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An Arbitrary Tale
The State of the Art - Iain M. Banks
Member Name: bilbobaginz
The State of the Art - Iain M. Banks
Date: 01/12/12, updated on 01/12/12 (83 review reads)
Advantages: A mash of different writing styles and ideas, and a fantastic novella to conclude.
Disadvantages: Road of Skulls not a good starting block.
'Road of Skulls' is the first short story, and a weak one to begin the succession that follows. Straight away - after the first few lines - a faint sense of disappointment crept over me. I'd been looking forward to the next instalment of banks' work for a while, and even though I'm about 22 years behind on his latest work (and slowly catching), I was still suitably annoyed that the styling of this first short tale was not to my liking. In fact, the whole Road of Skulls was drastically off-form, I felt. It's a tale about a robot, Mc9, in an open-topped 'rotten wood' cart being pulled by a beastly-horse towards a city (a megalopolis), across a barren waste-land of discarded items, including the bones of fallen beings. Mc9 and his dumb companion are the subjects of this bizarre situation we find. His companion wants Mc9 to tell him a story, but he doesn't want to, so eventually (4/5 of the way through the 5 page story) the companion reads an extract from a bible: 'forget not that there are two sides to every story: a right side and a wrong side'. What message is Banks putting across here? That this story is the depressing truth of the situation, and there are no right/wrong sides to it? (is my guess). The story ends oddly, with the beast pulling forth the cart telling his side. The horse gives a sort of inconclusive context to the idea of pulling a cart (slowly) towards a megalopolis - for the inconceivably large city is not as straight-forward as is first presumed. This context, however strange, Mc9 and his companion remain unaware.
So off to a rather slow start, but with the second short-story, all is redeemed. 'A Gift from the Culture' is the 'bar one' I mentioned earlier, a piece of sci-fi with critical, yet slender link to the inter-galactic society we have learnt so much about. The premise: an ex-Culture citizen off on an exciting life adventure to an economical society (like ours) away from the Culture's 'sterile', set ways, finds herself struggling for cash, living in a dump of a flat with her (male) same-sex partner - The character was female at birth but changed to male in later life, so she is still referred to as a 'her'. It begins, 'Money is a sign of poverty, This is an old Culture saying I remember every now and again'. The character, Wrobik, is contemplating the outcomes of a decision she is being forced to make by two criminals in a blacked-out limousine, Kaddus and Cruizell. They are trying to convince her to take a small pistol and use it to shoot down an Imperial starship flying into the city in a few days time. Wrobik is Culture, and the gun is of Culture design (genetically engineered to fire only at the hands of a Culture citizen) - it is powerful, despite its size. She 'weighs up the relevant attractions' of refusing, running away, or completing the dangerous mission: all of which are bound to end in a stressful, irrefutably horrible way. After trying to get her lover to run away with her, she decides to try and run away herself - but not everything goes to plan. When it is revealed to Wrobik just who is on the ship, realisation that there may be more to this little favour than first anticipated occurs. Will the starship be brought down over the industrial city-scape? And what will become of Wrobik? A Gift from the Culture answers these questions and more. Banks thrives in his setting and a lot is told (it seems) of his own views because of this. I love the style of Bank's writing - it brought me back in focus with his unique take on situations and reminded me nostalgically of his earlier work. The writing is very visual with much of the text dedicated to description of place and item. Snippets of Culture ideology are re-remembered, bringing a sense of excitement and anticipation for the coming Novella.
'Odd Attachment' puts forward a concept both intriguing and strangely beautiful. As for the probability of any scientific fact or hard theory behind it, I highly doubt. Odd Attachment is a love story, a story about life, and a story about a sentient plant called, Fropome. As Grazer Cubs nuzzle into shrubbery around it, Fropome day-dreams its love for another and tries, dejectedly, to understand the reasoning behind that love's ignorance of it. Pitying and admiring the 'simple creatures' around it, Fropome looks to the stars for any answers they may hold, and after time, an unexpected visitor appears - not organic, but strange and new, almost mineral. It has loosely placed parts which enable Fropome to bring the well-known rhyme, epitomising his situation, to physical reality - 'She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not...'. A fascinating idea, short, to the point, and very smoothly written- with all the alien plant terminology you need crammed in! Banks takes a fresh new line and tries to bring intelligence to the vegetable mind, to let the feelings, the needs, and the wants of a rooted creature heard. Bizarre, but brilliant, Odd Attachment opens up the reader to a new line of possibilities in sci-fi, and all in a few short pages!
'Descendant' is my favourite of the short stories: a chilling personal account, where desolate landscape meets sentient suit, meets human-being. What of the outcome? Struck on descent by something pre-atmospheric, crash landed on a dusty desert planet several hundred clicks from the base they were initially headed, a man and his suit have nothing but each other for company and protection. The thoughts they have, the conversations they share, and the things that happen to them seem so depressingly realistic - the things they have to do to preserve and persevere: taking it in turns to walk; collecting energy via inefficient emergency solar panels; consuming bitter, nutrient sparse foods. Banks demonstrates theories: how would this machine-human relationship work? Wouldn't the suit just dump the human and its weight to give its self a better chance of survival? What happens when the human's organic mind breaks down, psychological impurities emerge, voices appear / disappear? What a setting! Descendant is an exceptional short story, written in first-person, with an eye for description and a cold heart for an ending.
'Cleaning Up' follows Descendant. "The first gift fell onto a pig farm in New England" - When strange casements, peculiar radioactive objects, begin tumbling down from space, sitting evenly across the globe, everyone is confused. When the government and armed forces are stumped, unable to open a single one, frustration enters, but not for long. This short tale contains chunks of individual story running simultaneously, but given to the reader in heaps. Cesare Borges is the "head of the mighty Industrial Military Combines Corporation" who takes everything in his stride. Matriapoll is aboard a Scoutship warping its way through deep space on route to a systems sun where his 'transporter' is focused. Professor Feldman is some kind of environmental product developer waiting to see Cesare in the outer-outer office with several important people who have been there, acceptant of their arduous endeavour to see the man, for several days. The gifts are opened. When Cesare is called away to a USAF base and demonstration of an anti-gravity device strapped to a fighter jet plays out in front of him, a potential military use is recognised for the packages Earth has been receiving - or at least some of them. With destruction on the cards, perhaps Earth was doomed from the beginning. But what exactly is the reasoning behind these packages? Perhaps it's because I've just read it, but this tale seems somewhat inspired by Catch 22. The way it is written, the silly situations - outer-outer offices, people waiting weeks to see a busy person who's not really that busy - it's very similar. It's tragically comical, the people are care-free (blinded by their occupations), but the occurrences they act so lightly towards are irrefutably important to them and everyone else.
'Piece' is written as a letter, mixed with a section of poetry. I would have thought it was based on the Author himself, because it features a Scottish man travelling along, reading a sci-fi book, a recently graduated student of something or other. Later, the character brings out 'the satanic verses' and ends up engaging in lengthy discussion with a young Indian man at the same university as he. Was this Banks' opportunity to open up his own personal views on superstition, religion, faith? He certainly put himself up against a tough opponent, someone who answers back competently, digging hard at the reasoning of the main character. If it truly is Banks expressing his views though, I think he has a pretty well balanced, moral head on him!
THE STATE OF THE ART
So here we are at last: The State of the Art. I have to say, I loved it. This novella brings scale and realism to Banks' previous three novels, which focused (mainly)on the happenings of the Culture. It brings scale and realism because it is about a Culture craft, the 'Arbitrary', and her several hundred crew members, and their exploratory voyage to a little planet orbiting an average sized star. It's 1977 Earth, at an interesting point in the planets society's evolution. Globalisation of business, the cold war (the possibility of nuclear conflict), the rapid growth in infrastructure and economies, mass starvation, cultural revolutions in music and art, all these things are happening, and both the Arbitrary and its crew have arrived to view, record, and if deemed necessary, intervene in Earth's direction. Making contact with the locals becomes a key topic amongst crew members (many of which are posted, undercover, down on the surface). Should the Culture alter the path Earth is on, or should nature be left to decide its self? With all the suffering, the lies, the deceit, the immorality, why not just end it all with lasting peace, or sudden destruction? Or is Earth's way a purer way of living? Have the Culture, with all their efficiency, safety, and freedom, sliced away at the core of their own humanity, their very 'sentience'?
Sma is aboard the Arbitrary, and is later sent down to Earth, to Paris among other cities, to indulge, to gain a grasp of Homo-sapien life, to aid in the Arbitrary's plight to make sense of the place. Linter is also on-planet, but his ideas of Earth are far more complex - at a different angle to those of Sma. Instead of investigating the culture of the place, he has been drawn in, charmed to the point of obsession, with the planet, its people, its society - he doesn't want to leave. Linter has even taken his obsession with human-beings to the point of physical alteration to his own body - removal of key Culture engineered body parts and abilities. Banks produces a mash of interesting possibilities for discussion, which he capitalises on carefully.
The Arbitrary, an eccentric ship with an eye for humour and a keen interest in people's interactions, gets Sma to visit Linter as a means of finding out what his intentions are. As the story unfolds, and the reader gains further information (a catch up) on the workings of the Culture, Linter's intentions are soon fully understood. The question is, is it any business of anyone else to attempt to change his mind, or force him back? Wouldn't that be breaking one of the founding conditions of Culture citizenship: freedom to do what one wishes as long as another's life is not affected/ended?
Two major questions are asked by Banks in this novella, and they're both with regard to intervention: The big picture, should I intervene in Earth, especially if mutually assured destruction seems probable; The small picture, should I intervene in Linter's (as a Culture citizen's) decision to stay, even if HE is to face the same fate? Essentially, it's a moral dilemma, and one which is written to perfection.
The collection, The State of the Art, is rounded off with 'Scratch', a tale of utter nonsense, the definition of gibberish. Written, no doubt, in humour, I think (think) Scratch is supposed to be a load of the files the Arbitrary had to trawl over when attempting to understand our planets way of life. Or it may be files discovered after some kind of apocalypse on Earth after the Arbitrary's leave. Here's a piece from the middle of the mayhem which made me laugh: "The Precise Nature Of The Catastrophe WELCOME TO THE FEWTCHIR makes yer makes yer fink makes yer course that labour lot would just makes yer fink makes yer na it's true I read it in the paper (sic) RED MENACE makes yer fink SPENDING na don't scratch it" - you get the idea.
Thanks for reading!
Summary: What a book, buy it now!