I’ve been meaning to re-read Banks for a long time, and his untimely death also meant I wanted to honour his memory in some way too. A small, personal way, for an author who had an impact on me.
This is less of a review, and more of a comparison of reading the same novel almost seventeen years apart, considering the historical context of when I first read it. There will be spoilers. They may be subtle, but if you want to read this book for the first time, don’t read on…
I almost met Iain Banks once. I kicked myself for the memory years later, but… There was a book-signing at The Friar Street Bookshop in Reading. Back in the mid-nineties (which seems like no time ago to me, despite nearly twenty years passing), The Friar Street Bookshop was a science-fiction specialist bookshop and therefore utterly wonderful. It was one of Blackwell’s bookshops and as I came from Oxford and was at university in Reading, it became a favourite haunt.
This was a couple of years before the final collapse of the net book agreement, so all books sold for RRP, and ‘real’ bookshops were rife. That’s not quite true, as Reading also had a shop selling discounted books that I practically lived in, but I think they had to be ‘damaged’ in some way. It was 1994 and The Friar Street Bookshop had a joint signing for two authors: Tom Holt (for Faust Among Equals) and Iain (M) Banks (for Feersum Endjinn).
I was (and still am) hugely fond of humourous fantasy (Terry Pratchett mainly) and had enjoyed all Tom Holt’s books to that point. They’d already lost the brilliance of his first half-dozen and I don’t think I actually read any after then. But at the time I’d been collecting his books, enjoying them, and was excited about the book signing. There was a huge queue. Not to Pratchett (or Gaiman, who I also hadn’t discovered yet) signing-queue standards, but a huge queue none-the-less.
I think no more than half a dozen people came for Tom Holt. I vaguely wondered who this Iain Banks person was but wasn’t curious enough to buy the book so I queue-jumped massively as everyone else was there for Banks, got my signed book, and returned home.
It was another two years before I read any Banks, and Use of Weapons was one of the first handful I read. I’d struggled with Consider Phlebas, but found Use of Weapons far more readable. I’d also read The Wasp Factory and seen the BBC Crow Road adaptation, so didn’t manage to read that for several years until the TV version faded enough. The Wasp Factory stunned me. Use of Weapons stunned me. I remember feeling almost breathless at the end.
I was young, twenty-one, just failed my degree and although ‘well read’, not in a literature sense. I studied (sort of) engineering; my A-Levels were maths and science. I was well read in horror, science fiction and humourous fantasy, with a soft spot for James Clavell novels.
The structure of the novel was new to me. The alternating chapters tell the current plot, and the history of the main protagonist; one narrative going forwards, the other backwards. Throughout there are hints to the chair, what the chair means, why it is so terrible.
On re-reading I was worried that the fact I remember what the chair was would destroy any shock for the ending. As it turned out, I had actually forgotten the part that had floored me all those years ago, but the chair itself was so horrific that it stuck with me. Leaving years between re-reads meant that although much of it was familiar, it was like reading from scratch. Apart from thinking throughout that I ‘knew’ the shocks the ending had in store.
I was thoroughly drawn back into the world of the Culture, and so taken in by all the characters that I didn’t look out for any twists or shocks. These days, with films especially, the ‘twist’ ending is such a stalwart that you can usually guess them a mile off. I’m glad that the memory of the chair was so strong that it became the ‘thing’ that I remembered and I could be shocked again, albeit more mildly.
I’m tempted to start rereading another Banks novel, but as I managed to miss the last three SF novels and have just ordered them, Use of Weapons has probably just set me up to start Matter when it arrives. If I don’t read The Quarry first.
For my twenty-one year old self, this is a five star novel. For my almost-thirty-eight year old self, this is probably a four star novel. I gave it five stars on Goodreads for nostalgia.