My book group wants a sci-fi book. They're all incredibly intelligent and educated people who are all incredibly well-read. I'm not worried about the fractured narrative of Banks' Use of Weapons, but I'm wondering if a reader can understand it without any prior Culture experience. It's been too long since I read them to separate out what I already knew.
I'd say yes, probably. There isn't much in it that assumes knowledge of the Culture - we are shown for example that Sma is a representative of this advanced civilization that interferes in other cultures, and that the protagonist is working for them. It's certainly much more newbie friendly than, say, Excession, which would be incomprehensible to a newcomer. (Come to think of it, Excession is pretty incomprehensible to everyone - its chronology is even more complicated than UoW.)
That's not to say that UoW is necessarily the best place to start. I'd recommend Player of Games, although that is less obviously "literary" so I understand why you want your bookclub to read UoW.
I've only recently read the Culture Novels, back to back, and personally found that they would have been served better with a different chronology.
I still think 'Consider Phlebas' is the best introduction to the 'Culture' as a species, because it lays all the basic framework: but if you look at some of the later novels, they don't even require this to function.
I agree with Daniel Roseman about The Player of Games being a workable introduction to the many nuances of the universe, it certainly does the best job of rendering the societal quirks of the Culture, as well as navigating the concept of Minds and Drones as having equal citizenship. It is perhaps one of the best novels to render the outlines of The Culture to newcomers.
Use of Weapons, however, is definitely Banks working at the pinnacle of literary form, surpassing even Excession. The fractured narrative, as you know, makes for a very challenging read alone, before you weigh in the fore-knowledge one is supposed to bring to the party when reading it. That said, it largely focuses on the very personal history of Zakalwe, so the peripheral Culture activities are largely secondary; although it does contain some sequences which paraphrase and extrapolate the general aims of The Culture, albeit in a rather diluted way.
A good balance between rendering the Culture's ideology and Banks' writing style is, I think, Inversions; although it's Medieval/Feudal scenario is somewhat removed from the Space exploring galaxy crossing activities of the rest of the Culture Books, so there is that huge void of content. It still functions as a good parable to explain the more philosophical arguments of interference/non-interference with developing cultures.
Matter has, I feel, sightly less gristle to its philosophical pondering, but certainly solves the lack of Culture Tech and Interface that many readers dismiss Inversions for.
In the end it comes down to what it is exactly you'd like to introduce your reading group to;
- Are you trying to show off Banks' writing style, his use of non-linearity etc?
- Are you trying to introduce them to the actual Culture in order to render it in totality?
- Are you trying to pique their interest with something less straight forward, but that might lead them to look further into the cycle?
In summary I'd say; Yes, you could begin with Use of Weapons, without totally losing them. Banks is a good enough writer that he can hold any story together without the reader needing a codex, but it's likely some of the finer references/nuances would be lost.
The Idea of Minds/Drones and heir citizenship/participation is little discussed in Use Of Weapons. This wouldn't serve as a hindrance, per se, but without knowing such concepts there would perhaps be something lacking.
These are obviously just my opinions, and others have and will disagree. I'm just giving you the experience of someone who has very recently read the novels, so do with this as you will.
Hope this Helps..
For an accessible entrance to the Culture universe, Look To Windward would fit the bill. A bit more of a space opera than Use of Weapons, it does not assume much knowledge of the Culture world, and it is also less dark (although being a Banks book, it is plenty dark at times). It is also a great introduction to the minds and ships of the culture. It has plenty of action, and is not lacking in characteristic humour. In terms of pacing, it moves along more rapidly than UoW, but in narrative complexity, it is definitely more straightforward.