Reading Iain M. Banks is, for me, the literary equivalent of a hot bath: familiar, immersive, intensely pleasurable. I’ve read about half of the twelve of his science fiction novels published to date, and enjoyed the experience of returning to his eerily realistic, deeply etched universe so much this time around (having last ventured there in May 2010, with The Algebraist) that I felt compelled to buy the four remaining volumes needed to complete the set, to make sure I always had another trip to look forward to. Assuming, that is, that he writes again before I get round to finishing Surface Detail…
I found Look to Windward – a loose sequel to Banks’ first sci-fi, Consider Phlebas, albeit very different in tone (much less swashbuckling) – a more straightforward read, structurally and thematically speaking, than Excession, say, or, indeed, The Algebraist. There’s a lot less starting up one story and then interjecting with characters who are, for some time, unclearly linked to the main narrative – a recurring Banksian gimmick. Also, for about half the novel, not a great deal happens. And when things do hot up, the sequence of events that leads to the denouement is comparatively simple, linear and pacy.
What you do get though, in lieu of ‘action’, are two things in particular. First, a fantastically detailed set of descriptions of mind-boggling ‘alien’ (for want of a better word) worlds. I never tire of the pages that bring to life impossibly monumental structures such as the Orbital where most of the story takes place: a colossal man/machine/Mind-made ring-world, with a circumference of ten million kilometres, with fifty billion people living on its vast continents. Or the dirigible city-sized behemothaurs: sentient beings which float around gaseous airsphere worlds like hot air balloons, home to innumerable parasites, visitors and servants.
Second, you get lots of Banks riffing on interesting philosophical and ethical questions, made all the more striking by being set in a futuristic space and time where resource scarcity is a thing of the (ancient) past. Some of the issues covered include the hazards of even the most minimal liberal interventionism, what happens when a religious society finds that ‘heaven’ is real and can be controlled, and the rights and wrongs of an ‘eye for an eye’ foreign policy. On finishing, it’s easy to see why this novel is dedicated to Gulf War veterans
Look to Windward isn’t all cerebral noodling, though – it’s underpinned by a deeply melancholy story of love lost. And did I mention that the main character is from a race of beings that resemble five-legged wolves? So: thematically rather than structurally stretching, but still incredibly enjoyable.