A review by tachyondecay
Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks

emotional hopeful mysterious slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? No
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated


One piece of writing advice that has always stuck with me is Ursula K. Le Guin’s take on conflict. Put simply, she challenged the orthodox opinion that every story must have conflict in it. I find myself thinking of this as I ponder Look to Windward and, indeed, Iain M. Banks’ Culture series as a whole. Banks once again proves himself so skilled at writing interesting utopias.

The majority of this book takes place on Masaq’ Orbital. Mahrai Ziller has been living in self-imposed exile among the Culture for decades. An emissary from his people, the Chelgrians, arrives and wants to convince Ziller to return home. An outcast for his rejection of Chelgrian caste structure, Ziller wants nothing less. He has thrown himself into composing an emotional piece for the AI Hub of Masaq’ to commemorate the end of a war between his people and the Culture. Meanwhile, we also learn more about the Chelgrian emissary, his past, and his involvement in that war. Gradually we learn there’s a plot afoot, something far more sinister and devastating than merely persuading one exile to return to his homeland.

I want to say that if you have experienced the Culture before, then much of this book will feel familiar to you—but that isn’t quite right, is it? The Culture is not a familiar thing, despite its trappings similar to humanity. It’s a riotous combination of utopianism, hedonism, post-scarcity economics, and redolent solipsistic philosophizing. The more one learns about the Culture, the more bizarre it feels. No wonder Banks often presents us with outsiders as interlocutors—in this case, Kabe, the Homomdan ambassador to Masaq’ Orbital. Through Kabe’s perspective we have a more selective filter on the insanity that makes the Culture work.

And it does work, for that is the essential point of this book. The conflict is, at its heart, not much of a conflict. For the first two thirds of the novel, the final threat is hinted at rather half-heartedly, with almost no exposition regarding its true nature. In the final act, as quickly as the threat reifies, it is dispatched with almost no ceremony. The Culture is just that powerful, and that is the point: almost nothing can challenge it, but is that a good thing?

At the heart of this book is the question how do we reconcile who we are now with who we used to be? For there is not much conflict in the main part of this book, but there is a history of conflict in these pages. There are many characters in Look to Windward who did terrible things in the past. The Hub of Masaq’ Orbital, though a minor character, played a role in the Chelgrian war, is intimately connected to the events leading up to the climax of the novel, as is the Chelgrian emissary whose arrival sets everything into motion. The Culture’s utopian outlook sometimes means endorsing violence. Is this compatible with morality as we lowly humans know it?

As always, it is a pleasure to spend time in the universe of the Culture novels. Banks is such a fascinating science-fiction author: brimming with technological conceits of AI and nanotechnology and faster-than-light drives yet, at the same time, placing all those on the back burner so that he can focus on deep, enduring emotional questions. Can we let go of our past wrongs, and how others have wronged us? Is it OK to forgive? How do we move forward when we have lost so much?

Science fiction is at its best when it puts us in milieus that feel simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. Banks is one of the best at doing that. I don’t enjoy every outing equally—indeed, given the many years over which I have read these novels, it is hard for me to rank them or even compare them. But I always find value in them, and I am always left changed (hopefully for the better) by the experience.

Originally posted at Kara.Reviews.