The State of the Art

by Iain M. Banks

Cover image

Publisher: Night Shade
Copyright: 1991
Printing: 2004
ISBN: 1-892389-38-X
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 188

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The State of the Art is a collection of (mostly) SF short stories by Iain M. Banks, two of which are set in the Culture milieu. A few of the stories were originally published without his middle initial, the name that Banks uses for his mainstream fiction. This very nice US edition from Night Shade Books also includes the text of a Usenet post "A Few Notes on the Culture" (which you can also read online).

For me, "A Few Notes on the Culture" was actually the highlight of the book. Banks has admirable restraint in his novels and rarely infodumps, but the downside is that, despite having read several novels in the Culture, some of the basic rules that are obvious to the characters embedded in it and therefore aren't talked about much are hard to discern. There are many delightful details in this substantial essay that appeal to my love of world-building and of RPG sourcebooks, ranging from the implications of a space-based, habitat-based Culture that rarely lives on planets to the way the naming structure works.

This essay also makes explicit the utopian economic system on which the Culture is based, which will not be a surprise to anyone who's paying attention but which, in the novels, is rarely stated quite this baldly. Banks here clearly owns his biases, and my guess is that some who don't share those biases could find their enjoyment of the novels diminished by having them all out on the table. I share most of those biases, but I still think that it's moderately unlikely that they would work out quite as cleanly as Banks here proposes. But there's always the lovely escape clauses that the Culture is not human and, largely unused by this essay, that the AIs are the ones who are actually running the place.

"Road of Skulls": There are these two guys in a cart traveling towards the City on a road paved with the skulls of the former enemies of the Empire. And... well, that's about it, really. A very short story that left me a bit bemused and a bit confused as to what the point was, although it does pull off several abrupt shifts of perspective and plays with the reader's assumptions about what sort of world the story is in. (Perhaps that's the entire point.) The opening bit is a very memorable image. (6)

"A Gift from the Culture": From humorous macabre, the collection moves to directly disturbing. This is one of the two Culture stories in the book, here telling the story of a former Culture citizen who left it because it was arrogant and boring, choosing instead life on a planet with technology only a bit better than ours. Previously female, he decided to be male here, but is still attracted to men. He's also a gambler, in trouble from debts and being forced into using a Culture artifact to perform an assassination. Like a lot of the short fiction here, it's more of a psychological profile than a story; the plot arc is very short, and much of the story is concerned with emotions, background, and decisions. It read to me like a story about alienation and the difficulty of immigration, and the complex love-hate relationship of one person with superior technology and all the superiority that comes with it. I wish there were more story to it, but it's a thoughtful if depressing profile. (6)

"Odd Attachment": And back to humorous macabre. This very short story is a first encounter story from the perspective of the alien, who appears to be some type of intelligent plant. It's a neat and underplayed inversion of a standard SF scene, with a sharply wince-inducing ending. Slight, but with that ending it's hard to forget. (6)

"Descendent": Many of the stories in this collection feel minimalist: they describe a situation, put a character in it, and then explore the reaction with a fairly minimalist plot. This is another in that vein. A man has crashed on some sort of planetoid or small planet, severely injured, with nothing but a technologically advanced suit. The only way to get to safety is to walk across much of the planetoid. Most of the story is a conversation between the man and the AI, falling into hallucinations, mixed descriptions of how badly injured he is and how his body is falling apart.

I didn't like this one the first time through. It was too grim and a bit too vivid in its descriptions. But of all the stories in this book, it's ending has made it the one that's stuck with me the most. I won't give it away, but it's very much Banks, and it's thought-provoking in a slow way that builds over hours and days after one finishes the book. (7)

"Cleaning Up": Alternating serious stories and humorous stories seems to be the general layout, so back to humor. This was possibly my favorite story in the book. An alien factory ship's disposal unit is buggy and ends up depositing items randomly on Earth instead of the intended location on the surface of the sun. They eventually reach the attention of Cesare Borges, head of the Industrial Military Combines Corporation (name doubtless no coincidence), who is an over-the-top caricature of a Cold-War-obsessed US politician. What makes the story is the interplay between Earth's befuddled fiddling with the objects and the bureaucratic shitstorm among the aliens once they discover what's happening. There's a nastily funny ending that plays well into Banks's frequent theme of the difficulties of interaction between radically different levels of technology and humanity's hair-trigger instincts. A bit dated due to the strong Cold War sensibility, but lots of fun. (8)

"Piece": Another situation story (and another serious one). This hardly has a plot: it's instead a couple of stories about an interaction between the first-person narrator and religious true believers, the first a fundamentalist Christian and the second a Muslim offended by The Satanic Verses. All the wait of the story is born by the last paragraph. It's moderately effective, but I think it's heavy-handed and more of a polemic than a presentation that would convince anyone of anything. (6)

"The State of the Art": This long novella is the centerpiece of the book, and also the definitive confirmation that the Culture is not far-future humanity (which I suspect is most people's default assumption when they start reading the series). It's the story of a Culture Contact mission to Earth in the mid 1970s, and it's narrated by Diziet Sma, the Special Circumstances agent from Use of Weapons (but taking place before she moved from general Contact to Special Circumstances).

Although the longest, this too doesn't have a great deal of plot. There is story movement of some sort, primarily the debate over whether to attempt to intervene on Earth (particularly to prevent a war of mutual annihilation, but it touches on various other problems as well). There's also a plot arc concerning a member of the mission who has decided, after time embedded on Earth, that he wants to stay on Earth, and is having various Culture enhancements and abilities surgically removed to fit in. But neither of these arcs have much forward force. Instead, the story serves to illustrate the laziness of the Culture that Banks describes in "A Few Notes on the Culture." They have long-range plans, but they're confident in getting there eventually, they take a long view, and (outside of Special Circumstances, at least), they don't usually get that worried about anything (for good reason). It also raises some questions about whether the Culture is stagnant, or if there is some additional appeal in a dynamic, if dangerous, world like Earth.

I think it's telling that this story opens with Diziet living, not in the Culture, but on an uncontacted stage three-four planet outside the Culture. This seems like a quiet, understated response to the question in the story about the relative merits of the Culture and of non-Culture worlds.

It's a slow and somewhat meandering story, but an interesting one, one that gains more depth the more one thinks about it and mulls it over. It also provides some additional reinforcement of the degree that the Minds actually run the Culture. And it closes with a really lovely image. (7)

"Scratch": A sort of stream-of-consciousness dump of popular culture. It presumably has some organizing principle, but it wasn't obvious and figuring out this sort of thing is not something I find fun. Not my thing. (2)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-09-06

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21