Despite the passage of time, Major Quilan still suffers grief and bereavement from the death of his wife, killed during the Chelgrian civil war when both were soldiers. Offered the chance to avenge the Chel, Quilan is inducted into a plot to strike back at the Culture. To guide him on the way, the mind of a long-dead Chelgrian general is emplaced into his 'soulkeeper', a device normally used to protect and store its owner's personality in case of death. His memory selectively blanked until he reaches his target, Quilan is then sent to Masaq Orbital ostensibly to persuade Ziller to return to his native Chel.
On Masaq, Ziller lives in self-imposed exile, having renounced his privileged position in Chel's caste system. An accomplished composer, he has been commissioned to compose music to mark the anniversary of the Idiran-Culture War. Upon hearing of Quilan's visit, and his reason for travel, Ziller scrupulously avoids him, reluctant to return to a civilisation that repels him.
Meanwhile, the GSV Lasting Damage, now the Mind controlling Masaq Orbital, assists Ziller in the preparations for the performance of his composition. However, it has its own secrets stretching back to the Idiran-Culture War, and wrestles with its own demons over its role then.
The end of the novel shows the hard and vengeful side to the Culture, as they unleash a bloody retribution against the Chelgrian priest who was responsible in the form of an E-Dust Assassin. It is hinted that the terrorist attack might have been masterminded by another Involved race, or even by elements of the Culture; Minds who feel that the Culture has gone soft and needs a wake-up call. An epilogue set hundreds of millions of years (approximately one Galactic year) after the events in the novel hints at the (extreme) long-term fate of the Culture.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
There are references to the Culture novel immediately previous to this one, Excession, where the GCU Grey Area is referred to, and is also possible that Estray Lassils (in her younger, four-armed days) was one of the lovers of the Ah-Forget-It-Tendency SC Agent Leffid Ispanteli, thus placing the events of this novel fully 200-300 years in the immediate past.
This book deals with the themes of exile, bereavement, religious justification of mass violence against humanity/sentience in war, and the mores associated with life within a technologically and energetically unlimited anarchist utopia. The book also notably deals with the Sublimed and with their construction of a heaven.
Many contemporary literary journals reviewed Look to Windward favourably, and critics consider the author as one of the prime motivators for the return to the mainstream of contemporary UK fiction and science fiction. The book's dedication reads: "For the Gulf War Veterans".