Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Previously on AtWQ's adventures with Iain M. Banks: The Algebraist started out very strong but then descended into silliness (see review). Consider Phlebas maintained a serious tone throughout, but was ponderous, overlong, and badly written (review). Feersum Endjinn was a hell of a lot of fun, not to mention very imaginatively constructed, but built up expectations of an explosive crescendo which it never paid off (no review, but check out item 3 on this recent reading roundup).

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.


Mike Taylor said…
But wouldn't "Fear of Chairs" have been a better title than "Use of Weapons"?
Anonymous said…
I really love Use of Weapons, somewhat more than it deserves, perhaps, because I was particularly interested in its themes. When I make an effort to view the book dispassionately, I can admit that the twist at the end weakens the novel. As you say, much of Elethiomel's emotional journey is hidden to maintain the surprise (which, for me, was immense). Perhaps Banks should have had at least one more chapter after the revelation to tie everything together. Although the impact would have been slightly less, the book would fit together better. I haven't read the book in a couple years and don't have it on hand, so excuse any errors I make, but these are my feelings. Sorry for the long post:

What I don't agree with is that the twist makes the story fall apart entirely. In fact, the story doesn't make sense without it. What Banks is saying is the best military leaders must coldly use people as weapons, something Zakalwe cannot do, cannot even comprehend. Elethiomel can, but wishes he couldn't. He takes Zakalwe's name, I feel (certainly Banks doesn't actually tell us), because he wants to be more like Zakalwe, more human, less of a monster. But Banks is making another point as well: Elethiomel, though capable of being a monster, is not totally inhuman. He's still capable of second guessing himself, of wanting to be a good person, of feeling remorse. By letting us sympathize with him and see that he's not so different from us, Banks is making a "There But For the Grace of God Go I" case.

Also, when you say he hoped to "precipitate an ill-considered attack" on his besieged forces, I don't think you're quite right. His goal was to distract Zakalwe and thereby confuse and slow the reaction of Zakalwe's army to an active breakout attempt. Elethiomel's forces storm off the Staberinde the same day Zakalwe receives the chair. Elethiomel is very good at what he does: sure enough, Zakalwe is quite distracted. But the break out attempt doesn't quite succeed. It's been a while since I read the book but I'm pretty sure it's made clear they lose...Skaffen Amtiskaw reads about it when researching the ship, but also there's the clever double-meaning line "they almost won" referring both to the doctors trying to save Zakalwe and to Elethiomel's forces.

Anyway, the fact they were breaking out, not waiting for an attack, is important because it helps us see that Zakalwe grows to an extent as a character. The Staberinde breakout, the first battle we are told Elethiomel fights, is parallelled by the last one we see him fight with the Culture, at the Winter Palace. There, we are told, the Culture expected Zakalwe to lead the royalist forces to break out of the siege, just like the Staberinde situation, but this time he just "couldn't do it." After sneaking off his home planet he had tried to atone for what he had done by becoming the Culture's weapon and being used the same way he had used Darckense. Like you say, though, he becomes disenchanted with the Culture's aims and methods, and once they lose their moral authority he becomes a monster again in his own eyes for being complicit in their schemes.

After the Winter Palace he seems to have become useless to the Culture, which frankly speaks well of him. They recruit him for the Beychae thing only because they have to, and in any event save for some 007 stuff (which, throughout the novel, is a little out of place since he's supposed to be a general, not a superhero) he is an agent of peace, not war, so it is compatible with his somewhat improved morality. Ultimately, he goes back to Livueta in hopes of some measure of absolution but also doing his best to keep Skaffen-Amtiskaw from saving his life, an unconscious (perhaps) reenactment of the real Zakalwe's suicide. Unlike Zakalwe's doctors, the near-infallible Culture saves him, so that indirect absolution is denied him, just like Liveuta's forgiveness. He can't just sit back and do nothing to right the wrongs talking place around him, he already tried that and was compelled to act. So he goes back to doing what he did when the Culture found him before the Beychae episode: trying to make the world better the only way he knows how (proving it from the text is difficult, though possible, but fortunately Banks confirmed the prologue and epilogue both take place after the end of the book chronologically). It's not a happy ending, by any means...the Culture is off finding another weapon whose edge is still sharp, and Zakalwe is locked in his atonement cycle (you can see why the Culture thinks he should age and eventually die instead of "stabilize" himself), but that's Banks for you.
Now that you mention it, Matt, I see that I did misread the final paragraph of the backwards-facing plot strand. I thought that in the wake of Zakalwe's incapacitation and the nullification of the threat to Darckense, Zakalwe's underlings attacked the Staberinde as they had been urging him to do. As you say, it was the other way around. This does answer some of the questions I had about the Elethiomel/Zakalwe storyline, but not the most important one.

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the chair business was a horrible mistake. I could have accepted Elethiomel killing Darckense and sending Zakalwe her body, then feeling great guilt - I wouldn't have needed to see a moment at which he was confronted with that guilt. The kind of man who would make his ex-girlfriend's bones into a chair, however, makes less sense to me. I'm not saying he might not also come to seek redemption, but in his case I needed to be taken by the hand and walked from point A to point B.

(Again, it's entirely possible that had I not been expecting the identity twist, I wouldn't have so many problems with the novel's ending.)

You present a good analysis of Elethiomel's journey over the course of the novel (I hadn't made the connection between the Staberinde and the Winter Palace), but my objections to the novel still stand. The psychological portrait is missing a crucial piece, and the social aspect is disconnected from Zakalwe's dilemma. As you say, Zakalwe wants to prove to himself that he can be a good man - which, the novel concludes, he can't, not because he isn't good but because he isn't fully human. For the Culture, the question isn't whether they are good but whether they are right to act, whether they have the right to act. Without Zakalwe to act as a human parallel to that dilemma, the novel's social aspect becomes academic.
Martin said…
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'?

Earlier in the novel Elethiomel accidently shoots her, injuring her pelvis. Zakalwe recognises this wound in the chair.

(This incident is also the cause of the wound Zakalwe carries throughout the novel and is of such importance to him.)
Yeah, I know that that's supposed to be the reason, Martin. I just don't buy it.

Think about it - would you recognize a specific bone injury? After the bones in question had been made into a chair, and were therefore in an unfamiliar configuration?

It seems like a bit of a stretch in a scene that's already quite stretchy.
Anonymous said…
I bought the recognition of the bone-chair because of the context. If someone you love is being held hostage, and you get an ear in the mail from her kidnapper, it's not a big leap to guess that the ear belongs to your kidnapped loved one.

Similarly, everyone knows Darckense is a hostage. Then they get a gift of human bones from the person who's holding her hostage. The mended fracture is just proof of what they already knew from context.

Yes, it's weird, but the whole book is so over-the-top already (such as the decapitation bit) that it didn't strike me as implausible.

Rachel Brown
Denni said…
That final twist at first also nearly ruined it for me--I thought it was a cheap shot by Banks, maybe because I saw it coming (from the line 'they almost succeeded' after Zakalwe's suicide attempt) but I kept thinking surely not.

And I thought it was way too far-fetched.

Now I think it makes sense. Elethiomel struck me as being on-the-edge. When he killed Darckense, I think he lost it. He became psychotic (unaware about who he was or what he was doing). Building a chair from her remains in that state is conceivable. And even more so, it explains his phobia of chairs after he came around. By then, he was no longer Elethiomel, he really believed himself to be Zakalwe.
That's a good analysis of Elethiomel, Denni, but it also strikes me as something you had to add to the novel rather than something Banks put there for his readers to find. I think that's expecting the readers to do just a little too much of the work.

It's interesting that the only other person on this comment thread who found the ending unsatisfactory was also expecting the twist. Which just cements my conviction that the twist was a mistake.
Unknown said…
The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the chair business was a horrible mistake. I could have accepted Elethiomel killing Darckense and sending Zakalwe her body, then feeling great guilt - I wouldn't have needed to see a moment at which he was confronted with that guilt. The kind of man who would make his ex-girlfriend's bones into a chair, however, makes less sense to me. I'm not saying he might not also come to seek redemption, but in his case I needed to be taken by the hand and walked from point A to point B.

I think you misinterpret the way Banks meant to frame Elethiomel's actions somewhat. The author didn't mean for him to be the kind man of "who would make his ex-girlfriend's bones into a chair". The various other anecdotes about his experiences as a soldier of the Culter make clear he's a soldier and a mostly pragmatic killer, not the sort of sadist/fetishist who would actually enjoy that sort of thing. Rather, Banks meant for him to be the perfect calculating tactician. He's the kind of man who knows intuitively that making his ex-girlfriend's bones into a chair would push his foster-brother over the edge, thus demoralizing the army opposing him and giving him the opportunity to break out from the Staberinde. That was his genius from which the title of the book derives, and why the Culture employed him. He knew the perfect use for every weapon he had at hand.
Anonymous said…
Nice post on Use of Weapons, Abigail.

I'm with Ashes on the twist, though.

Anonymous said…
The chair business can be connected with the whole decapitation bit with the cranky old space shuttle. Certainty when striking the enemy head.

A horrendous amount of kinetic energy coming down from orbit is generally an assured kill (unless you miss by a significant margin). A mere corpse, not so much, and also with the additional hazard of potentially strengthening the enemy's resolve and removing the one barrier holding him back.

Thus, the chair. You wouldn't want your gun to jam at a critical moment, you wouldn't want your substantially sized brick of metal and ceramic thrown from space to miss the target or even hit the wrong one, and you certainly don't want a psychological weapon to fail so completely that it comes back like a swarm of sharks intent on sampling your rear end.

Zakalwe even recognizes the intent and message of the chair, but, ah, "There was only so much a man could take, after all."

Like what ashes said. To him, "The point is to win[...] Everything must bend to that truth."

Out of curiosity, were you aware of the twist before beginning reading, or was there a particular point within the book where it became evident?
were you aware of the twist before beginning reading, or was there a particular point within the book where it became evident?

I wasn't spoiled. The minute Banks set up the bait and switch - introducing us to the children - is when I first made the assumption that he was headed for the twist. The kids' personalities and the relationships between them just didn't track with what we'd seen of the adults.
Anonymous said…
Damn! I wish I hadn't read this. I was looking forward to Use of Weapons and now I know what happens.


Anonymous said…
Elethionmel was the only man the great Culture Minds failed to understand because he was an unflattering reflection of the culture, a side they did not want to focus on too much. He believed he was the good soldier but the truth was a bit messier.

However, Elethiomel was not Zawalke or the culture, as he never won wars. He said his plan nearly worked, as a justification for his action but it failed. His obsession with air power would not have been so strong, if he had won that battle. Elethiomel was always the outsider, always feeling cheated and second best and always a loser. He was a cold and sadistic misogynist who had no family or culture, of his own.

Perhaps, they did a DNA test on the chair, otherwise why would they show the gruesome thing to Zakalwe and his sister?
Anonymous said…
*Spoiler: A thing that struck me as odd. When Zakalwe/Elethiomel is broken & bleeding at the end of the book, Sma's companion droid asks a ship mind to do a quick scan on Zakalwe's past. After a cursory scan the ship informs Skaffen-Amtiskaw that Zakalwe has been dead for many number of years. So what puzzels me is this, would'nt special cimcumstances backtrace a possible recruit's past before they are considered for employment? Especially if it were as easy as the said part indicates. Or maybe they did know, and valued his "gift", his use of weapons over such a disturbing past. But even then, why not acknowledge him as the person he is, not the man he pretends to be?

I also did not feel that the twist destroys the plot. But I do feel that there are many things that do not add up after that revelation. For instance the business with Eethiomel and the chair, the act of a total sociopath. A person devoid of a conscience, who seeks only to further his own goals. The scope of the act seemed contradictory to the remorse he felt at the end, that is to say that I dont think such a person would feel remorse.
HV said…
Thanks anon. I just finished the book and was struck by the same question: did the Culture know he was Elethiomel, or not? If so - and that's presumably the reason they recruited him, as someone who could be bent to their will - why go along with his false identity? If not, why would they recruit him in the first place?
Anonymous said…
I read this book when I was 15 years old. For a long time I

When you re-read it, all falls into place. Zakalwe (Elethiomel) starting a sentence beginning with 'But' whereas the real Zakalwe had noted his father's advice (as proven during the war.)

'A gentleman of breeding should not begin a sentence with the unfortunate word "but".'

Also, because Zakalwe (Elethiomel) refused to be tagged-for-location, which made him great SC material for some missions they wanted to accomplish. The minds actually allowed him to be decapitated in my view.

They used him as a weapon. Of course they knew where he was, but his refusal to have a tag or any device giving his location allowed them to deny his exact whereabouts.

A GSV may have even created the storm, and effectorised his plane, forcing it to crash. It allowed a mind to carry out a plan of playing an angry God as the rescue craft came roaring down. That may have helped put the natives off human sacrificing in the future - helping to alter their future path.

I don't believe the twist was badly done. Elethiomel as a young man was win-at-all-costs. Passionate, emotional and a bit reckless. Stealing the gun.. even then he stayed away from the risk when he got Zakalwe and the girls to steal it. Neglecting the smell of oil at the hiding place. Just wanting to steal it in the first place... passion for risk and warfare and winning.

'The point is to win. Everything must bend to that truth.' He probably got way too involved in that mindset. No matter of the consequences. Destroying the house. Agents at airport to kidnap Darcence (spelling). Willing to order the chair to be made.

Keep in mind that afterwards he worked for the Culture for many years. Even Beyache (spelling) remarked how much he had changed from when they were younger... 'I thought you'd be in favour of war.' - he said.
leetstik said…
I know there is much delay here, but on being aware of the twist, i started to suspect it when Elethiomel was described as the better student repeatedly, just an intuition perhaps, and largely because of my cynical approach to the validity of professed truths in Banks' books.

I had some questions that needed answering and I think Ashes and a couple of others answered those questions.
I find the chair recognition fine because it has the broken collar bone, the broken pelvis and the distinct hair colour. those would be enough for most people I think. the extremity seems necessary too, the parallels drawn with the crashing of the victorious seem sensible too.

However, I am still disappointed with the ending. as said, I strongly suspected the name theft from a very early stage of the book,this led me to disappointment at the predictability.

in regards to the true identity, the culture minds would probably have found all of it out and decided that they could use the character better which could explain the xenophobe's disinterest and possibly faked interest in the final scene...

similarly with Matter (i read all but the last 100 pages, slipped into a coma and couldnt finish for 3 months, finished and was thoroughly disappointed with the cop out) the ending seems rushed and abrupt, not enough detail on certain character's reactions and further positions and generally not very exciting...
where is the book for "States of War"? a lovely double entendre as a title, and I would love to see some characters reappear...

still love his style and story telling, and i was totally satisfied with the ending of consider and player of games.. both brilliant books. I didnt see the last couple of posts, so am sorry if i missed anything, and also realise i am not making any particularly contentious or new points, but had to say all that.

K (not the same K from 2006, unless I completely forgot about it, which would explain my guessing the ending, but I think that to be highly unlikely)
Anonymous said…
FWIW, I saw the twist coming from pretty far away and also felt it strongly undermined the ending.

I'm not sure theres a complete disconnect though between the social and the personal aspects. My only, admittedly partial, imperfect and in itself problematic answer of when it is right to act and what gives anyone the right to act that way is that change has to come from within, so its ok to try and change your own society.

If Zak/El's problem is that he's simply not human enough to be a good person, chair building sociopath that he is, then equivelantly the Culture isn't human enough to be a good player - they're too far away, too detached, too different, too missing some key component of being human, and that expresses itself destructively. (I don't think the book expect us to take at face value Sma's belief that the cutures machinations are actually usually succesful)

Anonymous said…
I think Zak and El are one person
portia said…
I just found Iain M. Banks at the beginning of the summer. I read "Consider Phlebas" and "Player of Games" and just finished "Use of Weapons". I did not see the twist coming and really wanted someone to talk to about this novel in the context of The Culture. The thing that struck me the most was said so well by an anonymous comment.

"Elethionmel was the only man the great Culture Minds failed to understand because he was an unflattering reflection of the culture, a side they did not want to focus on too much. He believed he was the good soldier but the truth was a bit messier."

The second most astonishing thing about the ending to me was that the drone found out about Elethiomel just before Livueta told Sma. If even Zakalwe's masters know only what they need to know, are the great Minds the only ones who truly decide their own actions?

I have read that Banks is on record as saying that The Culture is his idea of Utopia. That makes me almost as uncomfortable as finding out that my much beloved and abused Zakalwe sought out his abuse as atonement that will never be enough.
Anonymous said…
I just don't get it.

If Zakalwe was really Elethiomel, how did he have the bone fragment in his chest (up until he was decapitated anyway).

Doesn't that mean that earlier in the reverse chronology that Zakalwe was Elethiomel?
Anonymous said…
I wondered about the same thing, and I found that Banks never wrote it was Zakalwe that had the fragment in his chest : he only uses "he", and never refers to Zakalwe has being the one with it in the following chapters. No consistency problem here.
Anonymous said…
Re: anonymous from June 9, 2009:

The Culture had never been to this planet before Livueta led them there, and the ship Mind was only just beginning to study it in the last chapter. Thus they couldn't have known anything about Zakalwe's past before the iceberg planet, except for what he chose to tell them (which doesn't seem to have been much).
GFW said…
I agree with leetstik on the instant recognition of the chair, and with everyone who said the quote "The point is to win[...] Everything must bend to that truth." is the key to the protagonist's character.

However, no one mentioned why specifically a chair. Maybe it's so obvious that it went without comment. As I recall it, the falling out between Z and E really gets underway when Z finds E having sex with Darkense, on a small white chair. So turning her into a small white chair is an extra twist of the knife.
Anonymous said…
I also did not see the twist coming, as I was too caught up with the time slipping aspects. Found it very disturbing in that you come to like the Zak/El characater, although he is clearly flawed. Even when he tries to do good, it all falls apart. Like with the oligarch in the beginning of the book and fighting the killer of the girl who was infatuated with him when he was trying to hide.

War is hell, and he made the choice to sacrifice Darkense (sp) for the greater good of his side, just as the Culture does the same thing on a grander scale. He is a weapon. Not a builder. Even though he is trying to change, he is caught in the same pattern and does the same things. Of course the Minds knew who he was, they just thought it would be easier for Sma and the drone to accept their tool if they thought he was Zak. However, clearly Sma recognizes on some level that the Zak/El character is not worthy, so she refuses him sexually/emotionally, but still uses him when needed.
Anonymous said…
I know this is a very belated post but I thought Banks made it quite clear why El made her into a chair - he understood Zakalwe's shock upon catching him in the act with his sister - on a chair.

Here the title of the book is reflected in the character's actions and El's capacity to utilise anything and anyone as a psychological or military weapon is manifested. It is the clearest demonstration of the Insight for which the culture values the main character - in the rot context of course.

Use of Weapons was the first Banks book I read and it is still one of m favourites. I have to say that I disagree with your evaluation of The Algebraist but only after a second read. When I read it the first time I would have agreed with you wholeheartedly.
Anonymous said…
@Abigail "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'?)"

Where the bones come from is quite obvious because of the shattered hip, the cause and consequences of the injury having been thoroughly established earlier in the book (among 1 or 2 other hints). If this is not sufficient, the fact the bones are made into a chair strongly suggests the identity of the donor, as she had learned chairmaking as a child, which both Cheradenine and Elthiomel well knew. Him immediately understanding the chair as a sort of ironic reference to his sister is consistent with the situation. There is also the fornication-on-a-chair of E. with D. and C. walking in on them episode mentioned earlier to draw a connection. What is more, Darckense being held hostage and her life being threatened is shown to occupy Cheradenine the whole time, so she naturally would be the most likely victim to come to mind.
Nate0624 said…
Just finished reading UOW and just wanted to post that this was a great discussion thread and a stellar review from Abigail.

Many posters have pointed out details that I missed. I did enjoy it and plan to read additional Bank's novels.
Anonymous said…
Remember, folks, the prologue.
It's not JUST about Elethiomel.

It's also about the meta-narrative horror that the Culture encounters when they realize who the weapon they've been wielding is.
Unknown said…
I know this comments are old, but I don't see this idea anywhere else, so I'll just throw it here: I just finished reading and I thought that the "personality stealing" may have been even carried on by some actual change in Elethomiel's brain, at least I find that in some way that is hinted when he opens the cryogenic capsule and comments about the sphere holding the "memory patterns" of the asleep person.
So it could be that E. actually thinks he's Cheradenine which would explain why he's always trying to reach Livueta and does not understand why she doesn't want to meet him...
Am i reading too much into this?
(sorry for my english, I hope what I wrote is clear enough)
Robert said…
As far as the recognition of the chair goes, I interpreted everything Ele remembers about the actual Zakalwe as inherently unreliable; this could be the way imagined it happening, not the way it actually happened.
As for what the twist means for the Culture, I read it as they were in fact in the dark about the real Zakalwe, indicating that even such an advanced society could still make a huge mistake and giving more credence to the argument that even though a society's intentions may be good, their methodology in carrying out those intentions will always be flawed.
Anonymous said…
Perhaps I didn't read it carefully enough: I didn't remember a single instance in which 'Zakalwe' _didn't_ screw-up---he hates himself so well that he can be _counted-upon_ to fail, and so much that he won't let himself get killed to end it (remember, he's opted for a form of potential immortality rejected by all-but-{de minimus} Culture citizens).

I didn't see, but will look for on next reading the book, any sense of horror from the Culture: I thought they chose him precisely because they understood perfectly what he was and what he would do, what sort of weapon he was...and now I wonder if there was the implication by by allowing him to live out his self-torture they felt that they were aiding Justice thereby, though Hell isn't their style.
Elynne said…
Good to see I'm not the only one adding comments way after the original post.

I was also "spoilered" by anticipating the Z-E twist about halfway through the book. I normally love intelligent "twist" stories, but this one fell completely flat for me, and I think it's for exactly that reason--that the "twist" seemed so incredibly projected that I was able to figure it out (I'm the kind of person who *never* works out whodunit in mystery stories).

It didn't help that, shortly after that revelation, the scene where Z walks in on E and D in the summer house made me detach from Z's character completely. I just went and re-read that scene, and it still strikes me as it did then: I got the impression that E was raping D. Z hears a scream, comes up and sees D's "hands wrapped around E's neck," and as he leaves he hears D crying. It's vague enough that it can be interpreted as consensual sex, especially with D on top (which I missed in the first reading), but it can also be interpreted as coerced or forced, especially if D has mobility problems because of the injury to her hip. And, having read that scene as D being raped, Z *walking away from it* without so much as saying a word almost made me throw the book across the room right then, having lost all sympathy for or interest in Z as a character.

Also, the whole thing about the scar from D's bone fragment over his heart... it just doesn't make sense. Did Z actually get that wound, or did E? If Z got the wound, has E just... convinced himself that some random scar over his heart is that wound, that he's "carrying a piece of her" in? I really needed more resolution of that point than was given to make sense of it.

The other two problems I have with this book: 1. D. getting fridged in a particularly horrible way; and 2. the fact that, as far as I can remember, the book fails the Bechdel test, which is ridiculous--in 400+ pages, with a multitude of named characters having a huge variety of conversations about all kinds of things, coming from the Culture which is supposedly completely free of sexism, it's easy to think of several conversations offhand between named *male* characters about all kinds of things other than the main characters--but *not one* between *female* characters. It's annoying enough to be such a conspicuous absence in so many movies and TV shows. That, in combination with D being possibly raped and definitely fridged, left me with a terrible taste in my mouth for the book as a whole.
Unknown said…
After a hurried re-read of UOW is it possible that is was Elethiomel that walked in on Zakalwe and Darckense in the winter palace? Thus deepening E's feelings of inferiority beside Zakalwe and his position, helping to engender the later betrayal and split with the family. This, along with the shock and subsequent trauma of intruding on an incestuous scene acted out by childhood friends, could help explain the insane high-camp of fashioning a chair from D's bones.
Just saying, it seems incest is a common theme all through Iain and Iain M's work.
Or have i not been paying attention.
Unknown said…
Simon, no it isn't. In that scene the narrator specifically calls Zakalwe by name, something it is scrupulous to avoid in portions of the book narrated from Elethiomel's perspective.

Elynne, the line is that her hands were 'clasped' around Elethiomel's neck, not 'wrapped', i.e. she had her arms round him. Presumably, her crying after Zakalwe left was a reaction to getting caught by her brother.

It doesn't mean a whole lot of sense for Zakalwe to coming running with a drawn weapon at the sound of Darckense's scream, see her being raped by their adoptive brother then go "oh, well, carry on then" then turn round and walk out.

Re: the bone fragment. Elethiomel received the wound. I couldn't find the section, but I think I recall that the book switches back to the present and back to narrating from Elethiomel's perspective when it described this event.

Re: the Bechdel test. Sma has a conversation with a female crewmember of the Xenophobe near the start of the book. The failure to pass in novels such as the Player of Games, Excession or Look to Windward which take place largely within the Culture or other comparable societies is really far more jarring to me than in Use of Weapons, which is mainly just the experiences of a male character in a variety of historical(?) societies.
melissa said…
Just finished the book without knowing the twist, and during the reveal Banks writes:

"[i]She was...She was...She was[/i]"

and soon after:

"...just as he took my sister's life--"
[i]But she--[/i]

both lead me to think Darckense was already dead, rather than killed by Elethiomel directly to meet her particular gruesome end. So as a corpse, just an object, why not at least make her a useful one? I see the repeated "[i]She was[/i]" and "[i]But she--[/i]" might suggest to the reader Elethiomel trying to say this in the midst of his aneurysm.

I dunno. Perhaps I'm just disappointed that I'd been tricked into rooting for a monster for so many pages.
Taylor Marvin said…
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nostalgebraist said…
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.

Having just finished the book, I agree entirely. (I didn't guess the twist, and was still frustrated.)

The core of my frustration is that I can't seem to link up the guy who made the chair with the guy who views the memory of the chair so traumatically. Certainly it's conceivable that both could be the same person, but if E's become convinced that making the chair was that grievous of a mistake, why does he happily keep applying his "use of weapons" philosophy, of which making the chair was the most striking manifestation? In the end it felt like his emotions about those memories were less an attempt at naturalistic psychology than they were a device Banks used to let him talk about the chair a lot without actually explaining it until the end.

There might be an interesting story in there, one that actually links the different versions of the character together, but it simply can't be told if you require that the twist happen at the end.
Unknown said…
you have totally missed the point abigail. i suggest you reread it. zakelwe has been conditioned to win at all costs.
his constant need to gain the forgiveness of his cousin stems from his need for her to understand that point. for the most part your critizism is accurate and fair but it seems that you have missed the most important aspects of the character.
for example he is not close to the monks at all he just knows how to win, his only dissapointment is that he is asked to fail after turning the war in such a masterful way. also he dies in every conflict no matter the outcome because of his self loathing... kindof like extreme self harm.
also he does not run away from his victory on his home world he has become so proficient at war that he can not settle(on earth we call it post traumatic stress disorder) so he VOLUNTEERS for a conflict on a sister planet.
he is damaged but also perfect at what he does. the culture adopts him because he understands the aspects of war that make it an artform. it seems that you missed the subtle clues in the literature that would tell you this... or perhaps you have led a sheltered life? it doesnt matter. the reoccurring theme is that zakelwe is dis interested in the cultures actual goals but is heavily invested in how to win. a real world example is how many people admire nazi germany's structure without being racist or anti semetic in anyway.
Unknown said…
Just a further point on the chair that I couldn't see mentioned. E is using Darck as a weapon against Z (very interesting point above on her possibly being dead already and him using her corpse as a weapon instead, but unlikely I think - E knows he will lose the war and needs to be proactive. This is backed up by his use of the nuke at the end.) All the way through we see he is very effective with using things as weapons. He made the chair from her bones in order to deliberately make Z think of the "incest" scene which took place on the chair that had been hand-made by Livueta. Since they knew E was keeping Darck hostage, it would be obvious that the bone chair was her remains even without the distinguishing features to confirm it.

My reading of the book implied that he knew the full horror of all of this combined would make Z kill himself, not just distract him, and Z knew that too.
Jakob Lund said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jakob Lund said…
Jeepers i can't get it that nobody else is getting this:

The drone knows, in fact it has planned the whole thing as punishment for the Chairmaker's cruel crime.
The last sentence of "I" says that the guy dies, right?
The Culture then replaces him with his brother, whom they've sent Sma to fetch from the ice. Some of Ceradenine's memories are implanted into Elithomiel, whose identity remains, but who wakes up thinking he's Cheradenine.

The whole thing is carried out by Saffen-Amitskaw in his "desire to do good". The Culture's (the drone's?) repeated keeping alive of the main character, is actually as a means to prolong punishment.

-- After the events he (the main character) takes off on a 100-year trip, on a ship where peoples memories are stored on little blue cubes; this indicates there's some pretty advanceed technology going on at the time although there's no trace of it in the flashback story trail (or, there might be; I only just finished the book for the first time) .
-- Liuveta says "don't bring him around anymore" like it happened frequently before: And it did, it's the drone's idea of punishment: Having lived his whole life with the memories of what he now(?) realizes are his own actions, trying to end his own life, he is being kept alive by the drone/the Culture over and over while memories of his multiple violent deaths add up to enhance his suffering.
-- the drone effortlessly strips the man's mind in the end, and neither she or Sma seems to find it overly unusual (though surprising). There's no shock in Liuveta as she sees this happen.
-- as far as I can tell the Culture has no central government and I think the godlike planning motive lies with the Minds, who run the Culture in a rather anarcistic fashion; sentient, intelligent, overpowered, trying to use their superiority for the common good (or whatever), but in no way enlightened or divine, committing useless crimes as they go. And Sma is just a dumb (but awesome) Culture bitch trying to "do some good while having fun too" with no real knowledge of the drone's grand plan.
SOA said…
Also, the bit about the drone and the two insects hints at this reading.
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said…
These last "drone knows" posts confused me. I'm not sure of what to think of it myself, but whether he did or not, it seems like it would detract from the story a bit.

I mean, a man torturing himself, trying to do good is a good storyline, even more so when we only find out about why he does it with a twist. Furthermore, it adds to the story when we see that he is the kind of a person Culture could use as their weapon - this is the main thing the book tells us about the culture, or the gray area its morality is in more specifically.

So what does the drone knowing it twist say? And is it true, even? This is a very drawn-out discussion, but I hope somebody can answer this.
Matthew said…
While the Culture's Mind's may have known about the false identity, the drone discovered the twist only minutes before Sma. Although Elethiomel assumed Zakalwe's name, he didn't "become" Z until his mental breakdown on the sister planet. He woke with amnesia (shot in the head) and the first thing he saw was a white chair. This was his psychological turning point, though the pressure had been building as evidenced during his murderous/suicidal thoughts on the sleeper ship.
Unknown said…
I've just finished reading the book, for the first time.

The part I don't get is why Elethiomel assumed Cheradenine's name in the first place. What was the purpose in that?
Unknown said…
Leonard: He's actually pretty clear on that, he wants to remind himself constantly of his past. It's why he always picks names related to his past for himself throughout the novel, to keep his failures fresh in his head. Zakalwe was merely the name he picked to use with the Culture, if they'd found him at a different time he could have been Darck or Staberinde or whatever.

From the original post (which I realize is from 2006): Was there anything in the novel that indicated Elethiomel was a cousin? I don't think so... his family was merely "allies" with the Zakalwes, but somehow under suspicion of treason or the like. We don't even know much about the war that broke out, merely that Elethiomel found himself on the losing side, although from what we know of his later style, he probably saw the Zakalwes as the "elite" and saw himself as being with 'the people' somehow.

For others on the big twist: Sure, maybe Elethiomel was merely doing what he perceived as what it took to win in the backstory. But I don't see why him being a crazed megalomaniac sociopath then is a problem; I'm happy to take the reading that he was just really evil then, and more pathetic than evil now. People change, after all. It makes his journey more about some twisted kind of redemption while simultaneously validating his original profession & war. If he's crazy in a different, more sympathetic way now, that's okay. You can still 'root for him' despite his horrible earlier actions.
Unknown said…
From a 2006 article all the way to 2015. Says something about the book that people need to get things off their chests 9 years later......
Unknown said…
From a 2006 article all the way to 2015. Says something about the book that people need to get things off their chests 9 years later......
Unknown said…
So I'll continue the tradition, having just finished the book. I didn't see the final twist coming at all, but I also agreed it really doesn't work. I found the chair business gruesome, but a good twist. And by itself Z being E is also a gruesome, but good twist. But together it doesn't work. I cannot accept going from the person who made that chair to the guilt-ridden man we've followed throughout the novel. It just doesn't work for me.

Someone earlier here wrote that maybe the sister had died already, of disease or any of the things that can kill someone being besieged, and E just decided to use the corpse. But that really would've needed to have been mentioned in the novel itself.

Like Abigail wrote, in other to preserve the greatest shock value we are denied the most important moment of our main character's life. The moment when he decided to make the chair, and/or the moment when he realises it was the wrong decision. Without that the whole thing just feels disjointed. And even if you can somewhat make it work in your head, this is just not the kind of thing that should be left to the reader to figure out on their own.

Otherwise, it was really good, and I can really understand now why it got so much high praise.
5ynic said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
5ynic said…
From memory, he has seen his sister's pubes, and the chair cushion matches, which is how he recognises her chaired remains.
DeFaronage said…
Nadafan Boy said: "I cannot accept going from the person who made that chair to the guilt-ridden man we've followed throughout the novel."

Zakalwe (Elethiomel) lost that battle. So his use of his close-sister / lover as a weapon was for naught. The man capable of using her as such might not have felt that level of remorse/regret had he won. A twinge perhaps when he met up with the older girl perhaps, but I think he could have shrugged it off as a necessary bit of collateral damage required for victory.

In losing however, the rank betrayal of his childhood family could not be seen as anything but a monstrous mistake that gained nothing and cost him all.

Easily my favorite book - I've read it as written twice, once in chronological order, and once backwards chapter by chapter. It holds up well in any of those directions and you gain a better idea at how masterfully Iain Banks weaves his little clues and hints throughout the book.

Unknown said…
I loved this review. i read this book when i was 17 and it really amazed and shocked me, and again several more times.
i agree with your central point, that the discontinuity between guilt-ridden older cheradenine and monsterous younger elethiomel was so shocking i put a lot of thought into it. i dont mean to make excuses for the book, i think you are basically right, but the wierd construction did work in a harsh way for me. he was a boy genius, went way too far, but then grew and changed. its hard to think about monsters doing that, crossing over to being human. i dunno, i did think it was good hehe.
oh and feersum endjinn, please. that would make the best movie.
i LOVED the ending, i was like, how are they possibly gonna get out of this?? it was so beautifully understated at the end, it wouldnt work in a movie actually, they need explosions at the end. instead, the sun brightens and we realise what the feersum endjinn really was. love.
i drew some pictures of serehfa actually, i never got it right but i will keep trying
Unknown said…
the thing i didnt like was skaffen amtiskaw massacring those cowboy bandit types. wtf?? it just murdered them. i felt that was definitely to shock and not what a culture person would do at all.
The Duff Stuff said…
I haven't read all the comments, so maybe someone already said this but...

I strongly disagree with your conclusion about the twist at the end. When I first read it, I thought, "No, it's not possible that Elethiomel and the main character that we've been following this whole time are the same person. Zakalwe can be cold, but he clearly experiences empathy and compassion for many characters (and animals) throughout the book and has a strong sense of justice (remember when he takes revenge on the overseer who cut out the tongues of slaves? He had nothing to do with that; he just wanted justice); but the Chairmaker incident is the work of a psychopath.

Unless...Elethiomel didn't actually kill Darckense. In the very last chapter (when he meets Livueta again) he keeps thinking, "She was... She was... But she...." This happens at such a critical moment that I think it's important to guess what he was trying to say here. My guess? "But she was already dead." It might seem like a stretch at first, but reread that scene. It actually makes perfect sense, and it would explain how Elethiomel and Cheradenine could be the same person.

If the main character that we've been following all along is Elethiomel, then he would NOT be capable of killing Darckense like that. He's too compassionate, too attached to his sisters, and shows too much remorse to be a psychopath. Also, during the war Livueta was convinced that Elethiomel would never kill Darckense, and she's no sentimental fool. But if Darckense had *accidentally* been killed in a botched kidnapping attempt, or if she had somehow died in custody (suicide? injury? illness?), both Elethiomel and the main character that we know *would* be capable of using her death to strike a final psychological blow against his opponent: turning her bones into a chair, thus reminding Cheradenine of his traumatic discovery all those years ago, and making him believe that he (Elethiomel) is capable of doing anything in order to win.

This would explain everything, including why the main character is desperate to "explain" something to Livvy, how he could feel so much remorse for having caused the death of his foster brother Cheradenine, and having earned for himself the monstrous reputation of the Chairmaker.

Elethiomel/Zakalwe is not an evil psychopath--but he is capable of making himself look like one if that's what it takes to win a war.
Max said…
The Duff Stuff,

I just finished the novel as well. I'm choosing to believe your version of events, because I cannot reconcile the story in my head any other way. The person we followed throughout the entire book was deeply flawed, but he was not a sociopath or a monster.. He clearly had empathy and a sound sense of justice. And it would take a sociopath or a monster to make that chair. The only way this makes sense is if D was already dead.
Max said…
Even choosing to believe D was already dead, I still think the twist cheapened the plot and ruined what was otherwise shaping up to be a masterpiece of a novel.
thiazzi said…
I think the post about "the drone knows" is accurate. Why else would we have the scene in which Skaffen-Amtiskaw brutally murders the bandits that are coming for Sma? S-A is also described as pitting two insects against one another in a very blasé way that suggests he has no concern for the suffering of animal life (including humans) right at the time of the twist. Right before the twist is revealed, the ship sends S-A some historical information about how Zakalwe is long dead, and S-A reacts, "Really? Dead?" in a way that suggests he is fully aware.

Stack those instances on top of the fact that the whole premise of the book is about how the Culture, under the leadership of the machine Minds, is willing to kill people on a large scale so long as it prevents deaths on a GRAND scale.

Further evidence: At the beginning of the book, Zakalwe is taunting an emperor in the emporer's bed and gives a long speech about how the Culture, rather than punishing wrongdoers with the death penalty, prefers to lock them in long, drawn-out punishments/rehabilitations that seem nice but are really worse. Zakalwe is in this situation. He has been manipulated to be tortured by vague remembrances of the chair and a desire to return to his homeworld so he can be struck by the horror of his deed in the same way the real Zakalwe was. On some level he understands this is happening to him, which is why he recklessly ends up dying a lot on his missions--he is trying to escape his 'rehabilitation.'

Another thing I liked: Zakalwe's "decapitation" idea of dropping the relic spacecraft out of orbit like a bomb is the same tactic he tried with the chair. His goal was to eliminate the leadership of the opposing army in both instances. He can't stop making the same mistakes.

Great discussion here, really helped me get my head around the book and appreciate it more.
Unknown said…
One of the underlying themes of the Culture series is the question of agency: when all the real power is in the hands of Minds vastly greater than the humans of that society then the ones with real agency are the Minds--everyone else operates at their whim. This is established in The Player of Games: who is the real player running the puppet show, not the MC but the Minds running 43D chess.

Who are the ones using the weapons? The real use of weapons? It is the Minds/Drones.

Another point: it takes a human monster to come up with ideas such as the bone chair. Aliens and AI's don't have the intimate knowledge of what really hurts. Who knows how to hurt you the most? A stranger? No, a family member who betrays you knows the deepest levels of your psyche: that is the irony of Use of Weapons--it takes empathy to be a true sadist. If suffering is meaningless to you, you don't come up with the Inquisition: they torment their subjects with their worst fears in their own mind.

So what is scarier, a Mind that considers human suffering on the level of insects, manipulating their brains with their tools or a psychopath who intimately knows how to tear your soul up? An interesting conundrum.

Banks also raises the specter of why people want revenge and justice. Isn't it interesting when we hear about some horrible murderer, many wish an endless hell for them, imagining their torments, well deserved or not, in gory detail. Ah, humans, we're interesting aren't we....
Anonymous said…
My take was similar to those above, but I think the drone was kept in the dark as to the true story of Elethiomel/Zakalwe, only being provided those pieces of information by the ship mind as they were about to be revealed by circumstance. After all, the drone is a weapon as well, and the Culture only doles out sensitive information to its weapons when it seems like it will benefit the Culture.

And some times that information is embarrassing. Zakalwe was a useful weapon, but would that have still been true if other agents working with him knew his story? And what if the war that created Elethiomel/Zakalwe was one of the Culture's proxy conflicts with an ulterior motive, and Elethiomel was actually already being groomed by the Culture back when he created the bone chair? A ship mind might want to keep that story quiet. After all, other agents might not be such useful weapons after learning about it.

"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."
ShazzBakes said…
Further to above commenters' questions about Skaffen-Amtiskaw, here's a quote from

"The drone known as Skaffen-Amtiskaw knew both of these people. It had once saved the woman's life by massacring her attackers in a particularly bloody manner. It believed the man to be a burnt-out case. But not even its machine intelligence could see the horrors in his past."

So S-A's seemingly casual and inhuman cruelty, plus its ignorance of Zakalwe, are anointed by Banks himself as designed.
ShazzBakes said…
This is a wonderful thread full of amazing comments, plus different points of view on Use of Weapons I hadn't considered, or just hadn't fleshed out in my own mind. Well done everyone!

I came to the Culture novels by picking up Player of Games in a charity shop, not realising it was one of a series. I've since collected all the Culture books, but in hodge-potch fashion, so I've read them out of order. Not that this is an issue - each book is marvellously self-contained for a sci-fi/sci-fantasy series - the inherent technology/civilisation requires no knowledge of previous books. And the theme of each book is epic, and needs to be considered in its own entirety. If you have knowledge of the other books, all the better; but it's not required, is what I'm saying.

SPOILER ALERT: just mentioning Surface Detail is a massive spoiler when discussing Use of Weapons, I realise. I read SD first and knew the ending was more meaningful than my (at that time) limited knowledge of Banks's Culture could colour in.

I'm interested to know if anyone wants to continue the conversation, in light of the later book?
ShazzBakes said…
Sorry, just saw this thread over here about Surface Detail
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said…

Thank you for the review, it helped clarify several of my own thoughts on finishing the novel. While I do, however, disagree with your harsh slating of the novel (although you swing from stating that it's "Just Right", with excellent character and theme development, to declaring it an "unholy mess", which is, considering the novel's undeniably impressive structuring, rank hyperbole), the only part of the review that seriously irked me was the mocking manner in which you described how they could possibly know that the chair was made of the sister's bones. Banks writes: "Beneath [the ribs] was the pelvis; the pelvis that had been shattered years earlier, in the stone boat, its bone fragments rejoined; the darker material the surgeons had used quite visible too. Above the ribs, there was the collarbone, also broken and healed, memoir of a riding accident". Although it can be argued that they still shouldn't be able to recognise the bones, it is not as if Banks made no effort to make them recognisable, as you suggest. Indeed, the shattered pelvis incident plays out within the book, and is referred to throughout.
It is almost certainly the case that I am less well-read than you are, and I once again thank you for the review, but I always get confused when Banks is torn apart by reviewers. It leaves me wondering what else said reviewers read, because I read Banks to get away from trash. If he can be considered trash, that deeply worries me.
A Probe said…
Can someone explain to me the relation between the Prologue (with old man Cullis) and the rest of the book? I could not make sense of that at all. Thanks.
Jack said…
Stoked to be taking part in this 11-year (!) discussion! I just finished UOW, and Abigail's post, plus the insightful comments it generated, added to my understanding and appreciation of this discomfiting and excellent book.

A Probe, there are a couple clues that indicate that the Prologue/Epilogue takes place after the book's main narrative thread (viz., Zakalwe runs his hand over his shaved head "as if through thick long hair"; we see him shave his head at the beginning of chapter Thirteen, as he's about to leave the citadel). We can assume, then, that he survives the aneurysm, thanks to S-A's surgery. We can also assume, since Sma goes to find another recruit, that he's no longer working for Special Circumstances. In other words, he's returned to the soldiering life, but no longer as a weapon of the Culture; he's doing it for the sheer joy of trying to win, freed from having to wonder about whether or not he's doing the right thing, or helping in some inscrutable, cosmic way that only the Minds can know.

In a way, then, I suppose this is a regression for Z/E. In working for the Culture, he was trying to turn his genius for warfare and weaponry to a purpose that someone higher than him deemed Good, as a way to atone for his murder of D. (I think the theory that she was already dead is interesting, but it would make his self-loathing and guilt nonsensical.) By the time we get to the Prologue/Epilogue, though, he's nuking armies in a conflict that seems to have no greater context or meaning.

The interesting question then becomes: what caused this regression? Was it being rejected by Liv for a second time? Being asked to lose a war he'd miraculously won because it didn't fit the Minds' plan? My money's on the latter. I think that moment finally convinced him that no higher power would ever be able to provide him the absolution he needed, so he committed himself to a (potentially eternal) lifetime of punishment in the form of doing what he'd come to hate most - using weapons for no other reason than to win.
A Probe said…
Thanks, Jack!

I must say the story does not resonate with me. I get the impression that Banks created this amazing universe but didn't know how to tell stories in it. Which, admittedly, seems harder than usual because the Minds are so powerful and good.
Scripten said…
Wow, what a discussion so far! I just finished UoW this morning and I have to admit that I saw a lot of things differently than Abigail. (And a few of the earlier commenters on the post.)

Firstly, the most prominent (and likely obvious) disagreement: the twist. I didn't find the discrepancy between young E and current Z to be that huge. There are a few reasons behind this.

First, it's been a very, very long time and E/Z has seen many decades and more experiences than us modern-day readers will ever have access to. He is roughly two centuries old, if I'm not mistaken, during the course of the primary plot thread. Considering that he was already feeling massive amounts of regret and was suicidal during the generational ship section, it makes sense that he would mostly read like an entirely different person by the later chronological sections.

Second, E most likely did not perform the killing or the chairmaking himself. I don't believe it was ever indicated that he was skilled in building furniture. The separation from the event itself could color his monstrous, inhuman act as merely a ruthlessly pragmatic one in his own mind. As we see, that doesn't last and he eventually realizes the true immensity of his crime. It's along the lines of the banality of evil.

And let us not mince words. Even if D was already dead, he still desecrated her corpse and drove his adopted brother to suicide with it. There's absolutely nothing that could possibly explain or excuse that, which is why L's response is so perfect. Z is still a very bad person, protagonist or not, and I loved the way that the twist showed that our rooting for him was mired in the way the story was told. After all, the stolen name Z uses insulates him from recompense for his actions, even as he claims to be paying penance by adopting it.

Then, of course, there's the outward sociopath S-A, which is not really all that different from Z. It is still a misanthropic character more driven to curiosity than revulsion at the revelation of Z's history at the end. It is a neat foil to the all-too-human Z.
Unknown said…
Darkense was at some docking area trying to flee the territory when Elethiomel's agents found her at docks. He had agents out looking for her.

Elethiomel went down to his cells, opened the view-hole and looked at her. He clearly ordered her death, and to be made into bone chair.

Cheradenine had some successes and Elethiomel pulled his forces back to one area. However Cheradine was coming under intense pressure from his own Commanders to launch a final attack on that area.

Elethiomel put his main capital-battleship into dock, flushed the water, and had it filled with concrete and junk (to absorb shockwaves incoming artillery). Unsinkable!

Cheradenine's commanders feared that Cheradine was not following military doctrine, and that he was allowing the fact that Elethiomel had Darkense as hostage to influence his judgement. However it was simply was best to keep Elethiomel under siege for eventual military victory.

At the same time Cheradenine didn't want to see Darkense hurt with final invasion, and he also had guilt and emotional pressure from his other sister, Livueta, who he had hidden the full truth from when she was unwell (Darkense captured by Elethiomel).

El also knows his position is doomed if Cheradenine keeps up the siege. He wants them to attack! He's made his final position solid, and so dangerous to attack him. He makes the chair and sends it in hope it will see Cheradenine's other commanders take charge (suspecting it will tip Cheradenine over the edge).

El is the only one on his side of the war to know that Cheradenine saw him making love to Darkense as teenagers/young, on the small white chair that Darkense herself made (when the boys making armour and swords).

Has it escaped you all that Elethiomel won the war against Cheradenine? Cheradenine committed suicide (while also sort of admiring Elethiomel's use-of-weapons ruthlessness - but just had enough... pushed too far) -then Cheradenine's commanders then attacked.

*It was a good battle; they nearly won.* Meaning they nearly saved the real Cheradenine's life after he shot himself in the head with the puny side-arm he carried, but he actually died. And the invasion took place (by Cheradenine's forces), but they lost. Elethiomel WON.

El uses same tactic for the Priests later in the book. Pulls back his forces and stretches the supply lines of the enemy, and deliberately sets a trap.

Perfect book. Those who have issues with it can't understand how El is different to them, and would do terrible things to win.

He is all about winning; the challenge. Even for the Priests he went to sleep 'happy' once he had finished reading all reports and their position was improving (setting a trap).

Maybe his father was similar minded...held prisoner, presumably for being so eager to do something terrible; later executed.

Elethiomel (from baby) was raised by Cheradine's father - a relation. You can see how eager Elethiomel is to be active in war/battles. It's his idea to swipe a machine gun (as children). He gets Cheradenine to do the risky part, and swipe the gun. And then El is later the one to aim and fire it (it didn't have a silencer on it - looked like a silencer to children.)

It's possible a different species (Elench) were part of lifting refugees of 'terrible war' (or a SC Mind not telling anyone else) for Elethiomel to get passage (false papers) to another planet, and that all other Culture minds were fully unaware of his past.

Elethiomel wanted to leave the planet out of guilt. Know by all, even his own victorious side as "The Chairmaker"; monster.

Skaffen Amitskaw (spelling) knew nothing about Elethiomel's past (pre first-contact)

Zakalwe's name; something Elethiomel took from some guilt. To remember/carry with him, yet still unable to stay out of lust for war challenges.

Elethiomel was a Culture mercenary - used to do things they felt too iffy about directly doing themselves. Read UOW about 100 times.
Stiggler said…
Keeping this going :) ...

A small comment regarding the Bechdel test and Excession: depending how you view trans-issues, Genar-Hofer is a woman when their friends visit them at the tower and has lesbian sex that night with one of them after Dajeil goes to sleep.
(Also, most of the book is conversation between non-gendered ship minds...)
Anonymous said…
Such a great discussion. 12 years! So many great points of view and very convincing arguments. I just finished UOW for the first time and I'm still trying to come up with my own interpretation on aspects such as the themes, and the E/Z and S-A debates, but I thought it was a brilliantly written and cleverly executed novel. I hope to come back with something else to add (probably after a second read I think).

I also just noticed upon starting my second read that in the prologue (pg.13) Banks writes "The young man Cullis had called Zakalwe..." which I think Banks deliberately worded that way to hint at the fact that he is Ethiomel, which I think makes sense since the prologue is chronologically after he visits Livuetta at the end.
Diablevert said…
I didn't much care for the twist in the story, fell a little flat for me, for the reasons explained above. After reading this thread, though, I feel like I'm coming around to it, in an odd way. Because: imagine there was no twist. What would be the lesson of the chair then? That Z was wrong to hesitate, no?

The actual battle and its results are left carefully ambiguous in the book. But as I read it, it's like this: E and his forces are holed up in the ship-fortress. The ship can be taken, but at a terrible price, not least the almost certain death of Z's sister. Indeed, even waiting has a cost; Z specifically says there's a risk that, given enough time to regroup, E might be able to counter-attack, break out of the fortress, and continue the war. So Z waits. And gets the chair. And, during the brief period of disarray caused by Z's suicide attempt, E does attempt to break free, and fails.

So: Z was wrong to have waited, no? His sister died anyway, and the war was nearly lost as a result, after months of Z's hard graft to win it. If there was no twist, then the lesson is merely that Z was not cruel enough, that mercy gets you nothing in war. He would spend his whole life atoning for not having been _enough_ of a bastard.

With the twist, it's reversed. E is cruel, and his cruelty costs him everything, and he loses the war anyway. His desire to be merely a tool, used for good, is part of his atonement; knowing what he's capable of, he doesn't want to take responsibility for anything, anymore.
Unknown said…
Livueta made the chair that ethio/darck used. It's part of the cynical cruel irony.

I have just finished the book again in chronological order, I found it much easier to follow like this.
Now I'm going to read surface detail.

The thing that bothers me is why did ethio do it to darck? He loved her, it is made pretty clear throughout the how could he have done something so gruesome?
To win at all costs does sound incomplete. There's at least one whole chapter missing that explains...
Lambchops said…
Really great thread. Don't have much of insight to add but a couple of thoughts.

I went into this knowing that there was "a twist" so much like when I watched the Sixth Sense since I was looking for it I guessed it as soon as the more detailed flashbacks came in.

I think this did lessen my enjoyment of the book in the sense that it made the back half drag out a little bit - but did insulate me from the feeling some (though not many in this thread!) have that they were "cheated" in some way by it.

Only other comment I have is on the interpretation of the prologue/epilogue. I read with interest the take above that Z/E is now in business for himself, as my interpretation was rather different! My take was rather that this served to highlight again the layers in culture society and how the Minds run the show. They keep the sordid past of their weapons secret from the likes of Sma, who like the Culture guy cleaning tables in the bar is in this gig to feel good about what she does (and have some fun). Messy moral complexities like this just get in the way, hence she is off to recruit someone new, perhaps less complicated.

I interpreted S-A fixing up Z at the end as doing so on the behest of the Minds (for he is still a useful tool) - but agree with comments above that he would see this as a fitting punishment for E, who he never particularly liked.

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