on 20 October 2000
I REALLY don't understand all those previous reviews which give this one or two stars. I think Look to Windward is a beautiful, subtle meditation on life, death, revenge, heaven, eternity, oblivion. The final dialogue between the Hub Mind and Quilan is just wonderful - I had tears in my eyes. The people who compare this to the previous Culture novels, don't really seem to get it (IMHO). Banks has written several Culture novels, but can anyone really say that any two are similar in style and content to each other. I don't think so. And that is part of Banks' genius - he can create a whole universal canvas which is entirely consistent from one novel to the next, but still have the ability to place individual stories within their own framework and context. Look to Windward contains some of the best imagery Banks has produced - I particularly like the idea of the light from the dying star arriving at the orbital millenia (in real time) after the war which caused it has ended, and being witnessed for a second time by those that took part in that war. I also wouldn't mind a go at lava-rafting (backed-up or not!). I read all of Iain Banks' books as soon as they come out, but I've got to admit that I think he writes his best stuff these days with an "M" in his name. Wasn't too taken with the Business (although that did seem to me to be an attempt to place the Culture in the context of the real world - how the Culture might have begun??), and Song of Stone was an interesting exercise in form, but not much else. Look to Windward (and Inversions before it) is fine writing though. I hope it isn't the case (as has been rumoured) that he wont be writing any books (of any kind) for a while.
Following the baffling (or intriguing, depending on your point of view) mediaeval shenanigans of Inversions, Iain M Banks has genuinely delivered the goods with this one, giving the Culture aficionados what they *really* wanted.
"Look to Windward" is a staggeringly imaginative chunk of hard sci-fi, with some of the strongest characterization and mind-bogglingly grandiose scope since Banks' classic "Consider Phlebus".
Who could not empathize with the battle-weary, bereaved Quilan whose tortured soul seeks oblivion, and yet who could not condemn him for the ghastly mission he agrees to undertake?
Has absolute power begun to corrupt the Culture? Can they honestly still claim the moral high ground after their ill-judged and catastrophic intervention in the war?
This novel touches on some pretty profound ethical dilemmas along the way. There is also much wise and possibly prophetic investigation into the nature of the soul, heaven and omnipotence.
Please don't get the impression that this is all heavy stuff though; there is much amusing and witty dialogue between the chief protagonists. Some of Ziller's bon mots will have you in stitches!
To the delight of the Culture anoraks, there is also a huge amount of information about Culture minds/hubs, personality backups, orbitals and (delightfully!) a roll call of some of the more eccentric Culture ship names.
How I would love to visit Masaq' Orbital; I guarantee you will too!
on 10 August 2001
I read this book last year, and recently re-read it, and I can understand the spectrum of reviews below. It's not his best-plotted novel by any means, nor do any of the characters leap out at you like they do in his top work (Use of Weapons, Wasp Factory, Player of Games, Espedair St IMHO). However, as a meditation on the meaning (or point) of things like revenge, guilt and the other stuff that keeps people going, it's excellent. He's expressing an opinion, and it's worth listening to - even if you think it's navel-gazing.
It is also an excellent exploration of the milieu of the Culture, where it came from and where it's going, and its small, small place in the grander scheme of things. Banks has said that he writes SF because he's a fan of the "gosh-wow" elements, as much as anything else, and there is a good dollop of that here too.
Bottom line - give this book a try. You'll either like it or hate it, but it's worth reading on the chance (likelihood I think) that your response will be the former.
on 9 October 2000
I only gave this book four stars because I don't think it's Banks' best. But if I had enjoyed it as much as I generally enjoy good books by other authors I'd have given it a two. I just can't get over how fantastically versatile this man is. In his sci-fi books alone he has covered almost every form of storytelling, action, adventure, intrigue, romance, humour. The consistent element is that they are all highly intellectual, and thought-provoking.
Look to Windward is slower paced and more descriptive than the others. Banks plays with the deepest philosophies and shows us, as he often has before, how difficult it is to find simple answers. My head swimming with the fantastic images conjured by the descriptive passages, there was only just room there to be fascinated by the fleshing-out Banks has brought to the Culture's history, and astounded by the new concepts that he introduces as in every novel (I particularly liked the idea of the airspheres and the giant floating sentient behemoths for whom the lifetime of an entire civilisation is a mere blip).
If you want to get into Iain M. Banks, read Feersum Endjinn first, then get into the Culture with Player of Games and Excession. I seriously recommend saving this one until you've read several Culture books because it answers a lot of questions and I think would be a lot more satisfying as a result.
on 19 August 2000
How can you write about Utopia and remain interesting? After all, a utopia has infinite amounts of resources, energy, and intelligence. Doesn't it solve every problem before it occurs? Yes and no. Trying to provide the best for all while not usurping the place of individual achievement are the goals of the Minds in Ian M. Banks new novel about his ever growing civilization, the Culture. However, in the execution of the preservation and protection of the Culture, sometimes billions of lives are lost, tragically and irreplaceably.
The fates of two intelligences, an ancient Culture Mind and one of a "recently" contacted predator species, a Chelgarian, both victor and victim, are intertwined as Banks explores the questions of mistake and retribution, life and death. More than just an exploration of war and its aftermath, this novel is as much a showcase for the marvels of the Culture as it is for galaxy sweeping mysteries beyond the Culture.
This book has it all -- humour, pathos, loss, redemption, discourse, brilliant dialogue, incredible wonders, and universe spanning timeframes. This is science fiction at its very best.
on 17 July 2014
I have read all of Iain M Banks books, and I read Look to Windward the year it was first published in paperback in 2001.
This is a Culture book. In fact more than that it is the first Culture book. It is interesting to speculate that when Iain M Banks wrote this story he definitely was not thinking about a series or a trilogy, but as a stand alone novel.
To recap The ten books of the Culture are: Consider Phlebas, 1987; The Player of Games,1988; Use of Weapons, 1990; The State of the Art, 1991; Excession, 1996; Inversions, 1998; Look to Windward,2000; Matter,2008; Surface Detail, 2010; The Hydrogen Sonata, 2012.
The story of Look To Windward is a story of Culture intervention that goes horribly wrong. And it is told from the viewpoint of one soldier, one Major Quilian who during the course of a very short civil war lost his one true love. And here;'s the twist, in the Civilisation of the Chel, from where Quilian originates death is no longer final. Individual can have most parts of their bodies regrown or rejuvenated, they can backup their entire being into a soul keeper, and they can also pass into a heaven where they live on in another form.
Only here's the rub: the Chel mate for life. Quilian's one and only love dies in a vicious unexpected battle, so suddenly, so completely that there is nothing, no potential body rebuild, no soul keeper, no after life. hence Quilians' despair. although despair is a word that falls a million times short of what he actually feels.
I won't say anymore about the story, and I have not given anything away that will spoil your enjoyment.
This is a melancholy tale of regret and mourning. But like a sad song on the radio it draws you in and enlightens and educates you in the darker side of life. I've always enjoyed reading and re-reading this because the characters are so beautifully drawn, and the despair of Quilian so heart-breaking.
on 19 September 2000
It's strange. Most books provoke a huge spectrum of responses, from the love it to loath it brigades and everything between. Look To Windward seems to lack this grey area (joke intended). Just reading the reviews above makes one thing clear. Banks may have judged this one just a little wrong, maybe assuming a more introspective audience than exists. Then again - one of the messages of the book is that your audience is not yours to control, rather the creative act is the truely important thing; and the audience can define themselves.
The scale of the book, and the pace - a radical departure for a Culture novel (discounting Inversions) - seems to have caught many readers on the hop. Use Of Weapons this is not. Instead of the intense "This is out of my league" kind of desparation that many of his characters seem to face (the great Minds always picking the most efficient solution there), Windward instead poses an interesting philisophical dilema.
Where is the line? How far does revenge take you? What means are truely neccessary?
When I started the book I was taken aback by the dedication, but by the time I reached the end I understood (or is that hubris?) Much of the book takes the perspective of Kabe, the Homomdan "Ambassador" to The Culture. I feel that the lack of personalisation given to Kabe is probably deliberate - it's so out of character for Banks to do this. Instead the character gives an innocent, almost naieve view of events, a clever juxtoposition with the fire and despair of the other major protagonists.
Desiring peace and being forced by one's own motives to step into the cauldron.
Remorse and pain beyond count meeting responsibility and atonement.
Hatred and despite without a voice.
Desparation and intrigue without a known timetable.
Understanding after the deadline.
It's not action, but it can consume the mind. Look to windward, to the vast expanse that is revealed and wonder - is this all that matters?
Whatever your views on this book are, and I DO suggest you read it, if you don't have questions to ask of yourself afterwards then you've either missed 75% of the book, or you're a Mind.
on 3 September 2000
The title of this latest Culture volume, like the first one, is lifted from a passage in T. S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land'. The novel is also dedicated to the Gulf War veterans. This seems to be a quite outlandish political act on the behalf of the author at first though. 'How dare Banks bring the real world into the confines of a science fiction novel!' - is one reaction that you may have.
But I don't think that this dedication is out of keeping with the themes discussed within this novel as a whole. 'Look to Windward' is very much concerned with the after effects of war - from the Iridan/Culture war of 'Consider Pheblas' to the much more recent Chelgrian civil conflict, which occurred within the Culture's sphere of influence. The Gulf War veterans are allegedly still suffering from the drugs that were designed to protect them from Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons - an unintentional by-product of war that has wrecked their lives. The United States and its allies embarked upon the crusade to liberate Kuwait with the best of intentions, but still succumbed to the ancient truism that the chaos of war can have unpredictable results, and lead to the kind of scars that will never heal. In this novel, the Hub Mind of the Masaq Orbital seeks to commemorate a particularly bloody event in the Iridan war: the destruction of two suns, and the accompanying death of billions. He turns to the Chelgrian composer Ziller to create a suitably moving piece of music as an act of remembrance. The choice of composer would also seem to go beyond mere talent, for the Culture has good reason for acknowledging the recent Chelgrian caste war. It's been eight hundred years since the destruction of the two suns, and the light emitted from that slaughter would soon be visible to Masaq for the first time.
Works of art are often commissioned to mark such defeats or victories. This summer has seen celebrations of the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, and the Blitz. I believe that the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War was only remarked upon briefly by the news bulletins. Maybe not enough people died or suffered in the conflict for it to have attained the status of even the Falklands War in Britain. The nineties have also seen a much more proactive United Nations continuously involved in such disputes. Banks would appear to be embarked upon much the same creative process as that of his fictional composer, Ziller, who literally annotates the turning points and downfalls for both sides of the Culture/Iridan war in his music. Maybe Banks has been doing this all along himself, with the United States as the Culture, and the Soviet Union as the Iridans in 'Consider Phlebas', and the Chelgrians as particularly embittered Yugoslavs in this novel. Banks is right to remind us that there are people still in pain following the Gulf War - beyond the veterans themselves, many Iraqis are even now suffering from the attrition imposed by the ever present sanctions.
On a more literary note, there have been a couple of recent novels which have dwelt painfully (on the theoretical level) about the composition of biography - Saul Bellow's 'Ravelstein' and A. S. Byatt's 'The Biographer's Tale'. Bellow and Byatt have both surmised that it's near impossible to bring the dead back through prose with any hope of achieving veracity. There's also the prevalent notion that future biographers will have difficulty collecting material about their subjects, due to the virtual nature of modern communications. Not only can such personal files be easily destroyed but they could also be faked (will digital fingerprints be authentic enough?). According to Banks, the Minds of the Culture could easily compose symphonies in Ziller's style, but choose not to. There's still a great 'attachment' to the real in this fantasy world.
Having said that, this is also quite a spiritual novel, akin to Mary Doria Russell's 'The Sparrow' or John Meaney's 'Paradox'. Banks creates a seemingly Pre-Raphaelite vision of Heaven, with whole societies 'subliming' to the light. For some, this is the era of eternal life, but it's not the panacea that you would expect. Chelgrian composer Ziller becomes nervous when a visitor from his home world arrives on Masaq. Ziller has been living in the Culture for years, and does not want to return home. In the company of his friends, Ziller engages in the more hazardous pursuits that Masaq can provide, in his bid to keep out of the way of the Chelgrian emissary. But there is one public engagement that he cannot really avoid. Meanwhile, the Chelgrian emissary, Quilan, discovers that he's on a quite different mission altogether...It's also great to see more of the Culture direct, rather the few tantalising hints placed in the more oblique fiction of 'Inversions'. We get to eavesdrop on quite a few Cultural conversations (although the dying Ilom Dolince does make a speech quite similar to the one that Rutger Hauer scripted for Roy Batty in 'Blade Runner'). 'Consider Phlebas' fans get their usual intrigues, twists and traitors, and a symphonic cacophony as well. 'Look to Windward' is a near-perfect blend of excitement and stimulation, and I highly recommend it.
Banks' science fiction output seems to be consistently excellent these days - his last three SF novels have all been amongst his best - and this is no exception.
The title comes from the same lines of Elliot's "The Wasteland" that gave "Consider Phlebas" it's title and like his first SF novel, this relates back to the Idiran war. It is set some eight centuries after that conflict, and is in effect study of those who survived that war, and a more recent war inadvertently caused by the Culture's well intentioned but ill considered dabbling with another society.
Although the central plot is complex, skilfully executed and full of Bank's trademark twists and turns (some of which are truly unexpected), it is his study of those who have to carry the awful weight of their losses and crimes in war that is at the centre this story. It is the characters that stand out above the wonderfully imagined, often quite surreal and alien landscapes that he paints, from the beautifully realised Culture Orbital of Masaq to the bizzare alien world of the Airsphere and it's gigantic fauna. His descriptive writing is in places truly poetic and evocative, but it is his studies of people (human, alien and machine) that are most gripping. If I have one criticism to make it is that all of his characters are recognisably human - none of the aliens seem truly alien, but that is a minor point and does not detract from the novel as a whole.
Bank's has always specialised in troubled souls with dark pasts - "Use of Weapons" probably being his finest SF example to date. But this novel comes close. These souls are not full of self pity though, they are real, believable characters for whom one develops a genuine sympathy, making the dénouement all the more poignant and shocking as a a consequence. Banks manages to pull off a genuinely affecting and (oddly) satisfying climax to this book. This is a pleasant surprise, as one of his greatest failings as a writer has been the weak endings to so many of his novels.
This is one of his best novel's in recent years, and if you have never read a of his SF, this may be a good place to start. If you re a confirmed fan you won't need any persuasion to buy this one.
on 18 September 2000
Some people just don't get it. Looking through the reviews below, I see (negative) comparisons to Player of Games, Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons. Well, for those of you who haven't noticed, I. Banks has been evolving, his writing changing - both Inversions, and Look to Windward are both stylistically very different to the rest of his SF novels. They are books of emotional exploration, literate analyses of the human condition. And this is a good thing.
You see, many authors just recycle their earlier books, change the plots, throw in different characters, and never really change. Iain Banks, however, continues to astound with his superb range of ideas and abilities. Look to Windward is a beautiful, thought-provoking and intensely moving book that explores the changes that occur in people (and machines) during periods of immense emotional turmoil. The book is most closely linked to Inversions (in writing style) and Use of Weapons (as a character study), but make no mistake, this is no Consider Phlebas-style space opera (there is very little action).
So thank you, Iain, for continuing to challenge and provoke your readers (and it seems a lot of them aren't up to the challenge). This is an incredibly emotionally dense book, laced with some typically banksian humour, and I just couldn't stop reading it once I had picked it up. The plot is never so linear as that of Player of Games, and the reader has to do a lot more work to tie the ends together and make sense of the integrated whole, but this forces the readers to look inside themselves, like any good work of fiction will do. A stunning achievement, and a testimonial to the movement of s.f. incorporating literary devices. Just don't expect another space opera.