Look to windward
(Iain M. Banks, 2000)

For some reason I'd never got around to reading Iain M. Banks, but my mother unexpectedly sent me this one for my birthday, so I eventually tried it.

It's set in the far future, in a galaxy inhabited by various intelligent races, although the humans seem among the more powerful and advanced of them. There's no war going on, but there have been wars in the past, and the book deals with some unfinished business arising from a past war.

Banks is a good writer and I find his prose readable and quite congenial. His characters are varied and well drawn, and can produce some mildly humorous dialogue when appropriate. The book has a definite and quite engrossing plot, although it's rather slow to get to the point.

When I try to think of anything I've read that might be similar to Look to windward, I come up with Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17 (1966), which is something of a compliment because Babel-17 is one of my favourite books. Both books have the plot of a thriller, but a more ambitious style than the average thriller; an imaginative and decorative scenario, and an artistic element: poetry in Babel-17, music in Look to windward.

But beyond that they're not the same. I find Look to windward, for all its good qualities, relatively lacking in subjective appeal. It's basically a rather sad story (though written with touches of humour) and its most attractive characters have only minor roles in the story.

According to Wikipedia, Banks has said that his “approach has to do with my reacting to the cliché of SF's ‘lone protagonist’. You know, this idea that a single individual can determine the direction of entire civilizations. It's very, very hard for a lone person to do that.”

Well, that's true. But an author who chooses to write about world-changing individuals could argue that such individuals are very rare, yes, but during the lifetime of the universe some of them can be expected to exist, so he's entitled to pick such a one and write about him.

Judging by this book and the summaries I've seen of his other books, Banks reacts to the sf cliché he detests by writing about people who aim to be world-changing, but fail. I don't know about you, but I find this rather sad and downbeat. I don't insist on reading about successful world-changers, I'd be quite happy to read about people achieving lesser goals. But I don't really enjoy reading about failures.

Nor does it improve matters much that this book is about the failure of an evil plan. We might rejoice at its failure, except that the book gives us no encouragement to rejoice at it. It's just a failure.

I often reread books. Usually because I feel an urge to reread some particular scene; and then I'm drawn in and often reread the whole book. In the case of this book, I'm not sure whether I'll reread it, because I can't think of any particularly engaging scene that might draw me back to it. I admire the skills of the writer, but I wish he'd turn those skills to writing a book that I might enjoy more.

Squeamish readers should be warned that, near the end, two characters are killed in deliberately unpleasant ways. I'm fairly squeamish myself; I can tolerate this sort of thing, but I don't see why I should have to. In the context of the story, the deaths are merely tidying up loose ends, and there seems no need for detailed descriptions of them.

Written in July 2008