of heart (not explained), chooses to take his dead cousin’s identity (not explained), and then chooses to make amends for his evil past. Of course after the reader finds out about the switch, Elethiomel has an embolism and ye don’t know if he survives or not. Ummm what? Talk about stupid. It makes no sense! And of course all sympathy for the Zakalwe character ye have followed goes out the window. For me this ending negated all the philosophical debate brought up by the novel. Because the question changes to can Elethiomel be more than a monster? But with no background on how Elthiomel originally sees the error of his wicked ways, what be the point? I was livid that this author’s choice basically made everything previously argued about pointless. Some crew may have thought this was mind-blowing. I just found it lame and exasperating. If this be the original climax then there should have been explanations!
There ye have it – why this novel sadly must Walk the Plank! Here’s to hoping the next Culture novel goes much better.
Side note: A review by Abigail @ askingthewrongquestions does a great job of highlighting the philosophical questions raised about warfare by the novel and part of why the structure could work. It also explains why the book fails. Arrrr!
Goodreads has this to say about the novel:
Cheradenine is an ex-special circumstance agent who had been raised to eminence by a woman named Diziet. Skaffen-Amtiskaw, the drone, had saved her life and it believes Cheradenine to be a burnt-out case. But not even its machine intelligence can see the horrors in his past.
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Previous Log Entries for this Author
player of games – book 2 (Captain’s Log – Sci-Fi)