Wednesday, 26 March 2003

Iain M. Banks: Look to Windward (2000)

Edition: Orbit, 2000
Review number: 1149

The very first of Banks' Culture novels was entitled Consider Phlebas, a quotation from The Wasteland; by giving this novel a title taken from the previous line, it is clear that the author intends the reader to immediately connect the two more intimately than are the half dozen or so written in between. The nature of the connection is perhaps given by the remainder of the "Consider Phlebas" line, "who was once handsome and tall as you" - though The Wasteland is a notoriously difficult poem to understand - and indicates that the novels are intended as commentaries on the life style of the reader. The two novels are also more closely concerned with the core of the Culture than the others, which tend to concentrate on its periphery.

The idea that the novel is intended as a commentary makes Look to Windward sound difficult and worthy, but in fact it is one of Banks' most accessible and enjoyable novels. It is about the preparations being made to commemorate an event of a long finished war, as the light from two stars turned to novae as weapons reaches Culture Orbital Masaq'. The event is to be marked by the first perfmance of a new work by an eminent Chelgrian composer, an exile from his home world because of his attitude to his species' caste system. The concert is to be attended by an ambassador from the Chelgrians, ostensibly on a mission to persuade Ziller to return home but in fact aiming to destroy the orbital as revenge for the deaths of millions of Chelgrians in a civil war at least partially fomented by the Culture, who felt that the caste system was wrong.

This may not seem at first sight to be a commentary on current culture (and the name of the centrepiece of Banks' novel is another clue to the purpose of the series), but it is: it is about cultural imperialism and how the West has, ever since the Conquistadores, attempted to remake other peoples' ways of life into the image of their own. In particular, the attitude of the Culture to the Chelgrian caste system is reminiscent of the efforts made in India by the British to eradicate the similar system there. The message is similar to that of The Business, Banks' previous novel, also among his most accessible.

Humour is an element in most of Banks' work, even though it is usually of an extremely black variety. In Look to Windward and The Business, the humour is lighter and more obvious, which is the major reason why they are particularly easy to read. (They also eschew the experimental structure common in his work, though an unusually large proportion of Look to Windward does take place in flashback.) Either would be an excellent introduction to Banks' work.

1 comment:

Hannah Stoneham said...

I have never read any of the Culture series but I have enjoyed other Banks novels - thanks for the heads up!