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Iain M. Banks – Look to Windward

Title: Look to Windward
Iain M. Banks
Narrator: Robert Lister
Year: 2000

In the beginning, much science fiction was about the terrae incognitae of space and their mysteries, but this has changed drastically during the 20th century. Sure, space is still frequent in science-fiction novels, but space itself is rarely the locus of concern. Instead, various other themes are explored. I think Iain M. Banks is a prominent example of an author who is able to connect such interesting themes with the same feeling of wonder that must have generated early science-fiction. In other words, he manages to combine unique and fantastic concepts with themes much more profound than the surface might imply.

In Look to Windward, he explores themes such as sorrow, religion, exile, political intervention, retribution and war against the sparkling background that is the society of The Culture, Bank’s anarchist-liberal, high-technology utopia. And he does it with excellence. The igniting spark of the story consists of a Culture intervention into the political life of the Chelgrians. an operation which, contrary to statistically extrapolated calculations, goes awry. A civil war ensues and many billions of Chelgrians perish. Many years later, a faction within the war-stricken society of the Chelgrians decide to strike back. They send an emissary to The Culture, ostensibly to persuade an exiled composer to return to the Chelgrian home world. The composer is busy, though, creating a piece that will commemorate the Chelgrian civil war, a concert which finale will occur at the exact time when light from a star that was destroyed during the war will reach the Culture world.

The narration of the story is far from straightforward, but is instead intricately divided into many non-chronological threads, all beautifully crafted to present the story to the reader. Though there is a fair bit of confusion in the beginning, I am positively awed by how skillfully this novel is composed. Banks is truly a master of misdirection, and his way of presenting information in this novel is nothing short of perfect.

There are two additional merits I feel I have to mention. First, Banks is entertaining as few other authors. His hilarious, often nerdy sense of humour appeals to me strongly. Not only is he able to introduce entertaining elements of The Culture into the novel, but he also manages to write dialogues which are absolutely brilliant. To be honest, some of the dialogues in Look to Windward are among the most entertaining I have ever encountered. Second, Iain M. Banks is able to produces something entirely unique. I have read enough science-fiction to have a grasp of what has been done before, and Banks’ writing probably comes high on the ranking list of uniqueness per page of fiction. This is very rare and something extraordinary in itself.

Still, Look to Windward is not a perfect book and although I give it four and a half snails, I am hesitant when it comes to recommendations. Apart from what I have said above, there are some problems, such as the ending being a bit abrupt, and that the elements of the story are sometime too far-out, even for me. I am not saying that this is necessarily something bad, but I am quite sure that the average reader will not find this novel as entertaining as I did. However, if you are attracted by what I have described, and do not mind aliens with multiple minds, vast artificial intelligences with hilarious senses of humour, and epic megastructures, Look to Windward is probably an excellent read.

Update: This novel, especially as narrated by Robert Lister, is one of the best production I know of. I won’t change the original rating, but I’d still like to recommend it again. I have relistened to it many times over the years and will do so again in the future. It becomes better and better all the time and the narrator is truly awesome.

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