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Literature / Use of Weapons

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Use of Weapons is a science-fiction novel of The Culture by Iain M. Banks. It focuses on Special Circumstances and their extensive use of the Omniscient Morality License via the character of mercenary-extraordinaire Cheradenine Zakalwe, a man from outside of the Culture, but who does their dirty work. The story is told through chapters alternating between those going in normal chronological order and those in reverse order that slowly reveal the main character's Dark and Troubled Past.

This is actually the first novel Iain Banks wrote, although it was published much later. Many consider it his masterpiece.

Use of Weapons provides examples of the following tropes:

  • The Alleged Car: The Church Militant Cheradenine is forced to help out towards the end of the book has been gifted an Alleged Spaceship by some 'generous' alien benefactors. It's on the verge of falling to bits, and after being forced to go through re-entry in this death trap he concludes that the only practical use for it is as a nuke-level Improvised Weapon.
  • All for Nothing: The penultimate stage of the novel showcases Zakalwe pulling out all of his badass-military-commander stops to help an incompetently-run Church Militant win what looks to be a Hopeless War, and succeeding, too... Until he's told by his superiors that he's been backing the wrong side all along, and the society who were his enemies for the past five months will thus be allowed to roll over the city he's been trying so hard to defend. He doesn't take this well.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Diziet Sma is described as having tawny or fawn-colored skin with dark blue-black hair and eyes of the same color.
  • Anachronic Order: It tells one story going forward with alternating chapters going in the opposite direction to provide flashbacks to Zakalwe's past. To make it even more convoluted, sometimes he has flashbacks within the chapters. This is so confusing with respect to the first and last chapters that fans disagree on whether they detail past or future events. One online reviewer jokingly referenced the novel as The Melancholy of Cheradenine Zakalwe.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: Ethnarchnote  Kerian, a decadent, autocratic ruler who has ethnic minorities choked to death with fumes in 'resettlement' trains and harvests the organs of young dissidents to replace his own. Zakalwe, acting this time as a free agent, offers him immortality in exchange for stopping being evil. The Ethnarch is dumb enough to think he can ignore his end of the deal, so Cheradenine breaks into his palace at night and administers Death by Irony. It couldn't have happened to a better person.
  • Arc Words: The Chair and the Chairmaker. The ship that was not a ship.
  • Arc Symbol: The Chair. Whenever a chair appears in the flashbacks Zakalwe makes a point of noticing it and
  • The Atoner: Zakalwe's work for The Culture is an attempt to be one of these, but since a lot of it is dirty work in war settings, he seems to just keep getting burdened by more and more guilt. Although the ending of Surface Detail suggests that he is still trying and has, to an extent, succeeded.
  • Badass Bookworm:
    • Sma is a poet and patron-of-the-arts as well as an extremely competent Special Circumstances operative.
    • Subverted with Cheradenine, who wanted to be a poet (which he thinks of as the opposite of being a warrior), but he found that he had no talent for it.
  • Bait the Dog: For a lot of the book, it's easy to think of Zakalwe as a really cool and badass secret agent and to think that his handlers from the Culture are off-base when they refer to him as a dangerous psycho. Certain events in his past change that impression. Although the Culture—or at least Sma and Skaffen-Amtiskaw, due to the enigmatic nature of Minds—finds out about the events in his past in the same moment the reader finds out about it, at the end of the chronological story.
  • Batman Gambit: Zakalwe's plans usually account for his foe's reaction, most notably at the climax of the book, where he crosses the Moral Event Horizon knowing that his opponent will respond by killing himself.
  • Becoming the Mask: Elethiomel borders on this in a twisted way; part of him really has come to believe that he is Cheradenine.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: This is the Culture's hat throughout the series, but there's a rather good quote about it in this book.
    Cheradenine Zakalwe: You might call them soft, because they're very reluctant to kill, and they might agree with you, but they're soft the way the ocean is soft, and, well; ask any sea captain how harmless and puny the ocean can be.
  • Boats into Buildings: Elethiomel converts the battleship Staberinde into a land-based fortress.
  • Cain and Abel: Cheradenine and Elethiomel Zakalwe are an interesting take on this, as the flashbacks present Cheradenine as something of the Cain, being a jerk to his adopted brother Elethiomel, then it turns out that the Cheradenine of the novel is actually Elethiomel and he did a Moral Event Horizon crossing event that made him the Cain figure.
  • Citadel City: What Elethiomel makes the city the Staberinde is docked at by turning the Staberinde itself (an extremely powerful battleship) into a nigh indestructible fortress (at least until the enemy air force it let off the leash) rooted in the ground.
  • Coitus Uninterruptus:
    • Implied at one point when Zakalwe calls Sma up to report on his mission. She takes his call, but seems... preoccupied.
    • Also in the incident that inspires the later Chairmaking.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Done on both a strategic and tactical level by Zakalwe and Elethiomel, especially in the flashbacks (because the latter has assumed the former's identity). It's not called Use of Weapons just because of the guns. In particular, unconventional warfare plays a huge part in the plot, whether it's Elethiomel's psychological warfare, or the turning of a naval battleship into a fortress rooted into the ground on land. Cheradenine later displays similar strategic flexibility in war later in the book. Minor foreshadowing that the Cheradenine we see throughout most of the book is not the real Cheradenine, who is a far more conventional thinker.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • Before setting out to recover Zakalwe, Sma tells Skaffen-Amtiskaw to "send a stalling letter to that Petrain guy." The novella State of the Art is introduced as a later communication from Sma to Petrain recounting her time on Earth.
    • Later, during the literary equivalent of a Lock-and-Load Montage as Cheradenine prepares for his mission to recover Beychae, one of the weapons he picks up is an Idiran Hand Cannon, which he quickly discards due to it being far too awkward and bulky for human hands. Bearing in mind his normal weapon choice is a massive plasma rifle, this serves as a good reminder of just how imposing the Idirans were.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Skaffen-Amtiskaw, a supremely-advanced sentient Attack Drone built by a Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, against a small group of bandits armed with swords and a few primitive guns. He has far too much fun tearing the attackers into bloody pieces and seriously disturbs Sma, to say the least, as he could just as easily have taken them out non-lethally.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Zakalwe's past isn't exactly rosy, to say the least.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Skaffen-Amtiskaw, more than most Drones, even.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: The protagonist of the novel is actually Elethiomel, who took Cheradenine's identity.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Cheradenine goes through two in the course of the book. The first when Darckense is murdered by Elethiomel and made into a chair. The second after Elethiomel adopts Cheradenine's identity and leads the forces of an unwinnable war to victory but was supposed to lose, ultimately creating a far bloodier disaster than was at all necessary.
  • Death by Irony: Ethnarch Kerian is a genocidal dictator who has ethnic minorities exterminated by forcing them from their land, and onto trains which, they are told, will "resettle" them to a new homeland — said trains fill with exhaust gases and asphyxiate their 'passengers'. When Zakalwe shows up at the end of his bed one night, having disabled his security systems, the mercenary tells him of The Culture and their methods, and suggests he will be "resettled" to somewhere far away where he can do no more harm to his planet. Then he tells Kerian he's no longer part of the Culture, and shoots him.
  • Driven to Suicide: What Elethiomel tried to do with The Chair. In this case the victim knows full well that this is the intention but still goes through with it.
  • Exact Words: Exploited by the narration to keep the twist ending;
    • During a flashback, a piece of Darckense's hip bone gets lodged next to "his" heart, but it's never explicitly said whose heart. The rest of the book implies that it was Cheradenine's, since the fragment is often alluded to, but the ending reveals it was actually Elethiomel's.
    • Another neat bit of wordplay occurs describing the aftermath of the Chairmaking: "The doctors were still struggling to save [Cheradenine's] life when [Elethiomel's] soldiers trapped in the battleship made a break for it. It was a good fight and they almost succeeded." This ambiguity suggests that Cheradenine survived while Elethiomel's forces were defeated, while of course the ending reveals the reverse is true.
  • Exposition of Immortality: Zakalwe, in pillow talk with Shias Engin, tells her he's 220, 110 or 30. He was born 220 years ago, he's lived for 110 of them and he's physically about 30.
  • Fight Fur Your Right to Party: Sma attends a costume party/orgy dressed in a furry-suit modeled on the form taken by a ship's Avatar.
  • Flashback B-Plot: The story is told through chapters alternating between those going in normal chronological order and those in reverse order that reveal Cheradenine Zakalwe's past, which merge in the finale.
  • Futureshadowing:
    • All those references to the atrocious and enigmatic Chairmaker.
    • Each of the chapters that progress "backwards" to the beginning contains at least one sentence which focuses attention on one or more chairs.
  • Genius Bruiser: Zakalwe doesn't look particularly burly, but he definitely fits the trope. He's an insanely competent (and competently insane) soldier, but he's also clearly a genius. Despite coming from outside the Culture, he figured out how to copy several Culture technologies, and can out-think Special Circumstances.
  • The Handler: Diziet Sma, to Zakalwe.
  • History Repeats: Zakalwe is painfully aware that he has a bad habit of repeatedly making the same mistake of over-entrenching in an unwinnable situation and then not withdrawing when he should. He is otherwise depicted as a brilliant military mind, capable of turning the tide in a war despite overwhelming odds. At the end of the book, he accidentally wins an "unwinnable" war he joined the "wrong" side of, at ruinous cost of life and treasure, and when informed, he goes into a Heroic BSoD. Although there is a hint of character development, as Zakalwe relented on using the improvised Nuke.
  • Heroic Comedic Sociopath: Zakalwe himself as well as Sma's drone companion Skaffen-Amtiskaw, though both of them also qualify for the Sociopathic Hero. Skaffen-Amtiskaw's earlier actions during Sma's career definitely, though it seems to have grown older and calmer.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: Played for Laughs, thanks to the Culture's pleasure-enhancing biotech. The first time Zakalwe sleeps with a Culture woman aboard a General Systems Vehicle, she screams so loudly he's initially frightened that he somehow killed her.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Zakalwe's trademark, which gives the book its name. Some are downplayed, like using a stun gun at the maximum setting point blank to make a lethal damage threat, or using a plasma cannon that is for culture standards a relic with more archeological than tactical value, but he also uses a cosmetic surgery machine, plans to use a spaceship as a bomb, kills a man by stuffing his mouth with dried tongues until he chokes to death, gets rid of a knife-missile that was tailing him by rigging a medical imaging machine, and of course kills the opposing army leader by sending him a chair made of his sister's bones and skin, knowing that it will drive him to commit suicide.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: A king wakes up with an assassin in his bedroom. While he's being taunted, the king pulls a gun and tries to fire. The assassin off-handedly shows him the bullets and says, "It works better with these."
  • Kissing Cousins: Elethiomel is a cousin of the other three children. At one point he has sex with Darckense.
  • Love Triangle: Alluded to in the past segments, while Elethiomel holds Darckense hostage during the civil war before the Chairmaking between Darckense, Liveuta, and Elethiomel. By the present segments of the story he's murdered the former and driven the latter to despise him for it. Ultimately though, Darckense was only having sex with Elethiomel as an act of teenage rebellion, and Elethiomel claims to prefer Liveuta.
  • Losing Your Head: Special Circumstances operative Cheradenine Zakalwe crash-lands on a primitive planet and is sacrificed by the natives through decapitation. Fortunately his colleagues zoom in just in time to snatch back his head, but not before he's had a horrified moment to realise exactly what just happened. Later Zakalwe is in hospital waiting for a new body to be grown (they gave him the choice of remaining unconscious but he'd rather watch television) when the artificially-intelligent drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw (who doesn't like Zakalwe much, and has a twisted sense of humor) sends him a present. A hat.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: Zakalwe considers life aboard a General Systems Vehicle to be something like this — no need to work (instead, you're able to do whatever job you enjoy), no such thing as money, no-strings-attached sex is freely available, and you can spend your nights enjoying fully-immersive VR 'dream' games. He's convinced he'd go nuts if left there with nothing to do.
  • MacGuffin: The entire main story of freeing Tsoldrin Beychae and getting him to a place from which he can stop the coming war is actually a MacGuffin to set the meeting with Livueta Zakalwe for the big reveal that Cheranedine is actually Elethiomel.
  • Monster Clown: Zakalwe commits an assassination dressed as a jester, and the victim sees him as such, but it is suggested that Zakalwe's strikingly colourful outfit wouldn't look at all out of place in a Culture gathering.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: At the start of the book, Zakalwe is using Culture rejuvenation technology to bribe rulers of a planet into being more benign, assassinating those who don't keep their end of the deal. This is an attempt to produce peace and prosperity without the convoluted planning and subtle prodding that characterizes Special Circumstances. Skaffen-Amtiskaw informs Sma that this well meaning attempts has resulted in all states being on the verge of a coup (mostly by the rulers' own immediate subordinates) that will produce unstability and war that will pretty much destroy the planet unless The Culture intervened swiftly.
  • Omniscient Morality Licence: The AI minds of Special Circumstances are much better than humans at acquiring and processing enormous amounts of information and predicting outcomes, so the missions often involve, for example, backing "the bad guys" knowing it will result in an uprising that will ultimately establish better conditions with less bloodshed than would have resulted from directly removing a tyrant.
  • Overly Long Name: Dr. Stapangarderslinaiterray, AKA Dr. Stap.
  • Power Perversion Potential: Given that their every need and whim is taken care of by nigh-omniscient Minds, why would the Culture's citizens bother using their Bio-Augmentation technology to make themselves stronger or smarter, when they could instead modify their physiology to extend the length of orgasms?
  • Really Gets Around: Sma isn't shy about her love of sex. She participates in an orgy on her first night aboard the Xenophobe, and when she asks Skaffen-Amtiskaw if he recorded any of it, it's mainly because she wanted to watch it.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Cheradenine Zakalwe and Diziet Sma, thanks to their Culture Bio-Augmentation.
  • Rewatch Bonus: An awful lot of brief references in the various flashbacks make a lot more sense following The Reveal.
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: Invoked. The Xenophobe, or 'Xeny' for short, is a Culture (Demilitarised) Rapid Offensive Unit — a hyper-intelligent 100,000 tonne starship which can hurtle across the galaxy at extreme relativistic speeds and blow up planets. Its physical avatar? An adorable small, fluffy creature with big ears and eyes. It likes being cuddled, too. This seriously unnerves Sma to begin with, while Skaffen-Amtiskaw thinks it's beyond hilarious.
  • Rightful King Returns: Subverted. One of Zakalwe's first Special Circumstances missions involved escorting the lost heir to a planet's ruling dynasty across this desert world to his seat of power. He never understood why, given that the boy was a whiny Royal Brat who would clearly grow up to become a terrible ruler... But of course, Special Circumstances being what it is, they already knew this, and that he was infertile, and planned to install him as ruler to destabilise the planet's irredeemably decadent and corrupt ruling class. Sure enough, some decades later, the boy's death causes a succession crisis, weakening the rulers, who are then overthrown by the nomadic tribes they'd been oppressing.
  • Robotic Psychopath: Skaffen-Amtiskaw, who once bloodily massacred a group of bandits that tried to mess with Sma.
  • Schizo Tech: The flashbacks especially show a series of planets where the tech level is all over the place, normally due to alien intervention — a particularly dramatic example involved mounted cavalry who fire guided missiles attached to their saddles.
  • Scar Survey: Done by a poet-lover of Cheradenine Zakalwe, whose Covered in Scars from all the wars he's fought. Although he could lose the scars, Zakalwe claims to keep them to impress girls. He ends up losing the scars after being decapitated, then given a new clone body, whereupon he sheds Manly Tears as Every Scar Has a Story.
  • Sibling Rivalry: On a large and extremely brutal scale between Elethiomel, Darckense and Cheradenine.
  • Swiss-Army Gun: A ridiculously complicated weapon that Zakalwe examines while gearing up to rescue Beychae. Then again, knowing the Culture, this may well be equivalent to a standard-issue service weapon.
    Skaffen-Amtiskaw: Micro Armaments System, Rifle. It's... oh, look, Zakalwe; it has ten separate weapon systems, not including the semi-sentient guard facility, the reactive shield components, the IFF-set quick-reaction swing-packs or the AG unit, and before you ask, the controls are all on the wrong side because that's the left-hand bias version, and the balance — like the weight and the independently variable inertia — are fully adjustable. It also takes about half a year's training just to learn how to use it safely, let alone competently, so you can't have one.
  • Title Drop: A passage describing Elethiomel:
    But such consummate skill, such ability, such adaptability, such numbing ruthlessness, such a use of weapons when anything could become a weapon...
  • Tom the Dark Lord: Ethnarch Kerian is one letter-swap away from being a genocidal fascist called Kieran.
  • Trigger-Happy: Zakalwe, hilariously so.
  • Twist Ending: The two main approaches to the ending is one story working forwards towards the events and a second story working backwards to their meaning. Keeping it a surprising twist under these circumstances is an achievement. The twist is that Cheradenine of the novel is actually Elethiomel from the scenes set in childhood. It's subtly alluded to shortly beforehand: "The doctors were still struggling to save [Cheradenine's] life when the soldiers trapped in the battleship made a break for it. It was a good fight and they almost succeeded." The doctors "almost succeeded", that is. Apparently, Elethiomel's forces did break out of the siege.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Zakalwe is a pawn of Special Circumstances. At one point, another mercenary tells him they can request to always be told the truth and Special circumstances will comply, but it will result in fewer missions, since keeping agents in the dark is sometimes crucial for the operation. At one point he ends up as a Spanner in the Works when he actually wins a battle he was expected to lose.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Special Circumstances' guiding philosophy.
  • Warrior Poet: Subverted. Zakalwe would like to be one, but all his efforts at poetry are amateurish. In a particular irony the novel is bookended by the much better poetic efforts of his co-workers.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: Cheradenine Zakalwe's aversion to chairs — although it makes a lot of sense once you find out what "the Chair" was.
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: For all his ruthlessness, Livueta is convinced Elethiomel is incapable of hurting Darckense, and is only keeping her hostage to keep Cheradenine from attacking him. Ultimately averted. It turns out he was terribly, horribly capable of hurting her.