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Look To Windward
Iain M. Banks
Orbit Books, 357 pages


Mark Salwowski
Look To Windward
Iain M. Banks
Iain M. Banks was born in Dunfermline in 1954 and lived in North Queensferry, Fife. He was educated at Stirling University (1972-1975) getting a degree in English. He worked as a non-destructive testing technician for British Steel and later for IBM. He settled in Faversham, Kent, in 1984 and later moved to Edinburgh in 1988. Iain M. Banks (as opposed to Iain Banks, his name for non-SF fiction) is the popular author of the Culture novels, including Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games.

Iain M. Banks: A Few Notes on The Culture
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Excession

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nick Gevers

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Although it is the seventh of Iain Banks' Culture novels, Look To Windward might most productively be viewed as the third book in a trilogy on the theme of perspective. Since the publication of Consider Phlebas in 1987, the Culture series has, in the guise of extravagant exotic space opera, explored with intense penetration the character of a utopia of abundance (read apotheosis of the First World) through the medium of its interactions with dystopias of scarcity (read the Third World very much as it is). Always the question is posed: can the Culture -- a far-flung, technologically transcendent democracy of plenteous hedonism -- sustain its high ethical principles in its sometimes idealistic and sometimes frankly preventive interventions in the affairs of backward hierarchical societies? Can it avoid treating them chauvinistically, or as pawns? Can it manipulate them without becoming infected with their instinctive or expedient brutality?

Consider Phlebas and its immediate successors -- The Player of Games (1988), The State of the Art (1989), and Use of Weapons (1990) -- offered ambiguous answers, asserting both the necessity of the Culture's existence and the occasional iniquity of its methods. But Banks has left his truly cogent and systematic assessment of the issues to his later Culture volumes: together, they judge the Culture completely, from above, below, and straight on, painting a fascinating multi-faceted portrait of this most benign of Galactic Empires.

Perspective is the key in these novels. Excession (1996) is the view from above: Banks affords the reader some comprehension (insofar as that is possible) of how the Culture seems to those elevated far above it; in their responses to a visitation from higher realms, the vast Artificial Intelligences that guide the Culture's destiny -- the so-called "Minds" -- do not come off altogether well. But the Cultural fabric holds. Inversions (1998) is the view from below: when two human agents of the Culture find themselves functioning incognito as counsellors to the rulers of a medieval-level planet, their struggles to apply Cultural ethics are highly revealing, even though the primitive narrators of their careers have little notion of what they truly represent. And now, in Look To Windward -- the direct, horizontal view -- Banks anatomizes the Culture from the purview of its equals. At last, the Culture can be known in close detail, through the eyes of experienced, incisive foreign travellers.

In Look To Windward, only one of eight viewpoint characters is a Culture citizen, and he is in alien guise far, far from home. The primary setting of the novel is one of the Culture's most noted Orbitals, the gigantic artificial ring-in-space known as Masaq. A cultural centre of some significance, it attracts alien luminaries in fair numbers. One is Mahrai Ziller, a universally famous composer from the militaristic and caste-based society of Chel. This irascible exile, fiercely critical of the oppressive practices of his home, is the focus of intrigue, drawing (apparently) an emissary from Chel requesting his return. The Culture's intelligence agency, the Contact Section, is greatly interested in the matter, conscious that the recent Civil War that devastated Chel was a conflict provoked by the Culture's well-meaning interference. Perhaps the Chelgrian envoy -- Quilan, a tragically bereaved soldier-monk -- is in fact an assassin, a terrorist, or something worse; he and Ziller are constantly monitored by Contact agents and Masaq Orbital's Hub Mind, assisted by a resident member of the alien Homomdan species, Kabe. As the contending individuals circle each other with a slow decorous persistence, the society of Masaq emerges in great and telling detail, as understood by Ziller, Quilan, and Kabe.

There is a deadly conspiracy afoot, but it is adumbrated slowly, affording Banks leisure to describe Masaq with probing analytical wit. The human citizens of Masaq are a pampered lot, spending their time on a seemingly endless succession of soirées, revels, drug trips, luxurious trans-Orbital tourism, and ridiculously dangerous extreme sports (such as lava rafting). They can be judged rather harshly as fops and intellectual dabblers, whose seemingly infinite freedom of choice is in fact a decadent absence of any personal moral responsibility. But it also is evident that theirs is an authentic happiness, that their liberty to die when they choose (or not at all) compares rather favourably with the fate of those subject to the hierarchies of Chel -- which sends blindly loyal cannon-fodder to their deaths -- and of the ancient "airspheres" of the Galactic fringe, where the powerful mould and control hosts of slaves. Rather silly than a serf, rather a killer through benevolent error than a murderer out of considered malignity. Homomdan and Chelgrian observers learn at fundamental levels even as they critically assess the Culture.

Meanwhile, a scholar from the Culture is engaged in the more orthodoxly Banksian activity of observing an alien species in its native habitat. Uagen Zlepe is a guest in an airsphere, studying the bizarre routines of the massive floating behemothaurs that glide through its cerulean wilderness. But his discovery of the novel's underlying conspiracy, achieved in sequences of astonishing narrative brio, leads him away from passive academicism, and his departure -- sinister and sudden -- signals a shift to a behemothaur's viewpoint, by which the Culture once again is judged, from the cool distance of immortality. This is one of Banks' remarkable Stapledonian moments, a chill Olympian interlude echoing the famous conclusion of Excession. In the end, the Culture is only another civilization, another step in an infinite social evolution -- with guilt it must expiate alongside its fleeting utopian glory.

Look To Windward may be the final Culture novel; it certainly reads like the end of the current sequence, the last piece of Banks' perspectival puzzle. In any event, it is one of Banks' finest novels, mature, considered, horrifying and hilarious by turns. Its episodes of social comedy are brilliantly observed, like Wodehouse on interstellar overdrive; its sequences of action and intrigue are as intense and polished as those in the magnificent Inversions; and its conclusion is perfectly paced, a keen indictment and sweeping celebration of the Culture all at once. This fine rhetorical balance marks Look To Windward as one of the most significant SF novels of the year.

Copyright © 2000 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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