Look to Windward (2000) is another of Iain M. Banks literate, grand space-operas set within the interstellar society of the Culture. For those unfamiliar, Mr. Banks has written several stand-alone novels about the Culture, an exceedingly affluent and powerful civilization that places a high value on individual rights and liberty and has an uncomfortable habit of intervening in the business of other civilizations. Their ‘interventions’ are undertaken with the Culture’s best intentions, although their secret military branch (Special Circumstances) believes that the ends justify the means, and their actions sometimes have disastrous consequences (in case the reader misses the connection, Banks gives a hint that the novel’s politics resemble affairs in our own world: he dedicated the book to the Gulf War Veterans). And it is a disastrous consequence that drives the plot of Look to Windward. Prior to the events portrayed in the novel, agents of the Culture had attempted to dissolve a repressive, hierarchical social system and their actions precipitated a devastating civil-war in the Chelgrian civilization.
There are three main threads to the story:
i) Ziller, a famous Chelgrian composer, spurned the oppressive caste-system of Chel and left his society to live with the Culture citizens of Masaq’. He has composed a new work that he will conduct during an historic event on Masaq’.
ii) Quilan, an ambassador from Chel, travels to Masaq’; allegedly on a mission to convince Ziller to return to Chel, but Quilan, a former soldier, has a darker mission that is slowly revealed as the novel proceeds
iii) a young scientist studies an inscrutable, sentient dirigible within the thriving, internal ecology of a colossal gas bubble that roams through space (as an aside, my inner-geek really appreciated this thread, which epitomizes Banks’ ability to converge and diverge).
There isn’t much wiz-bang action, and the novel develops slowly, but the threads eventually intertwine to form an interesting conclusion.
I could have done without the vindictive, sadistic assassinations at the end, and I have some other quibbles, not the least of which is the fact that I’ve yet to read a book by Iain M. Banks that has completely blown me away as a novel. He writes well, creates an intricate story, has an exceptional imagination, fills his characters with depth, and is able to maintain my interest throughout the book, but his endings leave me oddly unfulfilled. Then again, perhaps this is exactly what he intends.