Scotland's Iain Menzies Banks is a prolific fellow with a literary double life. He's produced at least one book every year since The Wasp Factory came out in 1984, alternating between "mainstream" fiction (as just plain Iain Banks) and SF (as Iain M. Banks). His latest SF effort, Look To Windward, takes us back to the Culture, the space opera utopia introduced over a decade ago in Consider Phlebas and expanded with three sequels since.
The Culture is a cozy interstellar society in which everything is plentiful, no one is exploited, and very little is forbidden or even impossible. All of the details of its day-to-day operation are handled by benevolent hyperspace AIs called Minds, leaving its inhabitants free to pursue whatever pleasures they crave. The whimsical hedonism of the Culture is rather convincing -- quite like Banks has taken the Western world and divorced it even more completely from the indignities of physical want. And remarkably, he's refrained from knocking this obvious target from its sheltered doldrums. Through the eight hundred years covered so far in his novels, the Culture has remained mostly unchanged. This is Banks' primary point of divergence from modern space-opera virtuosos such as Dan Simmons, Vernor Vinge, or Peter Hamilton. The Culture does not exist merely so that it can be violently transformed in the course of a novel. Even Consider Phlebas' cataclysmic Idiran War was never posed as a Culture-changing event. The Minds of that novel had calculated the exact circumstances of their victory well in advance, and, despite billions of tragedies, the Culture as a whole sailed on unaffected.
Challenged only faintly from within, the Culture has turned its gaze outwards, assigning its Contact and Special Circumstances branches to meddle in the affairs of lesser civilizations. Such meddling is always altruistic, but the quality of the Culture's intentions -- even when coupled with the fabulous thinking power of the Minds -- cannot guarantee that these interventions will produce desirable results.
Look To Windward is built upon such a failed intervention, an attempt to wean the furry, five-limbed Chelgrians from their caste structure and encourage a more egalitarian cultural model. This interference resulted in a brutal civil war, and, years later, it's time for the Culture to make amends. Trapped within this intrigue is Ziller, a celebrated Chelgrian composer. Disgusted by the inequalities of his homeworld, Ziller has exiled himself to Massaq', a Culture micro-ringworld. His presence on Massaq' represents a potent opportunity for the Culture's reparations project; if he can be reconciled with his countrymen, the wounds on the Culture's conscience will be at least partially salved.
About half of Windward focuses on Ziller and his inner circle, which includes the Homomdan ambassador/journalist Kabe Ischloear, the drone E.H. Tersono, and the various avatars of the Mind that controls Massaq' itself. The remainder presents Quilan, the Chelgrian ostensibly sent to retrieve Ziller, who, in typical Banksian fashion, has his own anguish-fueled secret agenda.
Once these players are established, the pace of the book relaxes. It's largely composed of flashbacks which illuminate the pain of Quilan and his society, and of Ziller's musings on weighty concepts like death, existence, and their meaning in a society where no one need ever die, or indeed need ever be seriously challenged. Banks doesn't hesitate to diverge from the main plot to bring us vignettes regarding death, birth, or obsessive behavior within the Culture, nor does he shy away from presenting primary characters who serve as little more than debaters or Culture apologists. Readers expecting thrill rides along the lines of Banks' previous novels may be disappointed. Still, Banks carries off this heavy stuff with wit and stealthy lightness; if Heinlein had been this engaging, we'd all be grokking each other in free-love communes right now. And his long reflections aren't masturbatory, either -- they lead the reader to a ending that is both unexpected and rather satisfying.
Windward's contemplative tone also subdues Banks' SF chops somewhat. Though none of the primary characters are human, they must take on very human tones to make the points that Banks wants them to make. Consequently, both the Chelgrians and the three-meter-tall pyramidal Homomdans come across as mere guys in suits. This deficiency can be rationalized away, though -- a society as seductive as the Culture will certainly produce some level of homogeneity, even among persons who consider themselves to be Culture outsiders. And any thirst for otherness ought to be at least partially sated by Windward's megayears-old, miles-long, symbiotic gasbag Behemothaurs, although those beings serve more as scenery than characters.
Aliens aside, it's always impossible to forget that you're in Banks' universe, especially when the Massaq' Mind casually announces that it's orchestrating the movement of most of the free material in its solar system, for reasons of safety and aesthetics, or when the entire population of Massaq' turns eyes skyward to witness the newly-arrived light of two historically significant supernovae. This spare elegance allows Banks to construct stunning SF set-pieces in just a paragraph or two, then get back to his characters. And it's the characters who are really the stars here -- Banks is far less deliberate in his surveys of the Culture's speculative terrain than he has been in the past. We don't get into any topic as deeply as we got into the Minds in Excession or Special Circumstances in Use of Weapons. All of these elements exist in Windward, but are presented in much more restrained doses, and that helps make Windward much more accessible than previous Banks offerings.
If you're attracted to sweeping thinking and big themes, but you're new to the Culture, then Look To Windward is a pretty good place to start. And if you liked Banks' previous Culture material, you'll find everything here that you enjoyed before -- just with the volume turned down a bit.
John Aegard lives in Seattle. He has fiction forthcoming in ON SPEC.
For more information on the Culture, straight from Banks' brain, you can check his essay "A Few Notes on the Culture," available online.
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