Yes, this is a terrific book but my God the Culture are a pack of pricks.
I continue my journey through Iain M. Banks’ Culture series – coming soon to Amazon – with Use of Weapons.
This is the Culture novel where the alternating storylines move in different directions – one forward, one backward in time. I’d heard Paul Kincaid and Ken Macleod referring to the novel and its narrative quirk on an episode of the Coode Street podcast. I do like it when an author doesn’t take structure for granted.
The Culture as a fairytale:
It’s Cheradenine Zakalwe who frames the Culture as a magical kingdom. He’s speaking to a despot who was promised long-life by the Culture if he agreed to stop the slaughter of innocent people. But the despot reneged, and so Zakalwe has snuck into the despot’s heavily guarded house to explain what happens to people who don’t stick to the deal. Nothing violent, they’re just taken away, resettled on a world where they can do no harm. Or, at least, that’s what’s meant to happen. The whole chapter is terrific; the punchline is a corker:
The Culture: so technologically advanced that deliberately catching a cold is considered a form of entertainment. Douglas Adams would have been proud:
And while the crew are catching colds for a laugh, the ship’s mind is cosplaying as a Tribble:
Diziet Sma has been tasked with the job of finding and bringing Zakalwe back to the Culture. What her cheeky drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw hasn’t told her is that the Culture isn’t precisely sure where Zakalwe is. He doesn’t want her to know that this might all be a wild goose chase. When the Ship Xenophobe (Xeny to its friends) throws a party, both it and the drone go to great lengths to stop the crew from asking Sma where they are headed. It results in some delightful, laugh out loud, slapstick shenanigans. Banks understands comedy, even if he does rely on the classic forms.
Zakalwe has been found. With no arm-twisting required he agrees to another assignment on behalf of the Culture. While conducting target practice in the cargo hold of a Culture ship Zakalwe is introduced to a unique form of fire suppressant:
The novel is called Use of Weapons. I think I know why:
Zakalwe is invited to a dress-up party organised by those who rule the city of Solotol. He comes dressed as a spaceman; everyone else wears their favourite form of mutilation:
In spite how much of the novel centres on Zakalwe, I’m finding it difficult to say more about him other than he’s a burnt out soldier carrying out the missions the Culture are too prim and proper to sort out themselves. What is clear though is Zakalwe’s appreciation of bulky, old-fashioned weaponry – specifically his plasma rifle.
The Culture’s Special Circumstances unit plays a significant role in Player of Games, but it’s in this novel that we get – at least from Sma’s perspective – a rationale for why they exist in the first place. Sma’s last line here is a far more menacing than I think it’s intended to be.
The Gist Of It
My key takeaway from Use of Weapons: The Culture are a pack of pricks.
I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in The Player of Games given they were dealing with a xenophobic, militaristic and colonialist culture that could threaten them if left unchecked. But in Use of Weapons we see that it’s more than just self-defence – The Culture, for all their high-minded principles, are actively manipulating and moulding any society that holds a different viewpoint, whether it’s a belief in God or a distrust of artificial intelligence.
Because they hold a policy of non-interference, to achieve their covert aim they employ aliens and humanoids from other cultures. And it’s here where their bastardry is most evident. Ignoring background checks – something that should be a matter of course – The Culture plucks anyone who has a strategic mind, is courageous and has no issue getting their hands bloody. If that person happens to be a psychopath or suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome for crimes previously committed, they don’t care as long as said person follows through on their mission. What Banks does so brilliantly in this novel is that he makes it all seem – at first – to be a bit of a lark. You get the feeling from Sma’s patter with her drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw that finding Zakalwe is a pain in the arse, interrupting the fun and games of having parties and fucking photographers. There’s a moment when Zakalwe, on a mission and in danger, contacts Sma who seems to be in the midst of an orgy which she continues while he seeks assistance. Influencing other civilisations shouldn’t get in the way of a good shag.
Like The Player of Games, there’s a James Bond vibe to Zakalwe’s missions which again suggests that not much is at stake. Except as we discover, as the novel unfolds, what’s at stake is a man’s sanity, if he ever had it to begin with. While not all the alternating chapters that move backwards through Zakalwe’s life are successful – he seems to get injured or mutilated a great deal, and there’s a sameness to his past missions – as the novel approaches its climax we being to understand, or appreciate who Zakalwe was. Just when we think we have the measure of the man Banks throws in a revelation, a twist, that only highlights the utter carelessness and apathy of The Culture. It’s a shocking, gut-punch of a moment, one that puts all the shenanigans, all the near misses, all the banter into dark focus. The Culture are the villains in this novel, uncaring, unethical, unjust.
I know there are those – including Banks – who view The Culture as an optimistic future for humanity. And, yes, a society free of capitalism, a civilisation where everyone works together, where people are free to embrace whatever they desire, is a lovely dream. But if that same society ignores the evils performed on their behalf, even if it’s done all hush hush, then I’m not convinced there’s much to be optimistic about.