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Fortysomething, photographer slacker, working in IT, living in Greenwich; failed polymath; drinks and eats too much, reads too little...

The State of the Art  - Iain M. Banks Sort of in the Culture series, sort of not quite. This is the (first?) collection of [a:Iain M. Banks|5807106|Iain M. Banks|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1352410520p2/5807106.jpg] short stories, paired with a Culture novella which gives the book its title. Taking up half the book The State of the Art tells the tale of the Culture's first contact with Earth, some time in the '70s. Told in the form of a mission report by Diziet Sma, and later translated by Skaffen-Amtiskaw, (prior to their appearances in [b:Use of Weapons|12007|Use of Weapons (Culture, #3)|Iain M. Banks|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347522037s/12007.jpg|1494156]).

Sma is assigned to the Contact group, on board The Arbitrary. Contact's role seems to consist more of sampling the feel of a planet rather than actually making contact, and she hangs out in various cities sampling the food, the culture and the people. Unfortunately, the whole thing feels a little contrived – as if Banks had been repeatedly asked (a) is the Culture us in the future, and if not, (b) does the Culture ever come to Earth? Instead of having a story to tell, if feels more like Banks is answering those questions: no and yes, respectively. And, as there's no real story, Banks ends up filling the gaps with 'why humans suck' and 'why humans are so great'. Sma takes the anti-Earth side, wanting the Culture to completely step in and just stop us running things so badly; Dervley Linter takes the opposing side, as he's busy going native anyway. And to be fair to him, he's not suggesting that we're doing well, just that our failures are an authentic part of our path. Points are always rescued by the ships themselves – having The Arbitrary send a postcard to the BBC requesting Space Oddity is just beautiful.

The short stories that come before the novella are also a bit of a mixed bag. The Culture feels like Banks's preferred world, and the obvious Culture story, A Gift from the Culture, is probably the most conventional story in the collection and probably also the one I enjoyed the most. Odd Attachment reads like a retro-SF story. A first-contact between a human and a vegetable based lifeform goes tragically wrong, but told from the point of view of the vegetable. Cleaning Up and Descendant were both interesting. The first is the story of a ship of interstellar garbage men dumping their second goods into our sun, except that their transporter is faulty and the items keep appearing in the middle of a paranoia driven cold-war America – what could go wrong. The second follows a man and his smart space suit, crashed on a planet. Does the suit need the man as much as the man needs the suit – for the company if nothing else?

The remaining three are a little esoteric. The collection is bookended with Road of Skulls at the start: interesting start, but even for a short story I wanted it to go a bit further. And, at the end, Scratch (or: The Present and Future of Species HS (sic) Considered as The Contents of a Contemporary Popular Record (qv)): pure experimentalism, and I'm none the wiser if it worked or not. The final piece was Piece, which wasn't even science fiction. At first I thought it was an essay on religious extremism, but eventually I realised it wasn't supposed to be Banks narrating. However, as with much of the rest of the collection, it felt a little like being beaten with somebody else's opinions.