Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Use of Weapons

One of the things I find interesting about the Culture books (I have now read three, all this year) is their implicit self-criticism. It's clear that as a civilization, the Culture thinks rather highly of itself, and that it has plenty of reason for it. Mortals aren't likely to get any closer to perfection. That it still has need for Special Circumstances, that SC has its uses for broken people, makes it plain without actually saying so that paradise is far from perfect.

Of course, if everything was perfect there wouldn't be a plot. The books generally use the Culture itself as a backdrop, a source of contrasts and grist for philosophizing; the story itself comes out of wilder, more barbarous places where drama is still in vogue. Hardly any of Use of Weapons takes place in the Culture at all, but it is always present even when silent. The story is much smaller in scope than the last one I read (Matter). It is, basically, all about this one guy and the various wars he finds himself in. I am tempted to shelve it next to The Lions of al-Rassan, which is also about war, why we do it, why we don't, what human life should be about and what it often is instead.

In my last Banks review I mentioned that his characters are difficult to get inside. They tend to be either distant or fairly unlikeable. This one gets much, much deeper into an individual character, getting the closest I have come so far to sympathy, so that halfway through this book I wanted to smack the author on his behalf--he goes through an awful lot in the course of this book. You could certainly argue that he brings it on himself, but there were several points where I put the book down for a moment and thought it would be awfully nice if he would catch a break, just once.

At the end, I wanted to smack Banks again, but for entirely different reasons. He had a perfectly fine story and just had to throw in a twist that threw this reader right out of said story and into indignant WTF?!-land. It's a cheap gotcha, and at a remove of five minutes after finishing the book, I am unable to reconcile it with the rest of what happens--it creates a huge, inexplicable, human-nature-defying hole, and the only way I can rescue it from itself is to think that we are treated at the end to an unreliable speaker. The alternatives seem to be:
  • SC can't tell when they have a certified sociopath on their hands, in which case what good are they
  • SC knows and doesn't care, in which case the normally entertaining question of their moral authority has been definitively answered in the negative
  • the character in question is no longer a sociopath, which means that in a book that is 3/4 back-story, the author decided to leave out a crucial point of character development purely so he could say "ha ha" at the end, which is a dick move in my opinion
If you read the story straight, everything he does makes sense; Zakalwe's motives are explicable if not always reasonable, and the fact that he has more hang-ups than a coat closet is not terribly surprising.

Finish the story, and there is this vast sucking sound as a lacuna labeled WHY? appears in the middle of it. Somebody who would do that is so far around the bend that the light from sanity will never reach them. To even think up something like that means that you are the kind of person who lies awake at night trying to invent new and exciting ways to be psychotic; it's not a crime of passion, not an accident, not something that you're going to wake up from the next day thinking "hey, maybe I shouldn't have done that...." It is not something that could in any conceivable universe be atoned for, and it makes complete hash out of everything that happens afterward (time-line speaking -- the novel unfolds past and present in parallel).

On another note, I also find it interesting that Banks can't seem to write women, or doesn't want to (Zelazny never got the hang of it either). Djan Seriy in Matter doesn't come across too badly, and Diziet Sma has her moments, but one doesn't get any particular sense of these people as being female. Apparently, you either get to be a desexualized action hero or an oversexed manipulator.

I'm going to read this one again, see if maybe I missed something that will be obvious in hindsight, but I'm also likely to exercise what I call fan prerogative and pretend the ending is different. (It's my brain, I can do that if I want.) Or maybe I'll go read something cheerful instead....


Adrienne Martini said...

I'm actually a big fan of Use of Weapons but admit that I've not read it in 15 years or so. Maybe my opinion would be different now, especially after this post that makes me think about the central issue more than I did at the time.

As for what next: I recommend Against a Dark Background and Whit (not SF) if you want to see what he does with a female character.

RJS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RJS said...

Well, I loved it right up to that last 20 pages. :) If he had just killed her I might be willing to buy it, though I would still have a lot of questions. But not with the whole chair business.

I am hoping to reread it soon and see if there are all kinds of really subtle clues that mean it makes sense after all, in which case I will apologize, but honestly--I have not been this annoyed with an author since _The Darkest Road_.

I have read a couple of his non-SF books and was iffy on them, but I'll look for that one.