Look to Windward, by Iain M Banks

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Look to Windward, by Iain M Banks

Postby tanzeelat » Sun Mar 30, 2008 4:13 am

Since the publication of The Star Fraction, MacLeod has been linked with Banks: as well as their shared home-city of Edinburgh, there’s a similarity in tone in their fiction, and a common political dimension. In Cosmonaut Keep , MacLeod has based his story around a joke. And so too has Banks in Look To Windward . Admittedly, there’s always been some element of piss-take in Banks’s SF novels, but in Look To Windward it’s more overt than usual. Entire conversations are no more than a sequence of one-liners. One narrative strand initially seems to be linked to the main plot, only to prove completely irrelevant. And for the ending, Banks introduces some new technology which makes a nonsense of much of the Culture’s technological underpinnings. But, of course, none of this is entirely unexpected in an Iain Banks novel.

The biggest joke of all, however… Ziller and Quinlan are Chelgrians, members of an alien race that has only just recovered from a fierce civil war. Ziller is a voluntary exile, currently living on the Culture Orbital Masaq’. He is also a highly-regarded composer, and something of a folk-hero to dissident factions of Chelgrian society. Quinlan is an army major, tasked with inviting Ziller back to post-civil war Chel. Or at least that is his purported task. (Saying more would constitute a spoiler.)

Look To Windward is essentially a character-study of Quinlan, an alien. Banks must be taking the piss: who else would write a character study of an alien? And do it so badly? Because Quinlan is only really a funny-looking human. Banks has written a character-study of a “man in a rubber suit”. He gets away with it because he writes so well, but any differences between the Chelgrians and humans are, besides the obvious physiological ones, purely societal. The Chelgrians had a caste-based society (the cause of their civil war); the Chelgrians can communicate with those who have gone Beyond, i.e., those members of their race who have died and been accepted into “heaven”.

Even the plot of Look To Windward , which is founded on Quinlan’s real mission on Masaq’, is a result of social and historical forces, and not psychological. Quinlan could just as easily have been a member of a variant human society.

Along the way to the denouement, Banks expands his universe by unconvincingly tacking on a cosmic dimension. All of Banks’s Culture novels have been space operas, and all have been, at base, about people. Their galactic backdrop was merely Big Country, which allowed for outrageous landscapes. Look To Windward , however, tries to be cosmic in scope. There have been races which have “transcended”. It’s the nearest Banks has ever come to a meaning to life, the universe and everything, and it sits oddly on the history he has built through his previous novels. Yes, the core of Look To Windward is the purely personal decision that must be made by Quinlan (and, by extension, Ziller also), but that decision is function of this newly-added cosmic dimension. It’s as if a manual for a word-processing package had suddenly started discussing computing theory. It doesn’t quite fit, and it’s unnecessarily complicating the story.

Other than the above, there’s little to quibble about. Banks throws in more of his outrageous landscapes, and adds welcome detail to a landscape that has appeared in previous books, namely an orbital. The Chelgrians are disappointing as an alien race, but not as individual characters. Using music as a focal point in a novel is never easy—the writer usually comes across as either pompous or deluded—but Banks manages to successfully overcome that hurdle. The Culture’s technology has never been more than off-the-page hand-waving, flashing lights and machines that go “ping”, but that’s never been a handicap. In Look To Windward , however, Banks manages an own goal by introducing a completely new order of technology. And for what seems a mostly pointless reason—perhaps I should rephrase that: closure is never pointless, but tying up everything often results in an ungainly knot.

My favourite Banks SF novel is still Against A Dark Background , perhaps because it so clearly presents itself as what it actually is: pure space opera. The freedoms of the Culture make it an interesting background, and the perfect backdrop for the stories Banks tells, but the more he tries to widen his gaze the more it is revealed for the ramshackle Heath-Robinson construction it is. Those glints at the ground-level of Banks’s Culture novels are brilliant writing; those glints in the universe of the Culture novels are magpie-like borrowings from the rest of the genre. Against A Dark Background boasted the first of these, but not the second.
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Postby Worm » Sun Mar 30, 2008 1:57 pm

Very rarely do I give up on a sci-fi book, but when I tried to read this one, I got less than half way thru before I gave up on it. I just could not get into it. I guess Banks is not my cup of tea.

Maybe I should have put some vodka in the tea, then it would have been better.
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Postby tanzeelat » Sun Mar 30, 2008 2:34 pm

I think Banks is one of the most interesting writers in the genre at the moment, but that doesn't mean all his books are perfect. But a bad Banks is still a damned sight better than a lot of other stuff that's been published.

Btw, the Arabic in your signature is all wrong. Aside from not actually meaning anything, you've got initial, middle and final forms of the letters mixed up.
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Postby Omphalos » Sun Mar 30, 2008 4:13 pm

Ive only read a collection of short stories by Banks, and I was not too impressed. My brother, however, who has a pretty good eye for SF has not only strongly recommended Consider Phlebas, but has given me his copy. Its in the pile.
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Postby GamePlayer » Sun Mar 30, 2008 4:56 pm

I've always been lost on the criticism of Look To Windward. Granted, I am a fan of Banks and no doubt have my own slant on the issue of his works, but there are also good reasons why I became a fan to begin with. Without doubt, Use of Weapons and Look To Windward are targeted again and again as the two most criticized of the "Culture novels."

I believe fans somehow felt the Culture was previously explained in such a way that Look To Windward somehow disturbed "common understanding" about the space faring civilization. I registered none of this when reading it and some of the reasons why I've challenged on other message boards years ago. I also found it rather ironic, given that the Culture is so generalized in most of the books and is almost a setting more than a civilization. Use of Weapons seems criticized for the exact opposite, being too rigid and meticulous in structure. Again, I never saw that as a failing since the fractured narrative demanded Banks retain control, which he did by giving the novel a tightness. Then again, I adore Memento, which I consider as Use of Weapon's celluloid kindred spirit.

Personally, my only problem with Look To Windward was the rather lengthy opening that took a good while before the story started to go anywhere. But I figured by this point, Banks knew he had his audience and figured he could get away with it. I will agree that Look To Windward is a poor introduction to Bank's "Culture novels." Not just because of the above mentioned weakness at the beginning, but also because the reader would have a much better perspective going into the book if they were already familiar with one or two other earlier Culture novels.

I'd definitely recommend either Consider Phlebas or Player of Games (POG being slightly better) as ideal introductions into the Culture universe. They are definitely the most accessible of the books, well written but not too challenging in structure and both have very rewarding finales. Use of Weapons is a good middle novel, while Look To Windward and Excession are hard to get through without a Culture primer. Excession in particular should never be read by anyone that isn't already 2-3 books into the Culture series.
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Postby Worm » Sun Mar 30, 2008 6:35 pm

tanzeelat wrote:
Btw, the Arabic in your signature is all wrong. Aside from not actually meaning anything, you've got initial, middle and final forms of the letters mixed up.


It's not Arabic. It's a Fremen font. I make no guarantees to it's translatability back into English.

By the way, it was made for me by a very, very sweet lady over at the old Dreamers of Dune.

The eyes, the eyes... I can't stop looking at the eyes.
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Postby tanzeelat » Sun Mar 30, 2008 11:30 pm

Er, I hate to shatter your illusions... but those are Arabic letters. And it basically spells - w-h-r-m r-aa-dd-aa-r. Or it would if the correct forms were used.
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Postby SandChigger » Mon Mar 31, 2008 12:15 am

:shock:

:D

WHAM HRAMA DOO DAH
RAA RAA DAAR DAM!

TUTTI FRUTTI, OH RUDY!
TUTTI FRUTTI, OH ROOOOODY!
TUTTI FRUTTI, OH BEAUTY!

DAARAADAARAADAARRRA DA BIM BAM BOOM!


:oops:

Whew...I'm tired now! :)


(I think they're probably based on the Meyers stuff from The Encyclopedia, non estne?)
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Postby tanzeelat » Mon Mar 31, 2008 12:47 am

GamePlayer, it all depends on how the degree of the "clomping foot of nerdism" you'll accept. High fantasy seems to demand rigid world-building - Chekov's maxim about the gun on the mantle-piece taken to the nth degree. Most sf is not so rigourous... but neither do readers expect to have rabbits pulled out of hats five pages from the end. Especially when the story is set in a field of cabbages.

And I think I've mixed enough metaphors for today. I need more coffee.
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Postby SandChigger » Mon Mar 31, 2008 3:23 am

(It's only Monday evening and I've had my caffeine allotment for the week already! Wheeeeeeee! :D )
"Chancho...sometimes when you are a man...you wear stretchy pants...in your room...alone."

"Politics is never simple, like the sand chigger of Arrakis, one is rarely truly free of its bite."

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Postby Omphalos » Mon Mar 31, 2008 11:35 am

Then again, I adore Memento...


Me too. I loved that movie.
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Postby GamePlayer » Tue Apr 01, 2008 7:58 am

Omphalos wrote:
Then again, I adore Memento...


Me too. I loved that movie.


Yes indeed. It's one of the modern greats.
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Postby tanzeelat » Tue Apr 01, 2008 8:14 am

Shame Nolan hasn't produced anything quite so good. His first film, Following, was more like a trial run of Memento than anything else. Insomnia I didn't bother seeing - I liked the original. Batman Begins was fun, as was The Prestige, but neither of them are as good as Memento...
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Postby Omphalos » Tue Apr 01, 2008 8:47 am

I have not seen The Prestige yet. Batman? It was OK. This next one had better be good though. But I did like Insomnia.
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Postby GamePlayer » Tue Apr 01, 2008 11:00 am

It's extremely difficult to create another seminal work like Memento. Even the greatest of directors are always trying to find really good scripts and can't always succeed. Bad scripts are a dime a dozen; good scripts are rare. I definitely don't blame Nolan for going in different directions either; last thing I'd want to see Nolan repeating himself. Following was great, Memento was even better and I personally enjoyed Batman Begins; it's one of the best super hero films, IMO (not that there's much competition). Nolan is definitely one of my favorite new directors but he can't create a winner with every attempt.
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Postby SandChigger » Thu Apr 10, 2008 11:09 am

After reading this thread the other day, I ordered a bunch of Banks from Amazon UK.

(I couldn't find everything I wanted on the US or Japan sites, and the UK had them in a series of paperbacks with a sort of unified cover set, so I used them.)

As I've noted elsewhere, I'm reading Consider Phlebas now. :D
"Chancho...sometimes when you are a man...you wear stretchy pants...in your room...alone."

"Politics is never simple, like the sand chigger of Arrakis, one is rarely truly free of its bite."

Arrakeen is an unawakened ghola.
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Postby Omphalos » Thu Apr 10, 2008 12:33 pm

SandChigger wrote:After reading this thread the other day, I ordered a bunch of Banks from Amazon UK.

(I couldn't find everything I wanted on the US or Japan sites, and the UK had them in a series of paperbacks with a sort of unified cover set, so I used them.)

As I've noted elsewhere, I'm reading Consider Phlebas now. :D


Ill bump that to the top of my pile and start it next. I'm finishing The Martian General's Daughter right now, but I only have 150 pp to go.
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Postby GamePlayer » Thu Apr 10, 2008 2:21 pm

Well, like I said, The Player of Games is probably the best introductory novel for the Culture universe, but I became a fan after Consider Phlebas, my first Culture novel. I hope you like it. He could always use more fans. Make sure you post your opinions, because you know, I'm interested...

*chortle* :)

No seriously, I would like to hear your thoughts of the book. Don't be shy.
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Postby Omphalos » Thu Apr 10, 2008 3:41 pm

GamePlayer wrote:Well, like I said, The Player of Games is probably the best introductory novel for the Culture universe, but I became a fan after Consider Phlebas, my first Culture novel. I hope you like it. He could always use more fans. Make sure you post your opinions, because you know, I'm interested...

*chortle* :)

No seriously, I would like to hear your thoughts of the book. Don't be shy.


...Um...When have I ever been shy about that?
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Postby GamePlayer » Thu Apr 10, 2008 6:20 pm

I was talking to My Chigga :)
"What are we to call him, this Player of Games?"

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Postby Omphalos » Thu Apr 10, 2008 7:06 pm

GamePlayer wrote:I was talking to My Chigga :)


Oh. He promises he will write something, then ignores you about it later. :P
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Postby SandChigger » Thu Apr 10, 2008 8:47 pm

OH GAAAD! He's still biatching about those Hyperion books!

AAAAAAAAAAH!

:D


Addendum:

Went off to Wikipedia to check something and got distracted by sillinesses that showed up on my watchlist. :roll:

I was going to check on the book dates before asking if anyone else had ever noticed the similarity between the names Idirans and Ildirans.

I wonder if KJA admits to having read Banks anywhere....

:roll:
"Chancho...sometimes when you are a man...you wear stretchy pants...in your room...alone."

"Politics is never simple, like the sand chigger of Arrakis, one is rarely truly free of its bite."

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Postby GamePlayer » Thu Apr 10, 2008 9:39 pm

Doubtful. Reading Banks would mean KJA has taste and we all know that just ain't so :) But perhaps one of the HLP "readers" brought a great new "idea" to his attention :P
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Postby tanzeelat » Fri Apr 11, 2008 1:07 am

KJA doesn't read. Given that he spends all his time talking into a tape-recorder (he calls it "writing a novel"), he wouldn't be able to hear someone else reading a book to him over the sound of his own voice.
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Postby SandChigger » Fri Apr 11, 2008 2:36 am

:)

Ah...how bitter are we? ;)
"Chancho...sometimes when you are a man...you wear stretchy pants...in your room...alone."

"Politics is never simple, like the sand chigger of Arrakis, one is rarely truly free of its bite."

Arrakeen is an unawakened ghola.
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