Monday, January 23, 2012

the last book I read

Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks.

So here we are again, back in the AI-moderated anarcho-utopia of the Culture. You'll remember from previous visits their technological advancedness and their tendency to get involved and try to massage the development of other (small-c) cultures into directions they deem desirable, with sometimes mixed results.

Well, they've been at it again here - a long-ago skirmish during the war with the Idirans (sort of giant sentient armoured tortoises, as featured in the first Culture novel Consider Phlebas) resulted in the deliberate detonation of a couple of stars, with the inevitable attendant gigadeaths, and now the light from those detonations is about to reach Masaq', one of the Culture's Orbitals. This has been turned into the excuse for a bit of a cultural jamboree, as if to (slightly smugly) acknowledge the Culture's occasional propensity for mistakes, while at the same time revelling in their ability to throw a party and the fact that, as a civilisation that has ascended to the enviable heights of permanent leisure for all and dispensed with bourgeois notions like money and possessions, no-one has to get up to go to work in the morning.

Not everyone views the Culture as an unequivocally benign and civilising influence, though: the Chelgrians have been nursing a grudge for a while after a bit of well-intentioned Culture meddling to try and persuade them to dispense with their barbaric caste system backfired. The Chelgrians are a bunch of bipedal cat/fox/marsupial types (well, apart from the vestigial extra limb in the middle of the body which I've never seen a cat have), broadly civilised but with their predatory past a bit more recent in evolutionary terms than the Culture's inhabitants and therefore more of an inclination to hang on to outmoded notions like honour and revenge.

One of the most famous Chelgrians, Mahrai Ziller, a composer, is a resident of Masaq' Orbital, having fled there from Chel during the caste wars. Another Chelgrian, Major Quilan, has been sent on a mission to Masaq', ostensibly to try to persuade Ziller to return home, but in fact on a deadly mission so secret EVEN HE DOESN'T KNOW WHAT IT IS!!! Yes, it's The Chelgrian Candidate. Quilan's mission is more wide-ranging than just popping a cap in a politician's ass, though; he's planning (well, once he gets his memory back) to blow up the Hub's controlling Mind and kill about five billion people, thereby taking roughly proportionate revenge for the Chelgrians killed during the Culture's ham-fisted intervention.

This is probably the most straightforward Culture novel since The Player Of Games, all of the intervening ones - Use Of Weapons, Excession, Inversions - depicting events on the outer limits of the Culture's society in one way or another. The crazy physical geography of the Orbital is very well realised, as are the day-to-day dilemmas of its inhabitants - not the sort of mundane concerns that you and I have to put up with, but more esoteric stuff like where to go hang-gliding next, what sort of body you want to be reincarnated in should you accidentally hang-glide into a live volcano, and indeed whether it's worth even attempting any physical or artistic endeavour anyway given that with a snap of the fingers you could get an AI Mind to do it far better and quicker than you could ever hope to do.

Portraying non-humanoid aliens is always tricky, and though Banks tries to load the dice in his favour here by having Kabe Ischloear, the Homomdan, be the most rational and level-headed non-AI character in the book, a ten-foot tripedal pyramid who occasionally gets mistaken for an item of modern sculpture is a tricky sell, recalling as it does Douglas Adams' hyperintelligent shade of the colour blue. The Chelgrians are a bit more successfully realised, and he manages to make the tortured Quilan a fairly sympathetic character, despite his intention of committing planet-scale genocide. What's missing is any real suspense, though, the Culture's AI Minds being so clever as to almost eliminate even the slightest possibility that Quilan's scheme could ever succeed, though what Masaq' Hub does with the knowledge is perhaps slightly unexpected.

A couple of other quibbles: it's not entirely clear what the point of the episodes on the airsphere planet is, other than for Banks to have some fun with the gargantuan dirigible behemothaurs (giant sentient alien hot-air balloons, basically) that roam its atmosphere. And presumably the couple of teasers featuring the female Chelgrian assassin who turns out to be a cloud of nanobots from an unknown civilisation (who, we're invited to infer, have manipulated the Chelgrians for their own ends) will be revisited in future books. And the business with the "hilarious" spaceship names really isn't as funny as Banks seems to think it is.

Overall it's as rollickingly good fun as all the other Culture books, though, with the usual crafty swipes at organised religion. There's a bit of techno-geekery as well, but you can skim over those bits to get to the actual plot. Overall I'd say it's better than Excession, but not as good as Inversions.

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