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Mind how you go!,
By A Customer
This review is from: Look To Windward (Hardcover)
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.