Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks
Posted April 2, 2012on:
Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks
published in 2000
Where I got it: borrowed from a friend (thanks!!!)
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?