Iain M. Bank’s Use of Weapons

Iain M. Bank’s Use of Weapons is an interesting SF novel about the Special Circumstances division of the Culture. Banks plays with the narrative structure to tell two stories about different people, who we’re led to believe are stories about the same individual.

The Culture is indebted to the imperialistic, white man’s burden of British history as well as the policing/meddling of post-WWII America. Banks portrays the Culture as an anarchistic collective of worlds filled with people who follow “agreed upon objectives” instead of “orders.” Also, the Culture is made out to be an altruistic bunch, who have the good of others as well as the galaxy in mind. Actually, it’s Minds with a capital M, A.I.s, that determine what’s best for the destiny of other worlds not yet part of the Culture. In a sense, Banks’ universe is full of machines that incidentally contains people who go rushing about with knees bent to fulfill the simulated vision of the machines.

I don’t buy into the altruism of the Culture, and I’m not sure if Banks wants us to do so either. In Use of Weapons, the protagonist, Zakalwe is a mercenary who implements the Culture’s plans for other worlds. The omniscient narrator describes his thoughts on this about a third of the way through the novel:

[He] saw that which cannot be seen; a concept; the adaptive, self-seeking urge to survive, to bend everything that can be reached to that end, and to remove and to add and to smash and to create so that one particular collection of cells can go on, can move onwards and decide, and keeping moving, and keeping deciding, knowing that–if nothing else–at least it lives.

And it had two shadows, it was two things; it was the need and it was the method. The need was obvious; to defeat what opposed its life. The method was that taking and bending of materials and people to one purpose, the outlook that everything could be used in the fight; that nothing could be excluded, that everything was a weapon, and the ability to handle those weapons, to find them and choose which one to aim and fire; that talent, that ability, that use of weapons (159-160).

Zakalwe is a tool of the Culture. However, he enjoys the things that he’s assigned to do. The people that Zakalwe and the Culture manipulate are objectified as means to an end. As a result of their work, real people suffer and die. Yes, it can be argued that the Minds are attempted to reduce the amount of suffering in the universe, but altruism on a macro scale is problematic, because statistically there is unlikely they’ve collected enough data from previous altruistic work with control groups (as mentioned in Banks’ “The State of the Art”) to effectively gauge the “right” course of action. Also, the unique factors in any given conflict on a variety of worlds with different mores and cultural norms would make understanding a conflict, much less guessing the best course of action, mind numbingly complex to the nth degree (I don’t care how mind boggling intelligent and inductive the Minds are–Banks makes them seem too godlike).

There is a redeeming quality to Zakalwe in the Use of Weapons. As Le Guin uses a bargain to establish the utopia of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Banks uses Zakalwe as a character that makes the Culture utopia possible. He’s made to suffer physically and psychically so that the Culture may do the things it sees best, and Zakalwe gets to enjoy the life he wants to lead despite its many discomforts. Essentially, he gets his hands dirty so that others don’t have to. By extension, the Green Berets in Vietnam or Special Forces in the Global War on Terrorism serve a similar purpose to maintain the American World Power hegemony, which may be described as an “American utopia.” Yet, Zakalwe chooses to take responsibility for the things that he’s done.

Banks engages questions about utopias that many earlier authors neglected. What is the real nature of utopia? He approaches this through a singular cynical humor that can be quite enjoyable, but you don’t always know if he’s joking. Also, he builds his utopia on narrative voices that aren’t particularly human such as with the multitudinous machines and different species. Additionally, he uses opposing or shifting dialogs to present different yet overlapping stories in the novel to further explore the Culture’s utopia.

Use of Weapons is a fun novel to read, but there are some character decisions that clash with what we’re led to believe is their history. This causes a bit of confusion, but it’s all explained in the end. It would also be useful to read more about the utopian framework of the Culture in Banks’ novella, “The State of the Art.” To learn more about the author and his works, check out his official website here.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.