Iain M. Banks’ Look to Windward is unusual as a Culture novel in that nothing much happens. It’s also unusual as a novel in that I still really, really like it; in fact, it’s my favorite of the series to date.
In the near past, one of the Culture’s rare mistakes resulted a vicious civil war among the Chelgrians. In the far past, two stars were destroyed by the Culture in the war chronicled in Consider Phlebas. The responsible Mind now runs an Orbital, to which two things are headed: the light from the stars’ destruction, and a Chelgrian emissary with the stated mission of persuading a political dissident to return to Chel. As the Chelgrians tour the Orbital, the emissary’s backstory is gradually revealed. And (with the exception of a minor side thread) that’s pretty much it, at least in terms of plot.
Thematically, the book is about ways of approaching loss, dying, and death. As it showcases different approaches, it’s grounded by the ever-present, painfully beautiful love of the emissary for his wife, killed in the civil war. The elegiac quality of this thread is what makes the book a coherent and moving whole for me. This is not to say that it’s all about grief or that the net effect is crushingly depressing—this is the book that contains silliness such as a two-page conversation conducted solely in Culture ship names—and while I’m not sure how the book manages that bittersweet balance, I’m terribly impressed by it.
I have no idea if this would be a good place to start reading the Culture books. It’s the book most about the Culture proper since Excession, and yet it’s not exactly representative of the series. On the other hand, if you’re only going to read one Culture novel, it might as well be the best, so if this description sounds interesting, go ahead, and be sure to let me know what you think.