Thoughts on Iain M. Banks' 'Use of Weapons', as I have nowhere else to put them

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.


DaveH wrote on 2012-10-10 06:52:
If you want to discuss things like this try in particular
Me wrote on 2013-10-21 10:07:
Thank you for taking the time to write this first-rate analysis of the book. More people should read this!
B wrote on 2014-05-01 07:39:
Good thoughts and questions. Use Of Weapons is a fine mythology on the topic of forgiveness, a favorite story of mine to be sure. Why I made this:
Kat wrote on 2014-08-01 21:35:
Excellent write-up, thank you. I just finished the book for the second time and was looking for a discussion that wouldn't just annoy me by focusing on stuff like "I don't believe they would recognize her bones". Ugh. I want to mention two things while they're fresh in my head, even if it's unlikely that anyone will read or reply... One is that a lot of people find it difficult to reconcile the lovable rouge persona of "Zakalwe" with the wartime actions of Elethomiel, especially the Chairmaking. I think that's a fair critizism. We have no idea what Elethomiel's motivations were for going to war, except that it's hinted that his father is imprisoned for the same reason. It would have been useful for understanding to know something of Elethomiel's state of mind at the end of the war. The other is that there is that crucial moment where he decides not to carry out the Decapitation assault with the old space shuttle. He thinks back at another moment when an underling asks him whether to go ahead and he confirms and has to live with the consequences. That is obviously the killing of Darckense and the following breakout attempt. This time he did the opposite, and chose to not act. Possibly because he can't bring himself to use weapons independently of himself being used by the Culture? They already told him to stand down after all. Or is there a deeper moral reason, such as not killing? Seeing as he went back to working for SC I don't think so.
Domurike wrote on 2014-11-16 20:28:
/ Hi! I just finished the book and this is the first one that has led me to forums to try to put my mind in some conclusion about what I just read. I've read a couple of thing, and this has been the most through comments about the book so far. What comes might seem a bit naive, but these are the very first things in my mind, maybe they are useful. When I finished the book, my very first impression was not that Cheradenine was Elethiomel and period, like "I said I was this, but I was that". I was led to a different understanding based on two things: 1. Cheradenine playing with the frozen woman in the ship, her body and her 'mind' in a glowing cube or something; 2. Livueta in the twist: "He stole my brother's name, he stole my brother's life"; Obviously, a person speaking about stolen lives has a quite clear meaning... generally. In this case, summed with such a clearly defined and described technology for storing minds, led me at that moment to think Elethiomel didn't simply started saying he was Cheradenine. Considering how well Elethiomel mastered the Use of Weapons - as Cheradenine himself defined before his suicide -, he could have hidden himself implanting another's memory, sort of disguising himself even from himself. And considering he just did some nasty shit to the Zakalwe family, I suppose it would be just a tiny little last thing - and maybe some sort of victory over Cheradenine - to steal his mind, maybe backed up during the process of trying to save his life, implant in himself and run away. That's not very easy to explain strategically because Elethiomel's circumstances after breaking out are not clear. Sure, maybe he could have just run away, or maybe he was so psychotic that he needed some victory over Cheradenine, since the war itself was lost and gone. We could track all that to he being angry because the Zakalwes defeated him like his father has been defeated before etc, or the "just psychotic" explanation, but that's just me wondering from this point on. I think that's pretty tight in explaining how Elethiomel was so damn cruel - it made perfect sense strategically, so much that he managed to escape, which is the best that could be done - and later on suffers so much about what happened. This is important. He doesn't suffer simply because he couldn't prevent his sister's death, because he killed himself afterwards, because he turned his cousin into a chair and who know what else before that. He suffers because all of these things would be inside him, at the same time. Actually that's why I'm not saying he feels remorse, but just "suffers". He has the killer and the victim inside himself, that's hard enough to sort out even if they didn't have such special circumstances and a long, tumultuous relationship. Again, this might be naive, but the sort of confusion Cheradenine/Elethiomel had during the novel, about his actions and his identity, led me to this conclusion first. Even the Decapitation event mentioned before feels like it was Cheradenine and Elethiomel balancing themselves, one trying to lend his ruthlessness so the other could act, the other keeping the Use of Weapong talent at bay, considering the people, the circumstances etc not only as weapons (as I suppose the young Cheradenine would still do). For some reason trying to understand this is all I need to feel entirely satisfied about the book. I have all the doubts about so much else, but I can see how it all fits well in the story, so it doesn't bother me much.
teppi wrote on 2014-11-26 19:55:
Thank you for sharing your thoughts! :-)
Adam wrote on 2015-01-19 12:45:
I've just finished re-reading this book for the third (?) time. This was a very interesting read, thanks. Time and time again 'zakalwe' uses things not obviously weapons against his enemies - there is a phrase at some point in the book 'he tried to make them use the weapons they didn't know they had' (poor paraphrasing) when using the dam to sweep away the opposing army in a flashback. By the way... 'The other is that there is that crucial moment where he decides not to carry out the Decapitation assault with the old space shuttle. He thinks back at another moment when an underling asks him whether to go ahead and he confirms and has to live with the consequences. That is obviously the killing of Darckense and the following breakout attempt. ' Thanks for that, missed that, will try and find that part of the book and refresh my memory!
Freyr wrote on 2017-09-02 07:49:
(A few years late to this party) Thank you for this sane analysis, really. All other articles and posts I've found seem to miss the point in all the ways you've said. There's just one thing that isn't clear to me: I've found no really satisfactory explanation as to why he would take Zakalwe's name. Since nobody knows where he's from or what his history is, it's not a use of weapons. In the deep freeze ship he's experimenting with assumed names, and makes one from his step-sisters names, so I guess assuming his step-brother's name is a refined version of that, but why use these personally significant names at all? Maybe a reread will shed some light.
Steven Lidster wrote on 2018-07-18 07:46:
Spoilers.... That Elethiomel became Zakalwe because he had lowered himself to the level of the family that executed his father to build their throne, so he saw himself as Zakalwe now. Zakalwe killed himself because he realized that his family had created the perfect weapon in a soldier who would kill a loved one to win a war, and it cost them Darckense. Elethiomel had to win that war. Half the nation would have suffered under the Zakalwe’s throne. They are morally equivalent at the end. Until then only Zakalwe had built his chair from Eleth’s dad while Elethiomel stood as their captive soldier. It was the start of their war when a throne was metaphorically built out of the bones of Elethiomel’s father, a man who had been like a brother. He was teased as the son of a bad man by the Zakalwe’s It ended when Elethiomel built a chair out of the woman he loved (and then forced himself to believe was his sister.) But the war between Zakalwe and Elethiomel never ends as they argue inside over who made the chair. Who was the Chairmaker? Who started it? The ‘real’ Zakalwe, but really it Doesn’t matter, it ended in a bloody Stalemate with both Eleth’s father and Darckense dead. Loved family members sacrificed to build a matching set of chairs.