Friday, May 13, 2022

Use case scenarios: Look to Windward — Iain M Banks

Look to Windward is a mid-sequence novel for Iain M Banks’s Culture series, but also, in its fashion, a retrospective and a conclusion. It has all the usual Culture novel tropes (by now): an elusive unreliable narrator parked somewhere in the narrative frame, an structure of flashbacks and piecemeal reveals, a self-reflective concern with unpicking the nature and character of the Culture, and a good many characters who are either drones, non-humans, or Minds.

But despite the title—for the most telling line in the novel finally confirms that "look to windward" is an exhortation to scan the horizon of possibility for oncoming threats—the novel is almost entirely about looking back, and inwards, not forward. Framed by the observation from a Culture orbital of the light from two supernova events, acts of grandiose destruction from the Idiran-Culture war, the novel is primarily looking back in time: to the war that framed Consider Phlebas, and to the later conflicts and failed interventions that propel the Chelgrian protagonist to a monstrous act of revenge. In between lie some lengthy set-pieces and impressive landscape tourism about the orbital, mainly concerned with sketching out the lifestyle and unpacking the utopian society of the Culture in peace-time, but these are interspersed with darker accounts of warfare, personal loss, and the unfolding of a conspiracy to mass murder. 

Unlike Consider Phlebas, with its quest plot and visceral narrative momentum, or even The Player of Games with its unfolding victories, Look to Windward frequently reverts to losses, failures, even regret, as if these are the counter-cases and exceptions to the use of weapons, the points where the Culture misses or fails and the moral cost falls due.

Dedicated to the Gulf War Veterans (a war, by the way, that demonstrated the terrifying potential of advanced weapons and technologies against an ill-equipped, out-dated, and poorly led conscript army), Look to Windward could well serve as a study in post-traumatic stress disorder, the price of efficient slaughter for both the winners and the losers. But in the case of Major Quilan, the survivor of a brutal civil war that was precipitated by the meddling of the Culture, it's also a study in the grooming of terrorists, the subtle and dreadful conversion of trauma into nihilism, and nihilism into vengeance.

One of Horza's critiques of the Culture in Consider Phlebas was that the Culture was too safe, too tidy, that without risk the life it nurtured was ultimately without meaning either, and indeed, parts of Look to Windward suggests that for the majority of the Culture all risks have become trivial, illusionary even—evidence of the reification of spiritual value in an utterly materialist society. However, as the final threat is contained, there's a sense that some losses are irrevocable, that some war damages can't be mitigated. At its most thoughtful, and moving, Look to Windward redeems its relatively static passages to bear witness to this fact. 

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