Saturday, April 14, 2012

Evilest evil cast upon the future - „Use of Weapons” by Iain M. Banks

I usually try, when writing reviews, not to spoil a given book to its future readers.

This time it is just impossible. All the time that has passed since I read Iain M. BanksUse of Weapons” I have been thinking how to write the review of that incredible, „moral” sci-fi novel. I was deeply thinking about it when I went to meet, face to face, Iain M. Banks recently in Edinburgh’s Waterstones bookstore, even though he was not talking as „Iain M. Banks” — an author of sci-fi books, but as „Iain Banks” — the author of his, so called, mainstream books.

Unfortunately, to write a true and intimate review of „Use of Weapons” seems impossible without revealing some of its secrets — so please be warned — and if you have not read it yet — please better do not read this post. Come here after to share your thoughts with me…


Use of Weapons” is a story of two characters, the archetypal good and equally archetypal evil. However, unlike other stories of the kind, it is far from being a cliche where we have a struggle between „forces of evil” and „forces of good”.  Instead, we have here a profound tale where we discover a blending of good and evil into almost impossible oneness…

The main narrative of „Use of Weapons” is the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe — a man who grown up in a noble family in far future. His childhood and adolescence was relatively happy with two sisters and, from some moment in time, with another boy, Elethiomel, who was his foster-brother. Beyond the few chapters about his young life, we know very little about him.  Then a war starts and he becomes a soldier. His foster-brother leads the enemy side. At the final stage of the war, the fighting or rather a deadlock in it, becomes so intense, that the foster-brother invents a cruelest way to crush his opponent — he murders Zakalwe’s sister, (who, incidentally, was also his foster-sister …)  and announces it to him in a most cruel way — the way that later becomes a leitmotif of a false remorse ...

Cheradenine, both depressed and correctly judging his slim chances to win, and knowing that his surrender can bring long awaited end of the war, in the act of utmost sacrifice — commits suicide…
And the peace comes... And this ends the story of the good, though we wait to the last pages of the book to discover it…

From now on, the most of the book portraits the evil. I must note, that literaly the concept of  "from now on" is not well defined in the novel. The temporal relations are deeply entangled, but lets say "from" for the sake of this review.

Elethiomel falsly incarnates into Cheradenine and becomes The Zakalwe. We have no clue how it happened and why. From some of the Zakalwe actions we could gather he tried to redress himself from the horrible sins and crimes he committed. But such thoughts seem to be contradicted by relations of more cruel acts he committed. As life goes on, he develops a kind of approach to his own life, in which he finds at least some acceptance of himself by changing his role:
„It had always seemed to him that the ideal man was either a soldier or a poet, and so, having spent most of his years being one of those — to him — polar opposites, he determined lo attempt to turn his life around and become the other...”
In fact, from this moment, I had some trouble with the character. The book was written in such a way, that, if one reads only superficially — it becomes easy to put oneself on the side of Zakalwe. He is attractive person, ruthless, powerful, yet with „some” grain of remorse. However, deeper reading reveals that the true intent of the author was to show the evil and badness in its purest form.

„(…) given all the things Zakalwe’s done, just since we’ve known him, they’d have to invent a personal deity for him alone, to even start forgiving him.”

Instead of true regret and attempt to redress for his crimes, he plays a life-long game. And finally, to the total moral disgust, he even tries to find an approval for his horrible deeds in the eyes of the sister of both the true Zakalwe and the murdered girl. The same sister who was his mistress in their adolescence. He says:

„Go back: go right back. What was I to do? Go back. The point is to win. Go back! Everything must bend to that truth.”
His attempt to exonerate himself from the crime, trying to prove that the end justified the means, are fruitless. The only leaving member of Zakalwe family rejects him.

„Why do you do this? she said. “Why do you do this ... to him: to me . . . why?  Can’t you just leave us all alone?” (...) Livueta Zakalwe walked out, closing the door behind him.
In the scene that portraits the final and the last rejection, like in Last Judgement, he almost dies from a brain stroke. He is rescued by a drone — perhaps only to feel to the end of his days the pain and the burden of the evilest of evils a human can commit…

I probably should add that the book is written in a very unusual way and its reading is both a great challenge and a specific pleasure. It has a very specific temporal and, so to speak, „spatial” dimension — possible only to sci-fi genre...

Yet it will remain in my mind as a very controversial book — for its apparent yet unspoken admiration to the evil character and its acts:

„But such consummate skill, such ability, such adaptability, such numbing ruthlessness. Such a use of weapons when anything could become weapon... ”

which seems somehow perverse to me. Despite the cold beauty of the language and the meaning of the sentence in the entire experience of its reading.

The discovery of the truth about the character — is the central moral message Banks makes — but it requires some deeper afterthought and I’m not sure how many readers discovered it... For me it took double reading of almost the entire book...

All in all — it is a great and important book, perhaps because of these incredible tension between admiration and condemnation of evil — the evil cast into the future...



Finished in Paris, April 15th, 2012

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