Some of these works feel like ideas from a writer’s notebook that would go on to form the basis of a fully fledged novel or part of a greater story. Each is of interest to anybody following the Culture series as they provide an excellent background to the Culture and the early work of Iain M Banks, though none are essential to the understanding and reading of the main Culture novels in my view. As many are shorts – or cuttings – they just end, so there is no satisfactory dénouement as you’d get with even a short story. The reading by Peter Kenny (audiobook) is excellent and serves to bring these to life.
A Short Story Collection by by Iain M Banks.
The State of the Art is a series of short stories written by Iain M Banks over a period of time. It’s not specifically chronological to the Culture series of novels, though is placed between Use of Weapons (Book 3) and Excession (Book 5) as a result of its publication date of 1991 but collects works from 1987 to 1989. The book contains the following stories – some very short, and some in longer form.
- Road of Skulls
- A Gift from the Culture
- Odd Attachment
- Cleaning Up
- The State of the Art
- Road of Skulls: The story of Mc9 and his companion travelling on a horse-drawn chariot along the titular Road of Skulls. Very short and essentially a risible discourse between two characters following in the wake of the Megalopolis that generates the skulls. Or is it? The ending is a massive twist.
- A Gift from the Culture: This tale is about a Culture citizen who chooses to go native and live on a planet with the threat of the criminal underworld forcing him to do a very dirty mission in order to clear his gambling debts. This sets up the interplay of Special Circumstances, Contact, the Culture and the possible tendrils that operate to reach out and influence civilizations, though spends much of the time in the head of the Culture person agonising about the moral choice of being forced to kill to save the life of their lover. It felt a little laboured, but a complete story.
- Odd Attachment: A humorous piece taken from the view of an alien – an intelligent plant tending for its flock of local fauna – when a spaceman drops in from out of the sky and tries to make contact. As the tale proceeds, the spaceman quickly gets out of his depth and ends up … well … you’ll have to read this one. Short, dark, slightly disturbed, but highly observational.
- Descendant: I have not read The Martian, but this tale reminded me of the isolation a fallen astronaut would face if they crashed on a barren planet. Nice twist with the smart-suit which later featured in other Culture situations. Again, felt a little long but vividly painted the scene.
- Cleaning Up: A fun piece taken from the point of view of Earth and their accidental receipt of ‘items’ from the Culture. Set in the 70s when the Cold War was at its height, this is observational about the arms race and humanity. It feels odd being a Culture novel as much of the time is spent with the Earthlings and the two are so different that they don’t seem to sit well together. I put this one down as one of those “what if” ideas that stays just that.
- Piece: I think this should be called “Peace.” A poignant and ever-relevant introspection about belief, morality, science and extremism (from two major religious ideologies). Not a Culture piece, but a Banksian point of view.
- The State of the Art: The novella that forms the bulk of the work. It is a first contact scenario that introduces us to characters who ‘later’ appear in Use of Weapons (Book 3). This novella principally concerns itself with the debate over humanity and whether an ultra-advanced alien species would actually contact us. A lot of it is about what we do, how we do it, why we do it and feels more social commentary with a splash of judgement thrown in. Overall, there is little plot in the traditional sense, but the differing viewpoints ranging from ‘I’m going native as their existence is more interesting than the Culture’, to ‘We should contact them and help them improve their lives’, to ‘we should leave them to it’, to ‘we should drop a micro-black hole into the planet and save the universe the tragedy of the species’ are well debated. I preferred the time spent on the GCU Arbitrary over much of the planet-side musings but that’s just me.
- Scratch: Somebody found a data capsule of the record of Earth’s human history, sadly damaged (scratched) so the record skips about all the time. Tricky to follow at a pace with the audio, but on a straight listen it makes sense and is somewhat sad. Innovative.