Look to Windward, Iain M. Banks
(UK: Orbit 1-85723-969-5, £16.99, 357pp, hc, August 2000, cover art by Mark Salwowski)
Review by Jonathan Strahan, from the October 2000 Locus Magazine
Iain M. Banks opens his latest science fiction novel with the same epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land that opened his first, Consider Phlebas, and he returns to the same territory.
Towards the end of the war between the Culture and the Idiran, two suns were destroyed, killing billions. Now 800 years later, the light from those suns is set to reach the Culture Orbital Masaq’ - a vast ringworld 10 million kilometres long and as broad as Australia, with vast containing walls on either side and a river that winds across its surface for 14 million kilometers. It is a time for muted celebration and sombre reflection for, as the famous Chelgrian composer Ziller, who lives in self-imposed exile onboard the Orbital, says ‘‘we dance by the light of ancient mistakes.’’
That feeling pervades the pages of Look to Windward, for most of the major characters are haunted by death or loss. Ziller, who has been commissioned to write a symphony to be performed when the last light of the second sun fades from view, lives in exile after a disastrous civil war on Chelgria failed to overthrow the vicious caste system he despises. Hub, the artificial intelligence that manages Masaq’, is a Culture Mind that fought in the Idiran War and is haunted both by the death of its identical twin and by the deaths it was responsible for, each of which it recalls perfectly. And then there’s the Chelgrian emissary Quilan, who is dispatched by his government to try to persuade Ziller to return home. Quilan is a soldier who lost all interest in living after the death of his wife during Chelgria’ s civil war (a war incidentally ignited by the well-intentioned meddling of the Culture) and who only accepted his mission because he has been guaranteed he will not survive it.
For all that Look to Windward is a serious novel, it is also a novel set in Banks’ s Culture, with all that implies. There are Big Dumb Objects like the Orbital Masaq’ and Airspheres inhabited by millennia-old behemathaurs, as well as haughty Probes, amusingly named spaceships, and a ridiculous excess of scale. And there is the Culture itself - a galaxy - spanning civilization that sounds like it was based on the anarcho-syndicalist commune from Monty Python’s Holy Grail and behaves rather like an intergalactic Brady Bunch, all earnestness and good intentions.
While levity and humor seep through the cracks of Look to Windward, it remains a rumination on death. Eliot in The Waste Land cautions those who look to windward in order to protect their charges from danger to remember those who have fallen. Banks does this in a novel that combines Doc Smith and Jack Vance, Big Dumb Objects and Small Smart Ones ... it is elegant, moral, funny. What more could a reader ask from a space opera at the end of the millennium?