Use of Weapons - Iain M. Banks

Use of Weapons (Culture)

by Iain M. Banks

“There are two stories, but you know most of one of them. I’ll tell them at the same time; see if you can tell which is which.”

The hyper-advanced civilization that calls itself "The Culture" views itself as thoroughly utopian: post-scarcity, anarchistic yet pacifist, honest and easy-going, giving equal respect to all, whether mortal or machine.  Out of beneficence--or boredom--the Culture has set itself the task of bringing a little of its enlightenment to the surrounding civilizations--but of course the altruism is entirely unadulterated by imperialism.


The Culture is far too noble to interfere directly, of course.  Instead, it keeps its hands clean by using external agents--agents like Cheradine Zakalwe--as its weapons.  A little influence applied to the current leaders, an assassination or two, a touch of deception, a military strategist who decides the's all for the greater good, of course. As a member of the Culture's so-called S.C. branch explains,

"There is no certainty; least of all in Special Circumstances, where the rules are different [...] we deal in the moral equivalent of black holes, where the normal laws— the rules of right and wrong that people imagine apply everywhere else in the universe— break down; beyond those metaphysical event horizons, there exist ... special circumstances.”

But it is the Culture that chooses where the laws apply and where they bring these special circumstances to bear.


For years, Cheradinine Zakalwe has been one of the Culture's ablest weapons against their idealogical enemies.  Zakalwe glories in pitting his wits against his opponents, and he is willing to kill, to deceive, to sacrifice his own soldiers, without a second thought or regret so long as it advances the cause.  Take his introduction to the narrative, a quick hit on an irresponsible governor:

"I," said the man, "am called Cheradine Zakalwe." He leveled the gun at Ethnarch's nose.  "You are called dead."

However, after his last mission went awry, something seemed to change for Zakalwe. He abandoned his position as one of the Culture's top fixers.  It isn't easy to escape the Culture Minds, but Zakalwe was up to the challenge--with standard Zakwalwe style, his escape involved frying a supervisory missile in an MRI.  Now, however, his Culture handlers have been given a mission that only Zakalwe can accomplish, and his life of isolated retirement will soon be broken. 


The book itself is two stories, for Zakalwe's past is revealed in disjointed, reverse-chonological segments that alternate with the main narrative. The focus of the story itself is therefore squarely placed upon Zakalwe.  It is the tale of a troubled genius, a man who glories in the exhiliration of war and destruction; as he realizes,

"He loved the plasma rifle. He was an artist with it; he could paint pictures of destruction, compose symphonies of demolition, write elegies of annihilation, using that weapon."

Yet he is also a man seeking to outmanoeuvre his own past and his own guilt and find redemption.  But how much redemption can be found in his tasks for the Culture?  As one of his Culture handlers notes:

"Given all the things Zakalwe’s done, just since we’ve known him, they’d have to invent a personal deity for him alone, to even start forgiving him.”

How much credit--or how much blame--can be attributed to the weapon rather than its wielder?


While I found Use of Weapons an intriguing read, it didn't have the same impact on me as Player of Games.  Banks confronts some heavy themes: complicity and guilt, redemption and forgiveness; however, for me, some weaknesses in plot and characterization detracted from my ability to appreciate the more sophisticated aspects of the story. My biggest issue, I think, was that I simply could not warm to Zakalwe. He is terrifyingly willing to choose expediency over mercy, to use any method to manipulate his allies and foes; considering his life, he muses:

"He saw a man with two shadows, and he saw that which cannot be seen--a concept; the adaptive, self-seeking urge to survive, to bend everything that can be reached to that end, and to remove and to add and to smash and to create so that one particular collection of cells can go on, can move onwards and decide, and keeping moving and keeping deciding, knowing that — if nothing else — at least it lives.

And it had two shadows, it was two things: it was the need and it was the method. The need was obvious: to defeat what opposed its life. The method was that taking and bending of the materials and people to one purpose, the outlook that everything could be used in the fight; that nothing could be excluded, that everything was a weapon, and the ability to handle those weapons, to find them and choose which one to aim and fire; that talent, that ability, that use of weapons."

I think I found Zakalwe's motivations and actions to be too pragmatic, too alien, to feel real.  The slow revelation of his story only compounded my sense of this dissonance.

I had, in fact, guessed that he was Elethiomiel as soon as the character was introduced.  Throughout the novel, Zakalwe repeatedly thinks about the way he utilizes names and shapes himself with his names, so I figured he was using an alias. Besides all that, it is Elethiomiel who is skilled at strategy, and Zakalwe's obsession with forgiveness from a single woman is far too intense to be fraternal.  


However, around halfway through, Zakalwe flashes back to the shooting scene that leaves bone on his heart, and it is made clear that it is Cheradenine who suffered that injury.  This seemed to entirely dispense with the theory that "Cheradenine" was "Elethiomiel."To be fair, the quote sort of might be ambiguous, but I think the structure--the naming of a character, then a pronoun--has gone past the point of fairness to the reader:

Cheradenine tried to tackle her. The lines of light lowered, detonating chips of rock off the stones all around them in tiny clouds of dust, at the same time as Darckense, still screaming, stumbled to the stairs. The bullet entered Darckense through the hip: the other three heard — quite distinctly — the noise that it made, above the gunfire and the girl’s scream.

He was hit too.

From that point forward, the interaction of the cousins skewed more and more into the perspective of Cheradenine, often displaying scenes where only Cheradenine was present, yet providing us with Cheradenine's thoughts.  I admit I was a little disappointed to lose the theory, so the sudden resurrection of the concept in the "twist" at the end just pissed me off.  Banks never even bothers to explain how on earth Elethiomiel got the injury, nor explain what the hell the war was about, nor explain what the fuck drove a man to turn his lover into a chair.  There is no way a non-sociopathic human being could ever do that, and I can't really see a "rid me of this turbulent priest"-type situation.  So how on earth could an even vaguely human individual do such a thing, no matter how coolly he considered it as a potential "weapon"? Banks didn't even do the reader the courtesy of explaining.

(show spoiler)


The plot itself seems to drift aimlessly from storyline to storyline, leaving each hanging thread incomplete and too quickly forgotten.

For example, the opening seems to set up Zakalwe's hidden location as an initial problem to be overcome, but after all possible humour is wrung out of the scene, he is apparently discovered without difficulty.  Then we find that he has tried to set up his own Culture interference--why?--and has created a very volatile situation, but we never hear the resolution of that society's problems.  Next, we have the extraction of a scientist and a bunch of evil Humanist plotters, but even their story is left rather incomplete; each problem is introduced with enough foreboding to indicate plot twists ahead, yet each one has an (improbably?) facile solution and is promptly forgotten.  Maybe this was itself supposed to indicate the unsettled nature of Zakalwe and the Culture, their tendency to meddle and abandon, but it just didn't work for me.

(show spoiler)

The story is not lacking in gruesome scenes and serious moments, but there is also plenty of humour to lighten the tone; we get a few new wacky names for the (now demilitarized) Culture-ship Minds, including "What are the Civilian Applications" and "Little Gravitas Indeed," as well as plenty of hilarious droid antics. One of my favourite moments was the scene in which Sma, Zakalwe's Culture handler, and her droid are about to head back to a party after Sma's discovery that the droid withheld information from her:

"Come on, drone; it's meant to be fancy dress.  But try something a little more imaginative than a warship this time."

"Hmm," said the machine. "Any suggestions?"

"I don't know," Sma sighed, "What would suit you? I mean what is the perfect role model for a cowardly lying patronizing hypocritical bastard with no trust in or respect for another person?"

There was a silence from behind as they approached the noise and light of the party. So she turned round and, instead of the drone, saw a classically proportioned, handsome, but somehow anonymous-looking young man following her down the corridor, his gaze just moving up from her behind to her eyes.

Sma laughed. "Yes, very good."

I think my favourite aspect of the book is that I think it is the first time in which Banks has really seemed to question the actions of his utopian Culture. How often is their definition of "good" simply "more like themselves"?  How can this manipulation of societies, these machinations that cause the deaths of innocents, this winning and losing of wars, this manipulation of suffering, all for some "greater goal"--how can it truly be a righteous act? I am well aware of various real-world experiments in this direction; what sort of people can consider interference to be more acceptable simply because it is through an intermediary? But how can one choose to become a weapon in such a war?  What type of man can walk into a different world, a different culture, and lay out a plan of who will live and who will die?  As Zakalwe decides,

"You used those weapons, whatever they might happen to be. Given a goal, or having thought up a goal, you had to aim for it, no matter what stood in your way. Even the Culture recognized that."



MUSIC: I have decided that Steve Jablonsky's soundtrack to Ender's Game is an absolutely wonderful soundtrack for the Culture books. It definitely improved my reading experience--highly recommended.


FORMAT: I read this on the kindle, and while the book itself is fine, the kindle version has quite a collection of typos.  Apparently, any word hyphenized in the text due to linebreaks was copied into the kindle version, complete with random hyphenizations.


Other reviews:

My review of the previous book, Player of Games

My reading progress and quotes for this book, Use of Weapons