12 December 2016

Review: The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks

The traditional side note: you can read my reviews of Eddie Robson's Fourth Doctor Adventure, The Labyrinth of Buda Castle, and the latest War Doctor Adventures, Agents of Chaos, here and here at USF, respectively.

Trade paperback, 216 pages
Published 1998 (contents: 1987-91)

Acquired January 2014
Read July 2016
The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks

I picked up this book a couple years ago, looking for a science fiction story from the late twentieth century to teach in a college survey of British literature from 1800 to the present; I assigned my students the Culture novella "The State of the Art." I had actually never read a Culture story before. I've been reading Banks's literary fiction on-and-off for a few years, and I harbored a sort of compulsion that I ought to read all his literary fiction, and then move onto his sf. "The State of the Art" is a great tale: funny and thought-provoking, it both questions our cultural narratives, and the idea that questioning our cultural narratives is enough to then just readopt them: "there is an osmosis from fiction to reality, a constant contamination which distorts the truth behind both and fuzzes the telling distinctions in life itself [...]. They always had too many stories, I believe" (201-2). This is a story about being seduced by the nobility of suffering when in fact suffering is completely nonessential. If you exist in a perfect world, there might be no hope, but that's because things are so good you don't need hope. I would happily lose hope in exchange for living in a world that was literally perfect. Sadly, I failed to convince a single student of this. But it remains a provocative and interesting story.

So this month I finally read the rest of the volume (and reread "State of the Art": it's still good). The stories are eclectic. Two or three more seem to be about the Culture, from what I know of it. "Descendant," about a crash victim who has a difficult relationship with his spacesuit was neat, but I particularly enjoyed "Cleaning Up," a fun story where the very technologically advanced trash of an alien civilization is accidentally being deposited on Earth. There are lots of funny bits, some good black comedy, and an ending I didn't see coming. (If the advanced civilization here is the Culture, though, this book is definitely not in continuity with "State of the Art.")

There was some non-sf, too, most notably "Piece," which is about religious radicalism. It also had an unexpected ending, though I think I would have seen it coming if I was less ignorant. I'm not sure what to think about it, to be honest: it feels a very earnest and off-the-cuff response to tragedy, with all the positives and negatives that implies.

I should say there were a couple tales I bounced off. "A Gift from the Culture" sort of meandered and didn't say much of interest, while "Odd Attachment" was just baffling. But you could have just put "The State of the Art" in here and this book would have been worth it, so I'm glad for the chance to experience the Culture for the first time, and to see this snapshot of the early Iain M. Banks.

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