Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks

My progress through Iain M. Banks's science fiction novels, and particularly his Culture sequence, has been deliberately haphazard.  I've picked the books up as they came to me, in used bookstores, convention dealers' rooms, and my trips abroad.  It's one of the strengths of the Culture sequence that the universe it describes is so broad and full of storytelling potential, and yet underpinned by basic rules that are so straightforward and clearly defined, that you can pick it up at almost any point and in almost any order without diminishing your experience of either the individual books or the sequence as a whole (in that sense, though I wonder if either author would thank me for the comparison, it reminds me of Terry Pratchett's Discworld).  In my last few forays into the Culture, however, with Matter and Surface Detail, there's been a growing sense that I've been missing something, and comments to my reviews of both novels have cited the importance of Look to Windward in understanding the focus and preoccupations of the later Culture books.  So for the first time since I started reading Banks in 2005, I've made the point of seeking out a particular one of his novels.

Look to Windward is, famously, the novel about what happens when the Culture gets it wrong.  Previous books established the Culture as a society of hedonistic do-gooders, so persuaded by the rightness of their anything goes, post-scarcity, radically egalitarian way of life that they seek to export it--often through diplomacy, but sometimes also through subterfuge and interference in the inner workings of alien societies meant to direct them towards more peaceful, more progressive social modes.  In Look to Windward, that interference has exploded in the Culture's face.  Seeking to improve the lot of the Chelgrians, a relatively powerful race whose society has for thousands of years been governed by a carefully stratified caste system, the lowest rungs of which are treated as barely human, the Culture manipulated Chelgrian politics so that a low-caste person was elected to high office and began to implement reforms to the caste system.  Instead of leading to peaceful equality, however, the lower castes, having gained control of the military, immediately launched a short but brutal war of revenge against the higher castes, which ended only after the Culture admitted its culpability, but not before claiming the lives of five billion Chelgrians.  Now former Chelgrian soldier Quilan, whose wife was killed in the war, is traveling to the Culture orbital Masaq', ostensibly to convince the composer Ziller, who exiled himself from Chel in protest of the caste system before the war, to return home.  His real mission, however, is one of vengeance.

When you get a decent way into a sequence as rich, varied, and original as the Culture books (and Look to Windward is the seventh of the nine books that I've read), there's a pretty strong impulse towards taxonomy.  For example, while Banks has always been a discursive, freewheeling author, fond of gonzo inventiveness for its own sake and always willing to pause his story in order to take it in, the Culture novels can nevertheless be divided into those--like The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, and Matter--that are purpose-driven, whose characters are proceeding towards the fulfillment of some task or mission which gives the novel its shape, and those--like Consider Phlebas, Excession, and Surface Detail--that are more about the journey, with the actual action of the novel taking place far above the main characters' sphere.   

Look to Windward is very much of the latter type.  Its action alternates, for the most part, between Ziller and Quilan, but the former chapters are, as has become typical of Culture novels of this type, a travelogue.  The irascible Ziller, made bitter by the realization that he can't live with his society's ingrained injustice, but lacks the strength to stay home and fight it, travels, accompanied by another of Masaq's alien residents, Kabe, to see the orbital's most astonishing and exotic sights, many of them venues for the extreme, and occasionally lethal, sports for which Masaq' has become famous.  Which gives Ziller and Kabe the opportunity to ponder the Culture.  What does it mean that people who live in utter safety and comfort seek out the terror and danger of, say, rafting along a river of lava?  Would the experience be any different in a VR simulation, especially given that even those who undertake it for real are under the care of the Mind who acts as Masaq's hub, who could whisk them away from danger in an instant?  Does courting danger in the knowledge that your personality is backed-up and that even if you die, you'll be be reactivated in a new body, constitute cheating?  Or is it wasteful and childish to engage in extreme sports without a backup, risking a meaningless, unnecessary death?

By the third or fourth time that Ziller and Kabe have had this conversation, it's pretty easy to guess that they are harping on one of the novel's important Themes.  And, though at that point one begins to feel a niggling wish that Banks would get to the point, at least the sights that the two tourists observe are imbued with typical Banks-ian verve and inventiveness.  Other Themes are less elegantly introduced: a long infodump, coming seemingly out of nowhere, discusses the art of building AIs, or Minds, and the way that these beings will always reflect their society's core traits and assumptions, no matter how different and more advanced their thought processes are from the creatures who built them (this segment also introduces the intriguing notion that a Mind built purposefully to have no cultural baggage--known as a "Perfect AI"--will always and immediately choose to Sublime, leaving the physical plane of the galaxy for the unknown, a truism that the Culture "more or less alone, seemed to find [...] almost a personal insult"); another introduces the Chelgrian-Puen, a segment of Chelgrian society who have Sublimed, and now spend their time maintaining and controlling the Chelgrian heaven, into which they admit Chelgrians whose personalities were backed up upon death if they're deemed worthy (a concept that Banks would go on to explore further in Surface Detail).  Both of these concepts turn out to be crucial to the novel's plot--Quilan's mission, for example, to destroy the Mind that acts as Masaq's hub, which will cause the deaths of about ten percent of the orbital's inhabitants in the ensuing chaos, has been made necessary by the Chelgrian-Puen, who have decreed that the war dead will not be admitted into heaven unless they are avenged by an equal number of Culture deaths.  Nevertheless, there is a sense while reading Look to Windward that it is less a story than a construction project, its pieces slowly falling into place--the chapters told from Quilan's point of view, for example, reveal his mission and his training process in dribs and drabs as he remembers them (he has been induced to forget his real mission, to protect against having his mind read)--until the final piece makes sense of the whole edifice.

Until that happens, Look to Windward feels very unsatisfying.  As a discussion of the Culture's right to intervene in the affairs of other races, the Chelgrian incident isn't quite fit for purpose.  It's pretty easy, after all, to say that the Culture was wrong to intervene in a situation in which that intervention had unforeseen, negative consequences to the tune of billions of deaths--a result that, as even this book points out, is vanishingly rare.  The real question should be whether the Culture is right to intervene, period, even when everything goes according to plan.  Don't the races it affects have the right to develop on their own, to perhaps find their way to a free, egalitarian equilibrium that doesn't necessarily reflect every one of the Culture's values (a point that I think was made much more successfully in Use of Weapons)?

On that level, in fact, the Chelgrians feel like a very bad example of a situation in which the Culture was wrong to interfere.  From what we see of them through Quilan's eyes, they were clearly never going to change on their own, especially not with the Chelgrian-Puen enforcing the caste system, literally, from heaven.  They've taken no lesson from the war about the caste system's problems (as Ziller points out, this is partly the Culture's doing--being able to blame someone else for the war means that the Chelgrians don't have to examine their own behavior--but that unexamined stance, as we hear from the exclusively high-caste membership of the conspiracy against the Culture, is an unremitting belief that the caste system is naturally ordained).  And, as we see in a scene in which Quilan witnesses one of his superiors bait, bully, and finally murder a helpless low-caste servant, whatever delusions they have about the caste system protecting all members of society equally are just that.  After getting a long, hard look at Chelgrian society through Quilan's eyes, it's hard not to conclude that the only thing wrong with the Culture's choice to meddle with it was having bungled the job, but even that doesn't feel like a meaningful criticism.  Trying to undermine millennia-old social stratification through a single change of the person at the top is such a childishly heavy-handed approach, completely out of step with the more subtle, long-term interference seen in novels like Use of Weapons and The Player of Games, that it's hard to take it seriously as an examination of the Culture's limitations.

If Look to Windward is nevertheless a more successful and engaging novel than other grand tour Culture novels like Consider Phlebas and Excession, it is mainly because of Quilan.  Banks isn't exactly known for his deft character work, but nevertheless Quilan's grief for his wife, whose death happened too suddenly even for her personality to be recorded and taken to heaven, is affecting.  Quilan wishes for the same oblivion--the reason that he accepted the mission to Masaq'--and a sizable portion of the memories he recovers have to do with his debates with counselors, spiritual advisers, and his superiors over whether that desire, and his unwillingness to even try to let go of his grief, is selfish or masochistic.  It's unusual for Banks's SF to focus so much on the human aspect of his story, and particularly on emotions like grief (the only other example that occurs to me is the strand in Excession in which a woman fuming over a failed relationship stays pregnant for forty years, and though this didn't strike me at the time of reading the novel I've since read reactions from women who have actually been pregnant that lead me to give that plotline quite the side-eye).  Banks underscores that grief by interspersing Quilan's recent memories with recollections of his life with his wife, which help to make the character, and Quilan's loss, more real (these also go some way--though by no means all the way--towards alleviating the problem of a novel whose only major female character dies in its opening pages, a death that is, if not quite a refrigeration, certainly the prime motivator for one of the novel's major male characters). 

Somewhat more prosaically, the Quilan chapters are also engaging for their slow reveal of the full extent of his mission, which alternate from horror to a sort of deranged logic--after all, if the godlike beings who control your heaven are refusing to let the dead of your civil war in, it only makes sense to commit mass murder--and back again.  There's also a growing sense of dread in these chapters, as Quilan gets close and closer to achieving his goal, combined with disbelief.  This is the Culture, after all.  Surely they saw Quilan coming.  Surely they've already acted to circumvent his plan.

Which is, in fact, exactly what happens, as Quilan's moment of triumph turns into a damp squib, courtesy of the Masaq' hub.  I'm sure that I'm not the first person to make this observation, but it's pretty easy to separate the nine Culture novels into three distinct "eras," divided both chronologically and thematically, as if Banks had come up with an idea that he wanted to explore through the Culture setting, written three novels about it, and then paused for a few years until a new idea occurred to him.  So the first trilogy--Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), and Use of Weapons (1990)--introduces the Culture and its core conflict between spoiled hedonism and the impulse to spread its blessings, while the most recent one--Matter (2008), Surface Detail (2010), and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)--views the Culture from the outside.  Look to Windward, which was published in 2000, belongs to a group that also includes Excession (1996) and Inversions (1998), whose focus seems to be (I say, without having read Inversions) on the Minds that run the Culture, and on the chilling realization that while its human citizens may think of themselves as movers and shakers, it's these beings who are actually calling the shots, and usually several dozen steps ahead of the characters whom the novels are ostensibly about--in Look to Windward, for example, there is a minor subplot about a Culture citizen who happens to find out about the plot against Masaq' and sets out to save the day, but he dies almost as soon as he begins his journey, and his actions have no bearing on the story's outcome.  It's only in its final chapters, despite the fact that it was present throughout Ziller and Kabe's explorations, and working hard to make Quilan's stay on Masaq' pleasant, that we realize that Look to Windward had another main character, the Masaq' hub itself, and that much of the novel's seemingly aimless explorations of the orbital were actually aimed at giving us glimpses of this ancient, powerful creature's history and personality.

Look to Windward begins with the light of an eight hundred-year-old supernova--induced by the Idirans in the last stages of their war against the Culture--reaching Masaq'.  In a few weeks' time, the light of a second such nova will reach the orbital, and the hub has decreed that the interval should be a period of reflection, culminating with a new symphony, commissioned from Ziller.  Initially, it seems that bringing up the Idiran war, and the loss of life that occurred because of the Culture's determination on it, is another way of reflecting on its failure with the Chelgrians, but the parallel that Banks is actually drawing is between Quilan and the hub--both old soldiers (the hub, as we learn through its interactions with Ziller, Kabe, and Quilan, fought in the Idiran war), both haunted by what they did (or, in Quilan's case, will do) in the war, both mourning a loss in that war (for the hub, its twin Mind), and both craving oblivion.  The Culture--or rather the Masaq' Mind--does indeed see Quilan coming, but his mission turns out to be identical to its plan to commit suicide at the moment that the light of the second nova reaches Masaq' (albeit, with safeguards in place to ensure that the hub's disappearance will not cause any loss of human life).  Look to Windward ends with the two of them stepping into nothingness together.

At the end of the novel, Quilan's companion Huyler, the personality of a deceased Chelgrian general who is housed in Quilan's mind to act as his minder, muses that while he understands Quilan's desire for death, "I find it hard to understand how something as fabulously complicated and comprehensively able intellectually as a Mind might also want to destroy itself."  But really, all of Look to Windward is the answer to that question, and it is here, not in the failure on Chel, that we find the novel's true indictment of the Culture's culture of interference.  When Quilan wonders whether the people his actions will kill can really be said to be responsible for the deaths in the Chelgrian war, Huyler reminds him of the Culture's bone-deep, society-wide commitment to interference, and how, even in the face of a failure like the one on Chel, the Culture remains persuaded in the rightness of its cause: "have you heard even one of them suggest that they might disband Contact?  Or reign in SC?  Have we heard any of them even suggesting thinking about that?"

Already in Consider Phlebas, Banks introduced the idea that the one need that the Culture couldn't fulfill within itself was its citizens' need for meaning.  Look to Windward takes that concept even further.  It suggests that for its human citizens, the Culture's interference in the affairs of other races is on the same level as their love of extreme sports--that it is an entertainment, meant to give their lives flavor and just a hint of danger (this, by the way, goes some way towards explaining the ham-fistedness of the Culture's actions on Chel--as Huyler theorizes, "They have become so blasé about such matters that they try to interfere with as few ships as possible, with as few resources as possible, in search of a sort of mathematical elegance").  It's the Minds, of course, whose personality is shaped by the humans of the Culture, and whose very purpose is to make those humans feel happy and fulfilled, who implement this policy, and it is they who, like the Masaq' hub, have to live with the consequences of that policy.  While the humans who desired this interference shrug off those consequences after a short interlude of sadness, or escape it after a relatively brief life, the Minds have to live with what they did, on behalf of their citizens, with a level of comprehension that is far above what a human could ever experience.  What Look to Windward seems to be saying is that, after centuries of living with the cost of giving the citizens of the Culture what they wanted, even something as fabulously complicated and comprehensibly able as a Mind would choose oblivion.

It's a bleak message, and somewhat predictably, one that I'm not entirely pleased with.  I was dissatisfied with The Player of Games for being too pro-Culture, and now I'm dissatisfied with Look to Windward for being too anti-Culture.  It's both the beauty and the most frustrating trait of the Culture sequence that, like the society it describes, it can never be entirely captured by either of these stances.  The Culture is both a force for goodness, freedom, and happiness in the galaxy, and an engine of its citizens' selfish, childish needs to imbue their lives with meaning, to which end they will cause any amount of suffering, including to the beings who ostensibly run their society.  Both are true, and both are reductive, and to fall on either side is inevitably to tell a less than entirely satisfying story.  Which is OK, actually--as we've established in previous reviews, no Culture novel is perfect, and this too is both the series's beauty and its most frustrating trait.  Look to Windward is better than some Culture novels in having such a decisive and carefully constructed message, and worse than others in that neither it nor that message come together until after you've turned the novel's final page.  It's certainly a novel that I needed to read to understand the Culture better, though now that I've read it, I'm wondering why Banks felt the need to write any more in the sequence--its conclusion feels definitive.  Still, write more he did, so look to these pages some time in the future, to see me wrestling with him and with his greatest creation yet again.


Jamie said...

A very interesting read, thank you for that.

Not much to add, except that I'm afraid you're emphatically wrong regarding the focus of Inversions! It is easily the most human-based of any of the Culture novels, although to say much more might be considered a spoiler.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm afraid you're emphatically wrong regarding the focus of Inversions! It is easily the most human-based of any of the Culture novels

Well, you see, that's just a way of highlighting the importance of the Minds through their absence!

No, seriously, I knew I was getting myself into trouble by making that generalization without having read Inversions. But it is striking to look at the sequence's chronology and see those six- and eight-year gaps after Use of Weapons and Look to Windward. Makes you wonder what the process was that made Banks pick the universe back up.

Unknown said...

Regarding your last comment: it was for a long time generally thought that _Look To Windward_ would be the last Culture novel. And it was nine years before we saw another.

And as you say, the three most recent novels are about the Culture as seen from outside. I'll be very interested to learn what you think of The Hydrogen Sonata, when the time comes.

Tim Ward said...

Inversions is essentially a non-culture novel except for a passing reference at one point that demonstrates that it's set in the same Universe. Since you already know that Inversions is properly considered part of the Culture sequence, this is not a spoiler. However, it really belongs with Against at Dark Background, Feersum Injun and co.

As for the gap between Look to Windward and Matter, it's pretty much taken up by writing an (awful) non-genre novel, a non-culture novel and then writing nothing for four years because of the breakdown of his marriage.

"And as you say, the three most recent novels are about the Culture as seen from outside."

Most Culture novels are about the Culture seen from the outside.

Tim Ward said...

Well shit :(

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Tim: indeed. Very sad news.

Einar said...

Your Culture reviews are the most thoughtful and perceptive I've read. I think you'll enjoy Inversions very much; as some of the previous commentors remarked it's one of the most human and pensive 'Culture' novels, while its unusual setting allows for more of the novel worldbuilding Banks loves. Definitely one of my favourites.

Jesse said...

I would very strongly disagree with Tim, above. Inversions is 100% a Culture novel. Sure, looking at plot only there is little to link the book to the overall setting. However, looking at the ideas being examined and it becomes more of a Culture novel than Consider Phlebas. Starting with the original novella in the Culture universe, State of the Art, and moving through Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Look to Windward, and Matter, and you'll see the question: whether or not it's good to enter/influence existing galactic species. Inversions is the novel which focuses all of its energy on this subject, coming up with, as is to be expected with Banks, an ambiguous ending - thematically, that is. Inversions is the most unique Culture book, but just because there are no AIs or Mind Ships does not mean it's not a Culture novel. You might take a second look, Tim.

alx said...

I enjoyed this review (and the one for Matter) mmensely, though I have to say my interpretation of the book, and the way the various questions regarding the Culture's paradox of individual and cultural validity are addressed throughout the series, is a little different. Firstly I should say that I adored this story and it vies with Excession as my favourite so far, I think Look to Windward just takes it however because of the truly compassionate way it treats these mortals locked (like all of us) in a bewildering struggle for meaning. All the Culture novels deal with the idea of existential worth within a watertight utopia, and the all too human problem of ennui in the absence of the kind of threats and hungers that define life as we know it. I don't think the book is anti-Culture at all as pretty much every character reaches a resigned but very real peace in the face of the principles it represents. Quilan and Huyler both reject the idea of revenge, having seen how completely unnecessary such concepts are when a civilisation achieves the Culture's level of sophistication. You could view the whole series of novels as an exercise in finding drama in a perfect world, the decision made by Quilan and the Masaq Mind, and Huyler's inability to understand it, are kind of there to show us that existence itself is ours to give whatever meaning we want to it, and therefore the Culture's philosophical dilemma of it's interventionist policies is essentially unresolvable, but in the most life-affirming way. (Incidentally, this issue is probably most thoroughly examined in Inversions.) I find this book really uplifting, and it stayed with me in a much more satisfying way than almost any of the others.

Tim Ward said...

Jesse, I don't agree with your premise that sharing (one of) the themes of a series is enough to make a novel part of the series.

There's more to the Culture novels than just the question 'is it right to interfere in less developed societies'. The series also deals with the implications of living in Utopia, explores the relationship between 'humans' and AIs, wonders about the morality of war and the effect it has on the people who fight it (major theme of both Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward there).

In fact, I reject the idea that a series is defined by its "themes". Use of Weapons features pretty much all of the above, yet in the end it's really just the story of this one guy. The culture and it's antics are at most a backdrop. And yet it is a Culture novel.

So I'll stick with defining a Culture novel as a novel with the Culture in it, and the themes Iain Banks liked to write about as the themes Iain Banks liked to write about.

BerserkRL said...

There is a lot more in Inversions than just a passing reference to the Culture. I don't want to say more, to avoid spoilers, but if you notice only one reference you really need to reread it carefully. Reference to the Culture is pervasive.

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