Look to Windward.
'We are told it is very unusual for them to make such a mistake. We are told that we should feel flattered they took such an interest in us in the first place. We are told that they respect us. We are told that it is an accident of development and the evolution of galaxies, stars, planets and species that we meet them on less than equal technological terms. We are told that what happened is unfortunate but that we may eventually gain from it. We are told they are honourable people who only wished to help and now feel that they are in our debt because of their carelessness. We are told that we may profit more through their crushing guilt than we might have gained thanks to their easy patronage.' The Estodian Visquile smiled his thin, sharp smile. 'None of that matters.' [ibid, 224]
-This one I liked enormously on the first read, and found just as rewarding a second time through. Hands down the best of the Culture series, and a classic of Banks' work. Characterization and prose are about the best they've ever been. The dialog in particular shines, bringing a real force and immediacy to encounters, giving the work a solidity that passes even the best of earlier works. Even very minor personalities in the Culture feel authentic. Amidst this, the balance of humor and pathos are well maintained, side-by-side moments offer the funniest things in the series as well as the most tragic.
This is perhaps the most untypical structure of a Culture book. The whole plot features a blowback from Special Circumstances, but the actual operation isn't seen. The momentum of the story rests with an outsider seeking to push into and devastate part of the Culture, effectively the Culture is on the defensive materially, narratively and ethically.
One of the major things in here is the Culture getting a major SC mission wrong. They rig two elections to disrupt and egalitarianize the caste system, first bribing an Egalitarian candidate to get in charge, then a low caste member to further distribute power, begin democratizing the armed forces and so forth. But then (surprise!) the empowered lower castes, after millenia or oppression and exploitation, chose to settle old scores rather than serve their own long-term interests, and a devestating civil war resulted.
As presented here, it's a pretty severe miscalculation that definitely looks avoidable, a major mistake. Hand a downtrodden group power and its more than a bit naive to thing events will proceed smoothly, to not perceive that it could turn fratricidal. I can accept the logic behind faking the first election to get change rolling, but at that point it seems short-sighted, like they're in too much of a hurry, to move for even more disruptive. Not that these things automatically play themselves out beneficially--and the Culture's actions here are vastly more ethical than things the U.S government has done time and again in rigging foreign elections--but it seems more effective to not push the issue in this way, to not have an ostensibly democratic forces be reflecting unrepresentative means and then be surprised when the system falls apart. And the manner of being so sure things were going well that they moved Culture ships out of the area and led to a more drawn out conflict when the shooting started, was inexcusable.
One of the things Quilan perceives the Culture suggesting is that the Chelgrian's nature as a predator species make them less predictable, and led to the Culture misjudging the consequences of empowerment. If this is true, it raises some further disquieting possibilities, like that the Culture is in fact only effective in dealing with mundane humanoids. And yet they impose themselves on more alien forms of life (Idirans, Affront, Chelgrians). In this last case, on a group that's partially Sublimed no less, what exactly were they thinking of?
Of course we can say that oh well, the Culture still has a 99% success rate, and the fact that they so quickly acknowledged their failure in this incident (at considerable PR damage) indicates that it is the anomaly, and that overwhelmingly the Culture's actions are statistically justified. To an extent this is true. However, given that the Culture was able to screw up on this magnitude with the Chelgrians, it does cast a measure of doubt on all the previous actions. If an intervention could blow up so drastically, Minds and all, isn't it possible that other schemes might have more subtle dysfunction? Given that everything has to be re-examined, questioned whether the Culture's war with the Idirans was actually, positively worth the casualties, whether Azad was best served by being toppled in the way it did, if the ongoing supremacy Haspidus and the enlightened monarch within it was actually the best thing for the planet. And so forth. What Look to Windward does is deconstruct the normal pattern by which the Culture justifies its interference, and in so doing it really calls everything into question. One imagines that if Zakalwe is still alive at this point he'd be absolutely horrified to learn the Culture screwed up on such a scale, as it invalidates his own turbulent justifications for his policies. Perhaps Zakalwe canceling that orbital strike and abandoning the Hegemocracy wasn't the right thing after all. I think we're a long way from a flip of the Culture is Definitely Wrong for Most Things, but it does add a delicious layer of ambiguity to the series.
Then in response there's the Chelgrian terrorist reprisal. Fairly unjustifiable, I'd say, but there is the interesting fact that they know that killing off billions of innocents will allow an equal number to go into heaven. Not a terribly enlightened ratio, but then the Culture's actions that cause the death of billions in the expectation of trillions being benefited are more nebulous. It makes for an interesting contrast, and not an unsympathetic one even beyond the pathos of Quilan as a character.
For another touch of ambiguity there's the Culture's response to the Chelgrian action. The Hub had talked about targeting just the individuals selected, but actually seeing it gave a bit of a different stance. In the chapter "Closure" actually seeing the EDust assassin rampage was so sadistic, so calculated to excite terror and intimidation that it further undermines the Culture's moral standing. It directly goes against the contrast noted by Zakalwe in the beginning of Use of Weapons, and suggests that the Culture isn't so enlightened and against revenge as they like to appear.
More on the morality of the issue, there's the discussion concerning the justification of the Chelgrians killing five billion Culture people:
~Yes, these people, Quil. You've seen them. You've talked to them. When they discover where you're from they tone it down for fear of insulting you, but they're so obviously proud of the extent and depth of their democracy. They're so damned smug that they're so fully involved, they're so proud of their ability to have a say and of their right to opt-out and leave if they disagree profoundly enough with a course of action.
So, yes, these people. They share collective responsibility for the actions of their Minds, including the Minds of Contact and Special Circumstances. That's teh way they've set it up, that's the way they want it to be. There are no ignorants here, Quil, no exploited, no Invisibles or trodden-upon working class condemned forever to do the bidding of their masters. They are all masters, every one. They can all have a say on everything. So by their own precious rules, yes, it was these people who let what happened to CHel happen, even if few actually knew anything about the details at the time.
~Do only I think that this is...harsh?
~Quil, have you heard even one of them suggest that they might disband Contact? Or reign-in SC? Have we heard any of them even suggesting thinking about that? Well, have we?
~No, not one....They brought it upon themselves, Major. They could vote to disband Contact today, and any one or any group of them could leave tomorrow for their Ulterior or for anywhere else if they decided they no longer agreed with their damned policy of Interference.
This is one of the more effective critiques of the Culture delivered in-universe. Ironically the main speaker, Huyler, is in fact a Culture double agent that doesn't believe in the retaliation or the immorality of the Culture. Still, his argument basically goes unanswered. I mentioned in my review of Player of Games how Special Circumstances formed a state within a state, unanswerable and nontransparent, that framed a highly disturbing type of power. That becomes more disturbing here now that we see they have some real glass feet, and that there still isn't any apparent focus on revamping it or putting more supervision in place.
We know of course, because the series has emphasized it, why there isn't any mass outcry to getting rid of or modifying SC. The Culture needs it around to provide a moral justification for their own hedonist detachment, the sense that their processes are enabling alien barbarians to have their own progressive narratives of history, free of charge. That the Culture does good and makes an impact, that gives meaning even to those not in Contact. That they would continue with this without qualm even when the circumstances show harm results---well, that makes the larger Culture project more than a bit grotesque, and in some fundamental ways ethically unjustifiable.
Of course it's easy to imagine that some individuals will become dissatisfied and will leave the Culture from this incident, as individuals have in the past. But en masse there seems no sing of questioning or disengagement. That doesn't justify the reprisal mass murder of civilians, but it indicates some major dystopian components to the Culture. Not in the way often argued (and by Horza in-universe) that humans are just pawns of all-powerful Minds, but because they do have potential collective influence, and they don't exercise it that effectively.
An even stronger comment a few pages latter:
All this began exactly because they failed to do the same thing [consider carefully] They have become so blase about such matters that they try to interfere with as few ships as possible, with as few resources as possible, in search of a sort of mathematical elegance. They have made the fates of entire civilisations part of a game they play amongst themselves, those who can produce the biggest cultural change from the smallest investment of time and energy.
And when it blows up in their faces, it is not they who suffer and die, but us. Four and a half billion souls barred from bliss because some of their inhuman Minds thought they'd found a nice, neat, elegant way to alter a society which had evolved to stability over six millenia.
This is damning because we know that this precisely how Minds think, the Arbitrary in State of the Art's argument against mass murder both from ethics and from elegance. The accusation in Use of Weapons that the Culture interfered remotely as a type of game, and of course toppling Azad as an ultimate expression of this. Was it truly the most beneficial way to undermine their empire through the board game, or did it just seem the most subtle, the most ironic, the most elegant?
I didn't appreciate this so heavily the first time, but Ziller is really annoying. In a good way for the novel, he's set up as fairly pompous and then deflated by circumstances. Yes, he's ultimately positioned as a moral subject that acted against an exploitative situation in his home, but he also appears to much like the Great Man Dissident--flees his society and refuses to return until they've resolved all their problems, blames them rather than the Culture even for the Caste War, yet simultaneously insists the Culture is decadent and takes issue with the Mind. He's ridiculously petty, and its a bit of a pleasure seeing just how deeply in the dark he is.
Quilan is at the heart of the work, and its here that the novel truly excels. He's another version of Horza, in a way, a ruthless operative focused on murder to fight against the Minds. Except he's a much more complex person, with his past rendered, his desire for self-destruction and the sadness of his character. Its a little troubling that he's as sympathetic as he is, given his actions in attempting to murder five billion people. He is, in any case, considerably more than Zakalwe once I learned of his background. Another way he's better than Horza is that he actually enters into the Culture, sees life on the Orbital and talks with a Mind while trying to destroy it. The structure of his memories gradually surfacing could have been rather hokey or over-abrupt, but the pacing manages to be just right.
The Hub Mind is also probably the best embodiment of its type in the series, and arguably one of the most interesting AIs in fiction. Showing its overall ability and vast mental capacities, very amusing, and ultimately even more tragic. The way we slowly get more little glimpses into its nature and backstory are great, and the final conversation and self-destruction with Quilan are beatiful. There have been a lot of suicides and suicide attempts in the Culture series, but the dual one here has to be the most affecting. There's also the earlier scene where it reflects on what it was like to die and to kill. A strong character, more than just a human but even more complex and fascinating.
Kabe is awesome. Not the deepest of characters, but makes for a sympathetic outsider, and a great way to see a vantage on the Culture. Particularly like his somewhat awkward efforts at humor with random Culture citizens, and the patience he has for putting up with Ziller. I was also amused by the reference that it was sending regular reports to the Homodans, not for official purposes but for observations that had gotten some regularly followers. Basically it's an alien blog on what life in the Culture is like. It's that kind of little detail that science fiction doesn't capture enough.
The behemothaur scenes are also quite interesting. Fairly disconnected from the main story, and the SC agent who dies just in time to tell Uagen about the danger is a bit melodramatic, but the creatures themselves are wildly creative. For the first time there's the sense of alien life bizzare enough that it could appear in a Stephen Baxter novel, and it makes for some of the most beautiful sensory detail of the novel. It's all a little to disconnected from the main story, though, the inclusion a little awkward, and the setup for the jump forward doesn't feel quite adequate. It makes for an effective moment, though, "the civilization which was once known as the Culture", and shows Banks isn't afraid to indicate beyond the limit of his primary creation. This is really Baxterian range of time as well.
The main story feels quite adequately complete and the moment works as is, but it would be interesting to see what Uagen did next, awakened so far in the future and living after the end of the Culture. Kind of a Ring to the main series' Exultant.
On a different tone, the party scenes on the Orbital are good. That's where a lot of the humor comes in, all of Ziller's mocking of people that try to question him, the conversation entirely of citing ship names, the random digressions on religious metaphysics. Easy to follow in the moment and get a sense of place even where there's no description accompanying it.
Brief reference to the Grey Area aka the Meatfucker, the conclusion is that it's dead through suicide, 'probably because of the stigma from being ostracized'. Off Excession that's a bit of a misrepresentation, one could understand why everyone would think it was dead but from the context of the last conversation it should have been clear it thought it might achieve something, and wasn't just jumping in because of angst. Another crack in the notion of the Minds' knowledge, or their being unbiased.
More info on the Sublimed, greater background as they feature in the actual plot for the first time since Consider Phlebas. I still think the notion of becoming beings of energy is rather weak conceptually, but there are some interesting paradoxes in the total non-answer on what Sublimed is. Particularly the fact that for a civilization pre-Sublimed signs include revival of old religious views, while 'perfect AI' with no built in biases also immediately Sublime. It's pretty clear that Banks has no real idea of what comes next and will never address it, but it is interesting to speculate.
There's surprisingly little sex in this novel, all in all. None of the main characters on the Orbital engage much in it, and the general enthusiasm of the wider populace seems is seen more in music and dangerous sports than the usual orgies. I think the most sex that is shown is Quilan and Worosei, in flashbacks. Given the Culture's general hedonist norms, that's an interesting stylistic choice.
The novel came out before the current popular fixation on it, but it's interesting that the motivation of this "suicide bombing" is the opposite of the attributed norm for al-Quaeda--the attacker wants oblivion, and to redeem the souls of others. That and the exact equivalence thing make the situation more different and obviously sympathetic than many contemporary parallels.
Why is there the scene Eweirl killing that lower caste member in a sociopathic manner? Just to drive home the problems with Chelgrian social inequality and make the plotters look more evil? It seems a bit contrived, and tips the scale somewhat too heavily against the Chelgrians. Do we really need a Kick the Dog moment for them, particularly given how short a time Eweirl features?
Here's a quote I've seen drawn on a lot: "Quilan went through what he knew of the relatively small number of Involved species sufficiently advanced to take the Culture on in this way. There were between seven and twelve other species on that sort of level, depending which set of criteria you used. None were supposed to be particularly hostile to the Culture; several were allies."
How many of the seven definite ones have been seen or mentioned at this point? The Homoda certainly, after Matter the Morthanveld. The Elench would have the capacity for this type of attack, but the setup of this seems to imply distinct species, I'd be pretty sure Quilan would view the Ulterior as just a loose extension of the Culture. Any others that have been mentioned?
And then of course, what group actually was the mysterious allies that assisted the Chelgrains? Who were in the cones? One of the other Involved as speculated? Some outside group? A rogue group of Minds, as speculated by the Hub? On the face of it the Minds don't seem to have anything to gain from this and it seems awfully large-scale, quite unsubtle, but then the way the conspiracy in Excession was activated had the same issue. The Hub Mind speculates it could be because the Culture has passed its height, its a decadent civilization, and some wanted to remind the Culture of the harshness of the universe. It still seems a bit far-fetched, but there's no other group shown with an applicable motive, and it would be an eloquent way for Banks to further undermine the whole standing of the Culture in its retrospective.
One question related to that is whether this would have been a more effective story if Huyler hadn't been a double agent, if SC hadn't had word of the whole development and someone had succeeded inflicting the largest loss of Culture life since the Idiran War. As is I think I prefer the way things played out, there's something effective about so well-written and character-focused an anticlimax, and the way Banks has resisted all the conventional nuts and bolts of space opera since Consider Phlebas. Certainly having something like that actually occur, and seeing the aftermath, could be a great story, but as is the one we've got is less conventional and probably more interesting.
Overall this is an almost flawless novel, delivering substantive themes and delicately involving the setting. some standout characters and a slow but effective plot. While the structure is unusual for the series, in other ways this is the quintessential Culture novel, the one that is the least capable of being adapted into another milieu, that has to emerge as it does. It's also a great conclusion to the series, a thoughtful working of the basic question of Consider Phlebas, looking back at those events in universe, and offering a summing up of a later Culture and the eventual ending of all things.....And then Banks went back to the series eight years later. Uh, yeah. Well, I'll round out the rereading soon, and see if Matter seems less bad this time through.
Similar to and better than: Alastair Reynolds' The House of the Suns
Similar to and worse than: Philip K. Dick's The man in the High Castle