Look to Windward by Iain M Banks
(Orbit, £5.99, 403 pages, paperback; first published 2000; this edition 16†August 2001.)
Iain M Banks' latest Culture novel is a satisfying read but at the same time, a deeply frustrating novel.
Brief précis of the backdrop, for those not yet Culture-hip: At a remote but unspecified time in the future, one particular human-originated civilization, which did not necessarily start on Earth, has developed into a galaxy spanning organization of immense power, extraordinary technological prowess and an almost unlimited desire to 'Do Good'. The Culture, unlike many of our own contemporary nations, is in the business of breaking down hierarchies and building up democracies in those poor, benighted, semi-barbaric (even if they are space-going) civilizations who have not yet reached the dizzying technical and social heights attained by the Culture with its trillions strong population of well-contented hedonists and its awesome, all-but-omnipotent AI Minds...
And, well, yes, the Culture also tends to be a bit (actually, very) smug.
So it's interesting to read a Culture novel which starts from the premise that occasionally even the Culture can slip and get it wrong. The Culture has been attempting to break down the traditional and quite abusive caste-system of a space-going race known as the Chelgrin. The Chelgrin are carnivores (physically an odd cross between lions and kangaroos in appearance), and their caste-system is a good few thousand years old before the Culture comes along and in the space of a couple of decades turns it upside down by engineering a series of popular democratic reforms that end with an Invisible caste member (ie an Untouchable) being elected as president.
(I have to ask, does it seem even vaguely sensible to reform such an entrenched social/political/religious edifice in such a short period of time? No? I didn't think so... And if the Culture really does have the long long view that Banks implies, why not let things play out gradually over a few centuries? Perhaps because it wouldn't make for a good story? Oh well, minor plot quibble, never mind.)
Anyway. Job well done? Alas no. The president goes mad for revenge, Chelgrin society shatters, and in the short span of fifty days (before the Culture can effectively intervene) over five billion Chelgrin die in a bloody civil war in which the reader can discern clear echoes of the Rwandan and Yugoslavian genocides of recent years.
All this, however, is essentially backdrop, and it is at this point that the novel really starts, and the first thing to be said, is doesn't Banks write well? The prose literally dances in places. For stunning world-visions, complex yet delicate, vivid and powerful, he simply can't be beaten. Likewise, for witty wordplay and neatly drawn characters, Banks has few peers. So, as I said on opening, this book is a good read. But in other ways, it both frustrates and exasperates.
The book functions on two principal levels. On the one hand, there is a reasonably obvious conspiracy/mystery plot working out. In brief, dwelling on the prominent Culture Orbital of Masaq' (a mini ring-world) is the eminent Chelgrin composer, liberal champion and political refugee, Mahrai Ziller. It seems, that now that the war is over, the Chelgrin authorities would like to entreat Ziller to return to the homeworld to assist in its reconstruction, and they are sending an envoy, Major Quilan, to persuade him to come back.
But is that really what they want? Ziller thinks not. Ziller fears assassination. Ziller expects to be killed by Quilan, and fears that the Culture are being duped into assisting the murderer in their frantic eagerness to atone for their ghastly blunder. Quilan, for his part, knows he does have a mission that goes beyond his formal purpose, but since his memory seems to have been partially wiped out, he is only gradually beginning to discover what that mission might be...
The problem with this side of the story is that it has lamentably little tension. The Culture is so very very powerful, and so very very clever, that there exists only the most vanishingly small possibility of an enemy putting one past it. Any sense of an accessible, human-scale contest is lost. No Culture agent will ingeniously spot and thwart the Chelgrin's intentions. We can only wait, very passively, to discover whether the Culture's technological wizardry is up to the mark once again... does it have yet one more super-sneaky wheels within wheels within wheels mega-techno trump to play?
In a sense this situation, which Banks has carefully (or unwittingly?) fostered through several novels, has relieved him of the need to be really clever with his plots. He does not have to be cleverer than the reader, does not have to deploy the small clues and cues that his protagonists would then pick up on to resolve their mysteries... Deus Ex Machina is firmly up his sleeve, and when needed he can simply pluck the solution he wants from the mighty grab-bag of the Culture's assumed superiority.
The second level on which the novel is working is that of exploring contemporary themes and 'big questions'. Banks is pretty dedicated to this sort of thing (his support for Salman Rushdie, whose Fatwah difficulties have popped up in more than one of his non-sf novels, is an example). There are two questions jostling for our attention here; firstly, what are the arguments for and against intervention in the affairs of other societies? Secondly, what is the nature of death? Or, if you like, the value of life?
Well, here is where things get dense and complex and frustrating. The Culture has attempted to radically revise Chelgrin society, and has promptly discovered just what the road to hell is paved with. But... actually, they haven't. There's a remarkable void in the novel between the Chelgrins' own experience of the war (vivid, gruesome, horrifying self-destruction) and the Culture's. Yes, the Culture is very very sorry, and very very contrite, and eager to make big big amends... but, again, there's no discernible human-scale experience to make all this real. No Culture agent stands, aghast, in the midst of a field of slaughtered Chelgrin and throws up their hands exclaiming, "My God! what have we done!" Banks tries to bridge the gap by reaching for the experiences of the Masaq' Hub Mind's part in the old Idiran war... but it really doesn't work. He loses his focus and the web of moral issues floating around the way in which the Culture assumed a right to interfere with the Chelgrin slowly cracks and crumbles apart. Yes, there are attempts to address various parts of these issues, but they are oblique, tangential, and ultimately unsatisfying.
Then there is the issue of death. What is death, after all, in a society which can store one's personality with utter fidelity as a back-up against physical accidents? When the individual can be restored faithfully hundreds, thousands, even millions of years after their supposed demise? By and large Culture citizens accept that their personalities can be handily 'backed-up' and if their current body dies, well, a new one can be constructed and their personality be neatly shoe-horned into it... Life goes on!
But does it? Once an individual stream of consciousness has been broken by death, does animating a copy made from an earlier mind-state of that individual constitute the continuation of life, or just the construction of a clever copy which everyone agrees to treat as if it really were the original person? For my money, though the Culture may chose to resurrect your identity, you, as an individual would still be pretty thoroughly dead.
Banks actually offers several different possible versions of personality or 'soul' reconstitution, even an ersatz heaven for certain Chelgrin... but the arguments feel thin and flawed, even somewhat hoax-like, as if one were being asked to subscribe to a faith that stated, "Yes, you'll be dead, but don't worry, in a day or so we'll create someone so much like you that no-one will ever notice you're gone."
Banks does better when he looks at the opposite side of the question. What is the value of life in a society where the vast majority of the population cannot excel, cannot really do anything, in any manner not easily exceeded by the AIs or machinery that surrounds them? And then, what is the value of life when one has been crushingly bereaved in a rabid and senseless war, as has Major Quilan? The thinking is clearer here, and Quilan is probably the most interesting and affecting character in the novel. Banks seems to have a pretty acute grip on the psychology of bereavement, and Quilan voices the pain and dilemmas of this crisis, which we all must face, eloquently.
And yet, at the end, I found myself robbed of any sense of profound resolution. The issues were explored insistently, but without striking insight, and the plot hinged on who had the harder, higher tech. Four hundred pages of good, even very good, prose was simply intended to bring us to a point where this question could be asked... and answered. Banks is a good writer, no question about it, but he's created a situation in which Arthur C Clarke's old dictum 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' is literally true, and profoundly irritating. The Culture's science is not hard, it is instead almost mystical in its potency. His plots are not clever, they rely for their resolutions on the 'behind-the-scenes' sleights and manoeuvres of incomprehensibly intelligent and powerful AIs, things which Banks is not only excused from explaining, he literally cannot explain them! They are too complex for our understanding and we must take them on faith.
At the end, only his words truly shine, and only his characters truly engage. That's enough to build a good reading experience on, but it's not enough to make a good book.
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© Simeon Shoul 11 August 2001