Look to Windward by Iain Banks
This is the first book I have read by Iain Banks — and it won’t be the last. His post-human vision of the very distant future, with its closer-to-perfect, but all-too-human AI, is not only plausible but a thought-provoker. And if you read science fiction, don’t you want something thought provoking? The alien cultures, the societal implications, and the use of technology were exactly that. Bucking the trend of throwing everything into a thousand-page tome, literary science fiction gets better in the hands of only a handful of other writers.
Not a mix of tech and storylines that overwhelms (looking at you, Peter F. Hamilton), Look to Windward is science fiction deeper than the storyline. In fact, the SF elements take a backseat to the human and human-esque plights (there are aliens, after all) of what few main characters there are. The plot is based on a war that was sparked by the Culture (Banks’ AI human overlords) and killed billions of Chelgrians. Now, thousands of years later as the light from the supernova they had used as a bomb is making its way across the galaxy, the Culture has changed its tune and is bent on reconciliation. Composed by a Chelgrian outcast, a symphony is due to show in honor of the dead, the finale to start the moment the “star” appears in the sky above the Culture for the first time. Compromise is not what the Chelgrians have in mind, however. A caste-based species, they remain focused on revenge. How a third group becomes involved, a behemoth style alien floating in a gas giant, is up to the reader to discover. The drawing together of these threads, while seeming anti-climactic, remains true to character and theme, and for this should be commended. Those complaining of the climax’s lack of whiz-bang fireworks undoubtedly miss out on the ideas Banks has at play.
And these thematic elements are numerous and varied. Banks seems to touch upon current world affairs in describing how suicide bombers are selected and mentally molded. He describes the long-term effects love can have on the individual when the object of their desire is taken from them at the emotional peak of the relationship — both humanoid and AI. Likewise, he dips slightly into the psychology resulting from post-human life without limits, technology able to satisfy every dream.
My only complaints about the novel are that two of the main alien species were in fact humans in costume; their emotional output was identical to humans. Likewise, while a humanist tone prevails throughout, moments of the ending reverted all too quickly into cheap vengeance: good-rewarded, bad-punished, subverting the mood that dominated up to that point. The result of this is that the thematic punch was pulled a little, the sympathy and emotional edge blunted by the violence. That being said, the theme of hope and optimism towards constructive outcomes remains clearly visible throughout. The characters as representative, as well as the storyline motivating them, are amongst the best modern science fiction has to offer. Look to Windwardis recommended for anyone who enjoys science fiction that has a human face displayed equally alongside plot and world building.
I haven’t read Ian Banks yet. This sounds good — I think I’ll try it. Thanks for the review, Jesse!
Kat, all of Bank’s sci-fi books are stand-alone and can be enjoyed as such. However, I now wish I’d read one of the earlier Culture novels first, “Use of Weapons” being the best starting point in my opinion. If you see it on audio, pick it up! :)
Thanks, Jesse — I will look for that!