i resolved this year to finally get off my arse and start reading again, so after a brief foray into the world of 1984 and Winston Smith, i decided to work my way through the backlog of Iain M. Banks novels that i have lined up on my bookcase. i’ve not read Look To Windward before, but i knew it was a part sequel – inasmuch that the two stories are set 800 years apart – to Banks’ first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. in fact, the titles of the two stories come from the same T. S. Eliot poem, The Waste Land

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you. T.S. Eliot

the story starts off flitting between three different characters Ziller, Quilan and Zlepe, unusually leaving you guessing as to who the main protagonist of the piece is. This ambiguity continues throughout most of the book, leaving you never quite sure which, if any, of the characters you’re supposed to be sympathising with. Ziller, a stubborn yet gifted composer from the planet Chel provides many of the laughs in the book, as he struggles to cope with the smug representatives of the Culture who try to persuade him to meet with the Chelgrian emissary, apparently sent to persuade him to return from his self-imposed exile on the Masaq orbital. Major Quilan, the man sent to retrieve the errant composer, on the other hand is a hard, outwardly emotionless individual, yet inwardly tormented by the death of his soulmate and wife in the Chelgrian civil war. Culture academic Uagen Zlepe threatens to become a major character until about two thirds of the way through. by the end of the novel, the reader might be forgiven for wondering exactly what purpose Zlepe serves as he appears to contribute nothing to the eventual outcome of the plot, a red herring in the culmination of the story. however, on deeper analysis, while Zlepe’s storyline never converges with Ziller and Quilan’s, it serves to reinforce some of the wider themes encountered elsewhere of death, civilisation, immortality and the fact that even the Culture pales into insignificance in comparison to other forces found throughout the universe.

one of the oddities of Look To Windward is that throughout Quilan’s story, we have just as much idea of what his mission entails as he does himself, which is to say – not much of an idea. as mentioned earlier, this gives the effect of not actually knowing who the main protagonist is for quite some time and it is only as other ancillary characters (such as Ziller, Kabe, Zlepe etc) fade into the background, that we see not only the extent of Quilan’s deep involvement in a plot to destroy the hub Mind, but also the cementing of his position as the true tragic hero of the novel. Quilan’s unexpected accomplice in his partial redemption is of course the Culture hub Mind, who as the novel goes on, reveals similar feelings to Quilan, of loss, grief, guilt and emptiness.

what i found interesting in Look To Windward was the likeability of almost every character. the Culture representatives mostly exhibit the same smug civility found in the majority of Banks’ novels, Quilan’s sombre, dutiful nature was offset by his grief stricken interior, and even his companion, the militarian Huyler, whose consciousness is implanted into Quilan’s mind becomes a hero of sorts when his true role as Culture agent is revealed at the conclusion of the novel. in fact, the real villains of the piece – the Chelgrian Puen and their co-conspirators – are never truly revealed or focused on. what this has led to, is criticism from many fans of hard sci-fi and Banks’ earlier work, that Look To Windward is short on science and high on emotion. while it is true that there is barely a hint of action throughout the whole novel, i found myself taken on an emotional journey that dipped, turned and somersaulted like any of the great sci-fi action novels i have read. the final few chapters in particular, as Quilan and the Mind’s deaths play out left me close to tears with the highly charged finale to Ziller’s symphony perfectly coupling the exquisitely choreographed deaths of the bereaved Mind and Quilan. once again, a Banks novel has left me utterly shocked, yet elated at the end of it. my only problem now is trying to decide whether to pick up another of the Culture series, or to give myself a break from the emotionally charged Banks style, by going for something harder, like Ballard, Clarke or Stapledon.