1970s Earth. The political situation is fraught, the music scene is humming, and out in space hangs the GCU Arbitrary and its motley crew of humans. Diziet Sma wants to make contact. Linter has gone native and is trying to escape the Arbitrary entirely. And Li wants to blow the place up…

Book cover: The State of the Art - Iain M Banks (abstract yellow textured surfaces)

The State of the Art is the eponymous novella that makes up the bulk of this slim collection of short stories, not all of which are set in the Culture. I skipped most of the non-Culture stories as they weren’t doing anything for me.

Sadly, I can’t say that I’m a fan of Banks’s short form. Even the Culture shorts felt very different to the novels, as if Banks was hyperconscious of his word count and of the points he wished to make, leaving me feeling force fed messages. While The State of the Art should have been a joy – Earth through the eyes of Contact! – it ended up feeling more like a writing challenge: ‘what would the Culture make of Earth?‘ or ‘explain just how your anarcho-libertarian post-scarcity future works, and how Contact and SC fit in given they seem distinctly counterCulture‘.

The result is a lot of political and ethical debate in which unusually flat characters observe Earth for a year from orbit and gracelessly deliver Banks’s point of view on the West and Communism (with the odd straw man argument about whether you can create great Art without pain and tragedy – even a hedonist can have angst, it seems). There’s little in the way of depth or personality, and I found it hard to reconcile this Diziet Sma with the glittering (if underused) Sma of Use of Weapons; here, she’s just a mouth piece.

It works to a point. There are entertaining moments (such as the Arbitrary trying to get Bowie played on a radio phone-in), and Banks’s criticism of the state of the planet (we’ll leave the Art aside) isn’t misplaced. The demolition of a familiar context works well to clarify the ideology and idealism of the Culture itself. The problem with using Earth as a vehicle for the Culture’s disapproval is that we’re nowhere near as bad as other societies illustrated, so it feels a little hyperbolic – Li in particular feels absurdly over the top. But none of the debate actually ring true as conversations, and none of the arguments hit harder because they’re about us.

Preaching aside, I don’t find The State of the Art very satisfying in terms of story – the plot here is Dervley Linter and his desire to become a regular Earthling, but we never get inside his head to really understand his motivations or feel invested in the outcome. Like his colleagues in space, he’s simply demonstrating a principle.

As usual, the machines are the stars of the show – and for all my mixed feelings about The State of the Art, the Arbitrary‘s defence of its actions in that story help the suit’s choices in (the superior) short story Descendant to make more sense.

So how does this volume work in light of the overall sequence? For me, this fits as a pause for breath, delivering the exposition that we’ve been saved from to date. Still, I can see why I’d forgotten this one, and I don’t see me revisiting it. If this was my first experience of Banks, I’d never pick up any of his other work. About the best I can say is that at least it gives regular readers another rare glimpse of life inside Contact – which I always appreciate.

…but it’s a sad day when there’s only really one story I like (Descendant) in a collection of shorts.

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