Look To Windward, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2000)

Grade: Δˡ — A very good read, but only if you like the genre (or subgenre).

In brief:

Look to Windward is an interesting addition to Iain M. BanksCulture series (World), but is not his best work.  While it is a stand-alone novel, I really don’t think there is any chance of it being truly enjoyable unless you have already read a number of his other Culture novels; at the very least you should have read Consider Phlebas. If you are a fan of Banks’ or the Culture, then this is a must read in the series, but if you’ve never read any of his Science Fiction books, do NOT start with this one.

Setting:

The Culture Universe (q.v.), some eight hundred years after Idiran-Culture War which was the central focus of Banks’ first Science Fiction novel, Consider Phlebas.  The majority of events that occur in this novel take place on Masaq, a Culture Orbital at the time that the light of a supernova caused by events in Banks’ first novel arrive at that location.

For those who don’t know, The Culture is a hyper advanced, galaxy spanning utopian civilization whose citizens lead an arguably hedonistic life free of concerns. Governed by a series of hyper-intelligent artificial Minds (Minds are to Artificial Intelligences as humans are to single cell organisms), the citizens of the Culture live as long as they wish, have backups of their memories in case they die, can change shape (and sex) at will, can gland whatever drug or feeling they desire, and can do whatever they please.

There are other roughly equivalently advanced civilizations in the Galaxy and even some that are more advanced.

In Depth:

Look to Windward begins with one of Banks’ best openings. Set in the middle of a horrible battle, two soldiers, a married couple, say goodbye to one another.  Once of them is trapped and going to die, the other is to escape on a ship.  It is exciting, tense, sad and heroic; in short, it is a great start.  From there, the book grows in scope, showing multiple perspective, almost all of them from non-human alien point-of-view.  It paints a view of the Culture we have not previously seen in any depth: that of life on an Orbital. What is more, it deals with a topic of intrinsic interest to me: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In essence, the book follows multiple points-of-view (POV) examining the after effects of horrible wars on those men, women and things who fight them.  This is seen both from the direct POV of some of the characters themselves, and from other perspectives observing and interacting with said veterans of long and horrible wars.  The central protagonist of the tale is Quilan, a non-human, non-Culture, ex-solider seeking revenge for his wife. Quilan is set to perform a terrorist act against the Culture. In contrast, the central figure of the book, not a POV character but rather one seen from the perspective of other characters, is a Mind who controls the Orbital that is the setting for most of this novel. Some eight hundred years previous, this Mind was the GSV (General Service Vehicle) Lasting Damage. The Lasting Damage was involved in some of the worst fighting of the Idiran-Culture war, and part of an action that resulted in the destruction of an entire solar system (an event discussed in detail in Banks’ first novel, Consider Phelbas).

To that end, the central plot of the book focuses on the events surrounding Quilan’s mission.  It involves many additional and disparate points of view, including those of a human member of Contact aboard a completely alien life form in a different part of the galaxy, and that of a very non-human alien artist living on the Orbital in question.  It shows life in the Culture drawn with the same brilliant scope that makes Banks one of my favorite authors.

So, why don’t I love it?  Well, despite the scope and fascinating topic of this book, Look to Windward never grabbed me in the visceral manner that most of Banks’ works do.  Perhaps it was because I was under the totally mistaken understanding that this was to be Banks’ last book in the Culture Universe, and as such I had wanted something worthy of ending such a series.  Of course, it wasn’t the last in the series, and as such my expectations were totally unfounded. 

Perhaps, instead, it was the nature of many of the point-of-view characters.  Most[1] of Banks’ Science Fiction novels are multiple view-point characters, but in this work, many of the POVs are alien.  Now Banks has lots of experience dealing with non-human points of view (POV), in fact in his previous novel, Excession, the bulk of the action is seen their the POV of Minds and Drones, the uber-intelligent AI’s that control the Culture.  Yet these intelligences, as non-human as they are, were originally created by human beings. To that end, the more-or-less human nature of many of their thought processes can be explained away by the reader. In Look to Windward, however, the aliens whose perspective we see through evolved on their own, and yet the very human way they think and react seems somehow false. 

Now, can I write a POV from a totally alien perspective that somehow also manages to be sympathetic?  I can’t really say, though I do try to do so.  As a result, perhaps I am asking too much of Banks, but his skills are so profound that I was slightly disappointed by the fact he was not able to do so.  What is more, in the next Science Fiction novel he wrote, The Algebraist, he does manage to portray a very alien mind-set into his non-humans. So to that end, I suppose I had a right to my expectations.

Yet, in truth, I think that perhaps I did not enjoy this as much because while it tried to address post-traumatic stress disorder, I didn’t feel it got to the heart of the matter.  The trauma and/or ramifications of wartime actions in this book didn’t seem to hit home.  Banks went after easy targets, revenge and guilt, and glossed over the more insidious elements.  He focused on the ramifications of single horrible events rather than looking at the ramifications of the culmination of events.  Sure some people have trauma induced by single, horrible events, but I can’t help but think a lot of people suffer from dealing with the consequences of living for years dealing with lots of just horrible events.  Maybe that’s the story I should write then eh?  I digress…

In the end, I did enjoy this book, but it definitely was not one of my favorites from Banks (who long term readers have probably figured out is one of my favorite Science Fiction authors).  It is, as ever, well written,[2] with marvelous descriptions and complexity of plot that pulls together to a mostly satisfying conclusion (see entire previous portion of review to understand why).  In that sense, I suppose it was almost a perfect book, and so I suppose I enjoyed it less because it could have been better. 

Having said that, it also in some ways almost deserves a Gamma rating, but in this case, I just can’t see that a person would enjoy it at all unless they have read Banks’ other works.[3]  I think it is particularly important to have read Consider Phlebas before starting this book.  On the other hand, if you ARE a fan of Banks, you really MUST read this book.  It gives closure to a lot of events set up in the previous novels, particularly Consider Phlebas and Excession.


[1] I think it is all his Sci-Fi works to date except Transitions.  His non-Science Fiction works have many examples of single point of view.  Indeed, Complicity is wholly from a single view point, and yet written in both First and second person.  Really really well done.

[2] Well, with the exception of Matter

[3] This is unusual for Banks’ book, for even most of his Culture books can be read in any order.  In fact, this and Surface Details Are the only books of his that I really recommend need to be read after reading other of his books.  Having said that, they do each stand alone as novels, but I think you would look a great deal of the enjoyment of the book if they were not read as part of the series. 

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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10 Responses to Look To Windward, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2000)

  1. mostraum says:

    It’s been so long since I read this that I can’t really remember what I thought about it. I know I liked it, but not how much.
    When it comes to the Culture series, I’ve liked most of what I’ve read. But, it is hard sf, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to start with any other book that Consider Phlebas. I started with Use of Weapons and was terribly confused for a long time 🙂

    • Thomas Evans says:

      I began with Excession, which I enjoyed. Tremendously. I expect that The Player of Games may be well suited at a start point for those who find Consider Phlebas hard to get into

      • I’ve been thinking about the order I would recommend those just starting with Banks, and I think that though it’s non-Culture, The Algebraist is a great way to get into him. Then I think Consider Phlebas is easier to slide into. Agree with you on all of the above for Look to Windward by the way. Definitely not one of my favourites.

      • Thomas Evans says:

        Funny enough I’m just about to review the Algebraist. It is one of my favorites of his, and you’re right, it would be a good book to start with.

  2. Yoda says:

    In another perspective, regarding Iain M. Banks’ novels and the ambiguities of the Culture as a sort of “computer-aided” anarchy / post-political regime, see also:
    Yannick Rumpala, Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160791X11000728

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Interesting concept for a paper you’ve outlined there. ‘Tis a pity one must purchase it, as that it gives the appearence of spam. Even so, I’d be interested in hearing more about the concepts put forward in your paper.

  3. thomaswrites says:

    Haha re-reading it right now and stumbled across your review (which is a good one). Owning every single one of IMB’s books I reckon this is a mid-ranker (on my IMB rankings Consider Phlebas is top and The Algebraist is bottom).I cannot wait until his next one comes out – supposed to be huge 🙂 🙂 🙂

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