The State of the Art is a collection of short fiction by Iain Banks written between’84 and ’87. Surprisingly, it is the only such collection the author has published. Given Banks’ fourteen mainstream novels and twelve sci-fi novels, one would expect a much larger output of short stories and novellas. Continuing to defy expectation, all the stories in the collection (save one) are science fiction—the genre for which he is less known. The following is a brief summary of the eight stories (three of which are Culture related).
“Road of Skulls” – Not a story in any conventional sense, the collection opens with the bickering of Mc9 and a companion whose name “he’d never bothered to find out” while they sit on the back of a cart being pulled over a road paved with enemy skulls. A short, macabre tribute to storytelling.
“A Gift from the Culture” - Wrobik Sennkil, recently detached from the Culture and attempting to start a mortal life, is forced to undertake a small mission by a gang of thugs. The story oozing neon detective noir in Blade Runner fashion, Banks appears to have been experimenting with style rather than producing a worthwhile addition to the Culture universe—the abrupt ending creating this feel.
“Odd Attachment” – Perhaps the strangest (and most immature) story of first contact in the history of sci-fi, human biology has never been viewed from this perspective before. May briefly amuse, but no more.
“Descendant” – A man stranded on a barren planet deals with isolation in the sentient space suit he wears. Not a great story, but certainly one of the best in this collection.
“Cleaning Up” – Credence Clearwater Revival sang “It Came Out of the Sky” and Iain Banks wrote the story. Complete with a “Jody” and a tractor, the story drips with sarcasm pointed directly at American politics. The fun side of Banks, it will draw an occasional smile, but serves as nothing more than a rant.
“Piece” – A slightly less-than-fictional bit of commentary on religion, it’s the odd man out in the collection by not being sci-fi.
The State of the Art (novella) – The Culture makes contact with Earth circa 1977 and sends agents, including Dizet and Linet, to observe its cultures for real-time analytic purposes. What results is a Brave New World-esque contrast of social concerns that asks the question: is it better to live out a human life with all its pain and sorrows, or a post-human existence, any desire only a thought away?
The State of the Art is Banks’ first written foray into the Culture (I think). Content of a different tone than the novels in the series that would follow, thematic exposition is far more overt. The discussion on religion, philosophy, politics, and culture is communicated in less than subtle tones, and ultimately feels like a vehicle for Banks to express his views, that is, rather than a chance to imagine all kinds of cool tech. More realist than even Inversions, this novella comes recommended only for those interested in reading about the contrasts between Culture and modern Earth life, and, perhaps very possibly, the ideological roots underpinning the Culture as a literary phenomenon.
“Scratch” – Highly reminiscent of Brunner’s “The Happening World” sections of Stand onZanzibar, this odd text samples bits and pieces of the future. Magazine ads, conversations, product descriptions, etc. find Banks experimenting with language rather than telling a tale.
In the end, The State of the Art is not a shining example of Banks’ science or short fiction. In fact, given its eclectic, back-of-the-drawer feel and 1991 publishing date, it seems Orbit were trying to cash in on the success of ConsiderPhlebas, The Player of Games, and Use of Weapons rather than make available the breadcrumbs leading to the prize like Arbor House did with William Gibson’s Burning Chrome. The difference in quality and style large among the stories, one of them does feel like a serious effort (“Descendant”), however, the remainder seem just a laugh (“Road of Skulls”, “Odd Attachment”, and “Cleaning Up”), experimentation (“A Gift from the Culture” and “Scratch”), or a platform for Banks to express his opinions regarding modern civilization (“Piece” and the titular novella). Though the author’s wit is present in spades, no piece (save “A Gift from the Culture”) contains the storytelling of any Culture novel, and as a result, this collection is recommended only for those interested in seeing a different side to Banks’ sci-fi stylings, or, the ideological roots of the Culture as found in the titular novella.
Note: Some versions of the publication also contain an essay entitled “Notes on the Culture” in which Banks breaks down the background “demographics” of his far-future sublimed.