the Little Red Reviewer

Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks

Posted on: April 2, 2012

Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks

published in 2000

Where I got it: borrowed from a friend (thanks!!!)

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This is the kind of book the phrase “space opera” was invented for: a story that sprawls light years and generations, alien civilizations, political intrigue, gigantic constructs that are controlled by semi-retired artificial intelligences, and thanks to some of the most amazing characters you will ever meet, a story that is as addictive as it is easy to follow. A science fiction story where the detailed science lives in the background, allowing the multi-faceted characters to take center stage.

Looking at something like this, even thinking about Banks’ massive creation known as The Culture, it’s easy to feel intimidated. Don’t.  Yes, Banks tosses you in, bodily, into the deep end, but trust me, absolutely everything (ok, nearly everything) is explained in detail before the book ends.   There is so much of, well, everything, that you’ll have to forgive me for not dwelling on the nitty gritty details.  This was my first Culture book, and those of you who have been reading these for years can laugh at everything I missed.

One of the many casualties of the Indiran War, now eight hundred years past, were the two stars Portisia and Junce, along with every creature who depended on those stars for sustenance and survival. Eight hundred light years away is the Culture Orbital Masaq, where much of the population is busy preparing for the social celebration of viewing the light of the twin novae, which has taken this long to reach them. It’s been so long, the horror of the war has been forgotten, leaving only the myths of the war heroes and the supernovae that will soon haunt the sky.

Among those preparing for the celebrations is the snarky and bitter self-exiled Chelgrian composer Ziller, his Homomdoran ambassador friend Kabe, and the Orbital hub AI Avatar.  Most of the plot progression is done through dialog between these three characters. And the dialog? Some of the most natural sounding and witty that I have ever come across in a science fiction novel. While Kabe has an unquenching curiousity for just about everything, the foul-mouthed Ziller has no plans to ever return to his home planet of Chel, or ever speak with another Chelgrian again. He knows the Culture has taken responsibility for starting the Chelgrian civil war, and still Ziller is happier living on the Culture Orbital.

Enroute to Masaq is another Chelgrian, Quilan. Widowed, slightly depressed, and newly in awe of The Culture, Quilan cares only to complete his mission, which is to convince composer Ziller to return home to Chel with him.

Meanwhile, on the edges of the galaxy, we meet Uagen Zlepe, a scholar. Scholar Zlepe has spent the last few years living in an airsphere, studying his patron behemothaur Yoleus. The Behemothaurs, an ancient race of giant  creatures who may be millenia old, are so large that their visitors, hangers-on and parasites live on top of them and through them. One of the most incredible science fictional creations I have ever come across, Behemothaurs are their own ecological systems. When Zlepe sights what might be a dying Behemothaur, Yoleus insists the discovery is investigated further.

The Culture means well, truly, they do. But at least in Look to Windward, something goes badly with nearly everything they touch. Reminding me of some current politics, The Culture seems to feel that their social structure and political system works perfectly well for everyone else in the galaxy, and they get very confused when things go horribly wrong. Culture ships are all controlled by a Culture Mind, something between an AI and a small God, and those minds have some twisted, or possibly damaged senses of humor. Allowed to choose their own ship names, we get names like Resistance is Character Forming,  A Momentary Lapse of Sanity, Kiss This Then, I Blame the Parents,  and Fine Till You Came Along.  What kind of an AI Mind choses a name like that for itself?

On top of the darkly humorous naming conventions, Banks uses a very interesting dialog construct to give us funny little infodumps (trust me, you will come to crave and appreciate every infodump in this book). Many chapters start with a back and forth dialog between two or three people, but you have no idea who these characters are. It’s just an overheard discussion about something that’s going on, or something people are curious about. You wouldn’t think, at first glance, that it would work, but it does, perfectly.

Another unexpected wonder was the character I ended up latching on to. Who would have ever thought the stupid Orbital Hub Avatar would have been, could have been a character with such amazing depth? AI’s (even ones as powerful as the Culture Minds) are not supposed to fear their memories, are not supposed to punish themselves for things that happened so long ago.  The Orbital Hub Avatar is one of the deepest and most human characters I have come across in a while.

And I haven’t even given you the slightest hint as to where the plot line is going. With has much as I’ve thrown at you, you probably think this is one of those brain melting door stopper books. Nope on both. Look To Windward isn’t hard science fiction. Simply put, it’s a story about people, and their pasts, and their futures, and their fears.

Really Banks, where have you been all my life?

There is so much history behind what is happening here, so much weight, so much balancing, that it is hard for me to even describe how amazing this book was for me.  Not a spoiler, but yes, Ziller does write a symphony for the celebration, and yes, it is performed.  That symphony scene, it’s far more than just music and I felt it. I truly felt it, down to my gut, and I am not kidding you.  My spine tingled and my mouth went dry.  I didn’t know if the world was ending, or just starting to begin. And all I was doing was reading some words on a page, about some musical pieces that don’t exist, that no one heard that morning but me.

So yeah, I really, really liked Look to Windward. I just got Player of Games from the library, and can’t wait to tear into it.  If you enjoy science fiction and have never read a Banks Culture novel, isn’t it time you treated yourself to something incredible?

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22 Responses to "Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks"

If you liked this one, I highly recommend Use of Weapons.

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I’m totally going to be on a Banks kick this entire year, aren’t I?

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Hooray! I read these in college and recently re-read them, curious if they really were as good as I remembered or if this was a false memory fueled by Anything is Better in Comparison to Metamorphic Petrology.

Excellent review, and I’m glad you like them. I’ll re-read Player of Games now, too. Is it Use of Weapons in which one character, injured to the point of being reduced only to a head, is gifted with a hat?

P.S. Orbit mussed up the e-editions, so if anyone is planning to read them via kindle or nook, don’t. Some critical punctuation got left out and it garbles the plotline.

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***SPOILER***

the thing I remember most is crying over the prologue, and then, 1/2 thru the book, realizing that the characters in the prologue aren’t human. Banks portrays the folks in his stories as people first, and then by the way, they have three legs or a prehensile tail or whatever.

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i like them being as people first. Makes them people forever.

although the mid-limb thing took me a little to figure out exactly how that worked. . . . and now I totally want one!

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I read the first three books in the Culture series and stopped there. I can’t remember why now because I really loved Player of Games. It might be time to jump back in soon.

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jump back in! you know you want to! :D

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Banks Culture books are wonderful, and PLAYER OF GAMES especially is excellent! I’m looking fwd to reading LOOK TO WINDWARD, and I’ve got another in my ToRead pile called EXCESSION.

Banks is Space Opera personified.

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I just got Player of Games from the library, it looks really good!

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Windward was my first ever Banks novel too, but I read it so long ago I can’t remember anything about it. Should go back and read it again, as it is one of the only culture novels I haven’t read two or three times.

Player of Games is easily my favourite book by Banks (followed closely by Excession), and he is one of my absolute favourite authors ever. Incidentally, the short story ‘State of the Art’ is a brilliant way into the Culture series, if you get the chance.

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So many of my favorite science fiction authors and books are pre 1990 (and in many cases, pre 1970), so it’s so nice to have discovered someone who is writing new stuff, right now.

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I’ve got a Banks short story collection that I bought because it looks and sounds so inviting and I’ve just got to get to it! I read such good things about his work.

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Carl, is State of Art, as mentioned above by Snake Oil, in your collection?

what’s the name of the collection, I’ll keep my eye out for it. :D

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Yes, that is the name of the collection. I bought it from Night Shade years ago when they were having some really great sale.

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Yeah! It almost makes me so happy when someone new discovers Banks, I just want to pump my fist in the air. Welcome to the club. I could go on for a few thousand words about his Culture books, but I think you got the general idea. I love that you came in to the series with a novel that’s really not recommended as a starting point and still loved it. There’s always a lot of discussion about where to start, whether to skip Consider Phlebas or not and so on, and you just proved what I suspected all along – you can jump in more or less anywhere and have a good time.
Like the commenter above, I recommend Use of Weapons as a follow up. Also, The Player of Games. Those two are probably my favorites. I also particularly loved the most recent one, Surface Detail.
Banks is a genius, one of the very few authors I buy on sight in hardcover. Whenever I feel like intelligent space opera, I end up looking for something like a Culture novel.

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I had some people tell me Look to Windward was a terrible place to start, others tell me it was a great place to start, and yet others said it was fine to start anywhere. It was the first Banks book I got my hands on, so I read it first, and as you can see, it was a winner!

The series is getting major brownie points from me that I don’t have to read it in order.

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The first book, Consider Phlebas, is considered one of the weakest ones, so there’s this whole debate about whether you can skip it or not. Obviously you can. (It’s somewhat connected to Look to Windward, by the way, as you can probably guess from the titles.) Anyway, it’s just an amazing series. You’re in for so much fun. Just wait till you get to The Player of Games and Use of Weapons, which are two near-perfect SF novels in my opinion.

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As Stefan just said – welcome to the club! Glad you enjoyed Banks – I love the way he blends just about every tone possible into one space opera, and at the end, it’s not a mess – it’s an intelligently written novel. What are you planning to go on to next? In the Culture series, the chronology is pretty loose – not in that it’s not -there-, but that it’s not that important (in my opinion, anyway!). I’d definitely recommend The Player of Games (probably the series’ shortest, but my absolute favourite – it’s the story of a Culture inhabitant who has spent his life mastering games, and is then sent into an Empire focused around one single game, which they believe models every facet of theirlife. It sounds trite, but it’s absolutely brilliant, especially for the twists, heh).

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that’s for sure, that there is a million different ideas and personalities and concepts crammed into this book.

Next up is Player of Games! I haven’t even read the blurb on it yet, but from your description, I think I’ll really enjoy it. I’m a huge fan of the idea that games are far more important that we give them credit for, so the idea of the book doesn’t sound trite at all to me.

reminds me of that one episode of Deep Space nine. . .

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Great! I think you’ll enjoy it – especially if you’re fond of that idea (not that I’m not – I am too :P ). It’s got an awful lot to do with that, and in fact it’s one of the major themes of the book. One of the things I really like is that the ‘Game’ in question isn’t ever described exactly: it seems wild and complex, and from what we do hear, pretty arcane – but a large part of it is left to the imagination, which makes it far more representative than any game he could describe exactly.

Also, those last two pages are some of my absolute SF favourites.:P

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[...] but for some reason I never got round to reading any further. Reading The Little Red Reviewers thoughts on Look to Winward got me in the mood for more Culture stories though so I decided to pick up where I left off with [...]

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We’re all going on about our favourite Bankses, so I have to weigh in and say that The Algebraist is probably my favourite so far of all his work, even though it’s non-Culture. Stick that on your list too!

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