Visions of Paradise

Friday, April 13, 2007

Look to Windward

For over a decade I have been reading excellent reviews of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, many of them describing it as intelligent, thoughtful, literary space opera. Since that covers both aspects of the sf spectrum that I typically enjoy, Banks was one of the first authors I decided to read when I began looking for more futuristic sf about a year ago. Since the back cover blurb of Look To Windward described it as “an excellent hopping-on point,” I decided it was as good a place as any for me to start.

The Culture is a vast, sprawling agglomeration of worlds with 31 trillion inhabitants which eight centuries ago inadvertently sparked a devastating civil war among the Chelgrians. Relations between the two are still fragile, although generally-peaceful. Windward is set on the Masaq’ Hub, a huge orbital structure which resembles a ringworld and contains 50 billion inhabitants. Among them are two nonhuman visitors: Kabe is a journalist sending back regular observations to his homeworld; and Ziller is a Chelgrian composer who defected to the Culture. The two of them are told that a Chelgrian ship is approaching Masaq’ Hub containing an emissary whose assumed purpose is convincing Ziller to return home. What they do not realize is that the emissary is carrying in his brain the mind of a dead general from that 800-year ago war.

Look to Windward is a very introspective novel, using the characters’ thoughts and conversations to develop both their personalities and the universe of the Culture itself. The novel is paced very deliberately, its main concern being to use its plot to develop both the setting and its many inhabitants, both humans and fascinating nonhumans. While the pace lends itself to depth and thoughtfulness, it never slows down or holds up the story, a talent not all writers of such types of serious fiction possess.

The main storyline running through the novel is a mystery based around one question: Why is there so much secrecy in Major Quilan’s mission to convince Ziller to return to Chel, when it seems so straightforward on the surface? Interwoven into the main events is a series of scenes examining Quilan’s past, including how he was chosen for the mission to the Culture, but even this portion does not get to the root of the mystery for several hundred pages.

Look to Windward contains considerable sense of wonder in its rich and exotic universe, and much depth in the nature of its inhabitants. An examination of religious belief is a major focus of the novel, and much of the underlying rationale of the plot is in the nature of a jihad. Interestingly, Windward was published in 2000, a year before 9/11, and Banks himself lives in Scotland, so I suspect its impetus springs from the struggles in Northern Ireland rather than in the Middle East.

As the novel progresses, the tension increases steadily, but Banks wisely resists any urge to succumb to the type of mindless thriller which is so popular, but which I find ultimately boring. Instead Windward's climax is as deliberate and thought-provoking as the rest of the novel and, in my opinion, succeeds totally.

For me Look to Windward succeeds on nearly every level, and I feel confident it will appeal to all readers who enjoy literate, thought-provoking science fiction set in an exotic future. It is one of those rare novels that successfully combines sense of wonder with successful plotting, characterization and considerable thoughtfulness. Since I began my search for wondrous science fiction approximately one year ago, I have been thrilled to discover works by Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Jack McDevitt, and now Iain M. Banks, who might be the finest writer of the group. I await more Culture novels eagerly.


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