the Little Red Reviewer

The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks

Posted on: May 14, 2013

129131The State of the Art (short story collection) by Iain M. Banks

published in 2007

where I got it: gift from a friend

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Iain Banks’ Culture novels were love at first page for me. I didn’t mind being thrown far into the deep end, I was amused by the silly names and dry humor, I adored the drones and the Minds. Succinctly, I love me some Culture books.

But. . . . they are long, and tough to get into, and being tossed in the deep end isn’t for everyone. The State of The Art isn’t entirely Culture short stories, but it’s enough to give someone an easily survivable introduction to The Culture universe and Banks’ writing style. Even better, there’s an entire chapter A Few Notes On The Culture, which is quite a bit more than a few and gives even more indepth info, including what someone can expect if they live in The Culture (and where they’ll live), body modifications, life span, interactions with other civilizations, why everyone has such a long name, and the reason why most Culture novels take place on the edge of their sphere of influence. In fact, I wish I’d read that portion first, even though it’s at the end of the book.  Also, Banks insists on making it very clear that The Culture is completely fictional.  Pretty telling that this is the 2nd scifi book in a row where the author felt the need to do that.

Short enough to be read in a  few sittings, the first story, Road of Skulls, serves as a wry introduction and so should be read first, but other than that you can bounce around and read the rest in any order you please.

here are my thoughts on some of the entries:

The State of the Art – Featuring one of my favorite Culture characters, Diziet Sma, The Culture discovers Earth, circa 1978, and they are trying to decide if they should make contact with us or not. Along with other Culture people who can blend in and look human, Sma and her counterpart Linter are sent to Earth for one year to observe us. Linter goes missing and Sma is sent after him. Has he gone native? Did he fall in love with an Earthling and doesn’t want to leave? What could possibly make an Earth life more attractive to Linter than living in The Culture, where everyone has everything they could possibly want?

 It’s not a spoiler to tell you that she does eventually track him down, because that’s not the point of the story.   There’s some great bits near the end where a minor character on the ship decides to run for captain and insists that everyone vote for him, and the Drone doing the translation has some choice opinions on Sma’s situation, but over all, The State of the Art wasn’t my favorite in the collection.   I’m saddened to report that most of this novella dragged and dragged for me. I found myself interested, but not really caring about what happens. However, I bet that when I reread this collection in a few years, I’ll feel the opposite.

A Gift From the Culture – Wrobik left the Culture years ago (that’s one of the great things about the Culture, you can leave if you want, and no one will stop you), and has been living a quiet life in Vreccis City. Wrobik doesn’t care that some people think or know that he’s an alien, he just keeps the totality of those secrets to himself, who he was, what he could do. He renounced the Culture out of boredom, who wants to life the safe, easy, sterile life all the time?   Blackmailed into using a weapon only he can use, Wrobik has to decide how much and how far he’s truly left The Culture behind. He’s renounced them, but is he capable of taking steps to destroy them?

Descendent – I don’t think this is a Culture story, but there’s some pretty high tech AI, so it could be. An unnamed person falls in an environment suit falls to the planet’s surface, but due to an error, he lands nearly on the other side of the planet from where the Base is. Much of the suit’s technology is still intact, protecting the man from the hostile environment and helping him walk. But he is ill and injured, so it’s up to the suit to keep the man’s spirits up and convince him they can both survive walking all the way to the Base.  Told mostly from the man’s POV, I was surprised at the emotional reaction I had to this story.  Why should an AI suit give a shit if a humanoid dies?  All that extra work? What’s in it for the suit? For a simple conversation between a person and an AI suit, it was shockingly evocative. I remember having a similar reaction to the “under the surface of Mercury” scene in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312.  I wasn’t sure if one of the characters was going to make it, and the more that person’s illness progressed in more painful ways, the way the word “death” was purposely avoided in that book and here, the more anxious I became.

Cleaning Up – Culture novels certainly aren’t comedies, but damn does Banks have one helluva sense of humor!  Most durable goods in The Culture are made on fully automated manufacturing stations and items that don’t meet the strictest of quality control standards are tossed into the nearest star via aimed transporter.  Except this time the manufacturing station’s transporter messed up and tossed everything to Earth.  Governments of course fight over the alien technology and become a cargo cult.  Matriapoll of the unpronouncable last name and more importantly of the Third Clean Up Squad discovers the mistake and sends a laugh out loud message to the manufacturing station to fix it’s transporter immediately, lest the pathetic Earthlings think they can weaponize alien fly-swatters, a sewer inspection kit, and a kids swingset, among other useless items.

I hope I’ve convinced you that The State of the Art is a great place to start with Iain Banks. Each story is a completely different style, yet all showcase Banks’ wide ranging imagination, his philosophy of where we are and where we’re going, and his famously dry sense of humor. And Congratulations, you’ll be ready to dive into the world of The Culture, and Banks’ other novels as well. but there’s a dark side to this: all the Banks books that are out there? This is all there will ever be, he will never write another one. I understand that nothing lasts forever, but the “finite-ness” of this is deeply saddening to me. It’s something that moves me.

I have the Night Shade Books edition from 2007, and there are other editions that just contain The State of the Art novella.  Good way to tell which one you’re looking at (provided you’re looking at a physical book) is the thickness. The novella is about 100 pages, the entire collection is about 200 pages.

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13 Responses to "The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks"

You’ve convinced me. I’ve had this book for YEARS. Bought it waaaaay back when Nightshade was doing some special. And it has sat unread for far too long on my shelf. You and a few others have really talked up the Culture books this year and given Ian Banks health situation that too made me take notice of him and want to give his books a try. I’m glad to know that this is such an excellent place to start. When I get home from vacation I will be moving this from downstairs to upstairs on my bedside table. Great review.

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I think you’re really going to like it. the first couple stores are very quick and very easy to get into. And you’ve already got a copy? I was going to offer to lend you mine.

I love that you have “priority spots” (the bedside table). I do the same thing!

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Well, I’ve made my decision already about my starting point for Banks – Consider Phlebas. Now, this may be a good or a bad place to start but I’m going to be stubborn. It’s on my classics list and I’ve even bought the book – so it better believe it’s getting read!
Lynn :D
(Maybe then I’ll move onto this)

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I can’t wait to hear what you think of Consider Phlebas! (shhhh… that one is going to be in my TBR Topple post. it’s been staring at me for a while)

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Don’t you just love the way we all talk about our books as though they’re alive? Makes me giggle – but very quietly because I don’t want the books to hear!
Lynn :D

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wait, what? they’re not alive? cuz they look really hungry when they stare at me like that. ;)

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Very nice treatment of the book, and a great one at that. Also just a good introduction to Bank’s style of writing as well as the Culture, I think. But for me, the real surprise of the review was that amazing book cover! At first I got too excited because I thought it was a John Harris painting, but after looking more closely, I realized it wasn’t him. Had to google it and discovered it was rendered by another fave artist of mine, who I hadn’t seen any work since 1990 or so – Les Edwards. In the process of looking his recent work up, discovered a treasure trove of cool SF inspiration. THANKS!!

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Edwards did do some gorgeous cover art for this, didn’t he? I’m happy this post was a double win for you – great book, and finding new artwork by one of your favorite artists. Things like this make me really love the internet!

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I’ve enjoyed a lot of Les’ work, even the ugly stuff I find quite beautiful (like the schlock horror cover he did for “Pigs!”), and the style caught me off guard completely. And the fact that he’s done a cover for a Banks book. Whooo!

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Sounds interesting. I have been wanting to try out the Culture Series for a while now. Glad for the tip to dabble in this first. :)

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no prob! a friend knew I was getting into Banks, so she gave me a copy of this. I started reading it on a lark, best decision ever!

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I’m sorry, I’ve tried, but… I’m sorry. I really, really didn’t like The State of the Art. To the point that I abandoned it after “Descendent”. Maybe there are some interesting ideas lurking around, but I just don’t like Banks’ writing. I didn’t like it in Matter, I didn’t like it here.

Okay. Getting that off my chest feels good. Now to be told how terribly wrong I am…

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his writing style definitely isn’t for everyone. My husband made it through about 20 pages of Look to Windward and then exclaimed “this is crap, I can’t understand how anyone can read this!”. I was heartbroken. Until I read one of his favorite books, and it was 400 pages of near torture for me!

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