I finished reading Iain M. Banks' "Look to Windward" today, and I'm left puzzled by the side story involving Uagen Zlepe, a culture scientist.

In short, he discovers the Chelgrian plot from a dying Special Circumstances agent, but at the very end of the book it's revealed that he was killed by a Chelgrian before he could do anything with the information. He's then resurrected tens of thousands of years later.

Usually when Banks includes subplots like this, it either ties into the story as a whole near the end, or at least serves to illustrate the scale or severity of something else that's going on in the story. A decent amount of the book is devoted to Uagen Zlepe's studies of the Behemothaur Yoleus, and the conclusion to his story takes place after the main plot threads of the book are wrapped up, which I'd interpret as giving his fate a certain weight.

What was the purpose of this subplot? To be more specific, I'd be interested in:

  • Ways Uagen Zlepe's story added to or furthered the main plot that I might have missed.
  • Ways it may have served as a narrative device, such as introducing concepts or locations that were needed later.
  • Possibly interviews or comments by Banks himself regarding the subplot, if such a thing exists.
  • @Valorum That's actually not something I'd thought of, given that I was focused on his actual death happening at the end. It could very well be the reason! Sep 6, 2017 at 18:11
  • 3
    For the record, Zlepe's body is found several hundred million years later.
    – Valorum
    Sep 15, 2017 at 9:33

5 Answers 5


Zlepe's story (and death) sets up the ultimate twist, that the one who informed the Culture of the plot to destroy the Hub wasn't Zlepe but was in fact...

...Huyler, inside Quilan's head.

"They showed me all there was to be shown about my society and theirs and, in the end, I preferred theirs. Essentially I became a Culture citizen and at the same time an agent of Special Circumstances, which is the uncharacteristically coy name they employ for their combined intelligence, espionage and counter-espionage organization."

We're told that the Hub knew of the plan before Quilan's arrival.

~ How long have you known? he [Quilan] asked.
~ I have known since a day before you arrived. I can’t speak for Special Circumstances.

But on the very next page we learn that Zlepe failed in his mission to inform them(!)

Failed. Failed to get back. Failed to warn. Failed to be the hero. It was not supposed to end this way, dying a lonely, painful death, conscious only of betrayal, fear and hopelessness.

So who told them? How the heck did they find out? We find that out in the epilogue;

I [Huyler] went along with everything else to keep Masaq’ and its people safe, not to ensure its destruction. I was SC’s insurance policy, their get-out clause, their parachute (I heard many colorful analogies). If I had been told to do so, I would have prevented Quilan from making his Displacements, not taken over and done them for him had he demurred. In the end it was decided that sufficient other safeguards had been put in place for the Displacements to go ahead, with the aim of back-tracking along the attempted wormhole link to discover and even attack the Involveds behind the attack (this failed and to the best of my knowledge it is still not known who those mysterious allies were, though I’m sure SC has its suspicions).


I agree with the above posts re: red herring that distracts suspicion from Huyler.

Also, it adds a dimension of wonder and whimsy because his inclusion facilitated the exploration of the megalithine life forms. This adds to the Culture universe and to the book I think.

Also, it allows the reader to get a glimpse into the far future of the Culture because the Future Yoleus mentions “he comes from the society that used to be called the Culture”, indicating the Culture is still around and has also evolved.

  • 1
    Hi, welcome to SF&F! You should take the tour! Posting that you agree isn't a good answer, but your other points suggest that you have the beginnings of a good answer exploring Zlepe's story as a narrative device to enrich and expand the story universe. Perhaps you could add a bit more to those, referencing specific parts of the book. Maybe show how Zlepe's point of view is used to describe explore the megalithine entities?
    – DavidW
    Apr 1, 2019 at 15:28

I am going to add one point I have not seen mentioned. The contrast of deaths and the use of Culture citizens by Special Circumstances and Contact. Uangen is a device that shows that the citizens were involved and active in the direction the Culture took with its diplomacy.

The way Uagen died was in direct contrast to the death of the fellow on the barge. One surrounded by friends and really fulfilled and un-necessary and having a reason for resurrection being a sport team win that was not going to happen for "millions of years" and really the opposite Uagen died only seeing hateful eyes and unfinished. But he was resurrected and then presumably able to finish his life's work.

Both persons were "used" or needed by Contact and SC to further a plan to manipulate the Chel - both lives were important because they support the idea that life is about exploration and discovery and ultimately serving the community by rooting out cheaters - how our Intelligence evolved or our ultimate reason for living. Both wanted to serve and expected to be served and expected to use the wealth of the Culture to provide for themselves but also regardless of their own wishes they are being "used".


I believe is it was mainly a narrative device. I'm guessing Banks had a great idea for an exotic habitat that was remote, as needed for the plot,

ie, hiding the activities of the Chelgrians within Sansemin

but he couldn't just spring it on you for that use. It was much easier to explain the habitat ahead of time, so when its use came up you already had your bearings. And that explaining gave him a chance to fully flesh out that wonderful and unique idea. This is something I really like about his books.

However, I wasn't satisfied with the resolution.

It is too implausible for Huyler to be planted as the insurance policy: "I was turned by the Culture while I was still in the substrate in the Institute on Aorme." In retrospect (the point of view one has since this is revealed in the Epilogue) it felt like a stretch for SC to (1) know it would be useful enough to take the effort to turn him, (2) insure he was recovered, (3) insure he was chosen to be implanted in Quinlan. I would have been much happier if Uagen had been the one to provide the intelligence. It would have given SC a much needed dose of imperfection. And it would have fit better with the "Closure" of SC punishing the Chelgrians after the fact.


The sub-plot of Uagen Zlepe, a scholar, is conducive to the dramatic tension of which is revealed the presence of an assassin, identity of which it is unable to be determined at this point in the novel. Of which tension is derivative of suspicions relating to probability of such an identity being equivalent to Tibilo Quilan, a Chelgrian emissary or other character of which revelation has not been made.

Further investigation into textual representation of Uagen Zlepe, a scholar, facilitates comparison and contrast between psycho-emotional response of Uagen Zlepe, a scholar, upon discovery of threat to Culture, a motherland, to relational states of other characters with concern to homelands of which it is respective to such individuals. Example being antipathy of Mahrai Ziller, a composer, to home society of which it is an origin. The conclusion of which it is that purpose of inclusion for Uagen Zlepe, a scholar, into story is to be ascertained of literary merit and significances of which the nature is thematic to the novel.

  • 2
    I'm pretty sure I already said that...
    – Valorum
    Jul 20, 2018 at 14:42
  • @Valorum checks...yup. Pretty much.
    – JohnP
    Jul 20, 2018 at 14:54

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