Iain Banks considers the morality of force in his third Culture novel, ‘Use of Weapons’

August 3, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 3, 2019

Iain Banks’s 1990 novel, Use of Weapons, is the third entry in his Culture series, which revolves around an immensely advanced human civilization that dominates the galaxy in the far future. Superficially, the subject matter here has more in common with the series’ initial volume, Consider Phlebas, which followed the exploits of Horza, a mercenary fighting on behalf of the Culture’s enemies.

The protagonist this time around is one Cheradenine Zakalwe. Like Horza, the main character of Use of Weapons is a mercenary born into a society outside the Culture. However, Zakalwe generally fights on behalf of the Culture, even if he doesn‘t always understand or agree with its aims.

The book’s core has an interesting structure. Chapters numbered 1 through 14 relate what I think of as the main narrative, detailing Zakalwe’s most recent exploits; they alternate with chapters, counting down from XIII through I, which chronicle earlier parts of Zakalwe’s life. This is sandwiched between several short items: at the front, a song and a prologue; at the end, an epilogue, a poem and a separate epilogue that I initially skipped because I mistook it to be an excerpt from a separate Banks novel. (This last section’s title, “States of War: Prologue,” was not helpful.)

The main narrative has a Culture agent named Diziet Sma enroll Zakalwe’s help to… well, things are a bit muddled, but evidently she and her robot colleague/supervisor Skaffen-Amtiskaw want Zakalwe to enlist a former ally’s aid in deterring war and/or undermining a faction that opposes machine intelligence, which is at the heart of the Culture. An explanation of sorts appears here, in a recruiting pitch that Sma and the drone deliver to an all-too-eager Zakalwe:

“You really are coming? This afternoon?” 

“Drone, I just told you. I’ll do it.” He leaned toward Sma. “What is the job again?” 

“Voerenhutz,” she told him. “Tsoldrin Beychae.” 

He beamed, teeth gleaming. “Old Tsoldrin still above ground? Well, it’ll be good to see him again.” 

“You have to talk him back into his working clothes again.” 

He waved one hand airily. “Easy,” he said, drinking. 

Sma watched him drink. She shook her head. 

“Don’t you want to know why, Cheradenine?” she asked. 

He started to make a gesture with one hand that meant the same as a shrug, then thought better of it. “Umm, sure. Why, Diziet?” he sighed. 

“Voerenhutz is coalescing into two groups; the people gaining the upper hand at the moment want to pursue aggressive terraforming policies…” 

“That’s sort of…” — he burped — “redecorating a planet, right?” 

Sma closed her eyes briefly. “Yes. Sort of. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s ecologically insensitive, to put it mildly. These people — they call themselves the Humanists — also want a sliding scale of sentient rights, which will have the effect of letting them take over whatever even intelligently inhabited worlds they’re militarily able to. There are a dozen brushfire wars going on right now. Any one of them could spark the big one, and to an extent the Humanists encourage these wars because they appear to prove their case that the Cluster is too crowded and needs to find new planetary habitats.” 

“They also,” Skaffen-Amtiskaw said, “refuse to acknowledge machine sentience fully; they exploit proto-conscious computers and claim only human subjective experience has any intrinsic value — carbon fascists.” 

“I see.” He nodded and looked very serious. “And you want old Beychae to get into harness with these Humanist guys, right?” 

This, Banks’s introduction of the Humanist faction, comes about 30 percent of the way into the text; the word “Humanist” appears 12 times in the book. The other side, the Consolidationists, isn’t named until around the 80 percent mark; their moniker is seen only twice, in the span of one sentence, and the author never offers any explanation of their beliefs or goals.

‘Use of Weapons’ by Iain M. Banks.

I mention these things by way of demonstrating that because Banks’s interest here is not interstellar politics but the psychology of one of the key players in these covert and overt struggles. Whereas Gurgeh, the protagonist of the second Culture book, was baffled by a state-sanctioned assassination attempt, Zakalwe is very familiar with the different ways in which a person or an organization can attempt to impose its will on another.

I had mixed feelings about Use of Weapons, which initially gives the duo of Sma and Skaffen-Amtiskaw as much weight as Zakalwe. Banks eventually builds toward a revelation about the man’s freighted past. Unfortunately, I was and remain unsure whether the pathos engendered by this secret was earned or simply the result of a cheap trick. Like The Player of Games, this was a book that I enjoyed but did not love.

An argument could be made that Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games had crossover appeal — the first to action enthusiasts, the second to those interested in character studies, or perhaps cultural decadence. Use of Weapons is about the nature of violence, and the people who employ it, directly or otherwise, but I’m not sure it will appeal much to those who aren’t science fiction enthusiasts.

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