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- Unsworth, Barry — Stone Virgin (312 pages)
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- Lockwood, Richard & Steve Potz-Rayner — A Little Book of Lies (170 pages)
- Vickers, Hugh — Great Operatic Disasters (65 pages)
- Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (574 pages)
- Rennison, Nick — 100 Must-Read Classic Novels (164 pages)
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- Fitzgerald, F. Scott — The Great Gatsby (146 pages)
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- Banks, Iain M. — Consider Phlebas (466 pages)
- Banks, Iain M. — The Player of Games (307 pages)
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- Banks, Iain M. — The State of the Art (215 pages)
- Banks, Iain M. — Excession (450 pages)
- Kazantzakis, Nikos — Zorba the Greek (345 pages)
- Banks, Iain M. — Inversions (407 pages)
- Banks, Iain M. — Look to Windward (403 pages)
- Page count
Look to Windward, the seventh of Ian M. Banks' Culture novels, marks a transition of sorts. At the time of its publication, many believed it would be the final Culture novel. After all, much of the novel is concerned with looking back — most significantly, looking back at past transgressions, including the Idiran War which was the subject of the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. Fittingly, both Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward draw their titles from the same source, a quotation from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land:
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
Clearly though, as there were three subsequent Culture novels (although an eight year gap before the next novel), this is not the end but a transition.
Others have suggested that the Culture novels (not counting The State of the Art, both a novella and the collection of stories which contains it) are neatly divided into three trilogies. There are merits to this argument. Chronologically, each novel within a set of three was published in quick succession with a gap of six and eight years, respectively, between sets. Thematically, the second set, at least, can be said to have a common mission: a close study of the Culture from radically different perspectives: Excession sees the Culture in contrast to a significantly more technologically advanced entity from the perspective of the Minds that "run" the Culture; Inversions looks at the Culture in contrast to an inferior civilization seen through the eyes of covert Culture agents attempting to nudge the civilization's development in the right direction; and Look to Windward examines the Culture from the perspective of a current Culture population in contrast to an almost-equiv-tech civilization. We probably learn at least as much, if not more, of how the Culture works from these three novels as we do from the rest of the series combined.
But, as I said, I think Look to Windward is a transitional novel. It not only remembers the past with an immediacy none of the other Culture novels does, but it takes stock of the present state of the Culture (and not necessarily in the most glowing terms) and look forward to the future. It introduces themes which are taken up in the last three novels and, in a bizarre twist which at least one reviewer refers to as Stapledonian, shows us a glimpse of the Culture's place in the galaxy in the far future.
Look to Windward contains two principal (and a minor third) plot threads which come together in classically Banksian unpredictableness at the end. It is 800 years since the end of the Idiran War: the light of one sun destroyed in the conflict's final battles is just reaching the infamous Masaq Orbital, and the light of another will reach in a matter of weeks. The Orbital's Hub Mind has commissioned a new symphony from the galactically-famous composer Mahrai Ziller, a political dissident from the Chelgrian civilization, to commemorate this event. Meanwhile, decades previously the Culture's attempts to influence Chel's development resulted in a civil war in which five billion Chelgrians perished, including the wife of a soldier-turned-monk, Quilan, who is on his way to Masaq ostensibly to attempt to convince the Chelgrian composer to end his self-imposed exile from Chel. And in the far reaches of the galaxy, a Culture citizen is studying a bizarre life form in a unique environment when he gets wind that not all is right.
Both as we follow Quilan's story and that of the characters on Masaq in anticipation of the second sun's light's arrival, we look back at loss and how it affects the present: Quilan's personal motivations in light of his bereavement; Chel and the Culture's attitudes towards each other trying to move on from the loss of billions on Chel as a result of a Culture mistake; the long-term repercussions of the Idiran War; the Hub Mind's attitudes towards life, which it experiences in finer grain than any biological being, and how it deals with losing it's twin Mind when it was a ship Mind during the War.
(Very pointedly, Look to Windward is dedicated to veterans of the Gulf War. It is both a recognition of the tremendous sacrifice and loss that comes with war and a political statement about the right of one culture, no matter how well meaning or morally superior, to interfere in another.)
But at the same time as we look back, we celebrate what the Culture has become, a place that embraces all different sorts of life forms (and there are some delightfully creative new ones introduced) and celebrates living life to the fullest. While a lot of the novel is absorbed in philosophical contemplation of what has and will come, a great deal of it is spent vicariously enjoying the many pleasures the Orbital has to offer (including, memorably, lava rafting) in the present.
Thus, Look to Windward, another thoroughly enjoyable Culture read, sums up what has come before it and propels us into the rather different last three novels.