In the last post I argued that Consider Phlebas is mainly concerned with the question of identity, perhaps appropriately for the first major novel that developed into a significant series. In some quarters, ask about the "Culture novels" and you'll be directed to the safer entry-points, the established bases: The Player of Games and Use of Weapons.
Of course both of these books still betray Banks's concern with questions of identity and unreliable narrators — who plays the bigger, more dangerous game; who is Zakalwe, really; who wields the weapon, and who is the weapon? — and one could well say that these questions are often at the center of Banks's considerable narrative craft. But I think as Banks's understanding of the Culture as protagonist and utopia developed, the other conflict, the clash between the logic of intervention and personal autonomy, also became more pressing.
In PoG the Empire of Azad, perhaps like the Idirans, is authoritarian, regressive, oppressive, elaborately sexist (since Banks gives it three biological sexes to manage). If there is a weakness in the presentation of the empire, it is almost cartoonishly corrupt, an easy stereotype. The nuance is that the empire has also created, and is structured by, Azad, which is elaborate, beautiful, endlessly complex, almost like literature. Naturally, Gurgeh comes to win at Azad, and because the game embodies the empire, he defeats the imperial system itself, initiating its collapse. But Gurgeh only wins because he eventually, in his revulsion at the empire's brutality, plays in the vernacular of the Culture, through soft power, subversion, the finely measured application of force.
So, at this point, Gurgeh is effectively de-protagonized. Rather than the subject of his own narrative, he is another playing-piece in the long game of the Culture. The Minds, the drones, are the actual players and, we learn, manipulated Gurgeh into play in the first place. Gurgeh is their knife-missile, their perfectly deployed and selected instrument. Hence, for Gurgeh, his victory in the game of Azad is deeply ambivalent, and at the end of the story we find him not triumphant but in tears, perhaps because he understands that his own game has also collapsed, that the real player of games will always be the Culture itself.
The question comes to a fine point in Use of Weapons. Instrumental reasoning is a fine thing if only the objective counts, but the doctrine of utility reduces all individuals to the status of objects, tools, weapons, or game-pieces in the pursuit of the Culture's broader aims. UoW is a complicated read because of its dual strands of flashback and forward narrative, as if narrative technique were also one of the weapons the author wields for maximum effect. The flashbacks, though episodic, are always clearer and more engaging than the present narrative, in which the narrative stakes seem less clear and compelling, as the politics of the Cluster are less meaningful than the odyssey of the younger Zakalwe.
The coincidence of these streams is what shows us that Zakalwe, like Gurgeh, is merely a weapon, talented and useful, but only fully realized when deployed by the Culture. In fact, the text suggests that whenever Zakalwe attempts to break free of the Culture, to act on his own terms, his attempt is a failure. The tragedy of UoW is that at no point can Zakalwe redeem himself from his brutal history or escape his identity. He is the weapon rather than the wielder, and the poet knows that weapons find their full reality only in the moment of destruction.