Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks (2000) 403 p.

Iain M. Banks’ Culture series is supposedly one of the modern science fiction must-reads, so I’d been meaning to look into it for a while. It’s one of those series that takes place in a shared universe, with each book standing alone, but I still would have preferred to start at the beginning, with 1987’s Consider Phlebas. But I don’t exactly have a lot of choice when buying used books from Vietnamese beach towns, so Look To Windward it was.

The Culture society is a highly advanced spacefaring race, largely living in orbital ringworlds. It’s a post-scarcity society, which means technology has been developed to the point where poverty has been eradicated and nobody works – essentially a utopia. The Culture is ruled by “Minds,” benevolent artificial intelligences. Look To Windward is mostly set on the orbital world of Masaq, and deals with an emissary from the civilisation of Chel, who has come to Masaq with the hope of persuading a Chelgrian exile to return home.

The problem with this book was that, for the first half, it lacked a sense of urgency or importance. In a stunning galactic space opera, where Banks is constantly pointing the reader’s head towards this or that amazing sight, an emissary speaking to an exile is quite humdrum and failed to grab my attention.

It’s only halfway through the book that the reader discovers the emissary’s mission is merely a cover story, and that his real purpose on Masaq is far more important and world-changing. That injected some life into things, and I thoroughly enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first.

Nonetheless, it still felt fairly aimless as a novel, more of a collection of ideas, concepts and characters than a true story. This is a very common problem with science fiction novels. Banks’ prose is also quite florid at times, another common problem, although I’d say he’s still a step above most sci-fi writers in ourely technical terms. But by the end, I’d say I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t flat-out recommend Look To Windward, but I certainly plan to read a few other Culture novels.

Look To Windward at The Book Depository