Thursday, June 4, 2020

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

I first heard of Use of Weapons, and maybe even Banks himself, in a comment section on Jeff Vandermeer’s old blog. This could have been a decade ago. While I didn’t get around to reading Banks until 2016, I always remembered the substance of that comment about Use of Weapons which was along the lines of “that really proved once and for all that war is unethical.” That could be why I didn’t get around to Banks for so long. It made it sound as if it were a lecture. And the major theme of the book is indeed the ethics of war and use of force, but it is masterfully structured, beautifully written and compelling throughout. It does make an ethical argument, but it doesn’t do that at the expense of the artistry of the novel. As such, the point is made that much more strongly. Banks wrote science fiction as Iain M and mainstream(ish, they still could pass as genre) novels as Iain. This is my fifth book by him, and third in the scifi category.

All of the scifi books save one were space opera set in the universe of the Culture, a leftist anarchist utopia in which the scarcity problem has been solved. Everyone has everything they need, and so, within the Culture at least, they live peacefully and build their ethics around that. The problem is when they encounter cultures other than their own. Their own citizenry consists of both humans who have genetically engineered themselves to be able to switch genders, cure diseases, give themselves focus or make themselves tipsy using intentionally induced hormones, and give them long lives (3-400 years) among other things, and of AI’s who usually reside in powerful drones or spaceships and are full members of the culture. Their problems with other cultures usually group around their proscription of violence and war, the modifications they’ve made to their bodies, their consideration of AIs as people, or their tendency to try to force other cultures into adopting their way of life. They have a special group, Contact, that works with other cultures. There’s a subgroup within Contact called Special Circumstances that the Culture uses when force is necessary to tip events in another civilization in the way they want.  And therein lies the major ethical dilemma that shapes the novels I’ve read in the series so far; if your ethics require nonviolence, how can you justify the use of force in your interactions with civilizations that disagree. Another major theme in the series is what gives life meaning if you don’t have to strive to survive. But this deals primarily with the first concern, particularly in the “use of weapons” to achieve these goals implied by the title. And while Banks clearly leans more toward the nonviolence and leftist anarchist government, he avoids didacticism, at least in the three I’ve read so far, by putting characters into stories that involve ethical dilemmas and spending minimal time soliloquizing about their philosophy.

The story is told in two strands moving backward and forward in alternating chapters bookended by a prologue and an epilogue that happen after the main action of the novel. Normally I don’t care for prologues in scifi and fantasy, but in this case it works. The forward moving chapters involve the efforts of Special Circumstances operatives, Diziet Sma, a human who is currently female, and an AI drone called Skaffen-Amtiskaw to recruit an operative they’ve used for covert operations before, Cheradanine Zakalwe to help tilt a political situation in a non-affiliated civilization toward their ends. Zakalwe is not of the Culture, though in an operation that saved his life, he allowed the Culture surgeons to give him some of their body modification ability. He is a master tactician, and was clearly involved in some major war before the series of jobs the Culture gave him through Special Circumstances. This in itself is an exciting story. These are juxtaposed against a reverse telling of Zakalwe’s life, moving backward through some of his jobs for the Culture, each good in their own way, to his travel to the system where the Culture recruited him and then back to his home world. The situations he’s put in make the reader, and to some extent, Zakalwe question his actions, particularly the use of force. He himself is a weapon deployed by the Culture and that question is even thornier. There’s a twist at the end that some people have found unnecessary, but I think it hammers home the themes perfectly.

This one of the best science fiction books I’ve ever read, up there with Light by M John Harrison and Babel 17 by Samuel L Delany at the top of my list for the subgenre of space opera. Banks writes great prose and structured the book perfectly. Despite having some fairly heavy ethical questions on its mind, the novel moves along at a great clip. I appreciate that, while the reader clearly knows where Banks’ political position lies, he does not pretend the Culture is perfect or without its contradictions. This complexity is another factor keeping it from tilting into didacticism. Once I got used to the way he names things, I really enjoyed the characterizations as well. This is easily my favorite of the five Banks novels I’ve read, though the incredibly disturbing The Wasp Factory is just as well written. I just prefer this one. I will certainly be reading more, if not all of his books. This can be read on its own, so if you’re only going to give him one sf book, this would be the one I’d recommend so far, though you’ll be adapt more quickly if you’ve read a couple already and are at least a little familiar with the Culture. Of the other two I’ve read I prefer The Player of Games to Consider Phlebas, but both are very good.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 36/75

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