Monday, 28 December 2015

Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks

*Some Spoilers Below*

I have read so many of the Culture novels in such a short period of time that I find it difficult to know what to write this time. My online book club is doing a series read, so every month, there is another one. My relationship with the series tends to be up and down - some books I really enjoy, some I find frusratingly opaque. This was not one of the opaque ones.

Part of my problem is that I don't connect very easily to his characters. For one, they're never the same from book to book, so I don't have that lingering affection carrying over from one to the next. Which is not the worst thing in the world, because the characters are not where Banks puts the bulk of his attention, but I find they don't spring to life.

Which isn't to say the characters are poorly written. Banks is interested in motivation and how people react to trauma, but it all feels just a little bit clinical and detached. There's intellectual angst, and even emotional pain, but it is just…it's hard to find the right word. Distant probably comes closest. 

What I'm trying to say is that some writers write characters that leap off the page and are who they are so entirely they never go away. In Banks' books, the emotional circumstances of the characters are interesting, but the characters themselves are forgettable. What they do is what he seems to be interested in, not who they are.

So, while I'll remember Quilan's struggle for meaning in a world that has been stripped of it by personal loss, I'm not sure I'll remember him. I'm not sure I ever entirely knew him. I know what he did, and maybe why, but not who he was as a person that led him to that spot, to that moment. 

I did find this book interesting because it touches on an idea that's been drifting through my head recently, about the difference between justice and vengeance, and why we have a system put between perpetrator and victim, to protect both parties from the other. I was watching something on TV when someone who had had a family killed by a drunk driver, and it was troubling. There is so much pain, and the the guy who killed their loved one needs to face the consequences. But there are reasons we don't let the bereaved pick what those consequences are. Very necessary reasons, because very few people can put aside the urge to hurt the other person back, to make them suffer even more than they themselves are suffering. But there isn't an equilibrium of pain that can be achieved that way, and we are all so interconnected that there are very good reasons to get away from blood feuds and public executions.

How does that relate to this book? Well, there's a world that was riven by civil war, oppressed castes turning against privileged ones in an orgy of bloodshed, hit back with intense reprisals. Instead of looking at the fault lines that led to it, they turn their blame outwards, to the Culture, which did meddle, which did help create the circumstances that led to the civil war, because they didn't perceive quite how deep the wounds were. The survivors of the civil war cannot see themselves at fault, so they blame outwards. And want retribution.

The main character lost his wife, and suffers from a grief that would only be made worse by being relieved. He hurts so much that not to hurt would be a betrayal. He isn't emotional about it, though. Numb. Lost. And ready to do anything to die without actually committing suicide.

In this case, it's a recipe for how to commit horrific crimes while thinking yourself justified. What would the Culture do in return...well, these books are often about the ethics of interference, and Banks avoids easy answers - the interventions of the Culture may indeed be necessary, and are often effective. But they are also arrogant and culturally solipsistic. What are we justified in doing and when?

It is in these ideas that Banks shines, not in the characters, who are mostly there to be the vehicles through which the concepts are explored. In Look to Windward, he's exploring potent ideas that dovetail with thoughts I've beent hinking, and so it was one I enjoyed more than I have some of the others. 

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