Iain M. Banks is my favourite author of speculative fiction and Look to Windward is possibly my favourite book by him. The characters are certainly a big factor, I posted an exchange from the novel earlier. But the themes that it grapples with are another reason. This isn’t going to be an original observation, reading a scholarly article on Banks made me realize this*, but it’s a reappraisal of the themes of the first Banks novel in his fictional Culture universe.
It follows the aftermath of a disastrous intervention by the advanced Culture in the affairs of a less advanced civilization, technologically and perhaps morally. The story is told through they eyes of a grieving war veteran turned suicide bomber from that civilization and a neutral third party ambassador among that Culture that follows a rather ill-tempered composer in self-imposed exile, again from that civilization, because of it’s oppressive character.
The premises of the anarchistic utopia presented in the Culture novels is a bit problematic in the context of our present world. It’s unapologetically interventionist, every single Culture novel involves manipulation of less advanced civilizations so that they’ll conform better to the (admittedly very attractive) standards of the Culture. The first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, heavily referenced in Look to Windward, takes place against the backdrop of war with expansionist religious zealots. Although they’re equals in the novels the parallels with Islam and the clash of civilizations are apparent. Even so the protagonist is actually working against the Culture and the horrors of war are expounded on but it still comes off as a rather straightforward struggle between secularism and religious intolerance.
In Look to Windward the, now long past, war is commemorated only with regret and solemnity. The struggle isn’t something between good and bad equals but a disastrous meddling by a far advanced liberal society in a complex and sometimes cruel inferior society that has very little chance of a rejoinder. The whole justification for the Culture way of life is draw in doubt and there are no easy answers.
That is actually a bit of an exception since it’s made quite apparent, also in latter books, that the interventions generally work out just fine. However I don’t consider the Culture an allegory, let alone a justification, for contemporary liberal interventionism. The good intentions and competence of the Culture make sense in the novels and even then Banks makes sure to voice doubts, portray the messy details and hint at a darker side to the governance of the utopia. The societies being manipulated so are also more often than not capitalistic, expansionist and sometimes genocidal empires, more recognisable parallels to our present world than the Culture itself.
In my opinion Banks successfully engages with the troubling implications of his fantasy world’s premises in the context of western imperialism and the purported clash of civilizations. Look to Windward reconsiders what could be construed in Consider Phlebas as a mistaken allusion to the present world.
*Duggan, Robert: Iain M. Banks, Postmodernism and the Gulf War, Extrapolation 48:3.