Erik Graff's Reviews > Look to Windward

Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks
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's review
Jun 21, 2011

liked it
bookshelves: sf
Recommended to Erik by: John Elkin
Recommended for: Culture fans
Read in June, 2011

I've now read several of Iain M. Banks' novels and a collection of his stories. Although my reactions to his science fictions are mixed, I appreciate his intelligence as reflected in his construct of "the Culture"--the far-future intergalactic civilization dominated by our descendants. His mix of hard and soft sciences, physics to sociology, is unusually balanced for the genre. His characters, human and non-, are believable and sympathetic. The whole is plausible.

Look to Windward uses the Culture as a backdrop for what basically amounts to an ethical essay about war, mass murder, terrorism and the psychology, the possible motives, behind such enormities. The associations to terrorism in the contemporary world are inescapable and most likely intended. Unfortunately, the novel doesn't quite pull it off, though it does come close.

The great criminals in this novel are two. The first is an AI, virtually a god, who, after having been a successfully destructive military commander, has become the manager of an artificial planet. The second is an organic--indeed, a lupine--military officer, who, having lost his wife in combat, has lost the will to live. The latter is commissioned by his superiors to attack the planet of the former in retaliation for its covert and vastly destructive interference in their affairs, with the intention of exterminating five billion of its inhabitants. Along the way one meets, and the author develops, a cast of supporting actors, including another wolf-man, a composer; an altered human scholar; a small aerial robot; and an enormous pyramidal alien. All of these characters are presented realistically and sympathetically, though one is not exposed to the inner life of the robot.

If Banks had succeeded in making me understand how it came to pass that the suicidal widower would agree to kill billions of innocents, then I would have given this otherwise excellent novel a full five stars. However, despite providing a whole host of motives for this character and his backers, he didn't and I won't. While I can understand how persons can be put in situations where they, feeling under attack or feeling that they must protect others under attack, may end up killing many others, I remain unable to understand how anyone can commit mass murder against innocents in a peaceful setting.

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