Epigraphs & Poems in SF novels: (1) Iain M. Banks’ “Look to Windward” (c) 2000; and (2) Kim Robinson Stanley’s “The Years of Rice and Salt” (c) 2002.

Epigraphs & Poems in SF novels

 The SF novel “Look to Windward” by Scottish writer Iain M. Banks (1954 – 2013) takes its title from a line in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”. The novel’s dedication reads: “For the Gulf War Veterans”.

The space opera novel was one of a series based on galactic civilizations. The Culture is an egalitarian civilization; it is the more technologically advanced, powerful and influential one in the galaxy.

“Look to Windward” is about the consequences of two wars: the Idiran-Culture War; and the Chelgrian civil war, an unforeseen consequence of the Culture’s involvement in Chelgrian politics and caste system.

A very brief synopsis of an epic tale:

At the end of the novel, two deaths occur.  Major Quilan, a Chelgrian, wishes to die after the loss of his wife, Major Worosie, in the Chelgrian civil war.

The Culture’s Hub Mind is in deep mourning. It cannot bear any longer  the centuries of memories of the Idiran-Culture war, when gigabillions of worlds and life forms perished.

The Hub Mind plans to cease existing. It has already given over the running of the Culture civilization to other Minds. Neither The Hub Mind nor Quilan wish to have their memories or personalities stored in “Soul-Keeper” devices. Neither wishes to be restored after their deaths.

The Mind and Quilan die together. The moment of their death coincides with the end of a majestic symphony, commissioned by the Mind; and conducted by the great Chelgrian composer Mahrai Ziller, to commemorate the billions of lives lost and the Twin Novae Battle at the end of the Idiran-Culture war.

Epigraph & Title from the poem “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot
(1922 edition;  the poem is in the public domain — see notes*).

“Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once tall and handsome as you.”
— from “The Waste Land, IV. Death by Water”.


“The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson is an alternate history SF novel. The novel is an epic tale of the world after virtually all of the people in Europe die as a result of the plague. The story covers many centuries, from the early 1400s to 2002 AD, and is told in the form of ten books.

The novel is rich in detail, as it follows the political, religious, social and scientific developments in different times and places. The people that dominate this alternate history are the Chinese, the Buddhists, the Muslims, and the Indians, and there are fascinating stories interwoven within this of the North and South American peoples.

A group of individuals connect the times and places, through reincarnation of their souls. (I’m planning to write more about the novel later).

Kim Stanley Robinson sets the background and tone of his alternate history with an epigraph from “Journey to the West”, a Chinese novel written by Wu Cheng’en in the 16th century (during the Ming dynasty). It is one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature, and is the story of the legendary pilgrim, the Buddhist monk Xuanzang who travels to the “Western Regions” (Central Asia and India), and returns with the Buddhist sacred texts. It is also a story of a journey of  enlightenment.

A popular English-language translation of “Journey to the West” is “Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China” by Arthur Waley, published in 1942.
( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monkey_(novel))



The complete verse “IV. Death by Water” from “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot

“PHLEBAS the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”

Sources and Credit




Arthur Waley (1889 –1966) was an English scholar, an Orientalist and sinologist. His translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry achieved both popular and scholarly acclaim. He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1953, among other honors.


For  previous posts related to the above two SF novels, see:

“Souls” in SF & Fantasy: “Soul Keepers; Soul-Smokers; Alchemists & Stones; Soul Avatars….”

Update: reading continues; blogging – fewer postings.



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