Book Review: The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks
I read the first three novels in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series quite a while ago, I enjoyed the books and particularly enjoyed The Player of Games but for some reason I never got round to reading any further. Reading The Little Red Reviewers thoughts on Look to Winward got me in the mood for more Culture stories though so I decided to pick up where I left off with the fourth book in the series.
The State of the Art is a collection of short stories and a novella, not all of them are Culture stories and not all are science fiction. I found stories like Road of Skulls and Odd Attachment too short to really be satisfying. The second story A Gift from the Culture is the first great story of the collection. A citizen who has left the Culture get’s themselves into a bad situation and has to do something which would be considered terrible within the Culture. Here we see the Cultures attitude towards weapons and get a taste of how manipulative they can be.
My favourite story is Descendant, a soldier is left marooned on a planet after a battle with only his suits AI for company. For me this one really exhibits everything that Iain M. Banks does well. It’s a funny story with a quirky AI but is full of real human drama. The next story Cleaning Up is very funny. Workers from an advanced civilisation (it’s never explained if they are from the Culture or not) have accidentally been dumping rubbish on Earth that should have been dropped into the Sun. The US military mistakes this rubbish for gifts from friendly aliens that want to help defeat the Soviets. Like I said the story is very funny, it’s played entirely for laughs and is very entertaining.
Piece is the only story from the collection that isn’t science fiction. A father travelling away from home is writing a letter to his child, he reflects on his opinions on science, religion and fundamentalism. This story comes to a shocking ending and is very affecting. The final short story Scratch on the other hand didn’t leave me with much of an impression. It seemed to just be strange for the sake of being strange and I didn’t really see the point.
The novella The State of the Art takes up nearly half the book and uses the space to tell a very absorbing story. A Culture agent is despatched to evaluate Earth for future interference from the Culture. There is also a previous Culture agent who has gone native and wants to stay on Earth. Banks uses the opportunity to poke fun at modern culture and points out how barbaric we would look to a more advanced race. Interestingly I thought that their reaction to what they see here says a lot more about them than than it does us. This story served as a great re-introduction to the Culture as their attitudes and values are fully explored.
Not every story here is a winner but the best ones really show off why Banks is such a popular author. The State of the Art was a nice short read to give me a taste of the Culture again. I’m definitely not going to leave it too long before reading the next in the series as I’m looking forward to reading a longer story set in this universe.