Iain Banks was born in Scotland in 1954 and published his first book - "The Wasp Factory" - in 1984. He has since divided his writing career between writing 'standard' fiction - as Iain Banks - and Science Fiction, as Iain M. Banks. "Look to Windward" was first published in 2000, and was the sixth of his Sci-Fi books to feature the Culture.
The Culture is a symbiotic society - part humanoid and part artificial intelligence. The artificial intelligence element to the Culture can be sub-divided into two parts - Drones and Minds. For the most part, a Drone's intelligence will be roughly similar to a humanoids. Minds, on the other hand, are significantly more powerful than both humanoids and drones. They tend to act as the controlling intelligence behind, for example, the Culture's ships and Hubs (artificial habitats). Minds are also largely responsible for making decisions at the very highest levels of society - only a very small number of humanoid Referrers would be intelligent enough to join the process.
In the first Sci-Fi book Banks wrote, "Consider Phlebas", the Culture was at war with the Idiran Empire - a war they eventually won, though not without a great loss of life. Although 800 years have now passed, "Look to Windward" could be considered a sequel of sorts. A single battle, towards the end of the Culture - Idiran War, had brought the destruction of two stars. The loss of life was not restricted to the combatants, as both systems had supported life. The light from the first star's destruction has only now reached Masaq, a Culture Orbital. Hub, Masaq's controlling Mind, is observing a period of mourning, between the two supernovae - for reasons that become clear later in the book. However, there have also been hints of a very special occasion to mark the arrival of the light from the second star.
Not all of Masaq's residents are Culture citizens, however. One is Kabe Ischloer, a Homomdan who is accorded the title of Ambassador by those on Masaq. (Kabe is a modest, likeable character and occasionally admits to being a journalist). Physically, Homomdans are similar to the Idirans - three-legged, about three metres tall and glisteningly black. In fact, the Homomdans were allied to the Idirans in the early days of the Culture - Idiran war. Another is Mahrai Ziller, a very famous Chelgrian composer. (Chelgrians are nearly as tall as Homomdans, fast, strong and fur-covered. Having evolved from predators, they also seem to enjoy a fight). Ziller, however, is somewhat atypical for a Chelgrian, and his presence on Masaq is a little more controversial than Kabe's. There had recently been a civil war on Chel, known as the Caste War...and, unfortunately, there had been a certain amount of Culture involvement behind the scenes. However, Ziller found Chel society repulsive - despite belonging to the highest, most privileged caste, he has declared himself Invisible and effectively defects to Masaq.
Ziller isn't the only Chelgrian to appear in the book, though - it also features Quilan, a member of Chel's highest caste and a veteran of the Caste War. He has subsequently take holy orders, and is occasionally referred to as a 'Griefling' - largely because he hasn't been able to come to terms with the death of his wife in the war. However, Quilan is later offered a way to deal conclusively with his sense of loss and is sent on a mission to Masaq. Officially, his orders are to persuade Ziller to return home. (Ziller, on the other hand, suspects the Quilan has actually been sent to assassinate him and steadfastly refuses to meet the Major). In truth, Quilan's orders are a little more wide-ranging...and, thanks to his SoulKeeper, he isn't even travelling alone.
Before I'd picked up "Consider Phlebas", it had been a long time since I'd read any Sci-Fi - the main reason I picked it up was of how highly I rate Banks' 'standard' fiction. While it was easily good enough to convince me that it might be worth reading more of the Culture books, "Look to Windward" has convinced me to work my way through the entire series. With Banks, things aren't entirely straightforward : the Culture might be the good guys, and they may mean well, but they aren't entirely pure and flawless. Quilan, on the other hand, should probably be considered one of the main villains - yet he proves a likeable character, and it's hard not to sympathise with him at times. It would have been nice to have seen Uagen Zlepe's story a bit more fully told, but that's about the book's only flaw for me - and it's a minor gripe at that. Excellent stuff, highly recommended.