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Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

It's impossible to write seriously about this novel without serious spoilers, so THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Consider yourself warned.

Use of WeaponsUse of Weapons was the first (and perhaps only) Banks novel to really bowl me over, so it's fitting that it's the first one of his that I've now read a second time. What was interesting about the reread was that I've always remembered the big reveal of the bone chair that has haunted the protagonist of the novel his whole life and driven his hunger for atonement, but I'd completely forgotten the book's second punchline, which is that the protagonist isn't who we (or he) thinks he is. He is not Cheradenine Zakalwe, he's Zakalwe's cousin, Elethiomel, who murdered Cheradenine's sister (who was Elethiomel's lover) and made a chair of her bones in attempt to destroy Zakalwe's spirit and thus win the war he was waging against him.

So this novel is famous for its twist ending and for the elaborate structure (borrowed in a slightly different form by Christopher Nolan for his memory puzzle movie, Memento) in which one set of thirteen chapters moves forward in time in alternation with another set of thirteen chapters that moves backward in time. Banks says that this structure is actually a simplification of what he came up with when he originally wrote the book in 1974. (The revised version was published in 1990.) But to what purpose are the twists and structure put? The purpose is a complex meditation on the use of weapons.

I think I've already mentioned that one of the things that has struck me about the Culture novels as I've been reading them lately is how much they are military novels. They are almost all about war and about the secret military wing of the anarchist utopia that is the Culture. Sometimes, as in this book, they are about the attempts by the secret military wing of the Culture to secretly guide less advanced civilizations toward a less militaristic mode of social organization. The ironies and contradictions of this meddling are the central theme of Use of Weapons. Zakalwe, for reasons that are slowly revealed over the course of the novel, is the perfect weapon for the Culture to use in its proxy wars. He embodies the contradiction of their efforts: he is an amoral murderer seeking to atone for his unforgivable crimes by trying to use war to create peace. His self-hatred makes him the perfect pawn for the elements of the Culture who are trying to act selflessly. Elethiomel's dissociation from his own identity rhymes with the Culture's dissociation from their own biases and compulsions. That's ultimately what gives the novel its great power: Zakalwe/Elethiomel is a perfect symbol of how the Culture's quest for progress and peace by any means necessary turns them into amoral monsters willing to turn anything into a weapon for their cause. Once again, as in most of the other Culture novels, this is a kind of critique of Western liberalism and its intolerance of intolerance.

Coming back to Use of Weapons after having read all the later Culture novels, there were aspects of it that did feel a bit primitive in comparison. The Minds, and especially the drone, Skaffen-Amtiskaw, are almost buffoonish characters here, although to some extent the slapstick is a diversion from the fact that these are incredibly powerful beings. Perhaps it's implied that the Minds hide behind a comic persona to make the humans feel more comfortable with them. Banks got much better later at depicting the Minds as godlike in their powers, which some people feel reduced the human characters to insignificance and which in turn one can argue became a great theme of the later books. Probably the one area where it felt as though Banks was cheating regarding the Minds in Use of Weapons is their ignorance of Zakalwe's history and true identity. He tries to finesse this by presenting Zakalwe as a refugee from a planet that the Culture knows nothing about, but it's highly unlikely that a Mind as portrayed in the later books would have been unaware of Zakalwe/Elethiomel's personality dissociation, even if the exact nature of his identity was elusive.

But of course this is another Culture novel in which the Culture is largely seen from a non-Culture viewpoint. On that level it's a predecessor of the far more radical experiment in Inversions, in which the whole novel is told from the point of view of characters who don't even know that the Culture exists and are at a technological level that would find the Culture incomprehensible. In fact, Use of Weapons also explores some similar arguments about whether it's right to intervene in other cultures. By grounding the action in the "primitive" civilizations that Zakalwe infiltrates as an agent of the Culture, we are given an argument for intervention in the form of examples of cruel and unthinking behavior, but Banks continually questions whether the Culture is really any better on a moral level. Again, their willingness to use Zakalwe as a weapon of intervention is equated, via the structure of the novel, with Elethiomel's willingness to murder his own cousin and lover and use her bones as a weapon.

Does the novel still work when you know what the final twists are (even if you've forgotten one of them)? I'd say yes, because as much as the novel is structured to punch you in the gut, the structure also works brilliantly in the service of the novel's world weary themes. Really, this is the standard critique of liberalism, so it's not even as though the ideas are all that powerful on their own. Banks creates something poetic out of them by pairing them with Elethiomel's horrifying history and harnessing the resonance between the personal and the political to drive its story home. As much as I think his vision of the Culture improved with age, he probably never topped Use of Weapons for tying the grand space opera scale to puny human failings.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 26th, 2014 08:38 pm (UTC)
I've read this two or three times, and find new threads in the structure every time. Your comments make me want to reread it again.
Jan. 26th, 2014 09:06 pm (UTC)
The backward thread creates a narrative undertow that makes it hard to keep that part of the story "in order," so I can imagine that it always feels like a kind of rediscovery.

I should re-read Excession too. It was the first one to focus the story on the Minds, and it's also the one that put me off the Culture novels until Banks announced that he was dying. I'm curious whether I can still see what put me off.
Jan. 26th, 2014 09:12 pm (UTC)
Excession is my least favorite of the Culture novels.

I may have said this as we talked about the Culture novels, but I think the first three took Banks as far as he could go in the direction of meddling with lesser cultures, leaving Excession as kind of a dead end. Inversions reset the whole series and gave Banks more freedom. After Inversion, we see more aliens and wider views of the Culture.
Jan. 26th, 2014 09:21 pm (UTC)
Don't remember hearing that riff before, but it makes good sense. Although I felt the aliens were a bit of a weakness in the later books, since they just seemed like humans with different physiognomy.
Jan. 26th, 2014 09:27 pm (UTC)
Yeah, they were kind of like "latex aliens" like on a TV show. I think he says once or twice why the basic design of intelligent species is hominid biped, but I don't recall it clearly.
Jan. 26th, 2014 11:09 pm (UTC)
Even (or especially) when the aliens are non-biped non-hominid, as in Look to Windward, they just seem like humans with funny body parts. With body modification, even the humanoids often have funny body parts.
Jan. 27th, 2014 12:35 am (UTC)
Now I feel like I have to reread all of the Culture novels. Well, there are worse fates.
Jan. 27th, 2014 10:19 am (UTC)
In one of the earlier books (can't remember which) Ian said that the Culture went in for body-shape fads. Currently in the era the books are set in they happen to be mostly mammalian hominid biped but they've chosen to be other forms in the past and will change again in the future. Maybe now that Ian's no longer with us that change might happen.

I think all of the Culture's aliens (and the Minds too) were "Uncle Harry with a wrinkly forehead" types never mind their bodyform but it's difficult to impossible to write ALIEN aliens, so to speak as the reader can't connect with them. The nearest we get to that in fiction is horror and that works because we dread and fear the Other since we can't connect with them emotionally or intellectually.
Jan. 27th, 2014 04:41 pm (UTC)
My gold standard for the depiction of aliens is Donald Kingsbury's "The Survivor," which has not one but three distinct alien races that don't seem human. I'm not sure any humans even appear in the story except at a distance. C.J. Cherryh is also good at portraying alien thought processes -- thought processes that appear inscrutable at first but have their own cultural logic.

I should also say that I think Banks' aliens only seem human when they are viewpoint characters and we get to see their thought processes. There are some very nicely weird aliens in Matter, for instance, who speak a bizarre nonsense that *almost* makes sense.
Jan. 28th, 2014 06:41 am (UTC)
Peter Hamilton might write some clunking prose but he does do good alien.

There's several aliens species in his stuff that are very very alien indeed and at least one which is impossible to comprehend on any level which causes quite a few plot problems for him.
Jan. 28th, 2014 06:42 am (UTC)
I never felt he did good aliens (see my comments on Peter Hamilton)

I liked Excession but now I've read Hydrogen Sonata I can't help but feel he somewhat over wrote it.
Jan. 28th, 2014 03:50 pm (UTC)
You found Hydrogen Sonata over-written? How so? (My review.)
Jan. 28th, 2014 04:20 pm (UTC)
Exceptionally bad choice of words on my part.

I felt that he was effectively writing over his core conceit of Excession which was what happens if the sublimed make a return incursion... only by the time of The Hydrogen Sonata, either they'd settled how that worked, or he'd decided something else.

One could argue if you consider it was a Sublimation Sphere for the minds who wanted to use it.
Jan. 28th, 2014 04:23 pm (UTC)
Ah, I get you. Now I've really got to re-read Excession! I didn't remember that it had anything to do with Sublimation.
Jan. 28th, 2014 09:33 pm (UTC)
Well, I don't know that it does. But I somewhat assumed that the Excession was something coming back from a post sublimation perspective which would be a challenge.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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