Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Look to Windward

Look to Windward
by Iain M. Banks, 2000

My standard description of Iain M. Banks’s Culture books goes like this: The Culture is an advanced and enlightened interstellar society where everyone lives a life of ease and gets to develop their potential. That makes for boring fiction, which is why the Culture stories are actually about the Culture’s incredibly problematic foreign policy.

The Culture is very good at covertly interfering in other nations. In fact, they’ve elevated the practice to an art form. Just a few years ago, for instance, they interfered in the politics of a powerful spacefaring people known as the Chelgrians, rigging elections, manipulating the media, and basically doing everything that we Earthers in 2018 are all too familiar with, only far more subtly and with a much defter hand.

And yet.

The Minds -- the powerful superbeings who rule the Culture -- were astonished and dismayed when their actions unexpectedly triggered a massive Chelgrian civil war that killed billions of people. (Yes, billions. One thing you can say about Iain M. Banks: he didn't think small.) The chastened Culture publicly admitted their role in starting the war and brokered a peace deal, essentially saying “Our bad. Usually when we interfere we make things better. We have no idea what happened this time. Oh well, apologies and all that.”
Apparently some Chelgrians are still mad at the Culture, even though the war’s been over for more than a year and the Culture already said they were sorry. (I know, right? Totally inexplicable! Why don’t they just get over it?) This is how things stand when we join the action of Look to Windward.

Look to Windward has a fairly large number of viewpoint characters, but unlike Excession, the action here is firmly centered on a few core characters and one primary setting: the gigantic Culture orbital Masaq’. The Culture is far too vast a civilization to limit itself to puny little planets, and Masaq’ is an artificial habitat that is home to over fifty billion Culture citizens, along with a fair number of foreigners, one of whom is a Chlegrian composer named Ziller. A musical celebrity whose fame spans the galaxy, Ziller became disgusted with his own people years ago and has been living in self-imposed exile ever since. He watched his native culture’s self-destructive frenzy from the safety of his home on Masaq’, and he has no desire to return any time soon, if ever.

Meanwhile, Major Quilan of the Chelgrian military is on a collision course with Ziller. Quilan has been utterly traumatized by the loss of his wife in the war, he has nothing more to live for, and he would very much like to die -- a mental state that his his government’s special forces division found that they could make use of. Now Quilan is on his way to Masaq’ to persuade Ziller to return to Chelgrian space. That is absolutely the real reason Quilan is traveling to Masaq’, and it is a very believable story that everyone should believe. Why shouldn’t they believe it? After all, no one else can see the high-ranking military officer residing non-corporeally in Quilan’s head, whose mission is to make sure Quilan does what he’s supposed to do, which has nothing to do with persuading Ziller to return home with him. Ziller tells people that Quilan's been ordered to kill him, but maybe he's got an inflated sense of his own importance. Maybe Quilan's orders are to kill far more people than just one galaxy-renowned musician.

As for the fifty billion Culture natives living on Masaq’, we never really get inside their heads, or get to know any of them terribly well. The only viewpoint character who’s a native of the Culture is a solitary researcher named Uagen studying bizarre giant creatures in a surreal environment far away from Masaq’, who stumbles across evidence of the Chelgrian plot and tasks himself with getting a warning to the Culture in time. Uagen is the only one who can save the people of Masaq’! It’ll certainly be unfortunate for Uagen if the author has a taste for dramatic irony...

Masaq’ society is seen through the eyes of the two Chelgrian characters (and an amiable alien named Kabe who befriends both of them). The people of Masaq’ perform death-defying feats of aerial acrobatics flying through vast cloud environments, and they ride ceramic boats down rivers of lava. They passionately take sides over whether to string up an utterly useless cable car through an artificial desert, and the debate goes on for years.

In short, the people of the Culture have a LOT of free time on their hands, and another author would get all preachy about their luxurious, frivolous lifestyle, but fortunately Iain Banks is not that author. Really, who among us wouldn’t want to live a sweet, cushy life in the technological wonderland that is the Culture? The Chelgrians are bemused that these urbane fun-loving aesthetes are the same society that put their own society through such horrific trauma. The political allegory at the heart of the Culture novels is clear without being simplistic.

There's a sense among Banks aficionados that Look to Windward closes out the main cycle of Culture novels. (After an eight-year break, Banks would go on to write three more novels set in this universe, which I’ll get around to reading sooner or later.) Eight hundred years have passed since the sequence began with Consider Phlebas. The epic war between the Culture and the Idirans that was the setting of Consider Phlebas bookends the saga -- the war is now long consigned to history, and yet the lingering effects of the war are remembered throughout Look to Windward. The Mind that runs Masaq’ is a traumatized veteran, still dealing with guilt over atrocities it committed centuries ago, and it ends up playing a key role in the story’s climax.

Now that I’ve reached the end of the initial run of Culture novels, I appreciate what Banks has accomplished. The Culture is a wonderful place to live, but a supremely uninteresting place to set stories (‘May you live in interesting times’ applies here), which is why the focus is always on the Culture’s relations with societies that aren’t quite so damn perfect. The Culture is a high-tech socialist-libertarian paradise, where everyone is free to live the life they want, and the whole thing is ruled by near-omnipotent Minds who can and will commit horrific acts to ensure the society keeps running smoothly. Nothing’s simple in this universe.

I can see where the Culture novels might not be everyone's cup of tea. He doesn't even try to make his universe scientifically plausible (which is better than trying and failing), though I see that as painting boldly, without restraint, across a magnificently broad canvas. Also, Banks was clearly more confident writing male characters than female ones -- this includes the no-middle-initial Iain Banks novels I've read, not just Iain M. Banks. And I could imagine people turned off by his liking for grotesque violence (somewhat toned down in Look to Windward, apart from a nightmarish Culture assassin we meet near the end) and shocking plot twists late in the game (present in Look to Windward, though not remotely on the same level as, say, Use of Weapons).

But the man could write, and write engagingly, and write scenes that stay in my mind long after the book is finished. Even Consider Phlebas and Excession, which I found slightly more of a chore to get through than the others, are full of incredibly engaging stretches and highly memorable bits. It's easy to see how this particular Scotsman found so many readers, among SF fans and non-fans alike.

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