Space Opera Sunday: Look to Windward

Banner: Space opera Sunday (base image - Space by Codex41 @flickr)

800 years after the Idiran War, the dying light of two suns destroyed in it will finally reach Masaq’ Orbital. For Ziller, the occasion is overshadowed by the arrival of a Chelgrian emissary on a mission to bring the composer in exile home. But Quilan has other motives for his visit, and the Idiran War is not the only one whose consequences will be felt on Masaq’.

Book cover: Look to Windward - Iain M Banks (the nose of a spaceship reflecting light as it cuts across the top of a scene featuring a tall ship sailing down a canal on a ringworld. Yes this is as crazy as it sounds, in tones of yellow gold)

Here’s a funny thing: I really want to like Look to Windward more than I actually do. Trying to settle on a rating I could feel myself wanting to bump it up to 4 stars – but I can’t justify it, because I simply didn’t enjoy reading it this time around.

To be clear: it’s not a bad book. Indeed, by the general standards of scifi, I’m being wilfully unkind in saying it’s not that great – it tackles big ideas on a bold canvas with intriguing characters and beautiful writing. But by the Banksian standards against which I measure his Culture novels (set for me by the first 3 novels, all of which get 5 stars), I didn’t feel it measured up.

Yet I can’t deny it’s an ‘important’ Culture novel. If the first three books stepped us into how the Culture and Contact works, the central three books (and yes I’m ignoring The State of the Art) are all about Contact ethics. The Culture are smug interventionists. Excession shows us that even the Minds are sometimes out-classed, and that neither their methods nor their motivations are always scrupulous; Inversions questions whether the ends excuse the means; and Look to Windward ups the ante on that question, giving us the consequences of Contact getting it wrong.

A Contact miscalculation resulted in the deaths of 5 billion Chelgrians, when the unexpected response to the Culture’s attempt to encourage a political shift was a bloody civil war. In its aftermath, Contact try to gently persuade a Chelgrian exile (Ziller) on a famous Orbital (Masaq’) to meet with the new Chelgrian ambassador (Quilan) to assuage the Culture’s guilt; but Quilan’s true mission – hidden even from himself – is vengeance.

All of which sounds great, and provides us with the opportunity to look at life in the Culture up close for once – most of the book is set on the Orbital. We return to Inversions‘s question of whether the Culture are right to interfere at all and examine the depths of their conscience, with questionable results: Chelgrian gigadeath causes much hand-wringing, but doesn’t affect Contact policy in any way.

We also revisit the theme of whether the hedonistic, backed-up life of a Culture citizen can have meaning (touched on in The Player of Games and Excession) and introduce the concept of a controlled afterlife (which we’ll revisit in spades in Surface Detail) – and all overshadowed by Consider Phlebas‘s Idiran War. At a stretch, you could argue that war veteran Quilan and his secret mission recalls Cheradenine Zakalwe, albeit working against the Culture rather than for them.

My problems with it are its slow pace and lack of focus. Look to Windward wanders, getting sucked into its own fascination with the crazy stupid lives (although to be fair, the Culture cocktail party chitchat was one of my favourite things in it. Unburdened with the niceties of who is speaking, it’s recognisable gibberish to anyone who has ever been sober in conversation with drunk people) and the awe-inspiring habitats of Masaq’. This is probably the most detail we’ve had on a Culture habitat, and part of me wanted to love it on that account (ooh, place-making! Mad ideas! So this is what they get up to at home! Etc), but sadly it didn’t engage me – unlike Consider Phlebas, where similar explorations of imaginative worlds advanced the plot.

Add in the lengthy descriptions of Chel and the airsphere, and it amounts to an awful lot of description and exposition for little obvious gain. I know Banks can do killer world-building; but if it doesn’t serve a purpose, I do eventually get bored (for contrast, my heart-felt defence of Gentle’s Orthe, a world made richer by its lengthy travelogues).

Exploration of the characters is likewise leisurely here, with fairly little character development. The (largely alien) POVs are there to show us the Culture, not to evolve in response to it. I doubt any reader will be particularly surprised that SPOILERS (mouse over to read) Ziller’s ego will not permit him to miss the symphony debut, or that Quilan begins to have doubts about his mission; his personal desire is always oblivion, not vengeance.

And then there’s the side-story on the airsphere, which left me utterly cold – not least because it seemed to be utterly irrelevant, making me wonder if I’d missed something. I realise there’s overlap with Quilan’s training, and that Eweirl is responsible for Sansemin’s death, but Uagen Zlepe just seems surplus to requirements, not least given his untimely death.

This narrative seemed to exist only to underline that we shouldn’t sympathise with the Chelgrians (although I don’t think there was much chance of this in my case) although it does echo Consider Phlebas‘s theme that not every story influences larger events – with the Yoleusenive’s perspective from the far future in the coda likewise emphasising how meaningless all this is in the long run. As I was never invested in the storyline, I found all this rather frustrating.

With all the themes being revisited, you can see why everyone thought this was the final Culture novel (which for eight years it appeared to be). If it had been, you could argue that it comes full circle and makes a whole of everything that’s gone before – an encore and a grand finale, all in one. But ultimately it isn’t the last novel – and while I recognise and admire its willingness to look the Culture in the eye and find it wanting (because I do think their response to what happened on Chel is reprehensible), I find it terribly hard work. In the end, I guess I prefer the urgency of the more plot-driven adventures of the first trilogy over the more reflective explorations of the second.