Fun, feeling and fantasy at the Culture club

Armed with his middle initial, the cult novelist boldly goes to the heart of the science-fiction galaxy
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The Independent Culture

Look to Windward by Iain M Banks (Orbit, £16.99, 358pp)

Look to Windward by Iain M Banks (Orbit, £16.99, 358pp)

The novelist Iain Banks began his sub-career in science fiction as "Iain M Banks" with Consider Phlebas, a 1987 space opera that surprised followers of his resolutely unconventional work. For it tackled not the challenging fringes of the SF genre (then represented by the cyberpunk movement), but its vast, dead centre.

Iain "M" Banks dares to take pleasure in the apparatus of SF that cyberpunks disdain: giant spaceships, alien species, galaxy-spanning empires, high adventure, low comedy and wonderful gadgetry. Look to Windward is the latest of a series begun by Consider Phlebas, set in a universe which contains - but is, crucially, not entirely dominated by - a semi-anarchic, semi-utopian society: the Culture.

Benign but sneaky, the Culture is a test case for the problem of how to have narrative conflict in a society that seems to be getting on well. Banks continually finds good stories and moral complexity in the interactions between the Culture, to whose values we might aspire, and other civilisations, more like those in which we live.

Often, Banks's SF puts us in the position of identifying, not so much with the good guys, as with characters and belief systems that his plots reveal to be disastrously in the wrong. In Look to Windward, the main characters are from the Chel, a non-human species divided on rigid caste lines which has suffered an enormous upheaval thanks to the well-intentioned intervention of the Culture.

Composer Ziller, an egalitarian dissident in exile, is working on a masterpiece symphony to commemorate a war whose light is about to reach an artificial planet that belongs to the Culture. Quilan, sent to lure Ziller home, has another, more dangerous mission.

The title comes from the same source as the first novel. "Look to windward" is the phrase that comes immediately before "Consider Phlebas" in T S Eliot's The Waste Land. This circularity ties together this loose series far more than conventional recurrences of character. The same themes, however, are constantly being revisited - the nature of idealism, the extremes to which the exercise of power drives even the honourable, and the prickly trouble-making duties of the artist. For Iain M Banks, space opera takes in spy thriller, social satire and comedy of manners, but he is also here for the widescreen effects.

Look to Windward has sentient dirigibles which host micro-societies, Heaven as an accessible zone with which the living may have diplomatic relations, the consciousness of a Chel army officer embedded in Quilan's mind to talk him through his mission, and a number of Technicolor cosmic events. As with all Banks books under either byline, this one has a real sense of the fun of storytelling, of character quirks, of apparently irrelevant footnotes.

This is science fiction as a literature of ideas, but also of affects. Iain M Banks delivers not only intergalactic adventure but political experiment, and his conclusions often lie as much in emotional torment as in quantum mechanics.