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Look to Windward    by Iain Banks order for
Look to Windward
by Iain M. Banks
Order:  USA  Can
Pocket, 2002 (2000)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The title Look to Windward comes from a quotation from T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, and is also included in a statement of its role by the Masaq' Hub, one of the great Minds overseeing the far-future interstellar Culture - 'keeping an eye to windward for approaching storms and just generally protecting this quaint circle of fragile little bodies and the vulnerable little brains they house from whatever harm a big dumb mechanical universe ... might happen or wish to visit upon them'.

The Culture is a technologically superior society, which has largely conquered death and is 'prone to allegedly altruistic interference' (the book is dedicated to Gulf War Veterans, so the parallels to acts of today's Western societies are probably intended). Said meddling resulted in a very nasty civil war that almost tore Chelgrian civilization apart and killed five billion. In fact, the story opens to a tragic and romantic scene from that war, told from the point of view of Worosei, whose own escape from imminent death involves leaving her dying husband.

This pair seem remarkably human and it is only later that the reader discovers that they are Chelgrians, furry aliens who developed as a predator species. One of the things that impressed me most in this truly remarkable story was how the author pulled his readers into full empathy with those aliens studying a human society (or at least an evolution of one). The Culture's technological distance from our present makes it indeed more alien than the alien races in this novel.

The Chelgrians, with unknown allies, plan an act of revenge, sending Major Quilan (devastated by grief from the outcome of the Chelgrian's Caste War) along with a co-pilot resident in his skull to retaliate against the Masaq' Hub as it conducts a performance commemorating the arrival of the eight-hundred-and-three-year-old 'light of ancient mistakes' from the death of stars in the Idiran War.

Banks applies his satiric pen, with resulting hilarity, to 'the incomprehension and the incomprehensible' in human gatherings. There is also one memorable depiction of an encounter between the great Chelgrian composer Ziller (in self-imposed exile on the Hub) and an inane journalist. Ziller lays it on thick in answer to interminable questions about why Quilan has been sent to meet him ... 'I have this secretion that comes from my anterior glands; every Chelgrian clan has one or two males in each generation who produce this substance. Without it the males of my clan can't pass solids ... ' You can see where this is heading.

Look to Windward is a rich, multi-layered tale of love, life and death, intervention in other lives, and the responsibility for all of them. Its many sub-plots (and surprises) span millennia, but do not detract from the main story. It is full of amazing technological and biological creations, like the avatars of the evolved AI Minds, and the incredibly long-lived dirigible behemothaurs. I continue to be amazed by the scope and variety of this author's works. This one is a landmark and a must read in the genre. It will expand your ideas, amuse and entertain. It is not to be missed by anyone who reads serious SF.

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