As I don’t own the actual book and I listened to the BBC dramatization of the story, this is a review of the title novella only, and not the full collection of short stories.
First, a little background: the Contact section of the Culture finds and monitors other planets and/or species to assess if they’re ready to be ‘Contacted’ and invited to join the ever-expanding Culture. The State of the Art novella depicts a Contact mission to 1976 Earth.
This plot is a very transparent excuse for Banks to vent his frustrations about the failings of our species by criticising it through the lens of his own personal utopia- the Culture. This lack of subtly could be a criticism of the story, but I’ve personally never understood the obsession with subtly for subtly’s sake. If you have a point you’d like to make in your fiction- hammer away. It doesn’t make the story less enjoyable. In fact, my favourite part of the books I’ve read so far has been the blatant exposition which fleshes out the Culture a bit more.
In any case, this novella has something far more valuable than subtle attacks against human nature- it’s fun! It’s fun to hear Culture citizens struggling a little with our languages (‘homophobia’ is an alien concept to them) and get excited by Star Wars. It’s also interesting to hear our protagonist, who comes from a society which has actually achieved socialist utopia, critique our communism in practice (this is Cold War era Earth and partially set in East Germany). Deziet Sma is also the first female protagonist of a Culture story I’ve come across, and probably my favourite protagonist thus far. Luckily for me, she also features in Use of Weapons, which I’m currently reading.
As I mentioned before, I listened to a BBC dramatization of this story. It was abridged, so I’m looking forward to reading the full thing, but I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation and have listened to it two or three times already. The best part is whoever voices the good ship Arbitrary, hands down, especially for their delivery of the line: “I happen to like heterosexuality, it’s just…funnier.”
I’ve embedded the BBC dramatization below. It’s only 45 minutes, so if you’ve been thinking about getting into the Culture you won’t find a better place to start. And if you’re already a fan and haven’t stumbled across this wee gem yet- enjoy!