Iain M. Banks’ Short Sci-Fi Fiction: The State of the Art

TheStateoftheArtI apologize for the long delay in posting reviews. Frankly, I haven’t been reading much this month largely because I have been busy defending my PhD. It’s now done, and I’ve been rattling off books already.

Like Iain M. Banks’ 1991 collection of short fiction The State of the Art. I was a little nervous about reading sci-fi short stories for some reason. The short story is a tough form to master because you are so limited in your space that it can become difficult to construct meaningful and compelling narratives. Science fiction, for me anyways, often requires a time and page commitment to really work. I think back to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left-Hand of Darkness and how long it took me to start “getting” the book. One way that Banks works around this is to set a few of the stories in the Culture universe he has explored in his novels. Being familiar with this world, those stories ended up being the most enjoyable for me. However, I can also see how readers unfamiliar with that world might be somewhat offput by this intertextual connection.

That being said, I think the title story is worth the price of admission alone. It actually explains the Culture’s modus operandi better than his novels do. This might be because it is a short story and cannot presume foreknowledge of the Culture. It might also be because this was an early story by Banks, one in which he first sketched out the contours of his alternative universe. Either way, the story is amazing. It concerns an expedition to Earth by a Contact unit and the ensuing debate over whether to initiate contact or to simply stand back and observe human history as a control case. There is a fair amount of philosophizing on Earth’s history and trajectory (more than you would find in one of his novels), but this works because the story is explicitly about the Culture’s potential relation to Earth. I highly enjoyed it.

As for the other stories, I felt that some were stronger than others. “A Gift From Culture” was an interesting story which concerned a sleeper agent of sorts on an alien world and the loyalties he must choose between. “Descendant” was a fantastic story concerning a spaceman shot down from orbit and his long and seemingly futile attempt to try and reach a possibly abandoned base (he is accompanied by a sentient suit). “Piece” was an interesting story for its collage-like narrative structure, but I felt like it was a “trick” short story where the ending provides a kind of narrative ba-dump. Similarly, “Road of Skulls” and “Odd Attachment” use a kind of twist ending to provide their largest impact. For whatever reason, I just can’t get on-board with trick or twist endings in short stories. They seem like a cheat code to me. “Cleaning Up” reminded me of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest, but it lacked the depth and satire of that novel. Finally, “Scratch” is a kind of prose poem that felt like Banks experimenting with form and achieving a mixed success.

Overall, I think that the collection is worth it for the title story. The others might be interesting for regular readers of sci-fi short fiction, but they do seem a little flat to me.

Banks, Iain M. The State of the Art. London: Orbit Books, 1991. Print.

PS – I might go on a short Banks sabbatical as my pile of books to read is getting bigger each week …

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forty storiesDonald Barthelme’s Forty Stories is a treasure trove of short stories. He has an inimitable style: concise narratives, sometimes outlandish plots, and an economy of words. This collection, clocking in at 250 pages, has 40 stories in it meaning that each story gets about 6 ½ pages. In reality, most stories are closer to 4 or 5 pages with a couple of longer ones interspersed. It seems unlikely that a writer could tell a compelling story in 4 or 5 pages, but Barthelme does it time and again in this collection. Take for example the story “Terminus”: only 3 full pages long, it tells about an affair between a married man and a younger woman who is staying in the Hotel Terminus. The paragraphs are short, yet within the short space, Barthelme gives us a full portrait of a flawed man, his inability to resist the woman’s beauty, and her own insecurities.

The content of this collection varies wildly. Barthelme pushes the short story form to its furthest extent. He plays with the genre and produces some wonderful pieces of writing. “Concerning the Bodyguard” is written almost entirely in questions and yet it manages to convey an interesting story. The New Yorker has a podcast of Salman Rushdie reading it and I would highly recommend listening to it. “Sentence,” although somewhat awkward to read, is a 4 page story told in a single sentence. “RIF” is almost entirely conversation between two female middle managers at a corporation, yet the dialogue animates the narrative. These experiments with narration, form, and content demonstrate Barthelme’s ability to craft story from the oddest situations. Of course, not all of them come off. “January,” the closing story, is 8 pages of conversation that seems too loose, too stream of consciousness to really go anywhere. At times, Barthelme also is incredibly opaque and allusive. He references obscure events, knowledges, or cultures that seem to provide meaning for the story’s action but require some Googling on the part of the reader. I would not say he is an elitist writer, but his fiction operates at a high intellectual level.

One of the things about reading collections of short fiction is that they are a little harder to review as whole. This is a selected edition of Barthelme’s body of work, so there is a much higher number of the best stories in his oeuvre whereas a published collection of a writer’s mid-career might not have as many. I am going to talk about two of my favorite pieces from the collection to close this review.

“Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” is an amazing short story about how a group of friends decides to hang their friend, Colby, because he has gone too far. This surreal plot is given little explanation, it just is and Barthelme makes us go along with it. The bulk of story is not about the trial or ethics of hanging friend, but about the group’s attempt to organize the execution. They obviously need drinks, music, a location, invitations, and all the other trappings of a party for the event. The actual event goes off in 4 sentences in final paragraph and happens off-stage, yet I found myself stunned at Barthelme’s ability to make me complicit in this action.

“The Temptation of St. Anthony” tells about St. Anthony’s presence in a small town and the way the community reacts to his presence. The narrator, a neighbour of Anthony’s, details how various people attempted to decipher what his temptations were, seeking some form of juicy gossip. The narrator is not so vicarious or hungry for dirt, but does talk about his disappointment at Anthony’s mundane-ness. Ultimately, the community is unable or unwilling to accept him and Anthony moves back to the desert to the monastic life for which he was known. The story blends Roman Catholic saints with small town politics in a compelling way.

I would highly recommend this collection for lovers of the short story. If you don’t like short short stories though this is probably not for you.

Barthelme, Donald. Forty Stories. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987. Print.