Thank you all so much for taking the time to read this guide to The Culture. I hope it has inspired those of you who haven’t read it yet to pick up a book and reminded those of you who have how great this series is. I will leave you with this.
I’m sure by the time you finish reading this guide, you’ll be asking, “Andrew and Alex, if there are only ten books in the series, why only explain nine of them? Why not break down all ten?” Well, astute readers, the last book, though technically the fourth in terms of release, is a collection of short stories. There is some fun to be had within State of the Art but in a lot of ways, it feels disconnected from the rest of the series. There are weird little stories like “Odd Attachment,” which details a plant’s life amongst the stars, and actual Culture stories like “A Gift from the Culture.” However, there is not a particular theme that surfaces throughout each story, making it hard to do it justice in a single theme rundown. It’s not as deeply steeped within the universe that Banks has created.
That being said, I would be remiss if we didn’t bring up the titular short story, “State of the Art.”. In fact, if you read The Culture, you will learn that the short story spawned the idea for the Culture in Banks’ mind. Not only is it important to the development of the series as an idea, but I think it highlights one of the ideas we had brought up in the first part of this guide. The Culture is not an extension of humanity spawned from the Earth, but instead a civilization that has clawed its way from the primordial ooze of another solar system entirely. State of the Art is an exploration of what happens when the Culture happens across Earth. Taking place in the 1970s, this story follows Diziet Sma and the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw (both from Use of Weapons) as Sma attempts to convince the minds that Earth is worthy of contact, in order to save us from ourselves.
There are a few other characters and some interesting asides through the short story. I’m here less to explain the story, and more to impart to you why I think it’s important within the grand scheme of the series. Now, I’m going to give away the game here, so this is your one warning for spoilers on a one hundred-page story. The Minds decide that Earth is to remain ignorant of the Culture, and serve as a control point within their vast data field of civilizational development. Tragic, I know. Wouldn’t have been wonderful if we were pulled into this grand galactic coalition of humans vying for a better more human future? But it is not our fate, at least within Banks’ books.
To me, this imparts an important message, especially in an age of science fiction that tends to want to speculate more than it wants to warn or inspire. Science fiction has always been a genre centered around ideas, no matter how nebulous of a concept that is, that’s what it bills itself as. It’s what the readers look for, and what writers write. It’s the nature of the beast, and I have an intimate love-hate relationship with this central premise. What I love about Banks is he chose not to spit in the eye of this conceit, but embrace it wholly. He doesn’t solidify things by saying it’s us, and instead offers his readers a plethora of ideas about how we may want to live our lives. He dives into the ethical questions of how such a society would conduct itself, and without being rooted in our own history, allows one to explore these minefields with both in mind, but not have them intimately connected. Banks specifically says to his readers, “this is not us, but it could be.”