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If you are one of these people who likes science fiction that is heavy on the plot and light on the techno-babble, Iain M Banks is undoubtedly the man for you.
Lets start with some background then. Iain M Banks, is the cunning pseudonym of literary author Iain Banks (solves the problem of bookshops trying to list entirely different books in the same place.) In both his guises, he is a witty, dark and suprising author with a truly weird mind. You almost certianly wouldn't want to meet this man's psyche in a dark alleyway! "Look to Windard" is one of his sci fi pieces. It's not the first in his culture series, but if you haven't read anything else from that set, you could cope perfectly well with this, it would stand alone. (I have read most of the others, but largely in the wrong order, and it doesn't hinder you too much.)
The setting. If you are going to read any other Iain M Banks sci-fi first, read "Consider Phlebas" - the first of the culture novels, which will give you some background for the plot. It's the only one that will give you much additional insight. In case you don't want to read this one, here's a bit about the backdrop for the book.
The Culture are a technologically advanced space fairing race. They are agressively liberal, to the point of interfering with other civilizations in order to encourage greater liberalism. Culture people are humanoid - basically human. They have glands that give them access to interesting drugs, they can back themselves up in case they die, they have lots of sex, and can change gender. Most culture people live for about four hundred years. Some of them live on planets, but most live on orbitals - these are huge man made bracelet like things that orbit suns. The Culture have hugely advanced AIs - Minds, who run most of the daily stuff and can be quite eccentric (but seldom as sinister as advanced computers have tended to be in sci-fi novels). By most standards, the Culture are decadent - they don't work, they do much as they please and most of them just live for pleasure. Occasionally soemthing will come along that forces them into action, and it is these more critical moments that banks tends to explore.
So, "Look to Windward" is set on an orbital called Masaq, where a composer from another civilization, a Chelgrian (furry, extra leg, caste system) has taken up residence. The composer has abandoned his own people as he detestes the cast system. He is writing a piece to be played during the time when the destruction of two stars (from the war in "Consider Phlebas") will be visible. meanwhile, another Chelgrian called Quilan is on his way to Masaq, ostensibly to persuade the composer to come home. It soon becomes clear that thre is a far more sinister plot underway, involving a cast war, heavan, and a collection of gigantic beings who are covered in flora. To tell you much more would be to spoil the plot.
For anyone familiar with Culture novels, this one isn't too dark - about on a par with "Excession". The settings are visually stunning, and occasionally conceptually challenging. The plot keeps you reading - I got through this book in just a few days, couldn't put it down. Curious thing about Bnaks is that he tends to start his books in the middle, and you find yourself going back and forward through time. It can take a while to work out how the chronology fits together - always an interesting challenge and always adds to the suspense in the plot.
I heartily recomend this as an excellent read - I enjoyed it, and I think it's well worth a go.
Have to disagree with you about Excession - I thought that was v. dark indeed. Loved this book (I now want to go back and read Consider Phlebas, which I didn't particularly enjoy). Good summary without revealing too much!
stevethesleeve 28.02.2002 10:55
Fine op. Banks (in both versions) is one of my favourite authors. This is helped by the fact that we have a virtually parallel 'growing up' in Edinburgh at the same time. All his references to Edinburgh and Scotland, all his musical references etc are so close to mine that it's scary...and we both grew up in the heyday of the Victor Gollanz sci-fi books. Yellow spines on library shelves, and I reckon I read them ALL...and so did Banks.
Calypte 27.02.2002 19:00
I'm looking forward to reading this - I've had it on my shelf for ages, but I like to ration Banks' novels! Great review.