Dark humor amid the themes of alienation and disappointment (5/5)
The first set of short stories I read was in 2007 and it is this collection showcased here: The State of the Art (1991) by Iain Banks. Since then, I've covered more than sixty other collections but none has made as big an impression on me as The State of the Art; the book is intellectually infused with humor, insight, emotion, the human and alien condition, and keen whit. Re-reading this collection, I realize that it remains my primary influence to write fiction—my few stories resemble the themes and emotions in The State of the Art.
Iain Banks has always been my favorite author ever since I read The Algebraist (2004) earlier in 2007, just before picking and becoming immersed in The State of the Art. While Greg Bear may have started my love affair with science fiction in 2006, Iain Banks sent me in a head-over-heels throe of passion for the genre which hasn’t slacked even after six full years. I continue to read new books but still slake from the fountain of youth, the invigorating stream of science fiction (and fiction) from Iain Banks. I’ve always sought out every one of his novels and have always relished the contents, never once having been disappointed by a short story, a piece of fiction or a voluminous tome of science fiction.
I was crushed when I learnt of his pending death on April 3, 2013. When he died on June 9, 2013, I felt a loss almost as great as when I lost my grandmother. That was the day I finally finished by first piece of science fiction. Iain Banks, the author who could do no wrong, the writer who inspired me to read and write, the Scotsman who snuck his own regional lingo into my speech, the looming intellect who taught me words yet facilitated in fostering my appreciation for sentences, paragraphs, short stories, novels, and the language as a whole… yes, he’ll be sorely missed.
Road of Skulls (shortstory, 1988) – 4/5 – Jostled by the protruding skulls which line the Road, a singular carriage makes its way to the City. Its passengers, Sammil Mc9 and his nameless, dimwitted companion, pass the time sleeping in the dung-encrusted hay of the quadrupedal onuses. The distant, elusive city seems always perched upon the horizon, much as Sammil’s promise of a story to his companion is always set to begin. --- 6 pages --- I love the vague nature of this story—the where, why, and when. It’s simple in the sense that these two ruffians are on their way to the City on the Road paved with skulls, but the story of the City and its Road is given a cursory glance which is deeper in meaning than the rest of the compact plot.
A Gift from the Culture (shortstory, 1987) – 4/5 – Wrobik, a moniker for the man’s much longer Culture name, was once of a member of the Contact section yet now lives a so-called simple life on a non-Culture planet. Life isn’t simple because gambling and losing real money pisses off real people, and those people have real problems, too. Due to his debts, Wrobik is given a Culture gun in order to shoot down an approaching starship. He’s stunned to learn a Culture ambassador is aboard. --- 19 pages --- Most, if not all, of Banks’ work with the Culture involves people living life outside the Culture (on Earth with Contact or elsewhere with Special Circumstances). This probes the anti-utopian resentment some members of the Culture have—is the glossy, carefree life of freedom and expression everything to everyone? What would an individual sacrifice for a life outside of that comfort zone?
Odd Attachment (shortstory, 1989) – 4/5 – An arboreal shepherd tends his flock of juveniles while soaking in his melancholy of admiration ignored. Woebegone due to love and stymied by his precociousness of his dumb flock, the shepherd idly eyes the sky only to see a seed-shaped craft descend from the sky. The quad-furcated being quarries the clueless flock and is shocked to see the plantlike being react. The man in his grasp, the plant counts the ways. --- 7 pages --- Simple yet humorous and horrific, this exemplifies Banks’ writing style; nothing is out of place, over the top or underwhelming. Chide the story for its role reversal in the conclusion, but one can’t say it isn’t rather silly.
Descendant (novelette, 1987) – 5/5 – Fallen from the wreckage of a spacecraft and isolated on an airless planet 1,000 kilometers of barren yet challenging terrain, a human body and its intelligent suit take the excruciating journey across the ubiquitously grey landscape towards an uncertain-existing base. Damaged internally and externally, both the man and the suit survive day by day with each other’s voice, though their companionship is also what divides them. --- 24 pages --- The perfect blend of abandonment and isolation, pain and suffering, and hope and illusion; little did I realize when I finished my first short story in 2013 did it strongly resemble this story that I had forgotten about from six years prior. The bleakness of its noir/Ellison-esque theme really awakens my involvement in the story, a turn for the better considering the amount of soppy optimism in modern science fiction.
Cleaning Up (shortstory, 1987) – 5/5 – An opalescent cigar-shaped object drops on an American barn—the humans are dumbfounded. More enshrouded objects fall all over the world and the humans learn little by little: these “gifts” are advanced and can be used for military application. In the gaseous realms of deep space lurks a conversion machine and its hapless crew who discover that they’re transporting low-quality objects to the wrong place, but the paperwork is a debacle and still weeks away from completion. --- 19 pages --- This is the most memorable of the stories from the collection even after six years of idleness on my shelves. It’s not the reaction of the humans to the “gifts” but the continuing folly of the aliens which makes the story smile-worthy.
Piece (shortstory, 1989) – 4/5 – A man recounts his lifetime of experience and coincidences prior to boarding an aircraft on a December flight from London to New York. Penning a letter his son or nephew, perhaps, he tells a number of small incidences in which a book he had been reading involved him in an experience with his fellow man. These instances have instilled a pragmatic view of humanistic determination in 1988. --- 9 pages --- Not science fiction, but a great story nonetheless. If the reader understands a bit of 1980’s British history, then the conclusion will pack a punch. This also became one sources of inspiration when I had to write a narrative essay for my graduate course in Philosophy of Education; I wrote a similar piece but it took place in Belorussia 1986 (the professor loved it but I've never pushed its publication).
The State of the Art (novella, 1989) – 4/5 – It’s 1977 and the Culture have finally found Earth with its expanding halo of electronic emissions through near space. The Contact section sends its representatives down in human disguise to rummage through Earth’s more subtle nuances while the Mind in the General Contact Unit ship, the Arbitrary, funnels all of Earth’s most detailed data into its memory. The contacts earthside live comfortable is not busy lives. One contact member in Paris, Linter, becomes placidly adept with adjusting to life as a human and so wishes to remain on Earth. In the Arbitrary, a less human-standard man and lecher named Li stirs the metaphorical pot of whether the Contact unit should or should not make official contact with the Earthlings; further, Li humorously attempts to become the “captain” of the naturally captain-less ship in order to euthanize the pathetic human race of mongrels and rabble-rousers. --- 102 pages --- This novella so desires to be a 5-star read but is ultimately held back by the character named Li who predictably bashed humanity (as a spokesman for Banks, himself?) to a rather dull degree, all of which everyone has heard before. However, the story does ooze Banks’ singlehanded flare of alienation (no pun intended) from the Culture with Linter finding comfort in humanity’s backwardness, primality, and ability to hope. The capstone of artistic talent lays with Bank’s approach—the tale is told by the Drone (Offensive) Skaffen-Amtiskaw and is formatted with unique non-standard indentation (possibly a Culture norm?).
Scratch (shortstory, 1987) – 4/5 – A human tragedy born from its own genetic faults, fostered by the corrupting forces of bureaucracy and capitalism, and finally highlighted by its intrinsic motivation to entertain itself rather than speculate about everything else. The human tragedy can be witnessed through its petty focus on passing dalliances while the larger picture remains entirely unfocused, blurred along with the millions, billions of years of evolution. --- 9 pages --- Undoubtedly an experimental piece akin to the Brunner’s collage of passages and excerpts in the “The Happening World” of his novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968). Lacking sentence structure, common letter case or train of thought, the structure lies on a higher plane than word, sentence or paragraph—chapter, titles, conclusion, and composition.