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Banks is always readable but there are better Culture novels
on 11 March 2013
As the light from two supernovas ignited by an ancient war falls upon a distant Culture system, the utopian, post-scarcity society must deal with the consequences of a more recent conflict; an alien civil war accidentally triggered by the Culture's well-meaning but botched meddling.
Look to Windward is a pseudo-sequel to Banks' first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas (with both titles drawn from verses of Eliot's The Wasteland). The story focuses on one of the Culture's Minds, a brilliant artificial intelligence that had inhabited a warship that both experienced and caused terrible suffering during the war recounted in the earlier book. In Look to Windward that same Mind now controls an orbital habitat that is home to billions yet still struggles with the mental trauma of combat. As it prepares to commemorate the war beneath the light of the supernovas, another veteran, scarred by the more recent civil war, arrives as an emissary whose mission may be more hostile than it initially appears.
Great sci-fi uses the expansive possibilities of the genre to thoroughly excavate the human condition. Without a human character in sight, Banks does this with his usual aplomb. The life changing impact of post-traumatic stress disorder is explored through the contrasting experience of an alien during the first rage of loss and a godlike machine haunted across centuries by his own actions. Banks is unquestionably in the top order of science fiction writers today and Look to Windward shows the same insight and thrilling creativity for which the whole Culture series has become renowned.
There are, however, problems with the novel. The multiple strands don't quite resolve with Banks' usual, satisfying neatness and the conclusion feels oddly anticlimactic. Some sections and characters feel underdeveloped and this affects the pace, which drags occasionally despite a highly addictive central plot.
Given the subject matter, this novel has less humour than his usual `M' Banks output which wasn't necessarily exchanged for additional gravitas. The complex backstories of the major characters weren't necessarily given enough depth to properly imbue the solemn importance and, when the plot is spread over relatively few major characters, this occasionally robs the plot of sustained emotion.
It would be unfair to overstate these issues as the novel is still often engaging, exciting and dripped in meaning. Given the heights that the Culture series has touched, however, Banks must be held to a higher criterion and by his own standard, Look to Windward is an average novel.