October 3rd, 2012
I realize this is the second time I’ve somewhat randomly dumped a large splurge of thoughts on an Iain M. Banks book, but hey, it’s my site. There is nothing to do with Fedora or Red Hat here. But I suspect there’s a reasonable degree of overlap between F/OSS people and Banks fans, so that should be fine.
I finished re-reading Use of Weapons (the third Culture book) for about the sixth time today, and was interested in looking at some of the available criticism of it, so I looked through a few online reviews. I found them, frankly, frustratingly shallow and incomplete; I think the sheer brilliance, subtlety and depth of the book is not widely appreciated. (I was also incredibly annoyed that there was a Guardian book club event, a detailed in person discussion of the book with Banks, a measly two bloody months ago, which I entirely missed. Gah. Would’ve flown to London for that.) Most of what follows was written as comments on various reviews, so it’s not really structured as a standalone review and starts out quite randomly, but I wanted to pull it all together for my own page, I wasted too long writing it all to just dump it. Note that UoW has a very spoil-able plot and these comments comprehensively spoil it, so don’t read this if you have not read the book. Go read the book, because it’s one of the best books of the 20th century, then come back and read this. Mainly this is for people who do what I do, poke around the internet randomly for UoW criticism, in the probably forlorn hope that it might help to shine a light on what a great book it is, in my mind far superior to almost all his other books (the only that’s close, in my mind, is Inversions, which is similarly brilliantly subtle and similarly poorly understood.)
There is one element to the ‘why a chair?’ question (active in several discussions of the book, with many people missing the point entirely…) that seems never to be brought up: in one of the scenes of the four children, there is a point where they each learn some sort of manual skill.
“Livueta wanted to take up metalwork too, but her father would not allow her to; it was not seemly. She persevered. He would not relent. She sulked. They compromised, on carpentry.
The boys made knives and swords, Darckense pots, and Livueta the furniture for a summerhouse, deep in the estate.”
It’s not just that Cheradenine finds Darckense and Elethiomel having sex on a small, white chair; it’s a small, white chair that Liveuta built with her own hands. It is one of the objects that ties all four of them together, in a horribly twisted way. Throughout the book, any object or event that ties all four together has unique significance to Elethiomel/Cheradenine.
Some people consider it an act of sheer psychosis or plain evil, but that’s not it at all. Elethiomel constructing a chair from Darckense’s bones and sending it to Cheradenine and Livueta is…intentionally, on Elethiomel’s part, a quite terrible irony; as some reviewers have pointed out, one of the crowning examples of Elethiomel’s talent, the ‘use of weapons’ that recurs throughout. It is a precisely targeted psychological weapon. (Also note that by the time Elethiomel sends it, Elethiomel and Cheradenine between them have destroyed all the physical remains of their shared past; this recreation of just one solitary element of it is clinical.) You have to take into account the sheer desperation of Elethiomel’s position in the war at this point. It’s made quite clear that his position is virtually hopeless, as bad as his position in any of the scrapes he later gets into. He is besieged in a permanently beached ship, in control of that ship and a single city. All on Cheradenine’s side are quite convinced that the war is won, the remaining issue is only how to achieve Elethiomel’s surrender at minimal cost. The chair is a quite terrible weapon, but it is uniquely effective, as potent a demonstration of Elethiomel’s ‘use of weapons’ as any in the book; it almost wins him a hopeless war. Just killing Darckense would not have had the same effect, nor would torturing her, threatening her, even sending her body to Cheradenine would not have ‘worked’. The chair is a precisely calculated move. Elethiomel is not psychotic, though he may well be sociopathic (but then, so is Cheradenine, possibly more so).
Unintentionally on Elethiomel’s part, it’s a sad mockery of creation, the only form of creation of which he is truly capable (witness his attempts at poetry, later). Again, the childhood experience is important here; the two girls both choose creative pursuits, Elethiomel and Cheradenine choose to make weapons. This is echoed by the lives of Elethiomel, who makes a career of war, and Livueta, who makes a career of healthcare.
There’s far too much focus in UoW criticism on the Culture; the book is about Elethiomel/Cheradenine, it is his story, all the rest is backdrop. As Banks noted in an interview, he wrote the first version of UoW before any other Culture book and originally invented the Culture simply as a backdrop for Elethiomel’s story, the Culture were intended to be unambiguously ‘good’ guys to focus the narrative on Elethiomel. This is still the function they serve in the final book. If you read the other Culture books it’s easy to attach too much importance to the Culture in UoW, but UoW is not really about the Culture. If you want a book that’s much more about the kind of stuff people try to discuss when discussing UoW, the Culture’s interventionism, you want Inversions or The Player of Games. In UoW the Culture are just the good guys. The point of the byzantine games the Culture plays in several of the episodes, particularly the Hegemonarchy one, isn’t really to make you question the Culture’s motives or philosophy or achievements, it’s to highlight elements of Elethiomel’s character and motivations; it’s necessary to our understanding of Elethiomel, for several reasons, that he is put in the position where he is expected to lose, while believing he is expected to win – and more than once, at different stages of development. UoW is a novel of character and motivation; the plot is incidental, the background is incidental, all other characters (besides the four key ones) are incidental or exist only to reflect on Elethiomel. Yes, even Sma.
I could write a book on it, maybe I should, but to dip into just a few things that seem to be completely missed by most criticism:
* The careful design of the ‘past’ chapters. They are not random vignettes from Elethiomel’s past. They are a quite linear story told in very precisely constructed incidents. Almost every one involves Elethiomel, a war, a woman, and a chair. The fact that this motif remains central, unchanging, while the nature of the war and the circumstances in which it takes place vary wildly, is quite intentional.
* The extent to which the trope of the ‘use of weapons’ prevails throughout the book. Elethiomel himself is a weapon, a fact of which he is quite aware, for instance. Virtually every action he takes, throughout all his attempts at reinvention and whatever else, can be understood as a ‘use of weapons’.
* The question of what Elethiomel is trying to achieve at various key points in the book. The scene just before the twist, where he abandons the Hegemonarchy, is usually either entirely ignored or briefly skimmed over, but it’s a key scene, and a slippery and difficult one. So much criticism seems to take Elethiomel’s own explanations of what he is doing as gospel, which is strangely unsophisticated. Elethiomel never quite understands what it is he is doing; he’s quite open about this at various points through the book. He is not really attempting to prove that he can be a good person in contrast to his past, he is not attempting to atone for his sins or anything as simple as that. Everything that happens in the book is important to Elethiomel only as a reflection of his past, he spends the entire book attempting to understand it, to understand himself. Many critics seem to consider the structure of the novel only in the context of the ‘final twist’, but it’s far more complex and subtle than that. The explicit self-descriptions of motivation that are usually quoted all come from early in Elethiomel’s personal history. The truth comes at the end, but is not stated, as he abandons his sole talent, his use of weapons (the point in his walk at which he refuses to kill a soldier is critical), and attempts a form of self-destruction before he goes to meet Livueta. There’s so little attention paid to the actions Elethiomel does not take. He never takes the Culture’s offer to just stop doing what he does, to live with them or anywhere else as a normal person. At the end of the Hegemonarchy segment he doesn’t simply let Sma take him away, or keep his morning appointment to be taken away, but he isn’t simply suicidal; he completes his walk and then signals the Culture to extract him (they don’t take him away against his will). His walk is a renunciation of his methods, his skills and abilities, and a strange attempt at self-punishment, self-destruction, before his meeting with Livueta; he has the idea, without understanding it, that he must be damaged when he meets her.
God, this is getting long, but some quick hits, tricky questions to keep in mind when re-reading which illustrate the depth of the book:
* What is Elethiomel’s ‘obsession’, which he tests with the torch in the century ship? Why is it related to his abortive suicide attempt? Why does he not know how to die when the torch goes out? Why does he always court death and never quite embrace it? (The answer to this question changes throughout his history, and the true answer is different from the various answers Elethiomel comes up with himself.)
* What are the implications of the surprisingly numerous scenes in the book in which different characters look through windows at snow?
* How do Elethiomel’s methods change throughout his career, viewed strictly in a linear way? Particularly with regards to the way he interacts with and uses other people? What are the implications of this? How about his understanding of his own capabilities, and of the nature of conflict?
* What exactly is the significance in Elethiomel’s mind of the stone chip in his chest, and the relationship between the stone ship on which they test the gun and the Staberinde? Why the repeated emphasis, in Elethiomel’s remembrances, on the potency of the Staberinde (in implied contrast to the stone ship)?
* Why does Elethiomel think about killing the frozen woman on the century ship? Why doesn’t he do it? Why did Banks include the scene at all?
* ‘Why did Banks include the scene at all?’ is a good question to ask at all points in the book, in fact. It’s not for the plot. It’s never for the plot.
* What exactly does Elethiomel’s late career mean? Remember, it’s pretty packed: he retires, he comes back for another job, he goes rogue, and then he comes back without any kind of a fight when Sma asks him to. Why? What’s his actual frame of mind? Why does he only start asking the Culture to find Livueta at that late stage?
* Not to get Freudian, but what’s the significance of Elethiomel’s parents, and the Zakalwes’? What’s the impact of the uneven grouping, that there are two boys and two girls but three of them are siblings? What is the relationship between Cheradenine and Livueta, between Elethiomel and Livueta? What’s the importance of the rather neglected childhood episode where Elethiomel nearly kills Cheradenine?
* What does the contrast between the two poems written by two women about Elethiomel tell us?
* Not a question, but note the neatness of Skaffen’s almost unthinking, instinctive ‘use of weapons’ – oh, such weapons, far beyond even Elethiomel’s capabilities – “to do good” at the very end of the main narrative.
I really should stop there But it’s a great book, most of the things identified as flaws in it are not flaws, and it is far deeper, subtler and more consciously structured and designed than it is given credit for. I’ve read it six times and I’m nowhere near the bottom of it yet. I don’t know if I know the answers to half those questions yet. It goes all the way down. And it’s all about Elethiomel.
(This part in response to a debate in one comment thread on whether the Culture knew Elethiomel’s ‘secret’ history): I don’t think any part of the Culture knows Elethiomel’s true identity or personal history at any point before Skaffen discovers it. The way Skaffen’s part of that chapter is written seems to make it quite clear that Elethiomel’s origin planet is unresearched by the entire Culture, not just by Diziet and Skaffen. The Culture finds him during the war on the tabular icebergs, a war in which it is implied that the Culture is interfering. They recruit him on the basis of that experience, not on the basis of his further past. My reading, anyhow. The other reading is possible but not really supported by any part of the text as I see it. Anonymous wrote “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.”, but it’s only easy for Skaffen because he’s on the planet where it’s easy to access the history. It’s clearly stated that Culture had never previously done a serious analysis of the planet. The Culture’s powers are considerable but not infinite; they can mess with a planet from a distance of at least one light year, but there is definitely a limit on this range, and the universe of the Culture series is huge, the Culture travels and acts across far far far larger distances than it can directly affect. It seems pretty clear the Culture can’t fiddle with a planet from, say, a thousand light years away. It’s also fairly clearly implied that Elethiomel never told the Culture where he was from until quite late in the timeline the novel covers; as I wrote, the Culture found him in the tabular iceberg war and there are various points in the book where it seems to be made clear that they don’t know where he was originally from, probably until he starts asking to meet Livueta for the first time at least.