Friday, 3 October 2003

Iain M. Banks: The State of the Art (1991)

Edition: Orbit, 1991
Review number: 1186

The State of the Art is unique in Banks' output in being a collection of short stories. It contains seven short stories, previously published in magazines and anthologies, alongside the novella The State of the Art which had appeared in the States but not in the UK. The book really falls into two parts: the Culture stories (the long novella and two others) and the rest. To deal with the latter first, these stories are basically parodies of some of the basic clich├ęs of the science fiction genre (first contact stories, for example) or fairly heavy handed social commentary. The parodies are heavily indebted to American giants of the short story form, such as Fredric Brown, while the other stories lean heavily on the shoulders of the British New Wave, particularly Michael Moorcock. In neither case does Banks really match the quality of those whose work he draws on. The best of each group are Odd Attachments, about an alien shepherd whose disappointing love life proves disastrous for a human astronaut, and Piece, about the fight between rational and irrational thought in eighties culture.

One of the Culture stories, Descendant, is really in the same vein as the non-Culture tales; it is only incidentally set in the same milieu as Banks' science fiction novels. A Gift from the Culture and The State of the Art pick up on one of the novels' major themes, the way that the Culture reacts to other civilizations. The State of the Art describes a Contact survey of the Earth in 1977 (Contact being the part of the Culture which deals with external relations), with the aim of deciding whether the galactic civilisation should reveal itself to us or not. This isn't a particularly new science fiction idea, but the decision of one of the surveyors to remain on Earth whatever is decided makes it an interesting exploration of the theme.

I found A Gift From the Culture to be the most effective of these stories. A former Culture citizen is blackmailed into performing an act of terrorism. It has a deeper exposition of character than is usually managed in a short story; Wrobik's life seems a mess but he (and Banks manages something unusual with the gender; born female but changing sex as is quite normal in the Culture, Wrobik is made quite a feminine man) doesn't really want to change it. This reluctance is epitomised by his relationship with a faithless dancer. He is a misfit now, and presumably was always one even in the anarchistic Culture, and this is what it makes it possible to manipulate him into the act of violence he is desperately keen to avoid.

The general impression given by The State of the Art is that Banks is a novelist dabbling in short story writing, an impression which is strengthened by the small number of short stories he has produced in his career. The collection is worth reading, but in the end is likely to appeal more or less exclusively to fans of the author's novels.

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