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Look To Windward is the seventh Culture novel by Iain M. Banks. It is based around Masaq', a vast Culture orbital home to billions of people, and a plot to annihilate it.
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A short time before the events of the book, the Culture secretely interfered with the societal development of the Chelgrians, a five-legged predatorial race, with the aim of dismantling their repressive caste system. Unlike in most cases of Cultural intervention, this went catastrophically wrong and caused the Chelgrians to descend into a bloody civil war. Major Quilan IV lost his wife in the conflict, and consequently any will to live. He is provided with a suicide mission to exact revenge upon the Culture by destroying Masaq' and thereby wiping out around five billion souls, roughly the same number of his people who died in the war, who are now being denied entry to the Chelgrian's version of heaven. Because honor!


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Look to Windward provides examples of the following tropes:

  • All Up to You: A curious subversion. Uagen is a fairly ordinary person studying the megafauna of the airsphere as an alternative to having a direction in life. He is suddenly landed with the responsiblity of racing back to Culture space to alert them to the plot to destroy Masaq' Orbital. Charged with purpose, he boards the first ship out... and plays no further part in the story. The epilogue shows that a Chelgrian agent was on to him right away, tore him apart and threw him out into space. And, of course, the Culture knew all about the plot already. His body makes a complete orbit of the galaxy and is picked up and revived by the megafauna of the airsphere, who tap their extremely deep ancestral memory to find out what happened to him.
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  • Anti-Villain: Quilan plans to help kill — in his own words — an unreal number of people, but he does it believing that it will rescue the souls of his own people trapped in limbo by the rules of Chelgrian religion. His sense of loss is described in agonizing detail, and it's hard not to feel sorry for the guy.
  • Audience Surrogate: Kabe Ischloear, a journalist from outside the Culture, provides the perspective that is likely closest to what a modern day Earthling might be thinking: curious, surprised, and delighted in equal measure. He seems as if he's going to be the main character for the first few chapters, but gradually fades into the background. The fact that he's a nine-foot-tall three-legged, three-armed Homomdan with glistening, somewhat chitinous black skin is only mentioned in passing — other than a very young human child asking if he's a monster and a boorish concert-goer bringing up the Idirans, nobody seems to pay his species any particular mind.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: The Chelgrians responsible for the plot calculate that, even if the Culture work out who is behind the atrocity, they won't strike back because it would go against their own pacifistic principles, and in its own way the revenge is just. They are extremely wrong about this. While the Culture is more than capable of galactic scale warfare and destruction, it only does so for a reason. Specifically, a "looking to the future" reason. While the Chelgrians are right in thinking that it's doubtful the Culture would retaliate in scale out of simple revenge, it's just barely possible they'd do so in order to prevent other powers from trying similar actions. Object lessons against individual conspirators, however...
  • Electronic Telepathy: Quilan has a tiny box in his head which houses the soul of Hadesh Huyler, another retired soldier who can sense whatever he can and acts as a co-pilot. It also allows him to displace objects inside it to somewhere close by. Much of the plot relies upon the fact the Culture considers whatever's inside a person's head to be sacrosanct, so apparently can't see that Quilan's carrying around a mad drill sergeant split personality and several bombs in his.
  • Call-Back: The title is another line from The Waste Land, same as Consider Phlebas. The cover artwork by Mark Salwowski for some editions of both books have the same theme of a ship approaching an Orbital.
  • Cat Folk: Chelgrians are described as resembling predatory jungle cats with humanoid upper bodies and roughly centaur-like feline lower bodies.
  • Concert Climax: The action upon Masaq' is centred upon a grand music concert, composed by Ziller and commissioned by Masaq' Hub to accompany the appearance of two supernovas, induced many light years away during the Idiran/Culture war. Weapon-grade lasers, comets and tidal waves are used during its climax. It's slightly ambiguous how much of it is All Part of the Show.
  • Death Seeker: Quilan seeks to join his dead wife in oblivion, but doesn't want to simply kill himself — he's still a soldier, and seeks some way to make his sacrifice serve a purpose. In this he's Not So Different from Masaq' Hub, who also seeks a meaningful death — although rather than going down fighting, Hub is seeking someone to share its death.
  • Double Agent: Huyler is a deep-cover agent who was turned by Special Circumstances years ago, even before the Caste War. Meaning the Chelgrian plot really had no chance of going undetected from the very beginning. The Culture even gives him back a body of his own in the epilogue.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Chelgrian caste system resembles some Asian real-world counterparts, including people at the bottom called things like 'Invisibles' and neutered officials.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Will the plot to destroy Masaq' Orbital and kill millions (or billions) of Culture citizens succeed? As if they aren't fully aware of all the details and playing it for their own ends? No, obviously not. The Culture are very proactive about this kind of thing. If you've read a Culture novel before, it shouldn't be any surprise that Special Circumstances have already inserted themselves into the proceedings even if they're not our focus this time around. Or at least Tersono and the Chelgrian double agent don't show their hand until quite late in the book.
  • Gorn: Special Circumstances deploy a terror weapon to take care of the two principal Chelgrians responsible for the plot. It's completely unstoppable, and kills both of them in truly horrific fashion. It even destroys their soulkeepers so they cannot possibly be regenerated. The only system it leaves functioning in the Chelgrian base is surveillance, so the pointed message is properly conveyed: Do Not Fuck With The Culture.
  • Human Popsicle: In the very Distant Finale, Uagen Zlepe wakes up in a time where nobody even remembers what humans and the Culture were. He was killed, but his body was preserved in the arid conditions of deep space. The behemothaur who rescues him is the exact same one we met him aboard during his introduction. Zlepe's modified alien form resembling the creature's internal fauna seems to allow it to heal his wounds and, it's implied, is part of why it was drawn to recover the tiny floating corpse in the first place.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: Subverted and lampshaded, with the alien viewpoint characters often possessing more recognizable motives and reactions (from a modern Earth perspective) than the humans and Minds of the utopian Culture.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: The nanomachine "Terror Weapon" was explicitly left unnamed by the Culture, to better reflect its status as an abomination to them. That doesn't stop them using it when circumstances demand, though, and the Weapon itself doesn't seem to care.
  • Literary Allusion Title: A line from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, like Consider Phlebas before it. "Look to windward" comes from the same verse, from the previous line — specifically, an appeal for the young, looking out on the boundless horizon, to consider the burden of the old. The order of the books reverses the meaning: rather than a plea for the young to stop what they're doing and look back on the past, while they should still reflect on what's come before, it's up to them to find a way to carry on.
    O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
    Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
  • The Man Behind the Man: The Chelgrians are given the technology necessary to infiltrate and destroy Masaq' by a shadowy third party, the identity of whom is never revealed. It's heavily implied that the whole thing was orchestrated by rogue Culture minds determined to shake their own society out of complacency, similarly to the events of ''Excession''.
  • Meaningful Name: As per usual, Culture ships go by a variety of ironic, jokey names. On a less humourous note, Masaq' Hub used to be a Culture warship called the Lasting Damage. Moving on — or not — from past pain and sorrow proves to be the major theme of the book.
  • Non-Action Guy: Uagen Zlepe is a classical antihero — well-intentioned, but not traditionally heroic, a mild-mannered, somewhat absent-minded scholar who refuses to carry a weapon and has No Social Skills, but when he learns of a plot against the Culture he risks his life and does everything in his power to reach his people with a warning. He dies trying, and then it turns out Special Circumstances already knew about the plot all along and had already set their own countermeasures in motion years before.
  • Our Centaurs Are Different: The vaguely feline Chelgrians have two hind legs, a humanoid upper body, and a single foreleg between the two. Most creatures on Chel are hexapedal, and proto-Chelgrians are described as having once had two forelimbs which eventually merged into a single broad limb over the course of their evolution, with a kind of webbed "pad" in what might be referred to as the Chelgrian "lap".
  • The Prima Donna: Mahrai Ziller is a supremely talented Chelgrian composer. He also point blank refuses to meet any of his own kind, throws histrionics whenever Quilan's name is so much as mentioned, and almost goes so far as to not go to his own ultimate concert because Quilan will be in attendance.
  • Proud Warrior Race: The Chelgrians are centauroid Cat Folk, evolved from predators, and have a society which genuinely values Honor Before Reason.
  • Ring World Planet: As a Culture Orbital, Masaq' is a massive example, with just about every type of biome and city imaginable upon it.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Quilan, who lost his wife (herself a fellow soldier) in the Caste War, and had to have a significant portion of his body regrown. Also Masaq' Hub, formerly the warship GSV Lasting Damage during the Idiran War, and twinned when a previous version of the same Mind was thought lost in the fighting before returning — then lost for good during the last days of the war. The two minds were responsible for scuttling three Culture Orbitals to prevent them from falling into the Idirans' hands, which also meant the deaths of several thousand humans who chose to remain behind, knowing full well what it would mean. The shared trauma between the two proves to be more than just thematic during the climax.
  • Starfish Aliens: The respectively five-legged and three-legged Chelgrians and Homomdan border on this, although their behaviour is recognisably human. The behemothaurs and whatever-the-hell-else of the Oskendari airsphere absolutely qualify.
  • Talking to Themself: Quilan and Huyler have to be careful when conversing with one another, and almost slip up a couple of times. Quilan develops a reputation for being quiet and thoughtful in the Culture as a result.
  • Tragic Hero: Once he discovers the Chelgrian plot, Uagen does everything he can to get back to Culture space and warn everybody. Unfortunately the Chelgrians themselves get wind of this, and kill him before he can get anywhere. Even worse, his sacrifice is pointless, because the Culture already knew about the plot through their own double agent.
  • Villain Protagonist: Quilan, also an Anti-Villain and Well-Intentioned Extremist. In another story the terrorist bomber would be the Big Bad. Here he's one of our primary viewpoint characters, and treated extremely sympathetically. Even his character is superficially that of The Hero — suffering a past tragedy, recruited out of obscurity and going through Training from Hell before being sent deep behind enemy lines. Of course, since it's the Culture, behind enemy lines ends up being oddly hospitable, maybe even more so than back home.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Played with. The Chelgrian conspirators are doing this because their sublimed ancestors have created an actual heaven for them, but have barred the souls of all those who died from entering until an equal number of Culture citizens have been slain in revenge. Some mental gymnastics are required for Quilan to go along with this — the Culture does bear at least some blame for triggering the Caste War, but they're not the ones blackmailing the living Chelgrians into destroying an entire Orbital. Still, if it means saving all those Chelgrian souls...

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