This book offers a completely different scenario from my previous encounter with the late Mr. Bank’s Culture series, and a totally engrossing one. The main character, Cheradenine Zakalwe, is a Culture agent who acts on behalf of Special Circumstances division – the shady entity I already encountered in Player of Games. In other words, Zakalwe is the kind of person the Culture employs for “dirty” jobs, those that its enlightened population is now incapable or unwilling to perform.
As I noted in my review of Player of Games, the Culture offers its citizens practically everything: it has been defined as a post-scarcity society, one where every need is met, every desire (no matter how outlandish) is fulfilled; there are no poverty, hunger, sickness. Yet I had the definite feeling that this Utopia lacked something fundamental, and I believe it could be a sense of purpose: how could I otherwise explain its citizens’ manic drive for the eccentric, the bizarre? Here is where Special Circumstances comes into play, its members striving to bring the Culture’s way of life to other (less enlightened?) societies, maybe as a form of ultimate denial against that perceived lack of purpose: what it looks like, at least from my perspective, is a form of high-handed meddling that often requires unsavory compromises or, in more extreme cases, the choice between the lesser of two evils.
Here is where Cheradenine Zakalwe comes into play, a human-shaped monkey wrench thrown into the works of a particular society to undermine its social structure or channel an existing conflict into a direction more suitable to Special Circumstance’s goals. And Zakalwe does fulfill his tasks with enthusiasm, uncaring of the dangers and the physical harm that come with the job: at some point he is even beheaded, a situation that seems to have little physical consequences, but adds further baggage to an already complicated psychological profile. This man seems to actively seek that kind of punishment, and as I read along I often wondered why, especially when the slowly accumulating details kept hinting at some deep-seated guilt with its roots in the past.
This is one of the novel’s most fascinating aspects, since it develops on two alternating story-lines: one of them advances in a conventional way, following the attempts of Special Circumstances’ agent Diziet Sma and her drone partner Skaffen Amtiskaw to recall Zakalwe from his self-imposed retirement and employ his services in the reinstatement of a political leader, the only one able to avert a brewing war; the other story-line moves backwards in time to expose Zakalwe’s tormented past and uncover the layers of guilt and self-loathing at the roots of his personality. It’s a very unusual narrative method, and yet it never confused me, but rather increased the suspense as the details on the protagonist built up a widening picture headed toward a momentous revelation.
It’s this revelation that puts Zakalwe’s actions in the proper context: he’s looking for a purpose, driven by a burning need to do something good that will wash away the horrible sins of his past, so it comes as no surprise that he’s doomed to failure because those past actions are truly irredeemable, but most importantly because I think his so-called saviors – be they the Culture, Special Circumstances or both – are not exactly the “good guys” who can offer him that kind of deliverance. For them he is nothing but an instrument, a weapon, to be used for their purposes. No redemption attached.
If Player of Games gave just a hint of the arrogance of the Culture’s mindset, bent on shaping the universe after their own image, here the long list of situations and conflicts into which Zakalwe is all-too-willingly dropped widens the scope of their actions, making it look like a grand-scale plan with chilling overtones. Considering the vast influence wielded in the Culture by artificial intelligences, I could not avoid wondering if this “grand scheme of things” is something conceived by thinking machines rather than the humans who gave them status and a place in society. Certainly the cold pragmatism with which Zakalwe (and how many more like him?) is handled lends substance to this hypothesis: he is an instrument, and his own needs and desires are used to propel him toward fulfilling the Culture’s goal. He tries desperately to prove he’s not the monster he knows himself to be, and by doing the Culture’s bidding, by being their tool, he seeks atonement and maybe a fresh start, not realizing that his status as a weapon robs him of that very humanity he’s trying to recapture.
At the end of the book I was surprised to discover that I still felt a measure of sympathy for Zakalwe despite the knowledge of his past sins (and they are truly terrible): I think that his desperate search for redemption, the long backward journey Banks takes his readers on, was meant to do just that – leave us in the middle of the road seeing both sides of the equation. I can appreciate very much the fact that we are left with no definite answers, because there are none indeed…
Finally, a few notes on the style: I perceived a marked difference in Bank’s narrative here, if compared with Player of Games: it’s more convoluted and requires a greater degree of attention – not just because of the two diverging storylines, but also because of the language itself. Both of these aspects led me to believe that Banks asks a great deal out of his readers, yet also expects to find what he wants. And from a reader’s standpoint this is quite gratifying.
My Rating: 9/10