Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The State of the Art [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Iain M Banks, book 4 in The Culture series. (n.b. there is a new paperback edition, due April 2024 [Amazon, Bookshop, Libro.fm, Publisher, Local Library]).
The jacket copy boasts that The State of the Art is “the only collection of Iain Banks’ short fiction,” and it appears that it does account for most of the short fiction that he ever published. Three of the eight stories, including the novella that makes up about half of the eponymous book, are explicitly Culture tales, and several of the others seem to sit comfortably in the Culture’s universe. It is thus figured as the fourth book of the Culture series, and I read it as such.
The novella brings the Culture’s exploratory agency Contact to 1970s Earth, thus linking Banks’ science fiction to the hardly sfnal “Piece”–a meditation on censorship and violence with an arch irony–and to the quite terrestrial prose poem “Scratch.” The narrator of “The State of the Art” is even Diziet Sma, the Special Circumstances operative from Use of Weapons.
I had wondered before about the genealogical relationship of the Culture’s posthumans to our own population. Banks clearly implies that we are a not-especially-remarkable instance of a galactically ubiquitous pan-humanity, products of parallel evolution it appears. The differences between the Culture’s phenotype and ours are briefly described in what Sma needs in order to pass for Earth-human: “I got a couple of extra toes, a joint removed from each finger, and a rather generalized ear, nose, and cheekbone job. The ship insisted on teaching me to walk differently as well” (106-7).
The story “Cleaning Up” involved an extraterrestrial influence that was almost certainly not the Culture. It seemed like Banks’ take on the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic, playing up the comical elements of that work. The comedy in all of these stories tends towards the decidedly dark.
There is a full-page illustration by Nick Day for the frontispiece and one for each story. These are all in black-and-white and seem to be linocuts. The style is more diagrammatic than representational. By refusing to offer more eidetic images, these made me conscious of their lack in the larger Culture corpus, where the cover art tends to be abstract and symbolic. A quick ‘net search for art depicting the Culture revealed that just last week saw the posthumous publication of The Culture: The Drawings reproducing Banks’ own diagrams and sketches of Culture environments and technology.
Despite The State of the Art being a quick read, I think I’ll likely take a breather from the Culture for a little while, since I don’t have a copy of Excession, and I am also engaged with a couple of other series that seem to have more urgent plot continuity between volumes.