Cover image: Imagestate
Cover Design: Blacksheep
THE STATE OF THE ART
CULTURE BOOK FOUR
IAIN M. BANKS
First published: 14 March 1991
This edition published: 27 May 1993
NOTE: This is a collection, but it is marked as a Culture book on Banks's website, and I'll go with what the author says .
As usual I'll give my review of each story before saying something about the collection as a whole.
ROAD OF SKULLS
This is a brilliant short story. It evokes a great image of the road of the title, and it may be an image that will stay with you. The story is pretty basic, but it ends in a way that wasn't expected. And that ending made me laugh. A great start to the collection.
A GIFT FROM THE CULTURE
Wrobik Sennkil is in debt, and is given an offer he can't afford to refuse. Banks manages to put quite a lot into this tale, set in the Culture Universe. We get enough information about the main character that we understand his background, and we see his motives. There is also quite a lot of suspense involved here. This is not a bad introduction to the Culture books, should you feel the need to try out a shorter story before you go on to the novels. It works well as a short story on its own, but it is also a great story for those, like me, who enjoy Banks's Culture novels.
This is a somewhat strange story. On the surface it's about a herder who's unhappy in love. But Banks has added another element to it that makes it so much more than that. I found it a very interesting story, and as far as Science Fiction short stories go I have to say this is among the ones I've enjoyed the most.
A man is alone on the plains of a planet. Inside his sentient space suit he's trying to reach help. Banks manages to get across the loneliness of walking across a deserted planet beautifully. Not the most suspenseful story I have ever read, but despite guessing early on where it was going I liked it a lot thanks to Banks's great writing.
When mysterious capsules start to spontaneously appear on earth the Americans are at the forefront of making use at what is inside them. This story is at times so surreal that it is a joy to read. Banks shows off a great sense of humor while telling an interesting story. This is great as it stands, but I would have loved to see it expanded to novel size. But that it is great enough that you don't want to leave it isn't really a shortcoming.
A very thoughtful story with a strong ending. A really don't want to say more about it than that you really should read it.
THE STATE OF THE ART
This novella brings back Contact operative Diziet Sma from Use of Weapons. It is her retelling of what she experienced when Contact comes to Earth. Although it is revealed pretty early on in which year this happens, I'll leave it up to those that want to read this to discover for themselves when this is. It may be a surprise for those that have read other Culture books.
We get a very detailed look at how the Culture, or more specifically Contact, approaches other civilisations here. And it adds significantly to the understanding of how the Culture operates, more so than the three Culture noels I have previously read.
Banks also takes the opportunity here to comment quite a lot on humanity, but he avoids becoming too preachy about what he says about us. What Diziet Sma, and the rest of the Contact operatives, learn about humanity is not presented as black and white facts, but as interpretations of an alien civilisation. Something that in itself is a very interesting concept.
This is an excellent addition to the Culture universe Banks has created, and if you have read the Culture novella and somehow missed this I urge you to do something about that at the earliest opportunity. The novella is a great standalone, but I would discourage people from from reading it before they have read at least one Culture novel. I think it is much stronger if it is an addition to the Culture rather than your first contact with it.
This is written a way that may be a bit hard to read. But if you go along with it you'll discover that there is a lot of meaning hidden in the text. A strong ending to the collection.
An almost flawless collection. This really showcases that Banks is truly a master of shorter than novel storytelling. The stories are varied enough that they don't feel repetitive, and the quality of them is high. Whether or not you usually read short stories and novellas, I'd urge you to pick this up if you are a SFF reader.