Review by John Berlyne (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Orbit, UK, ISBN 1-85723-969-5, £16.00
It amazes me that in a career that has produced nine top class science fiction novels, Iain M Banks still awaits the establishment recognition he so richly deserves. True, he has scooped the British Science Fiction award twice now, but even in a genre filled with some hefty competition it is almost inconceivable that he has yet to be nominated for a Hugo or Nebula.
His latest offering is "Look To Windward" and it is a fine addition to his "Culture" series. Banks' Culture is a utopian society - decadence and hedonism are it's driving force and "humanitarian" interference with other less advanced civilizations is seen as a way of enriching both parties. No "prime directive" here! However mistakes are sometimes made and the Culture is the first to acknowledge them, after a fashion.
In this case the controlling Mind of the Masaq' orbital commissions a commemorative symphony from the Chelgrian composer Ziller to mark just such a mistake in which it was itself involved long ago.Ziller, living in self-imposed exile on Masaq' comes to learn that another of his race is to visit the orbital and naturally assumes he is to be coerced into returning to Chel (which itself has fallen victim to Culture interference) - or at the very least perhaps assassinated. This Chelgrian visitor however has other priorities, and through Banks' deft narrative slight of hand, his mission is only revealed to him (and thus to us) through a sort of drip feeding of returning memories. It is this tension building device that turns this story into one of those books you just can't put down.
This is space opera on a grand scale, full of the ingenious concepts and inventions. Much of it is told through conversation in which Banks' sharp and wicked wit shines through and some of his descriptive writing is truly beautiful. The culture of The Culture continues to fascinate and entertain with each installment.