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Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks

LooktoWindwardAs I may have indicated in my review of Inversions, I have undertaken to read all the Culture novels that I haven't read yet. I had previously read the first four (excluding the collection, State of the Art), and my favorite of those by far was Use of Weapons. The last one I read of those four, Excessions, was a bit of a disappointment for reasons I don't remember, but I have to say that both Inversions and Look to Windward strike me as the equal of Use of Weapons, which I plan to reread once I get through the rest of the series.

It was actually only just now, as I was rereading the quote from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land that serves as the epigraph and source of the title for Look to Windward that I caught on to the fact that it's also the source of the title for the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. ('Gentile or Jew/O you who turn the wheel and look to windward/Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.') Look to Windward is to some extent a sequel to that novel, or at least builds on the aftermath of the war with the Idirans that was the subject of Consider Phlebas. But Look to Windward is also, and primarily, about the aftermath of another war that the Culture was only involved in indirectly -- a civil war amongst an alien species called the Chelgrians. The novel has two main threads: one concerning a Chelgrian composer living in exile on a Culture Orbital (basically a ringworld à la Niven), and the other about a Chelgrian survivor of the civil war who is acting as an emissary to try to persuade the exile to return to his home world.

One thing that strikes me as I read Banks now is that his science fictional ideas are mostly inherited from the field. Take Niven's ringworld and cobble it together with Varley's personality backups restored to clones (and humongous organisms that support a whole ecology inside and around themselves) and virtual realities from cyberpunk, etc etc. His interest isn't in inventing new stefnal concepts but in interrogating Utopia and Western (European-derived) culture. Look to Windward, like Consider Phlebas, is largely from the point of view of aliens looking at the Culture from the outside and mostly from a more conservative and disapproving viewpoint. At times this is too obviously a modern conservative critique of modern liberalism, but the thing that gives these novels such force is that Banks is able to simultaneously apply a serious conservative critique of liberalism (and hedonism) while gleefully depicting the steely brutality hiding behind liberalism's smiling, tolerant face. You could say that that's what this novel is up to in a nutshell, and it certainly delivers the goods. The concluding chapters are breathtaking in their studied revelation of a cold-blooded, if not logical, savagery that has been hiding in plain sight all along.

The one weakness of the novel is the aliens who are the main characters. They are alien only in physical characteristics. Emotionally they feel far too human, and it was in fact easy for me to forget that they were alien until I was reminded by a physical description. I had the same problem with the Tines in Vernor Vinge's A Fire upon the Deep. They were a fine concept, but they felt human in very uninteresting ways. My touchstone for how to depict truly alien aliens remains Donald Kingsbury's novella "The Survivor", which manages to give us at least three different and distinct alien races who don't feel at all human. Banks can't even manage one, and he's trying to depict at least two in detail.

Despite this flaw, however, and despite the fact that the far-flung future society of the Culture frequently feels like it has been torn from yesterday's old sci-fi, Banks plays to his strengths here: vivid descriptions of landscape and action, full of playful, poetic language and wonderful wit, and a bracing view of the less pleasant aspects of civilization and its discontents. There's something a bit laddish about Banks' perspective, but it's damned sexy too, I have to say. It's bold and brash. Space opera started out as a cheerfully colonialist enterprise, and Banks is expert at finding that blood still running in the veins of his post-socialist post-scarcity Utopia. His ability to straddle the European heritage of colonialism and liberal idealism is manifest in the book's dedication, "For the Gulf War Veterans," which exudes a potent, sympathetic irony when you return to it after finishing the novel. Consider Phlebas, mixing memory and desire after the agony in stony places. It rings for thee.

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