This is a collection of short stories and one novella published between 1987 to 1989 in various publications. I’ve read all of Banks’ sci-fi novels (up to Matter) and it’s taken me a while to get round to completing the oeuvre.
1. The Road of Skulls
Mc9 and his companion are travelling along the Road of Skulls in a cart pulled by a horse who isn’t all she seems; Mc9 is avoiding telling a story to his companion. A very slight story.
2. A Gift from the Culture
A renegade from the Culture is blackmailed into firing on a ship with a weapon which only he can use. He tries to escape, but is betrayed by his lover. It’s an interesting companion piece to The State of the Art, where we see life on a non-Culture planet (Vreccile, in this case) from the point of view of a Culture-born person, with an ambiguous ending.
3. Odd Attachment
An alien encounter between a vegetable-like being and an animal-like one, where the traditional roles are reversed for effect. Amusing and ironic, and succeeds in making a very alien life-form seem human.
An injured person inside a protective suit has crash-landed on the surface of a planet, and is trying to return to safety at the nearest base. He has hallucinatory conversations with the suit, and struggles across inhospitable terrain. Moving and rather scary in its depiction of loneliness and terror.
5. Cleaning Up
“Gifts” start appearing on Earth, and no-one knows how or why, though many attempts are made to investigate them, fruitlessly. This story is funny and sharp, more light-hearted than Banks’ usual fare.
A letter from a poet and creative writing tutor, written to an unknown recipient whom he addresses as “Kid” (I assume the writer is male, judging from what he writes about travelling experiences and his arguments with others) talking about coincidental discussions or arguments with other people – though neither can see the other’s point of view – while travelling. It’s an interesting read, and with a poignant and ironic ending, encouraging us to consider both the writer’s views and those of his opponents.
7. The State of the Art
A short novella of the Culture, encountering Earth in the late 1970s, seen from the viewpoints of Diziet Sma (also a major character, in an older and more experienced guise, in Banks’ The Use of Weapons), Dervley Linter, and the spaceship Arbitrary. Although Sma tells the story, a degree of commentary is provided by the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw (also a recurring character). A team from Contact visit Earth and encounter its peoples and cultures: Sma’s reaction is disgust and anger – she wants the Culture to take over Earth’s people and make them behave better – whereas Linter falls in love with the Earth way of doing things, seeing a “real” way of living that is better than the ‘sterility’ of the Culture. Linter’s and Sma’s debates are interesting, particularly if you’ve read any of the other Culture-set novels, and wondered how its denizens might see Earth. Written in a straightforward fashion, it would make a good introduction to the Culture before tackling any of Banks’ other novels.
This appears to consist of snatches of conversation, as if beamed up into space by radio waves in a clash of reiterated remarks which generally seem to illustrate a dismal and dispirited state of mind, prior to some profound revelation – alien encounter, or planetary destruction, perhaps. It’s almost unreadable, in its fractured prose. Very clever, though.
I preferred the more conventional stories, and enjoyed The State of the Art very much as an addition to the Culture canon (also it was interesting to read about Diziet Sma in an earlier and much less experienced incarnation, even if the drone is recognizably the same).