Book review – Look to Windward

Look to Windward (2000) is the sixth of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, Banks’ series of sci-fi novels about an advanced civilisation known as the ‘Culture’. Banks of course wrote (Banks sadly passed away in 2013) regular fiction and added the ‘M’ (for Menzies) when he was writing sci-fi. I’m not a big sci-fi fan but have read my share of the classics, such as Dune, 2001, and Ender’s Game. I’ve also read the first four Culture novels and enjoyed them all, especially The Player of Games. If you’re wondering why I skipped #5 in the series, it’s only because #6 had better reviews and the fact that each Culture novel is quite distinct from its predecessor, so you’re not missing anything by skipping one.

Look to Windward finds us in Masaq’ Orbital (home to 50 billion inhabitants) on the cusp of the commemoration of a major battle of the Idiran war, which took place 800-years ago: It’s taken 800 years for the light to travel to Masaq’ from two collapsed stars, which featured within the battle. To commemorate the occasion, one of Chel’s most famous composers, Ziller, now an inhabitant on Masaq’, will conduct a new piece of music at the ceremony. At the same time Major Quilan has been dispatched from Chel to pursuade Ziller to return, much to Ziller’s annoyance, who does his utmost to avoid Quilan despite the efforts of his well meaning colleagues. Things aren’t so simple, however, as Ziller suspects Quilan may have plans to murder him, though bigger things are at play.

The world (or should that be universe?) of the Culture is a fantastic place, with all manner of beings and ways of living (and dying). It’s the little things that I enjoy about Culture novels such as the names of the Culture’s General Service Vehicles (ships that build ships): ‘Just Read The Instructions’; ‘Of Course I Still Love You’; ‘Very Little Gravitas Indeed’, etc. The cast is a fine one too, which in addition to Ziller and Quilan includes an avatar of the ship’s Mind (the AI which runs Masaq’), a furry triped named Kabe, and a drone named E.H. Tersono. The dialogue between each of the characters is witty and sometimes quite moving, something which Banks has always excelled at.

Whilst reading Windward, I was reminded of the term ‘space opera’, which is an apt description of the book, bringing to mind terms such as lavish and grandiose. However, in creating the lavish world of Masaq’, Banks is, for my taste, overly descriptive at the cost of the plot, which takes a good while to get moving. Moreover, the novel includes sub-plots which might as well not be included for all the value they bring to the novel, i.e. not a lot.

While the novel has a lot going for it, I’ve enjoyed other Culture novels a lot more (such as the aforementioned The Player of Games, and Consider Phlebas), and would recommend those ahead of Look to Windward.