Tuesday, December 05, 2006

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.

44 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

But wouldn't "Fear of Chairs" have been a better title than "Use of Weapons"?

Matt 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.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

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.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

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.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

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.

Ashes 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.

JeffV

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?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

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.

Crap!

K

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.

Victor Serge 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)


-Tamara

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.

hobbs 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.

staytape 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.

happycrow 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.

Daniele Monterisi 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.

contrafrutexus 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.

Simon Scott 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.

Tim Ward 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...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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.

caine makins 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.

James Kennedy 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.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown 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.

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