Saturday, April 10, 2010

Culture reread III: Use of Weapons

Use of Weapons

"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 teh 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." (ibid, 154)

-First time I read this it was rather out of 'chronological sequence' with the others, doing it in order of publication I can see how it's a logical next trend in the series. Consider Phlebas was the introduction to the Culture, the most conventional space-opera in some ways. More generally it was a narrative debate on whether the Culture deserved to survive, whether it had the necessary strength to sacrifice comfort in war, and if so whether their continued existence would be a good thing. All the other books are post Idiran War, and about working out different implications of the Culture continuance. The Player of Games shows their interference in an outside dystopia, with a lot more subtlety than just dismantling their empire by force. Player of Games also introduced the idea of mercenaries, outside contractors for Special Circumstances used to do the really dirty business. From that, it's a logical next step to look at one of these mercenaries, and probe the tangled ethics of Serving the Greater Good.

-I'm not generally bothering with spoiler warnings here, my assumption is that being here embraces seeing the endings to all the Culture books. Here, though, I'll emphasize that there is a major twist in the process of the character that will ruin a lot of the benefit of reading it untampered.
-I didn't love this one the first time. Admired the themes and overall flow of the narrative, but wasn't consistently caught up in it, appreciated individual scenes but not the larger whole. I think partly I wasn't properly attuned to the different timeline, the way all the incidents folded together. This time, knowing the big benchmarks for the life of Elethiomel (henceforth to be referred to as Zakalwe) make the focus clearer. More than anything it was a case of the tangled chronology working for the emotional energy of the work, rather than undercutting it. So, this is a work that's really benefited from a rereading, and I have to say it's pretty great. Not perfect, and at some level I still admire its construction more than I'm caught up in it, and would still say I prefer The Player of Games by a bit. It's certainly a meaningful narrative, though, and a strong accomplishment.

-So, Zakalwe. Fantastic character, all told. His introductory scene was one of the more striking of the series, and there's an energy and level of detail to him that makes him well-constructed. From his somewhat passive aggressive conversation pretending to be naive to his genuine ambivalence about doing the right thing to his utter ruthlessness in pursuit of an objective--it all hangs together, and produces many moments that are distinctively Zakalwe-ish (except not, obviously, which brings a considerable level of irony).
-On a reread, the fact that he wasn't the real Zakalwe looks pretty obvious. The way he obsesses about the chair, and in the context of actions he's done, not just an atrocity he's witnessed. Plus the point where he imagines being confronted by the ghost of the real Zakalwe--it's phrased ambiguously enough not to be a giveaway at first, but with hindsight it's a pretty clear sign. And of course the whole thing with the bone fragment, once the background on that is given.
-It makes for a powerful twist, but it does leave a little bit too much unanswered. We presume he killed his cousin/lover and forged her bones into a chair not because he was the kind of sadist that would enjoy that sort of thing but for a calculated strategic reason, the cold logic that told him it would drive the real Zakalwe to suicide and allow his forces to breakout. There's a lot of continuity with that and what the Culture asks him to do periodically, and clearly it becomes important that this subsequent ruthlessness have some greater justification, murder in the service of a higher politics rather than just petty ambition. It makes a fair deal of sense. The problem is, how does someone cold-blooded enough to be the Chairmaker and send the result to one's cousin then be so filled with remorse, self-loathing and an effort to block out the whole event? What, in essence, drove him to seek redemption after being such a monster? The whole picture isn't psychologically impossible, but it needs a bit more context, a clear indication of when and why Zakalwe came to see his action as unjustifiable. Did he know it before making the chair but was so focused on victory he didn't care? Was it after he'd lost the battle and realized he'd been so grotesque for nothing? Years after the fact he came to obsess about it more and more? It makes a great deal of difference, and is the pivotal moment of the character's life, but Banks leaves that obscured. To make for the more powerful force of the plot, naturally, but this does make the psychology a bit more dubious.

-On a thematic level, of course, it plays well with the Culture, the question of their own involvement with sordid violence and betrayal in the greater good. I'd say that this story more than the previous one's resists a simplistic stance on the issue. There seem reasonable things at stake for everything the Culture does, they are working to good intents and with generally good results. The story doesn't deliver a message that they should stay uninvolved, keep their hands clean and allow others to suffer/die at a remove. Yet, it's not exactly a full endorsement of Special Circumstances. It's not just the gap between immoral acts and the eventual supposed benefit, in some ways Banks again cheats by having the Minds and statistical record come down in favor of the success rates. It's the mindset that's behind SC, the same presumption as Zakalwe--use of weapons, and everything is a weapon. No limits set a ruthless amoral mentality. I talked with Player of Games about how alarming and self-contained SC seemed, and here that comes in force even more. Not just because they do ugly things but because to be effective they are clearly adopting the same amoral utilitarian view that makes Zakalwe so useful to them.
-On a more direct level, there's also the question of how much Special Circumstances knew about Zakalwe's past. We can take it as a given that Sma and proably the drone were ignorant, but can we vouch the same for others? The Minds? At the end it didn't take the Xenophobe long at all to dig up the records and show that the actual Zakalwe had died. Given that, I don't see a way in which they aren't complicit in his past, and in giving him power after the fact. Either the organization knew, at some level, what he'd done and chose to employ him regardless, or they didn't care to look very hard in the past of their mercenaries. Both are highly dubious.

-As well, I have to say that I found Skaffen-Amtiskaw a much creepier character ultimately, even with the revelation on the chairmaker. Mostly just the way it's slaughter of the medeival troops was set up, how complete its physical power over them was, and the way it took pleasure in ripping them apart. It reminded me a lot of a scene in Richard Morgan's Market Forces, where two (basically) mercenaries head out for some hard drinking on the town. They encounter some people trying to jack their car, one guy shoots and kills them all, including one after he tried to surrender. The man justified it with extended self-defense and them only being criminal scum anyway, but it's clear in retrospect that he went into the zones to provoke a threat, so he could respond with disproportionate force. Reminds me a lot of Skaffen-Amtiskaw, the way it waited until there was an order for defense and then struck back sadistically, knife missile against people with swords. Given that incident Skaffen-Amtiskaw appears consistently shady, and some moments like it caefully looking after Sma and removing her shoes just come across as creepy. This really does raise a question on what kind of people seek out SC. Altruists genuinely seeking to do good, certainly. But as well if there are direct sociopaths in the Culture, they would also have an appeal for this kind of sphere. That Skaffen-Amtiskaw was able to get in through their apparently rigorous selection processes is somewhat alarming.

-When exactly do the two "prologues" take place, the one at the opening and close? It makes a fair difference in interpreting the Zakalwe's journey.

-The setting here is a lot less developed than with Player of Games. There are some interesting details but on the whole it's little more than window-dressing for the moral questions involved with interference or non-involvement.

-It's a testament to how good Banks is as a writer that he can make the crucial plot tension come with effectively an anticlimax. Zakalwe is told to leave the Hegemonarchy that he's been working to build up, ensuring they will lose the war. He struggles for a bit but goes along with it, trusting in the longer-term process that may deliver a greater good. This is anticlimatic not just because things don't happen--his key decision is not calling down an a strike with the starship--but because it's also him failing to assert independence, choosing to be obedient to the dictates of Special Circumstances, confirming himself as a weapon to be used by others for the long-term benefit. It's one of the defining moments for Zakalwe in his effort to be an effective servant of a greater end and so gain some escape from himself and redemption for his acts. And then we find out there there really can't be redemption, that his sins were so bad he'll never be able to forgive himself and will certainly never be forgiven by those that also saw the chair. Makes for a good moment.

-One of the ways the Culture appears more dubious here is that the long-term ends are a bit nebulous. Preventing an apocalyptic war is clearly a good thing, but all SC people approach this as just another mission, the type of catastrophe that will always be happening or not happening somewhere. Important, but not crucial, so in ways the gain from the mission seem less real than the means used to attain it. Perhaps that was always going to be the case with means and ends, but it seems stronger here. Did like the debate over environmentalism that eventually was shown as about altering a gas giant.

-Beychae offers one of the stronger critiques of the Culture's interference. To my knowledge, it's also one of the only ones in the series where a member of the species being interfered with provides an effective objection. Unlike Horza he doesn't presume the Culture is unrelenting and too machine-ey in their actions, instead he sees them as being a bit willfully blind, assuming that their specific standard needs to be applied. Particularly strong is his comment that the Culture "can sometimes appear to be insistent that deliberate intermixing is not just permissible but desirable; almost a duty." Here's one of the more delicious ironies of the whole venture--the Culture is about tolerance and diversity, but in part they're also about stifling that by pushing others to be more tolerant and diverse. It's an inherent paradox--is it really more moral to stand by and let preventable violence occur?--and in the end Beychae does agree that in this case he can no longer be passive, he should work to stop the Humanists. I'd say the point is sustained, though, in the way that the Culture is simultaneously one of the most and least tolerant societies imaginable. At a certain point it's something that has to be dealt with in most interactions, unless one takes state sovereignty as a complete moral absolute which I don't. But the point is worth taking that here a thoughtful, fairly progressive man whose had extended dealings with the Culture's methods speculates that they may be overly simplistic in their assumption of what's better. Pragmatic as the Culture is it does tend to go for some unified constants--basic morality across species, relative hedonist constants, a general progressive narrative of history that leads societies towards a general path. Which is problematic in a number of easily imagined ways, most directly the whole idea of aliens. Maybe it's not just an aesthetic failure on Banks' part that makes most of his alien societies very humanoid, and the non-humanoid ones relatively simplistic. Arguably it's a format necessary for some of the basic assumptions to hold up. Certainly the fact that the main society in Use of Weapons are basically the same as Earth humans is necessary for the basic concept to work as it does.

-Here's the first demonstration of an alternative Special Circumstances operation, a group that agrees in modifying other societies but does so differently than the mainstream Culture would. (Other actions of this type feature in Inversions and, to an extent, in Excession) Specifically with what Zakalwe was doing early on, giving extended life to Ethnarchs in exchange for good behavior and then taking some of that life away. The conclusion here is that Zakalwe's interference was ill considered, very likely to blow up in everyone's faces, and didn't consider obvious things Culture children learned in childhood. To an extent this is obviously a patronizing and somewhat hypocritical attitude, but I'd agree that with this type of substantive meddling in other societies it's probably better not to have one lone renegade with a redemption complex pulling it off. If there's a community, a network, there can be dialog, discussion, some restraint on the crazier ideas. Plus with Zakalwe there's the basic idea why it's not good to give him much unsupervised power. If there is to be top-down restructuring, better to have it as a coherent entity like Special Circumstances rather than an amateur. I'm not sure SC is in itself the best entity for this role, however, and the attitude of exclusion and single-group domination of this process is fairly troubling. See again the whole process of hiring Zakalwe in the first place.

Similar to and better than: Richard Morgan's Woken Furies
Similar to and worse than: Iain M. Banks' Look to Windward

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