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The State of the Art

Iain M. Banks

  A General Contact Unit is a machine. In Contact you live inside one, or several, plus a variety of Systems Vehicles, for most of your average thirty-year stint. I was just over halfway through my spell and I’d been on three GCUs; the Arbitrary had been my home for only a year before we found Earth, but the craft before it had been an Escarpment class too. So I was used to living in a device . . . nevertheless; I’d never felt so machine-trapped, so tangled and caught and snarled up as I did after an hour in the Big Apple.

  I don’t know if it was the traffic, the noise, the crowds, the soaring buildings or the starkly geometric expanses of streets and avenues (I mean, I’ve never even heard of a GSV which laid out its accommodation as regularly as Manhattan), or just everything together, but whatever it was, I didn’t like it. So; a bitterly cold, windy Saturday night in the big city on the Eastern seaboard, only a couple of weeks’ shopping left till Christmas, and me sitting in a little coffee shop on 42nd Street at eleven o’clock, waiting for the movies to end.

  What was Linter playing at? Going to see Close Encounters for the seventh time, indeed. I looked at my watch, drank my coffee, paid the check and left. I tightened the heavy wool coat about me, pulled on gloves and a hat. I wore needle-cords and knee-length leather boots. I looked around as I walked, a chill wind against my face.

  What really got to me was the predictability. It was like a jungle. Oslo a rock garden? Paris a parterre, with its follies, shady areas and breeze-block garages inset? London with that vaguely conservatory air, a badly kept museum haphazardly modernized? Wien a too severe version of Paris, high starch collared, and Berlin a long garden party in the ruins of a baroque sepulchre? Then New York a rainforest; an infested, towering, teeming jungle, full of great columns that scratched at the clouds but which stood with their feet in the rot, decay and swarming life beneath; steel on rock, glass blocking the sun; the ship’s living machine incarnate.

  I walked through the streets, dazzled and frightened. The Arbitrary was just a tap on my terminal away, ready to send help or bounce me up on an emergency displace, but I still felt scared. I’d never been in such an intimidating place. I walked up 42nd Street and carefully crossed Sixth Avenue to walk along its far side towards the movie theatre.

  People streamed out, talking in twos and groups, putting up collars, walking off quickly with their arms round each other to find someplace warm, or standing looking for a cab. Their breath misted the air in front of them, and from the lights of the mothership to the lights of the foyer to the lights of the snarling traffic they moved. Linter was one of the last out, looking thinner and paler than he had in Oslo, but brighter, quicker. He waved and came over to me. He buttoned up a fawn-coloured coat, then put his lips to my cheek as he reached for his gloves. ‘Mmm. Hello. You’re cold. Eaten yet? I’m hungry. Want to eat?’

  ‘Hello. I’m not cold. I’m not hungry either, but I’ll come and watch you. How are you?’

  ‘Fine. Fine,’ he smiled.

  He didn’t look fine. He looked better than I remembered, but in big city terms, he was a bit scruffy and not very well-fed looking. That fast, edgy, high-pressure urban life had infected him, I guess.

  He pulled on my arm. ‘Come on; let’s walk. I want to talk.’

  ‘All right.’ We started along the sidewalk. Bustle-hustle, all their signs and lights and racket and smell, the white noise of their existence, a focus of all the world’s business. How could they stand it? The bag ladies; the obvious loonies, eyes staring; the grotesquely obese; the cold vomit in the alleys and the bloodstains on the kerb; and all their signs, those slogans and lights and pictures, flickering and bright, entreating and ordering, enticing and demanding in a grammar of glowing gas and incandenscing wire.

  This was the soul of the machine, the ethological epicentre, the planetary ground zero of their commercial energy. I could almost feel it, shivering down like bomb-blasted rivers of glass from these undreaming towers of dark and light invading the snow-dark sky. Peace in the Middle East? the papers asked. Better celebrate Bokassa’s coronation instead; better footage. ‘You got a terminal?’ Linter said. He sounded eager somehow.

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘Turn it off?’ he said. His eyebrows rose. He looked like a child all of a sudden. ‘Please. I don’t want the ship to overhear.’

  I wanted to say something to the effect that the ship could have bugged every individual hair on his head, but didn’t. I turned the terminal brooch to standby.

  ‘You seen Close Encounters?’ Linter said, leaning towards me. We were heading in the direction of Broadway.

  I nodded. ‘Ship showed us it being made. We saw the final print before anybody.’

  ‘Oh yes, of course.’ People bumped into us, swaddled in their heavy clothes, insulated. ‘The ship said you’re leaving soon. Are you glad to be going?’

  ‘Yes, I am. I didn’t think I’d be, but I am. And you? Are you glad to be staying?’

  ‘Pardon?’ A police car charged past, then another, sirens whooping. I repeated what I’d said. Linter nodded and smiled at me. I thought his breath smelled. ‘Oh yes,’ he nodded. ‘Of course.’

  ‘I still think you’re a fool, you know. You’ll be sorry.’

  ‘Oh no, I don’t think so.’ He sounded confident, not looking at me, head held high as we walked down the street. ‘I don’t think so at all. I think I’m going to be very happy here.’

  Happy here. In the grand, cold design and the fake warmth of the neon, while the drunks brown-bagged and the addicts begged and the deadbeats searched for warmer gratings and a thicker cardboard box. It seemed worse here; you saw the same thing in Paris and London, but it seemed worse here. Take a step from a shop you had to have an appointment for, swathed in loot across the sidewalk to the Roller, Merc or Caddy purring at the kerb, while some poor fucked-up husk of a human lay just a spit away, but you’d never notice them noticing . . . Or maybe I was just too sensitive, shell-shocked; life really was a struggle on Earth, and the Culture’s 100 per cent non-com. A year was as much as you could have expected any of us to handle, and I was near the end of my resistance.

  ‘It’ll all work out, Sma. I’m very confident.’

  Fall in the street here and they just walk around you . . .

  ‘Yes, yes. I’m sure you’re right.’

  ‘Look.’ He stopped, turned me by the elbow so that we stood face to face. ‘I’m going to have to tell you. I know you probably won’t like me for it, but it’s important to me.’ I watched his eyes, shifting to look at each of mine in turn. His skin looked more mottled than I remembered; some pore-deep dirt.


  ‘I’m studying. I’m going to enter the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve found Jesus, Diziet; I’m saved. Can you understand that? Are you angry with me? Does it upset you?’

  ‘No, I’m not angry,’ I said flatly. ‘That’s great, Dervley. If you’re happy, I’m happy for you. Congratulations.’

  ‘That’s great!’ He hugged me. I was pressed against his chest; held; released. We resumed our walk, walking faster. He seemed pleased. ‘Damn, I can’t tell you Dizzy; it’s just so good to be here, to be alive and know there are so many people, so much happening! I wake up in the morning and I have to lie for a while just convincing myself I’m really here and it’s all really happening to me; I really do. I walk down the street and I look at the people; just look at them! A woman was killed in the place I stay in last week; can you imagine that? Nobody heard a thing. I go out and I go on buses and I buy papers and watch old movies in the afternoon. Yesterday I watched a man being talked down from the Queensboro bridge. I think people were disappointed. D’you know, when he came down he tried to claim he was a painter?’ Linter shook his head, grinning. ‘Hey, I read a terrible thing yesterday, you know? I read that there are times when there’s a really complicated birth and the baby’s caught inside the mother and probably already dead, and the doctor has to reach up inside the woman and take the baby’s skull in his hand and crush
it so they can save the mother. Isn’t that terrible? I don’t think I could have condoned that even before I found Jesus.’

  ‘Why couldn’t they have done a Caesarean?’

  ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I wondered about that myself. You know I was thinking about coming up to the ship?’ He looked briefly at me, nodded. ‘To see if anybody else might want to stay. I thought others might want to follow my example, especially after I’d talked to them, had a chance to explain. I thought they might see I was right.’

  ‘Why didn’t you?’ We stopped at another intersection. All the people charged around us, hurrying through the smells of burning petrol and cooking and rotten food. I smelled gas, and sometimes steam wrapped itself around us, damp and fragrant.

  ‘Why didn’t I?’ Linter mused, watching the DON’T WALK sign. ‘I didn’t think it would do any good. And I was afraid the ship might find a way of keeping me on board. Do you think I was foolish?’

  I looked at him, while the steam curled round us and the sign changed to WALK, but I didn’t say anything. An old guy came up to us on the far sidewalk and Linter gave him a quarter.

  ‘But I’ll be fine by myself anyway.’ We turned down Broadway, heading towards Madison Square, past shops and offices, theatres and hotels, bars and restaurants and apartment blocks. Linter put his arm round my waist, squeezed me. ‘Come on, Dizzy, you aren’t saying much.’

  ‘No, I’m not, am I?’

  ‘I guess you still think I’m being stupid.’

  ‘No more than the locals.’

  He smiled. ‘They’re really good people. What you don’t understand is you have to translate behaviour as well as language. Once you do realize that you’ll come to love these people the way I do. Sometimes I think they’ve come to terms with their technology better than we have, you know that?’

  ‘No.’ No I didn’t know that, here in mincerville, meat-grinder city. Come to terms with it; yeah sure . . . turn off the aiming computer, Luke; play the five tones; close your eyes and concentrate together, that’s the way . . . nobody here but us Clears . . . hand me down that orgone box . . .

  ‘I’m not getting through to you, Dizzy, am I? You’re all closed up, not really here. You’re halfway out the system already, aren’t you?’

  ‘I’m just tired,’ I told him. ‘Keep talking.’ I felt like a helpless, twitching, pink-eyed rat caught in a maze in some shining alien laboratory; vast and glittering with some lethal, inhuman purpose.

  ‘They do so well, considering. I know there’s a lot of horrible things going on, but it only seems so terrible because we pay so much attention to it. The vast majority of good stuff isn’t newsworthy; we don’t notice it. We don’t see what a good time most of these people are having. I’ve met a lot of quite happy people, you know; I have friends. I met them through my work.’ ‘You work?’ I was actually interested.

  ‘Ha ha. I thought the ship might not have told you that. Yes, I’ve had a job for the last couple of months; document translator for a big firm of lawyers.’


  ‘What was I saying? Oh yeah; lots of people have a quite acceptable life; they’re pretty comfortable in fact. People can have neat apartments, cars, holidays . . . and people can have children. That’s a good thing, you know; you see a lot more children on a planet like this. I like children. Don’t you?’

  ‘Yes. I thought everybody did.’

  ‘Ha, well . . . anyway . . . in some ways these people would consider us backward, you know that? I know it might sound dumb, but it isn’t. Look at transport; the aircraft I had on my home plate was on its third or fourth generation, nearly a thousand years old! These people change their automobiles every year! They have throw-away containers and disposable clothes and fashions that mean changing your clothes every year, every season! -’

  ‘Dervley -’

  ‘Compared to them, the Culture moves at a snail’s pace!’

  ‘Dervley, what was it you wanted to talk about?’

  ‘Huh? Talk about?’ Linter looked confused. We turned left onto Fifth Avenue. ‘Oh, nothing in particular, I guess. I just thought it’d be nice to see you before you left; wish you bon voyage. I hope you don’t mind. You don’t mind, do you? The ship said you might not want to come, but you don’t mind, do you?’

  ‘No, I don’t mind.’

  ‘Good. Good, I didn’t think . . .’ his voice trailed off. We walked on in our own silence, in the midst of the city’s continuous coughing and spitting and wheezing.

  I wanted to go. I wanted to get out of this city and off this continent and up from this planet and onto the ship and out of this system . . . but something kept me walking with him, walking and stopping, stepping down and out, across and up, like another obedient part of the machine, designed to move, to function, to keep going regardless, to keep pressing on and plugging away, warming up or falling down but always always moving, down to the drug store or up to company president or just to stay a moving target, hugging the rails on a course you hardly needed to see so could stay blinkered on, missing the fallers and the lame around you and the trampled ones behind. Perhaps he was right and any one of us could stay here with him, just vanish into the city-space and disappear forever and never be thought of again, never think again, just obey orders and ordinances and do what the place demands, start falling and never stop, never find any other purchase, and our twistings and turnings and writhings as we fall, exactly what the city expects, just what the doctor ordered . . .

  Linter stopped. He was looking through an iron grille at a shop selling religious statues, holy water containers, Bibles and commentaries, crosses and rosaries and crib and manger scenes. He stared down at it all, and I watched him. He nodded at the window display. ‘That’s what we’ve lost, you know. What you’ve lost; all of you. A sense of wonder and awe and . . . sin. These people know there are still things they don’t know, things that can still go wrong, things they can still do wrong. They still have the hope because the possibility is there. Without the possibility of failure, you can’t have hope. They have hope. The Culture has statistics. We - it; the Culture - is too certain, too organized and stifled. We’ve choked the life out of life; nothing’s left to chance. Take the chance of things going wrong out of life and it stops being life, don’t you see?’ His pinched, dark-browed face looked frustrated.

  ‘No, I don’t see,’ I told him.

  He ran one hand through his hair, shook his head. ‘Look; let’s eat, huh? I’m really hungry.’

  ‘OK; lead on. Where?’

  ‘This way; somewhere really special.’ We started off in the same direction again, came to the corner of 48th Street and turned up that. A cold wind blew around us, scattering papers. ‘What I mean is, you have to have that potential for wrongness there or you can’t live . . . or you can but it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t have the peak without the trough, or light without shade . . . it’s not that you must have evil to have good, but you must have the possibility for evil. That’s what the Church teaches, you know. That’s the choice that Man has; he can choose to be good or evil; God doesn’t force him to be evil any more than He forces him to be good. The choice is left to Man now as it was to Adam. Only in God is there any real chance of understanding and appreciating Free Will.’

  He pushed my elbow, steering me down an alley. A white and red sign glowed at the far end. I could smell food.

  ‘You have to see that. The Culture gives us so much, but in fact it’s only taking things away from us, lobotomizing everybody in it, taking away their choices, their potential for being really good or even slightly bad. But God, who is in all of us; yes, in you too, Diziet . . . perhaps even in the ship for all I know . . . God, who sees and knows all, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, in a way that no ship, no mere Mind can ever be; infinitely knowing, still allows us; poor, pathetic, fallible humanity - and by extension, pan-humanity . . . allows even us; the, the -’

  It was dark in the alley, but I should still have
seen them. I wasn’t even listening properly to Linter, I was just letting him witter on, not concentrating. So I should have seen them, but I didn’t, not until it was too late.

  They moved out from behind us, knocking over a dustcan, shouting, crashing into us. Linter spun around, letting go of my elbow, I turned quickly. Linter held up one hand and said - did not shout - something I didn’t catch. A figure rushed at me, half crouched. Somehow, without seeing it, I knew there was a knife.

  It all remains so clear, so measured. I suppose some secretion had taken over the instant my midbrain realized what was happening. It seemed very light in the alley, and everybody else was moving slowly, along lines like laser beams or cross-hairs, casting weighted shadows in front of them along those lines in the direction they were moving.

  I stepped to one side, letting the boy and the knife spin past. A right-foot trip and a little pressure on his wrist as he went by and he had to let the knife go. He stumbled and fell. I had the knife, and threw it far away down the alley before turning back to Linter.