The Twin Novae battle had been one of the last of the Idiran war, and one of the most horrific: desperate to avert their inevitable defeat, the Idirans had induced not one but two suns to explode, snuffing out worlds and biospheres teeming with sentient life. They were attacks of incredible proportion -- gigadeathcrimes. But the war ended, and life went on.
Now, eight hundred years later, light from the first explosion is about to reach the Masaq' Orbital, home to the Culture's most adventurous and decadent souls. There it will fall upon Masaq's 50 billion inhabitants, gathered to commemorate the deaths of the innocent and to reflect, if only for a moment, on what some call the Culture's own complicity in the terrible event.
Also journeying to Masaq' is Major Quilan, an emissary from the war-ravaged world of Chel. In the aftermath of the conflict that split his world apart, most believe he has come to Masaq' to bring home Chel's most brilliant star and self-exiled dissident, the honored Composer Ziller.
Ziller claims he will do anything to avoid a meeting with Major Quilan, who he suspects has come to murder him. But the Major's true assignment will have far greater consequences than the death of a mere political dissident, as part of a conspiracy more ambitious than even he can know -- a mission his superiors have buried so deeply in his mind that even he cannot remember it.
Hailed by SFX magazine as "an excellent hopping-on point if you've never read a Banks SF novel before," Look to Windward is an awe-inspiring immersion into the wildly original, vividly realized civilization that Banks calls the Culture.
Set in Banks's far-future interstellar civilization known as the Culture, this highly literate novel from this celebrated British SF author (Inversions) centers on an act of revenge. The Culture is enormously rich and values personal freedom above all else, but it also has a tradition of meddling in the affairs of other, lesser civilizations. This is invariably done with the best of intentions, but occasionally things do go wrong. Parallels to U.S. foreign policy are probably intended, witness the book's dedication to "the Gulf War veterans." In a recent attempt to covertly overthrow the repressive caste system at the center of Chelgrian society, agents of the Culture's secret Special Circumstances unit accidentally triggered a civil war that left five billion Chelgrians both dead and dishonored. Now Chel has sent an ambassador named Quilan to the artificial, bracelet world of Masaq' Orbital. Ostensibly he's there to try to convince Ziller, a famous Chelgrian expatriate composer, to return home, but his real mission is to eliminate the AI that controls the Culture orbital. This action will also bring about the destruction of approximately five billion human souls held in suspended animation, thereby, the Chelgrians believe, balancing the books. Although things start a bit slowly, Banks's fine prose, complex plotting and well-rounded characters will eventually win over even the most discerning readers, and all will find themselves fully rewarded when the novel reaches its powerful conclusion. FYI:Banks has also written mainstream literary fiction (The Wasp Factory, etc.).
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Good Solid Culture Novel
Given that the novel touches on the subject of the Sublime, this one's got some nice twists, turns, and treachery, an engagingly snarky protagonist and an interesting storyline. It's also got an absolutely ludicrous price for an electronic edition of a book that was released over a decade ago that suggests some sort of scary licensing mess (the same one that keeps "Excession" on paper?) and I'd advise just waiting until IMB gets the rights thing cleared up and this appears at a price comparable to other books he wrote in this timeframe.
What is human?
This is the heart of the culture books. All of the concepts banks raised (the sublimed, the Culture's well-meaning but sometimes heavy handed interventions into the affairs of others, and most importantly the mutual relationship between human and machine that epitomizes the Culture) are present in this book. Because it takes place almost wholly within the Culture, the reader gets a better view of orbital life. These factors allow Banks to ask the question that is the central thesis of the Culture series: what does it mean to be human? In a hedonistic society with no structural needs, what makes people get out of bed in the morning? In some cases it's adventure, however real or artificial it might be. In others, it is the prospect of knowing something beyond the ken of even the great Minds that order life in the massively human orbitals and GSVs. By humanizing the orbital through its avatar, the protagonist through his gradually expanding memories, and the antagonist through his seeking for the purpose in life, Banks leads us on a grand tour post-scarcity society, one that allows the reader to identify separately with the fetishes of memory, unencumbered joy, and dutiful responsibility in order to examine his/her own life.