By 1991, the Scottish author Iain M. Banks was very much one of the rising stars of science fiction. He had already published three SF novels: Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), and Use of Weapons (1990). While Banks was solidifying his reputation, his earlier short fiction was not widely available and the collection The State of the Art was published to rectify this.
The collection contains eight stories, all originally published in the brief period between 1987 and 1989. The book could have become a relatively minor part of Banks’ bibliography, but instead it has an important place. This is largely because it contains three short stories concerned with The Culture - the author’s acclaimed post-scarcity SF setting for most of his genre novels. The short stories “A Gift From the Culture” and “Descendant”, as well as the novella “The State of the Art” are therefore essential for anyone interested in that setting.
What follows is a brief overview of all eight stories featured in The State of the Art, which serves as a good, brief introduction to Banks’ work - including the iconic Culture.
“Road of Skulls”
Originally published in 20 Under 35 (1988)
The collection opens with this very short fantasy story, which involves two characters travelling in a cart along a road paved with skulls towards a distant city - which withdraws as quickly as they approach it. This is a slender vignette with next to nothing in the way of plot, but begins the collection in a suitably odd way.
“A Gift From the Culture”
Originally published in Interzone #20, Summer 1987
Banks’ iconic Culture series began with his debut SF novel, Consider Phlebas, in April 1987. “A Gift From the Culture” appeared just a few months later, in the venerable British SF magazine Interzone. The story focuses on Wrobik Sennkil, a citizen of the Culture who has voluntarily exiled himself on a fairly backwards, superficially Earthlike planet. Saddled with debt, Wrobik is strong-armed by a pair of local thugs into committing a devastating terrorist attack using a weapon that only Culture citizens can operate.
Although this is one of the more serious-minded stories in the collection, there is some humour in the Culture gun, which can speak and which tends to explain its own functionality and safety features at length - much to Wrobik’s annoyance. Another interesting aspect of the story is its depiction of sex and gender. Wrobik was originally female, but chose to become a man before his self-exile - also, he is gay and his male lover proves to be his weakness.
“A Gift From the Culture” is a small but fascinating entry in the wider series, and one of several depictions of people living at the fringes of the Culture - but still affected in one way or another by its influence.
Originally published in Arrows of Eros (1989)
Published by New English Library and edited by Alex Stewart, the anthology Arrows of Eros contained 16 “unearthly tales of love and death”. The writers included well-known names like Tanith Lee, Kim Newman, and of course Iain M. Banks. “Odd Attachment” exemplifies the author’s macabre sense of humour. In it, a lovesick plant-like alien encounters a stranded human astronaut and gruesomely dismembers it in a game of “loves me, loves me not”. It is a simple concept, from which Banks wrings a lot of humour in just a few pages.
Originally published in Tales From the Forbidden Planet (1987)
Edited by Roz Kaveney, the anthology Tales From the Forbidden Planet also features Michael Moorcock, Harry Harrison, and a late story by John Brunner. While Banks’ story isn’t explicitly a part of the Culture series, it can easily be argued that it does form a part of that continuity. This is in part because of two bits of technology mentioned in it, orbitals and “knife missiles”.
In any case, “Descendant” focuses on a soldier who becomes cut off from his allies and stranded on a desolate world, a thousand miles from the nearest friendly base. His only lifeline, and only friend, is his severely damaged sentient spacesuit. Together, the pair attempt to walk to the base - but the story documents the soldier’s gradually disintegrating mental and physical state. It is a bleakly effective tale.
Originally published in the souvenir book for Novacon 17 (1987)
Should you have an original copy of “Cleaning Up”, it could be worth a bob or two. In 1987, Banks was the guest of honour at Novacon 17 in Birmingham, and this story was issued there in a limited run of 500 signed copies. Perhaps appropriately for a convention exclusive, this is another of the author’s comical stories. It concerns mysterious “gifts” of incomprehensibly advanced technology which begin appearing on Earth. A greedy corporation and the US military begin to exploit these wonders, not realising that they are parts of an alien trash shipment which was meant to be teleported into our sun. The odd aliens and idiotic humans are equally amusing in this tongue-in-cheek tale.
Originally published in the The Observer Magazine, 13 August 1989
Containing no speculative elements at all, this short story fits with the literary Iain Banks persona, unlike the other entries in the collection. It is intricately concerned with contemporary events. It takes the form of a (fictional) letter, recovered from the wreckage of the plane flying the Pan Am Flight 103 route, which was destroyed in the Lockerbie bombing in December 1988. The letter contains discussion of both Christian and Islamic religious fundamentalism; at the time it was not clear that the bombing was the work of Libya, which accepted responsibility in 2003.
Specifically, the letter mentions the fierce controversy over Salman Rushie’s novel The Satanic Verses which had been published in September 1988. When the story was originally published, it was just six months since Rushdie had become the target of a fatwa declared by Ayatollah Khomeini. In the following years, the novel would spark numerous acts of violence, including the murder of Rushie’s Japanese translator Hiroshi Igarashi in July 1991, and multiple attempts on the author’s life. Today, the long shadow of Lockerbie and of fundamentalist violence hangs over “Piece”.
“The State of the Art”
Originally published in 1989 as a separate book by Mark V. Ziesing
At around 100 pages long, this novella - the only novella in the Culture series - dominates the collection to which it gives its name. Readers of the early Culture novels often surmised that the civilisation represented the far future of humanity, but “The State of the Art” shows this not to be the case. The story is set in 1977, and depicts a Culture vessel and its crew studying the oblivious humans of that time.
The artificially intelligent ship Arbitrary has stumbled upon the Earth, and the Culture citizens aboard who are part of the elite Contact agency begin an covert, extensive, months-long study. Contact agent Diziet Sma - who also appears in Use of Weapons, set much later - has herself altered to appear human, and sets out to explore everything Earth can offer. Her colleague, Dervley Linter, takes this rather too far and intends to abandon the advantages of the Culture and to remain on Earth. This situation drives much of the plot.
However, “The State of the Art” is less concerned with plot and much more with a comparison between the primitive Earth of 1977 and the hugely advanced, star-faring Culture. This is done in quite broad strokes - for example, the irreverent supporting character Li is a clear mouthpiece for Banks’ own views. It is intriguing, though, to see the Earth - in all its beauty and cruelty - through the eyes of citizens of a post-scarcity society. The humour of the story is another strength. At one point, the Arbitrary sends a postcard to the BBC in a joking effort to get David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” played on the radio.
Interestingly, the Culture agents become quite enamoured with human art, music, and literature. Banks also uses references to historic events in 1977 to date the action to a specific time - one example is the Tenerife airport disaster on March 27; another is the release of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind on November 16.
Originally published in The Fiction Magazine vol. 6, No. 6, Jul/Aug 1987
The collection concludes with this brief and aggressively experimental stream of consciousness. It consists of a series of garbled transmissions or messages, which often reference the contemporary political and social situation in the 1980s. In particular, it often mentions Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War, and alludes to the sinking of Argentine light cruiser General Belgrano in May 1982. The story culminates with what appears to be a nuclear exchange. The story was likely influenced to some extent by John Brunner’s sprawling SF novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968); “Scratch” explicitly references the book at one point.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.