look to windward

look to windward

iain banks has a universe inside his head. probably more than one. who knows. at the very least, he has one with a multi-species civilization called the Culture, comprised of a few trillion people living a few tens of thousands of years down the road. they’re spread across the galaxy, and when not pursuing their wildest dreams (since poverty, money, disease, and internecine conflict have all been eradicated), they are engaged in a vast philanthropic effort to help those civilizations who aren’t quite as, shall we say, well off.

he’s written a number of things involving the Culture:

  • the state of the art (collected short stories and a novella)
  • consider phlebas
  • use of weapons
  • player of games
  • excession
  • inversions (apparently only vaguely Culture-related)
  • look to windward

the last ostensible book in his Culture novels is look to windward, and it’s a fitting finish to a remarkable series, especially given that the first Culture novel was consider phlebas, both of which refer to a few lines from Eliot’s Waste Land:

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

[NOTE: i will make no attempt to analyze the philosophical underpinnings of The Waste Land, Banks’ works, and the connection between them – i leave this task to far braver (and perhaps more presumptuous) souls.]

and now, my review (and possible spoilers) follow…

in the Banks spectrum of writing, from experimental and opaque to expository and transparent, look to windward (hereafter referred to as LTW) falls toward the latter end of the spectrum. at its heart, it’s a story of revenge, of the bloodlust hatched by violence (civil war, in this particular case).

as i mentioned, the Culture like to think of themselves as helping other "less-advanced" species. through their Contact and Special Circumstances groups, they interact with other species, often attempting positive (if covert) interventions aimed at the betterment of said species. their moral high-ground is often muddy, though, and Banks takes an ambivalent view towards their erstwhile philanthropy. LTW is a solid example of philanthropy gone horribly wrong; in their attempts to help a species called the Chelgrians, they inadvertently trigger a vast civil war that results in the deaths of millions. oops. so, what do they do? why, they go in, stop the war, and try to fix things, of course! make reparations, as it were, for their missteps.

major spoilers coming…i’m not kidding here, people.

while some Chelgrians are vaguely understanding about the whole thing, a splinter group decides to exact their revenge in true eye-for-an-eye spirit: one Culture citizen for every Chelgrian killed. without this retribution, those lost Chelgrian souls are trapped in a literal limbo, unable to enter the known (manufactured?) heaven created by the Chelgrians and facilitated by Soulkeepers implanted in the minds of all Chelgrians. how are they going to manage genocide on this scale? obvious: tap a superior species for some help, get a spy to infiltrate the Culture, have him go to one of their vast Orbitals, and then use a mind-triggered displacement device to put wormhole-opening warheads inside the AI that controls all Orbital systems.

yeah…it’s quite a story. and i didn’t even mention the odd interludes in interstellar space with these encapsulated air-worlds filled with intelligent gas-bag ecosystems that have been around for billions of years. one has to wonder if the scotch helps him dream this stuff up. in any case, the novel is a great read, leads to a satisfying conclusion, and rounds out the Culture novels quite nicely (in this reader’s opinion).

aside from the raw power of his imagination, Banks uses the Culture as a means to explore a possible future state of humanity, and to comment indirectly on contemporary society. he’s Scottish with pretty liberal politics; it’s pretty easy to imagine him thinking of the Culture as a reasonable future analog to the current state of American hegemony and morally superior attitudes. regardless, he manages to say some pretty interesting things about the world, our values, how we spend our lives, how we relate to other people.

at the end of the day, he’s just a fantastic storyteller. i’m not sure whether he would want to get into the symbolism of his novels, or the possible political statements he’s making. it just seems like he’s having fun writing, and as a reader, i always do, too (except maybe for feersum endjinn – sorry, mr. banks, couldn’t really get into that one).

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