The State of the Art

Book cover of The State of the Art.
Book 4 of the Culture series


The State of the Art is a collection of short stories by Iain M. Banks. It contains some stories related to the Culture universe and some general science fiction tales. Although it has been considered utopian fiction, it comes across as rather bleak.

Road of Skulls

A cart travels along a road paved with skulls, chasing a city that lays the road behind it as it moves. Nothing happens in this story.

A Gift from the Culture

A Culture-woman living in a lower-tech civilization is pressured into committing an assassination with a gun that will only fire for a Culture human. Banks packs a lot of depth into this short story, making me care about the protagonist in just a few pages.

The protagonist is queer—a woman who chose to become a man because she knew she’d be safer in the backward society that way. Despite her gender change, she finds herself still attracted to men and starts a gay relationship, something the society does not tolerate.

It is unknown who orders the assassination, as it could be the mob, religious fanatics, or even the Culture itself. This ambiguity allowed me to ponder the motives behind the assassination.

Odd Attachment

A love-sick plant monster rends a spaceman limb-from-limb like a daisy in the game of “He loves me, he loves me not”. This story serves as a 10-page setup for a dick joke (the “odd attachment” being the man’s penis, giving the monster 21 digits to rip off).


A man and his sentient spacesuit crash on a planet and have to walk for months to reach rescue. Although not explicitly stated, this is probably a Culture tale.

Banks does an excellent job of making the story seem bleak and claustrophobic. The man—and the reader—are not sure if the suit is really on his side. When the man dies, the suit keeps him around out of sentimentality, answering our question. The “Descendant” refers to the suit (and a drone at the end) that are, in some ways, the mankind’s descendants.

Cleaning Up

This story is a parody of the military-industrial complex during the Cold War, written in a golden-age of sci-fi style. Aliens discover that their trash system, which should send junk into the nearest star, instead sent it to Earth, where humans interpreted it as gifts. It’s good fun, albeit a little over-the-top.


A reflection on the extreme lengths religions drive people to, written by a man on the Lockerbie flight just before it explodes.

The State of the Art

The largest part of the book, The State of the Art is a novella featuring Diziet Sma and the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw from Use of Weapons as they visit Earth in 1977 and have to decide whether to contact it or not.

The State of the Art once again raises the question—as was asked in Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, and Use of Weapons—of whether the Culture’s homogenizing influence is ultimately beneficial or if it robs people of the elements that give life meaning.

I was worried that the vignettes where the Culture people visit various places on Earth would be kitschy, but I actually enjoyed them. Unfortunately, Banks decides to “tell, not show” by making some characters mouthpieces who lecture at each other (and the reader), which really throws off the story’s flow. Flow is particularly important in short writing!

The ending was predictable and heavy-handed: Banks decided to start showing again by having the character who defended Earth’s liveliness mugged and murdered in an alley in New York.


A stream-of-consciousness narrative in the form of found art text clippings from the future. I did not finish this story.