Look to Windward

July 12th, 2011

~ "God that thing is ugly," Huyler said when they first saw it, riding across from the wreck of the Winter Storm in the tiny shuttle with the ship’s black-skinned, gray-suited avatar.   "And these people are supposed to be decadent aesthetes?"

~ "There is a theory that they are ashamed of their weaponry. As long as it looks inelegant, rough and disproportionate they can pretend that it is not really theirs, or not really a part of their civilization, or only temporarily so, because everything else they make is so subtly refined."

Look to Windward is (chronologically) the second novel of Iain M. Banks' Culture series.  In his mythology, the Culture is a post-scarcity society, facilitated by artificial intelligences and near-perfect manufacturing technologies.  The human lifespan averages four centuries, and the people want for nothing.  The political structure is a benign anarchy, with policy decisions made largely through direct (and instantaneous) democracy.

In short, the Culture is a liberal utopia.

Of course, Utopia isn't, can't be, perfect.  If that was the case, Banks' works would be fairly short and boring.  The easy way out would be to insinuate some sinister undercurrent of corruption or hidden oppression (as Huxley did), but the Culture is too neat, too well thought-out as a concept.  Rather, Banks' stories are interesting in that their protagonists are often hostile to the Culture.

The first novel, Consider Phlebas, concerned how such an idyllic society would go to war.  They do so haltingly and with great regret, against a foreign entity whose religion demands expansion and prevents peaceful coexistence.

They don't, and can't, risk looking like they enjoy it, or that they're too good at it.  As such, their military policy involves a great deal covert action and dirty tricks under the aegis of the secret Special Circumstances branch.  In something as distasteful as war, it's vitally important that the Culture prevails without the appearance of getting their hands soiled.  Their citizens can sleep at night under the impression that they're morally superior in their imagined pacifism.

Heinlein had some harsh words about that notion, and he was right.

The second book is largely concerned with the consequences of such things.  The Culture's policy towards less advanced races generally tends towards a benign but condescending sort of meddling.  They're our betters.  They're here to save us from our lesser natures.

Except for the fact that it doesn't always work so well, does it?  Repelled by an emerging planet's oppressive caste system, the Culture lends covert aid to a revolutionary group looking to reform it.  The result is a brutal civil war, for which the affected parties aren't too grateful.  Some eight centuries later, they're still carrying a grudge, and the sympathetic platitudes of the Culture's representatives don't do anything to bring the dead back.

It's hard to pin down Banks' exact attitude towards the idea of the Culture.  He's gone on record advocating managed economies and socialism, and he's very liberal politically.  Despite this, his fictional realization of those ideals is presented as being terribly flawed.  His primary characters are often people who resent the Culture, who live on its margins, or who work against it.  While they're not necessarily good people, they're not the bad guys, either.  Intentionally or not, that role is often filled by the Culture itself.

It's an interesting contradiction, and one that would seem troublesome if Banks didn't write such engaging fiction.  The whole series is worth reading, and it's possible for the reader to jump in at any point, though reading the first three books in order is recommended.  While his books are hard to find in print stateside, Amazon's Kindle service is a godsend for this.

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