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Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks

There's an old Sysan saying that the soup of life
is salty enough without adding tears to it.
I get the odd urge to revisit Iain M. Banks now and then, and after it's all over I wonder whether it'll happen again, having sated my appetite for feeling a bit dim. For nothing makes me feel stupid like a world that is intricately crafted, exhaustively described, but of which I have only an abstract perception, a vague silvery blur against the midnight black of empty space. Look To Windward is set on an orbital, a looped strip of world surrounding a hub in which dwells the Culture AI which created and curates the terrain, rivers, cities and lives of the population of millions (or billions) which live thereon. And it's under threat from a revengeful species with catastrophic justice in mind.

As a concept goes, the Masaq' Orbital has a touch of genius about it, a whimsical playground for a bored civilization, where the terra is formed for the maximum visceral excitement (or homely comforts) of the inhabitants, a place acknowledged to be at threat from the proximity of an unstable star but kept in situ for the sheer hell of it anyway, a structure managed by one AI mind able to hold millions of conversations at the same time whilst still performing countless tasks and making important decisions flawlessly. It's also so big I can't wrap my brain around it. Each description of distance and scope puts me right off, and there are many, many of them. Likewise the strange ancient gas spheres inhabited by eons-old creatures, half plant and half animal, riding convection currents and easily irritated by communication devices - these are unimaginable places, literally, and I wish I had the time and expertise to go back and take each mention of size and compare it to the next to see if Banks is just making this shit up as he goes along (or not - I suspect not, but still, to make the reader think he can hold these dimensions and descriptions in his brain is to invite disbelief).

Having said all that, this book, famously the one where the Culture 'does a Vietnam' and makes a gargantuan mistake in messing with the politics of another species resulting in a huge and rather messy civil war along lines of caste, is still brilliant. Despite the suspiciously heavy-handed and doomed-to-failure attempt to alter what could have been many millennia of social discrimination on an alien world, we come across an entertaining if slightly depressing consideration of the pros and cons of the ultra liberalism of the Culture, with the suspicion that they might deliberately manufacture a bit of conflict for the sake of entertainment. Other concepts of identity, the permanence (or otherwise) of the soul, survivor's guilt, what happens after death, how to cope with loss (and the conclusion that, no, becoming the vessel of karmic justice is not a good idea), and interestingly, some conversations about music which I've not noticed before in a Banks novel (although I may not have been looking all that hard as I was likely in a sulk because of envy), all combine to create a slow-burner of inter-species intrigue with a fun if vaguely predictable and unsatisfying ending. It's intricately plotted, carries all the hubristic auguries of far future science fiction (the best kind of auguries), and the characters are his usual panoply of archetypes, with interestingly furred or feathered bodies and additional and surprising limbs etc. The Culture ships names are as amusing as ever and under the hubris and horror gurgles a gentle stream of comedy. Dull, disconcerting travelogue-like descriptions of the willful grandeur of Banks' creations aside, it is, genuinely, an awesome novel which makes me feel tiny, in many senses of the word.

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Apochryphal Tales by Karel Čapek

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