I'd like to report that Use of Weapons, by far Banks's most lauded SF novel, is Just Right, and in many ways it does answer my complaints about my previous forays into his back-catalogue. Unlike The Algebraist, it has the courage of its convictions, sustaining its theme of social commentary all the way to its end. Unlike Consider Phlebas, it is just about the right length, much better written, and manages to develop its characters and themes without stalling the narrative. Unlike Feersum Endjinn, it arrives at its promised climax. It's a very good novel, in fact--probably my favorite of the Bankses I've read (although Feersum Endjinn comes a close second)--and highly recommended. It is not, however, a great novel, and it falls short of that greatness by a tragically slim margin.
Like Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons takes place in a universe dominated by the Culture, a post-scarcity communist utopia governed, for the most part, by artificial intelligences orders of magnitude more insightful and capable than any human. Consider Phlebas raised the question of whether such a pampered society could endure--in the absence of absence, of hunger, poverty, injustice, social inequality, of the words 'no' and 'can't', wouldn't human society simply degenerate and stagnate? The answer that Consider Phlebas gives, and which Use of Weapons builds upon, is that there is one thing that life in the Culture's paradise won't provide--purpose. The Culture's citizens therefore assign themselves the task of bringing enlightenment to the rest of the galaxy, with the result being a covert, secular crusade to spread democracy, egalitarianism, and social justice wherever sentient life exists. Tasked with this transformation is the department of Contact, and its vanguard division, Special Circumstances, who through careful manipulation of governments, ruling houses and religious institutions work to slowly transform brutal, war-mongering societies into peaceful democracies. It's a dirty job, one that often requires horrific compromises and a very long view--millions of people might die because of a dictator the Culture put in power, simply because he was the lesser of two evils, and might, in the long run, help bring his planet closer to a just society.
Use of Weapons is composed of two alternating narrative strands, which advance in opposite chronological directions. In the forward-facing strand, Special Circumstances operative Diziet Sma and her AI associate Skaffen-Amtiskaw are tasked with retrieving and ending the retirement of Sma's most troublesome asset, Cheradenine Zakalwe, a Culture outsider recruited for his skills as a soldier and military strategist. Over the course of a career that has spanned more than a century, Zakalwe has been dropped into military conflicts on dozens of different worlds, has acted as military advisor and general to kings and tyrants--sometimes with the purpose of shoring up their rule, and sometimes in the hopes of ending it (although his handlers are often tight-lipped about distinguishing one situation from the other). Sma needs Zakalwe to locate Tsoldrin Beychae, former president of a cluster Zakalwe had helped to stabilize, and convince him to come out of retirement in order to prevent a looming war.
In the backwards-facing strand, we move further and further into Zakalwe's past. We see him on assignment for the Culture, leading armies on half a dozen different planets, sometimes successfully, and sometimes ending up in a tremendous amount of trouble and pain--including, but not limited to, being decapitated. We also see him make several attempts, none of them successful, to retire into a life of leisure and contemplation, and learn that this mercurial, furiously intelligent man is driven by a profound self-loathing, an equally profound guilt, and a pathological fear of chairs. As the backwards-facing narrative delves further into Zakalwe's past, we catch glimpses of the defining moment of his existence, the great failure that made him who he is, from which he tries, but never manages, to escape.
A hell of a lot happens in Use of Weapons, but none of the events coalesce into a plot. The quest to retrieve Tsoldrin Beychae in the forward-facing plot strand is treated, even by the characters, as a matter of course. It's important--the well-being of millions hinges on Beychae's safe extraction and on his willingness to return to the political arena--but at the same time all in a day's work. Like doctors in an emergency room, Sma and her superiors treat the task of stabilizing the region as something important, perhaps even exciting, but not grand. They have a profoundly unromantic mindset--after all, there's always another empire out there on the brink of total war, so what makes this one so special? The journey into Zakalwe's past cements this impersonal mindset--after a while, the besieged palaces and holy wars begin to run together. On an abstract level, Zakalwe cares about his role in the universe--he need to believe that he is an instrument of progress, doing good--but he's seen too much, been to too many places, to truly become part of any of the environments he's dropped into. He can't connect to the king he's currently serving because he's served too many kings, and ultimately, he may be too damaged to care.
It is precisely this plotlessness, however, that makes Use of Weapons such a powerful novel. Plenty of authors have uncoupled the war narrative--even in its most romanticized iterations such as the deposed heir reclaiming his throne or the oppressed minority rising up against a tyrant--from its moral dimension, but when Banks does it in Use of Weapons, his purpose isn't to highlight the horrors of war, but rather to make a more subtle, and a great deal more horrific, point. In his invented future, war is never grand or just, but it is sometimes a useful--and necessary--tool, the only way to ensure a better future for at least some people. In the face of such horrific necessities, Use of Weapons asks whether it is right to act at all. When doing good in the long run means doing evil in the short run, is there any point in doing anything at all? And how does one justify making the choice? What hubris, what unspeakable arrogance, could lead a society to believe that it has the answer, and the right to alter the universe to suit that answer? On the other hand, if one has the power to affect events on a galactic scale, how can it be right to stand back and do nothing? Best of all, for all their claims of disinterest and benevolence, how trustworthy are the Culture's motivations?
"They want other people to be like them, Cheradenine. They don't terraform, so they don't want others to either. There are arguments for it as well, you know; increasing species diversity often seems more important to people than preserving a wilderness, even without the provision of extra living space. The Culture believes profoundly in machine sentience, so it thinks everybody ought to, but I think it also believes every civilization should be run by its machines. Fewer people want that. The issue of cross-species tolerance is, I'll grant, of a different nature, but even there the Culture can sometimes appear to be insistent that deliberate inter-mixing is not just permissible but desirable; almost a duty. Again, who is to say that is correct?"Use of Weapons ultimately amounts to a tug of war between two competing viewpoints, neither of which ever gains the upper hand. Are the Culture imperious meddlers, blindly persuaded of their own inherent superiority, remaking the universe in their own image? Or are they a force for good, shining a light into the darkest corners of the galaxy, bringing hope for a better tomorrow to its weakest and most benighted citizens? The tension between the two viewpoints is paralleled and given a human dimension in Zakalwe's ambivalence about his own nature. Whatever terrible crime is in his past, Zakalwe hopes to wash it away by doing the Culture's bidding, becoming a force for good. At the same time, however, he is deeply cynical about the Culture's motivations and methods, and can't help but be aware that for all that his actions might ultimately amount in the betterment of many people's lots, in the short run he is sending people to their deaths and slaughtering enemies whose only crime is having been born on the side opposite to the one he was assigned to. Only once, at the very end of the novel, does Zakalwe allow himself to take sides, to become emotionally invested in the outcome of a conflict. It is at this point, of course, that Sma orders him to throw the fight as a way of ensuring peace on a larger scale, and his choice to acquiesce cements the novel's representation of him as less a person than a tool--a weapon--to be guided and governed by others. A weapon, of course, has no moral identity, and so Zakalwe once again fails to convince himself that he is a force for good, even as his actions supposedly promote justice and peace.
As a rule, I don't go in for spoiler warnings on this blog, but in the case of this novel I'm going to make an exception: Use of Weapons ends with a massive twist which I am about to give away. If you're planning to read the novel--and once again, I do recommend it--you might want to stop reading now. In fact, I would advise it, because I read the novel expecting the twist--I wasn't spoiled, but it just seemed to make more sense than the story Banks was selling--and I believe that my enjoyment was compromised by the increasingly certain knowledge of what was coming (I had a similar reaction to the movie The Illusionist, which I saw this weekend, although it ought to be said that Banks does a much better job than the movie's writers of laying the foundation for his bait-and-switch, and of making sure that once the twist is revealed, the new perspective on past events makes sense). Consider yourselves warned.
About halfway through the novel, we learn that Cheradenine Zakalwe was the heir to the throne on a fairly insignificant planet outside the Culture's sphere of influence. His childhood was spent with two sisters, Livueta and Darckense, and a cousin, Elethiomel, the scion of an impoverished aristocratic family, with whom Zakalwe had a deeply conflicted relationship that only grew more fraught when he learned that Elethiomel was having an affair with Darckense. When they grew older, Elethiomel betrayed his benefactors, the Zakalwe family, and claimed the throne for himself. As a way of debilitating and demoralizing Zakalwe, he kidnapped Darckense and held her in his stronghold, hoping that fear for her life would prevent an attack. In the final chapter of the backwards-facing plot strand, Elethiomel grows tired of the standoff this hostage situation has created, and uses a particularly gruesome method to end it--he sends Zakalwe a chair made of his sister's bones, an act which sends the general into a spiral of guilt and self-recrimination culminating in a suicide attempt, and a futile attack on Elethiomel's fortress.
So far, so gruesome (and, also, not a little bit ridiculous. Sending your enemy the body parts of their loved ones is a time-honored tradition, but who the hell decides to make an arts and crafts project out of it? Not to mention that in all the sturm und drang of the chair's delivery, no one bothers to explain how Zakalwe and his surviving sister know whose bones they're looking at. How many people can look at a skeleton and go 'yup, that's my sibling'?), but in the novel's final chapter, as Zakalwe receives his payment by being allowed, yet again, to visit the aged, furious Livueta, we learn just how thoroughly Banks has tricked us. The man we knew as Cheradenine Zakalwe has stolen the name. The real Zakalwe succeeded in taking his own life, and it is guilt over that death, as well as the death of Darckense, that drives the protagonist of Use of Weapons, who is, in fact, Elethiomel.
This revelation, which ought to be the novel's crescendo, is actually the point at which the whole thing falls to pieces. For one thing, the revelation of Zakalwe's (the fake Zakalwe, I mean) driving force divorces his defining dilemma from the philosophical one that underpins the novel. For the Culture, the question is whether one should do good, and if so, how, and what constitutes a good act anyway. Once we learn who Zakalwe is, we also learn that he is driven by a different question, or rather by the urge to prove that he can be good. The real Zakalwe is horrified by the mindset that would use anything--even a loved one--as a weapon, that considers nothing sacred but victory. It is precisely this mindset that makes Elethiomel an asset for the Culture, and precisely this capacity for detachment that is at the core of his self-loathing. Elethiomel repeatedly tries to prove to himself that he is more than a monster, more than a weapon, and he fails--because, the novel strongly suggests, he isn't either of these things. But even as the novel's psychological theme is brought home, its philosophical one becomes untethered--Zakalwe doesn't care whether the Culture is right to act as it does. He doesn't have the moral standing to judge them. He needs them to be right, even as he questions that rightness--which is why he throws the fight at the end of the novel even though he has come to care for his side--and the result is that we are either disassociated from Zakalwe or from the novel's central dilemma.
Even worse, just at the moment at which Banks supposedly gives us the final insight into Zakalwe's psyche, the last puzzle piece that will make sense of the entire picture, we lose sight of him completely. How does a man capable of doing what Zakalwe has done become so wracked with guilt that he slinks away from his home under an assumed name and spends a lifetime trying to make amends? For that matter, what possessed Elethiomel to do what he did in the first place? What did he hope to accomplish? Presumably, he though that the death of Darckense would destroy Zakalwe, and precipitate an ill-considered attack which Elethiomel's forces were likely to win. When we next (or rather, since this is the backwards-facing plot strand, previously) see Elethiomel, however, he is running away. Did his side win the war? If so, how did he manage to slip away? As it turns out, Banks doesn't provide us with the defining moment of his protagonist's life. That would be showing us the decision to use Darckense as he did, and more importantly, the moment at which he realized that to do so was a terrible mistake. Without that moment of transformation, Zakalwe ceases to make any sense--we can't reconcile the monster with the irreparably damaged man.
This is the tragically slim margin that keeps Use of Weapons from greatness--what should have been a moment of triumph instead turns the novel into an unholy mess. In spite of this last-minute failure, however, Use of Weapons does make for a very good read. It's a rather impressive balancing act on several fronts: between the familiar and the fantastic--most of the societies Zakalwe visits are bog standard replicas of 19th or 20th century European settings, but when Tsoldrin Beychae's political opponents run on an anti-environmentalist platform, we discover that the environment they propose to destroy belongs to a nearby gas giant, which they plan to strip for its component minerals; between narrative and world-building--like Consider Phlebas, a great deal of Use of Weapons is given over to a travelogue that bounces from one society to another, but Banks never overstays his welcome or allows his inventiveness to overwhelm the novel's purpose; and, right up until the disastrous ending, between character development and the development of a philosophical argument. I can't help but feel that Banks was more interested in shocking his readers as they turned the very last page than in writing a novel that hangs together as a character piece and a social critique, although perhaps if I hadn't guessed what was coming, I might have felt that this shock made up for the damage being done to the novel's themes. This isn't the first time I've observed Banks stepping away from true achievement for the sake of entertainment--The Algebraist did something very similar--but I suppose there are worse things to say about a novel than that it is entertaining. I enjoyed reading Use of Weapons, and I'll certainly be reading more of Banks's fiction, but I have yet to find the novel of his that is Just Right.