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Book 18

  1. Stone, Irving — The Agony and the Ecstasy (439 of 763 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — The Mozart Question (68 pages)
  3. Unsworth, Barry — Stone Virgin (312 pages)
  4. Phillips, Caryl — The Nature of Blood (212 pages)
  5. Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (549 pages)
  6. Lockwood, Richard & Steve Potz-Rayner — A Little Book of Lies (170 pages)
  7. Vickers, Hugh — Great Operatic Disasters (65 pages)
  8. Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (574 pages)
  9. Rennison, Nick — 100 Must-Read Classic Novels (164 pages)
  10. Augustine of Hippo (John K. Ryan, translator) — The Confessions of Saint Augustine (422 pages)
  11. Fitzgerald, F. Scott — The Great Gatsby (146 pages)
  12. Harrison, Fraser — Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota (188 pages)
  13. Banks, Iain M. — Consider Phlebas (466 pages)
  14. Banks, Iain M. — The Player of Games (307 pages)
  15. Carter, W. Hodding — Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization (239 pages)
  16. Mandela, Nelson — Long Walk to Freedom (750 pages)
  17. Banks, Iain M. — Use of Weapons (411 pages)
  18. Banks, Iain M. — The State of the Art (215 pages)
Page count
5697
book cover: The State of the Art.

The State of the Art is the fourth book in Iain M. Banks' Culture series. Unlike the others, it is not a novel but a collection of short stories, not all of them set in the Culture universe, some not even science fiction. The collection displays a variety of storytelling, encompassing the macabre, the whimsical, the playfully ironic, the existential… Some of it was fluff; some of it extremely high quality.

The collection's titular story is a bit of an anachronism: in "The State of the Art" the Culture discovers an industrialised civilisation on a little planet called Earth and decides to study it for about a year, circa Earth year 1977. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek in parts, poking fun at first-contact stories, being self-referential, commenting on Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001, David Bowie's "Space Oddities," and more. But it has a more serious side, exploring some of the same questions and themes that are raised in every one of Banks' Culture novels.

Two things I found of particular interest about this story. One, while previous events and characters (the Idiran War, a certain infamous ship, etc.) are occasionally referenced in different Culture books, this is the only time we find a recurring character. The main character in "The State of the Art" is one of the principal characters in Use of Weapons, though at least a century or two earlier. (Culture citizens are long-lived.) It's interesting to learn about one of the formative experiences of an enigmatic character from the complex previous novel. Two, the story gives the Culture context in reference to Earth. One might have wondered if the Culture was set in the far future and was descended from Earth civilisation. Now, we know that the Culture is not at all Earth-descended and that Culture stories happen both in our distant past and distant future.

In short, The State of the Art is an interesting book worthy of a place in the Culture canon but perhaps lacking the oomph of the novels.

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