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Literature / Look To Windward

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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 secret plot involving it.

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 the "soul" (the electronically stored memories and personality) of an old general, dead about 80 years previously. To prevent jeopardizing the plan in case Quilan's mind is scanned by an AI, the living Chelgrian has his memory wiped, and while the soul knows the exact nature of the mission, the living one only regains his memories slowly, until the truth of what he accepted to do reveals to him entirely.


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 responsibility 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 very same behemothaur he was studying millions of years after the story ends, which taps its 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.
  • Artificial Afterlife: The Chelgrians have a virtual afterlife, created for them by those members of their species who have managed to sublime, Ascending to a Higher Plane of Existence. Brain Uploading is practiced in the form of small dog tag-like devices, called soulkeepers, which acts as a kind of individual "black box" for each living Chelgrian. The plot is driven by the sublimed Chelgrian-Puen threatening to bar access to this afterlife to all the Chelgrians who died during the Caste War until an equal retribution has been exacted from the Culture.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: The Chelgrians are unusual as a species for having sublimed only in part, with the gone-before Chelgrian-Puen remaining in contact with the remaining Chelgrians like the ancestor-spirits the Chelgrians already believed in, constructing an Artificial Afterlife for their descendants to dwell within forever.
  • 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 similarly-tripedal 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...
  • Big Dumb Object: The airspheres are huge habitats of uncertain origin which circumnavigate the galaxy, consisting of a vast membrane surrounding a large, empty "sky", complete with its own artificial heat and light sources. Most of the action in the Oskendari Airsphere is limited to the interior of just two of its inhabitants, the Living Gasbag behemothaurs Yoleus and Sansemin, each large enough to host entire ecosystems of their own, and the airsphere itself is little described.
  • Brain Uploading: The Chelgrians have created an Artificial Afterlife and house backups of their minds and memories in "soulkeepers", which are small enough to be worn around the neck and are gathered up like dog tags from the sites of major battles so the dead can be uploaded into the Chelgrian heaven, or in some cases have their living bodies regrown.
  • Electronic Telepathy: Quilan has a tiny box in his head which houses the 'soul' of Hadesh Huyler, another retired soldier who can sense whatever Quil can and acts as a sort of mission 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 is looking for some way to make his sacrifice serve a purpose. In this he's Not So Different from Masaq' Hub, who's also hoping for something approaching a meaningful death — although rather than going down fighting, Hub is seeking someone who can understand why it wants this, to share its final moments with.
  • 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.
  • Genius Loci: The behemothaurs of Oskendari Airsphere are intelligent but alien Living Gasbags large enough to host their own diverse flora and fauna, taking a creature roughly the size of a human some time to reach its outer wall from within.
  • Gorn: Special Circumstances deploy a nanomachine 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 is implied to be 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" is 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 mind, deriving both professional and visceral satisfaction from its role.
  • 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.
  • Living Gasbag: The Dirigible Behemothaurs, on a massive scale — living inside the artificial airspheres, they are some of the largest creatures in the galaxy, big enough to sustain their own internal ecosystems, and said to be comparable to the Xinthians from Matter. They're an intelligent species in their own right, though they don't seem to be the architects of the airspheres in which they can be found.
  • 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.
  • Nanomachines: The nameless "terror weapon" is a swarm of e-dust, "everything dust", which allows it to assemble itself into the shape of a Chelgrian woman to disguise itself, and to kill its victims in truly horrific ways, such as Orifice Invasion. It was depoyed by Special Circumstances as an object lesson to the Chelgrian conspirators about what the Culture was capable of, if pressed.
  • 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 forelegs/midlimbs 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 centauroid Chelgrians and three-armed, tripedal Homomdans border on this physically, although their behaviour is recognisably human. The Living Gasbag behemothaurs and whatever-the-hell-else of the Oskendari Airsphere absolutely qualify. While sapient, their size, shape, long lifespan, and sheer scale makes them one of the more alien species in the galaxy, and diplomacy with other races has been a slow, uncertain process.
  • Talking to Themself: Quilan and Huyler, sharing a mind, 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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