Thursday, January 18, 2018

Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks

I have just finished re-re-reading Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks. If pressed, I might just designate it my favorite book from one of my favorite series, the Culture books.

Banks’ Culture books are modern space opera done right. The old-timey space opera was basically just westerns in space. A classic example are E. E. Doc Smith’s Skylark and Lensman series. They are good fun, but they are pretty much tough-guy space police fighting bigger and bigger baddies in bigger and bigger battles. The culture books are space opera for the thinking man.

Banks, now sadly passed before his time, said in an interview that he would love to live in the Culture, and so would I. He said it was an attempt at the most positive civilization he could imagine which was still recognizably human. It’s pretty much a utopia, except it’s interesting.

I guess my favorite bit is the spaceships. I’m a hopeless dork for big thingies, and I don’t know anybody who did it better than Banks. There are many types, including the General Systems Vehicles. Here you have a spaceship, held together with forcefields, which is a big city in one chunk. Think many kilometers long, several wide, and a couple tall, build in layers. They have big bays for building smaller ships, they have, well, everything a civilization needs, they have millions of inhabitants, humans, AI drones, and aliens of all kinds... they have smaller ships and aircraft and even indivicuals flying around it and over the parks. They are intelligent, run by “Minds”, hyper-AIs which work in hyperspace too... What’s not to love.

Look To Windward goes beyond even that. It has pathos and tension like most culture books. And it has outstanding inventions, one of the greatest is “air spheres”, which are collosal spheres of air which circle around the galaxy, which contain a whole world and civilization of their own, insanely old and wise, many of the citizens are intelligent, inscrutable plant-based “dirigibles” which themselves are individually millions of years old... A scholar from the Culture is trying to study these amazing beings, and he comes across a secret plot from outside, aimed at one of the Culture’s “orbital” worlds (like Ringworld, only not quite that large).

For me at least, this is just an exceptionally satisfying novel on so many levels. I wish I’d met Iain Banks.
I also wish they’d make movies from them, except I’m not optimistic they would get it right, it would be difficult, especially as everything today has to be all action.

Art by Mark J. Brady
(Inspired by the novel but not an illustration)


Ken Bushwalker said...

He also wrote serious literature under the name Iain Banks (no M.). What is interesting is that a lot of people think that the sci-fi novels supported this when in fact it is the other way around. Being a serious writer may explain why his books are so well written. A lot of the sci-fi stuff is badly written. I recently read something by someone who seems to be a poor mans version of Iain Banks. I managed to finish it, but it will be the last I read.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Indeed. Much as I’m disinclined to state that SF is not “serious literature”. :-)

In fact the first two Banks books I read (Chrise, that’s coming up on thirty years now, unbelievable!), were The Bridge and Espedair Street, none of which are science fiction, and both of which I loved intensely. I was in my Christmas vacation reading The Bridge, and I rushed out to a book store to buy another one so I would not suffer withdrawal!

I also liked the Craw Road back then.
However now I prefer the SF, particularly the Culture books. And for years, when I’ve tried the mainstream fiction books of his, I’ve not managed to get through them. Like The Steep Approach Too Gar(something), I just had no idea what it was about. No suspense at all. They all seem to be about a guy coming home to his home town and wandering around meeting old aquantances, moaning about a lost love.
I did like Dead Air and The Business when I read them, though.

Of non-culture SF, I liked Against A Dark Background and Transition.

My favortie writers tend to be very visual writers, those who conjure up great sceneries and other visuals. (Which partly explains why I like SF.)

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Ted Sturgeon famous said (“Sturgeon’s Law”) that “Sure, 90% of SF is crap, but then 90% of *anything* is crap.” Which is very true. 90% of literary fiction is unreadable.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

I’m a little miffed about “Inversions” being called a Culture book, because it has very little to do with the Culture at all. It’s pretty much, if I recall right, just a pre-industrial story of intriques in a king’s court.

Kent McManigal said...

I like L. Neil Smith's book, The Probability Broach for "a world I'd love to live in". Sure, there are others, but that's still probably one of my favorites.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Thanks, Kent.
It’s good to hear of such books, because I can’t think of many of them. SF authors seem to be pretty pessimistic overall.

David Evans said...

I think Banks is my all-time favorite hard SF writer. Someone who comes close is Alastair Reynolds with his Revelation Space series. Also Banks-like in a different way is his fellow Scot, Ken MacLeod. I recommend them both.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Thanks, David.