Spoiler Check: I am part way through Chapter Eight of Use of Weapons (third book in the Culture series) by Iain M. Banks
On starting up the Audible version of Use of Weapons you get a warning about the unusual chapter structure of the book. Chapters alternate between a conventional One, Two, Three series and a I, II, III series, except the chapters with roman numerals are encountered in reverse order, starting at XIII and working downwards. So we get One, XIII, Two, XII, etc.
The warning is for audiobook listeners only, presumably because the structure is less obvious in that format. I have the e-book version, and the odd chapter numbering sequence is clear from the Table of Contents, but there is no equivalent warning or explanation.
My initial reaction was that Banks had better have a good reason for constructing his book this way. I don’t much like acting as guinea pig for experimental book format ideas, particularly if they turn out to be half baked.
Now that I’m just over half-way through the book, the chapter structure has stopped bothering me. It is not that startling: Banks has decided to start the story in the middle and tell it to us in two halves, simultaneously, going forwards and backwards respectively from the middle. It is essentially a variant on the use of flashbacks as a narrative device. We are well used to the staged reveal of key plot points throughout a book’s narrative, some possibly in flashbacks. The novel feature in Use of Weapons is that the “flashback” element has its own chapter sequence and is played out in reverse order, presumably on the basis that the big reveal that explains all else comes earliest in the time-frame covered by the book.
While I’ve got used to book’s structure, I still can’t help feeling that Banks is having a bit of a play with formats at his readers’ expense. And there are other, perhaps bigger issues. Banks has a tremendous sense of whimsy. He has tremendous powers of imagination and a wondrous wit. Often these combine to engineer breathtaking and highly visual set pieces, or engaging dialogue between characters. In UoW he often overdoes it to the point where I’m either cringing or feeling exasperated. For one thing, I keep having to ask myself whether I’m reading a “proper” SF book or have accidentally strayed on to a hitherto unpublished sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Having truly sentient machine characters is fundamental to Culture series books, but do they all have to have ridiculous names and have been fitted out with Genuine People Personalities on the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation’s production lines? And what about the fancy dress party on board the Very Fast Picket Xenophobe where the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw (dressed up as a scale model of the ship) and the ship’s UI drone (attending as a fish in a bubble of water) take turns to do Basil Fawlty impressions in a effort to hide an embarrassing fact from one of the human characters, Diziet Sma. It is pure farce in the Brian Rix sense and I don’t know what it is doing in a supposedly serious SF novel.
The same can be said for much of the dialogue. When Sma and Skaffen-Amtiskaw first board the Xenophobe they are greeted by a crew member who has a cold. The crew have taken turns to override their immune systems so they could catch colds for their own amusement. The crew member’s dialogue is phonetically modified to convey the effects of a blocked nose on his speech. “Heddo”, he says, and then “God a cold. Blease cob with be”. Even in The Hobbit we only once had to contend with Bilbo uttering “Thag you very buch” to the lake men after catching cold during his barrel ride. In UoW we get whole conversations like this.
Years ago in primary school, I wrote a story that involved a car going underwater and featured some underwater dialogue which was similarly phonetically adulterated to simulate bubble effects, with lots of “blub blubs” etc. That was fine until my teacher decided my story was so impressive that I should read it out to the class. I found it almost impossible to read out the dialogue without laughing. I still cringe at the memory now and would never repeat that mistake if I were an author in adulthood. So what is Banks’s excuse? It is not as if his books are for children. He deals with some big and challenging ideas in his novels.
I quite enjoyed the second Culture book, Player of Games, but I’m persevering with UoW rather than loving it.