on 2 June 2011
I've read two Iain (M.) Banks novels - The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas (twice), I've loved both of them. What I find appealing about Consider Phlebas is the fantastic imagery of a soaring technological civilisation - Minds, hyper-space, battle ships nestling in a star's photosphere, ... Fabulous.
Before I continue with the rest of the Culture novels I thought I'd give this collection of short stories a go. Well, I have to say I'm not impressed and I'm so glad I didn't start here instead of with Consider Phlebas.
"Road of Skulls": Not bad, a traditional style short story with a thrown in twist.
"A Gift from the Culture": I couldn't see the point.
"Odd attachment": Just annoying. A ridiculous play on "She loves me, she loves me not..." with a juvenile ending.
"Descendant": Quite good but a rather obvious ending.
"Cleaning Up": Liked this one.
"Piece": Really liked this one.
"Scratch": Yes, scratch this. If I wasn't reading the Kindle version I'd consider this a waste of valuable paper and ink.
And finally the main feature of this collection "The State of the Art". This story charts the first contact of the Culture with Earth. So we have Minds and GCUs and fields, hyper-space and all the other great tech but ... well, just not near enough. A GCU stumbles (purposely) across Earth and sends down some people as a ground surveillance, to mop up the vibe so to speak. But that's it: basically the story is simply a vehicle for Mr Banks to expound his gripes, grievances and wishes for the future of Earth's civilisation. Granted this is an underlying theme of many novels SciFi or otherwise, but this is so blatant it comes across as a rather dry lecture on what's wrong with humanity. Very poor.
Read if you want but if this is going to be your first dip into the "Culture" I strongly suggest you start elsewhere or you might never pick up another one - and you would be missing out.
on 21 April 2001
This is simply a wonderful, moving and very well crafted collection. It contains the beautiful, atmospheric prose Bank's does so well, combined with a few examples of his more experimental and playful outings.
Not every story in it is a masterpiece, but three stories in particular - "Scratch", "Piece" and the title novella "The State of the Art", make it worth reading for those alone. These three pieces are all firmly grounded in 1970's-1980's Earth (although the novella is a Culture perspective on this era, making for a very effective and interesting story), so if you come expecting purely SF fare you may be surprised - although I think you will not be disappointed.
The other 5 stories the book contains are purely SF, and I think they are generally a bit weaker than the three above. Several of them (eg "Road of Skulls", "Gift from the Culture") contain interesting settings and characters, but don't really seem to go anywhere as stories. You get the impression they are more sketches than anything else. Never the less, they are certainly in no way bad and are enthralling in that Iain Banks way. Even if you never read them, I think the collection is well worth it for the three gems it contains.
on 30 December 2001
This collection of short stories is, as one would expect from Iain Banks, a compilation of brilliance. Stepping aside for the moment from the various other stories (each incredibly creative and original, a small delight on its own), the novella of the book's title is something truly special.
A hundred page Culture novel, it is massively imaginative, containing the mandatory Banks sleek prose, sharp wit and almost (but not quite) daunting intelligence and sharp perceptiveness that makes his works so exceptional. The points he raises here about whether or not to interfere with another planet (Earth), whilst reflecting on the many flaws and achievements of our planet, he gives in depth and penetrating analysis not only into the ethics of the Culture's work, but also into how we ourselves live and work in our surroundings.
If you're looking for a short Banks book to dip into quickly, then definitely buy this without fear of it not living up to the imposingly high standards of his full-length novels. Sheer brilliance.
The State of the Art is Iain M. Banks first, and to date only, short story collection. It was originally published in 1991 and features both genre and mainstream fiction, as well as three stories set in his signature Culture setting.
The collection opens with 'Road of Skulls', a sort of jaunty little SF-fantasy tale with a Douglas Adams-esque comic conclusion. It's fun but very slight and very short. 'A Gift from the Culture', about a Culture citizen living undercover on a recently-Contacted world, is better but a bit odd. It's not a story by itself but feels like the opening chapter to a longer novel which ends in a rather pointless and abrupt manner. Interesting, and perhaps meant to convince us that Culture citizens aren't flawless, but still not the best story I've read.
'Odd Attachment' is dark and very funny, bringing a certain Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene to mind. This film is possibly a Banks touchstone, as he both appeared in the movie (he's one of the extras in the final scene) and referenced the rabbit scene in The Wasp Factory as well. 'Descendant', the second Culture story, is a story of survival and the bond between a man and his sentient spacesuit. A macabre and most effective story.
'Cleaning Up' is brilliant, a very funny SF novel about what happens to Earth when an alien spaceship accidentally dumps a load of rejected consumer products on the planet. From the evidence presented here (not to mention the humorous streaks in his other books), Banks could do a great SF comedy, and I'm surprised he's never tried to do it at novel length. 'Piece' is more sobering, a mainstream story reflecting on terrorism and the arguments of science versus faith and God versus evolution. A very thoughtful and prescient story with a gut-punch twist ending. 'Scratch' is very weird, a stream-of-consciousness oddity which is barely readable. Not really sure what Banks was aiming for there.
Fully half the book is taken up by the title novella. The premise of this story is very simple. The Culture's General Contact Unit Arbitrary arrives in orbit around the third planet of a remote, yellow star in the closing months of the year 1976 by the local calendar and spends the next fourteen months or so surveying the world to see if it is ready for official Contact. Much of the book is taken up by the attempts of the central character Diziet Sma to convince the Arbitrary's Mind - and thus the wider Culture - that Earth should be Contacted to prevent its inevitable slide into nuclear armageddon, whilst the Culture is more inclined to leave the planet as it is as a 'control experiment' to show the dangers faced by a nascent spacefaring civilisation. There isn't a huge amount of drama or personal jeopardy in the story, but the intellectual arguments between the two and the other characters' reactions to the situation are all handled intelligently and in a fascinating manner. The story also acts as an effective prequel to the third proper Culture novel, Use of Weapons.
The State of the Art (****) shows a broad range of Banks' writing skills and is well worth tracking down. The book is available from Orbit in the UK and Night Shade in the USA.
on 6 July 2013
The first set of short stories I read was in 2007 and it is this collection showcased here: The State of the Art (1991) by Iain Banks. Since then, I've covered more than sixty other collections but none has made as big an impression on me as The State of the Art; the book is intellectually infused with humor, insight, emotion, the human and alien condition, and keen whit. Re-reading this collection, I realize that it remains my primary influence to write fiction--my few stories resemble the themes and emotions in The State of the Art.
Iain Banks has always been my favorite author ever since I read The Algebraist (2004) earlier in 2007, just before picking and becoming immersed in The State of the Art. While Greg Bear may have started my love affair with science fiction in 2006, Iain Banks sent me in a head-over-heels throe of passion for the genre which hasn't slacked even after six full years. I continue to read new books but still slake from the fountain of youth, the invigorating stream of science fiction (and fiction) from Iain Banks. I've always sought out every one of his novels and have always relished the contents, never once having been disappointed by a short story, a piece of fiction or a voluminous tome of science fiction.
I was crushed when I learnt of his pending death on April 3, 2013. When he died on June 9, 2013, I felt a loss almost as great as when I lost my grandmother. That was the day I finally finished by first piece of science fiction. Iain Banks, the author who could do no wrong, the writer who inspired me to read and write, the Scotsman who snuck his own regional lingo into my speech, the looming intellect who taught me words yet facilitated in fostering my appreciation for sentences, paragraphs, short stories, novels, and the language as a whole... yes, he'll be sorely missed.
Road of Skulls (shortstory, 1988) - 4/5 - Jostled by the protruding skulls which line the Road, a singular carriage makes its way to the City. Its passengers, Sammil Mc9 and his nameless, dimwitted companion, pass the time sleeping in the dung-encrusted hay of the quadrupedal onuses. The distant, elusive city seems always perched upon the horizon, much as Sammil's promise of a story to his companion is always set to begin. --- 6 pages --- I love the vague nature of this story--the where, why, and when. It's simple in the sense that these two ruffians are on their way to the City on the Road paved with skulls, but the story of the City and its Road is given a cursory glance which is deeper in meaning than the rest of the compact plot.
A Gift from the Culture (shortstory, 1987) - 4/5 - Wrobik, a moniker for the man's much longer Culture name, was once of a member of the Contact section yet now lives a so-called simple life on a non-Culture planet. Life isn't simple because gambling and losing real money pisses off real people, and those people have real problems, too. Due to his debts, Wrobik is given a Culture gun in order to shoot down an approaching starship. He's stunned to learn a Culture ambassador is aboard. --- 19 pages --- Most, if not all, of Banks' work with the Culture involves people living life outside the Culture (on Earth with Contact or elsewhere with Special Circumstances). This probes the anti-utopian resentment some members of the Culture have--is the glossy, carefree life of freedom and expression everything to everyone? What would an individual sacrifice for a life outside of that comfort zone?
Odd Attachment (shortstory, 1989) - 4/5 - An arboreal shepherd tends his flock of juveniles while soaking in his melancholy of admiration ignored. Woebegone due to love and stymied by his precociousness of his dumb flock, the shepherd idly eyes the sky only to see a seed-shaped craft descend from the sky. The quad-furcated being quarries the clueless flock and is shocked to see the plantlike being react. The man in his grasp, the plant counts the ways. --- 7 pages --- Simple yet humorous and horrific, this exemplifies Banks' writing style; nothing is out of place, over the top or underwhelming. Chide the story for its role reversal in the conclusion, but one can't say it isn't rather silly.
Descendant (novelette, 1987) - 5/5 - Fallen from the wreckage of a spacecraft and isolated on an airless planet 1,000 kilometers of barren yet challenging terrain, a human body and its intelligent suit take the excruciating journey across the ubiquitously grey landscape towards an uncertain-existing base. Damaged internally and externally, both the man and the suit survive day by day with each other's voice, though their companionship is also what divides them. --- 24 pages --- The perfect blend of abandonment and isolation, pain and suffering, and hope and illusion; little did I realize when I finished my first short story in 2013 did it strongly resemble this story that I had forgotten about from six years prior. The bleakness of its noir/Ellison-esque theme really awakens my involvement in the story, a turn for the better considering the amount of soppy optimism in modern science fiction.
Cleaning Up (shortstory, 1987) - 5/5 - An opalescent cigar-shaped object drops on an American barn--the humans are dumbfounded. More enshrouded objects fall all over the world and the humans learn little by little: these "gifts" are advanced and can be used for military application. In the gaseous realms of deep space lurks a conversion machine and its hapless crew who discover that they're transporting low-quality objects to the wrong place, but the paperwork is a debacle and still weeks away from completion. --- 19 pages --- This is the most memorable of the stories from the collection even after six years of idleness on my shelves. It's not the reaction of the humans to the "gifts" but the continuing folly of the aliens which makes the story smile-worthy.
Piece (shortstory, 1989) - 4/5 - A man recounts his lifetime of experience and coincidences prior to boarding an aircraft on a December flight from London to New York. Penning a letter his son or nephew, perhaps, he tells a number of small incidences in which a book he had been reading involved him in an experience with his fellow man. These instances have instilled a pragmatic view of humanistic determination in 1988. --- 9 pages --- Not science fiction, but a great story nonetheless. If the reader understands a bit of 1980's British history, then the conclusion will pack a punch. This also became one sources of inspiration when I had to write a narrative essay for my graduate course in Philosophy of Education; I wrote a similar piece but it took place in Belorussia 1986 (the professor loved it but I've never pushed its publication).
The State of the Art (novella, 1989) - 4/5 - It's 1977 and the Culture have finally found Earth with its expanding halo of electronic emissions through near space. The Contact section sends its representatives down in human disguise to rummage through Earth's more subtle nuances while the Mind in the General Contact Unit ship, the Arbitrary, funnels all of Earth's most detailed data into its memory. The contacts earthside live comfortable is not busy lives. One contact member in Paris, Linter, becomes placidly adept with adjusting to life as a human and so wishes to remain on Earth. In the Arbitrary, a less human-standard man and lecher named Li stirs the metaphorical pot of whether the Contact unit should or should not make official contact with the Earthlings; further, Li humorously attempts to become the "captain" of the naturally captain-less ship in order to euthanize the pathetic human race of mongrels and rabble-rousers. --- 102 pages --- This novella so desires to be a 5-star read but is ultimately held back by the character named Li who predictably bashed humanity (as a spokesman for Banks, himself?) to a rather dull degree, all of which everyone has heard before. However, the story does ooze Banks' singlehanded flare of alienation (no pun intended) from the Culture with Linter finding comfort in humanity's backwardness, primality, and ability to hope. The capstone of artistic talent lays with Bank's approach--the tale is told by the Drone (Offensive) Skaffen-Amtiskaw and is formatted with unique non-standard indentation (possibly a Culture norm?).
Scratch (shortstory, 1987) - 4/5 - A human tragedy born from its own genetic faults, fostered by the corrupting forces of bureaucracy and capitalism, and finally highlighted by its intrinsic motivation to entertain itself rather than speculate about everything else. The human tragedy can be witnessed through its petty focus on passing dalliances while the larger picture remains entirely unfocused, blurred along with the millions, billions of years of evolution. --- 9 pages --- Undoubtedly an experimental piece akin to the Brunner's collage of passages and excerpts in the "The Happening World" of his novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968). Lacking sentence structure, common letter case or train of thought, the structure lies on a higher plane than word, sentence or paragraph--chapter, titles, conclusion, and composition.
on 8 November 2012
This is a collection of short SF stories, two or three being set in the Culture Universe.
There aren't many pages so you are not getting as much for your money compared to the full novels.
I am a recently converted Iain Banks fan, so I enjoyed the stories but I am not sure they would be to everyone's taste as quite a few of them end abruptly leaving the reader wanting more.
I think I will forget most but a few I will remember: "Odd Attachment", "Piece", and of course the main course, "The State Of The Art".
This last story concerns the discovery of present-day Earth by the Culture, and what to do about it. It's a good story, and provokes thoughts about where we are as a species and where we could be, but one thing bugged me throughout: while many of the Culture members present are rightly appalled at the warmongering going on on Earth, the theme of the Culture's ability to destroy Earth with no effort came up again and again (and is even advocated, presumably jokingly, at one point). This annoyed me as I do not believe the Culture would be so hypocritical in its decision-making - I thought Iain's other books I have read so far explored the subject of dealing with lesser civilizations better.