The state of the art, p.10
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       The State of the Art, p.10
 

           Iain M. Banks
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  A little girl - long curly blonde hair, enormous blue eyes, with one of those unspillable plastic cups held chubbily in both hands - has just appeared in the aisle beside me, expression very serious. She’s gazing at me with that disinterested intensity only little kids seem to be capable of. Gone again.

  Absolutely gorgeous. But how do I know her parents aren’t Christian fundamentalists and she won’t grow up sincerely believing Darwin was an agent of the devil and evolution a dangerous nonsense?

  I guess I don’t. (Hey! I used ‘guess’ instead of ‘suppose’! I’m thinking like an American already!) I guess I don’t, and it wouldn’t matter if I did. Let the crazies burn rock albums and hunt the Ark on Ararat; let them look stupid while we look to the future. We just have to hope there are always more of us than there are of them, or at least that we are more influential, better placed. Whatever.

  Whatever indeed. I smell food. My semi-circular canals tell me - I think - that we are starting to level out, reaching our cruising altitude. Dark outside the windows. Last coincidence:

  I never did specify in the poem, but the wee daft town - dismal, rain-soaked - in ‘Jack’ was called Lockerbie (about the only time you might have seen or heard the name was when we were driving up to Scotland - it’s just off the A74, not far over the border). And - according to this handy route map in my very own complimentary Pan Am in-flight mag - we’ll fly right over it. I suspect old Jack kicked the bucket years ago, to go to whatever award he imagined might be his, but if he isn’t dead, and he does look out of his window tonight (and he finally cleaned his glasses), I wonder if he

  (Piece PP/n.k.no. 29271, recovered grid ref. NY 241 770, at 1435 on 24/12/88. A4 Refill Pad, part, torn.)

  The State of the Art

  CONTENTS

  1. Excuses And Accusations

  2. Stranger Here Myself2.1: Well I Was In The Neighbourhood

  2.2: A Ship With A View

  2.3: Unwitting Accomplice

  3. Helpless In The Face Of Your Beauty3.1: Synchronize Your Dogmas

  3.2: Just Another Victim Of The Ambient Morality

  3.3: Arrested Development

  4. Heresiarch4.1: Minority Report

  4.2: Happy Idiot Talk

  4.3: Ablation

  4.4: God Told Me To Do It

  4.5: Credibility Problem

  5. You Would If You Really Loved Me5.1: Sacrificial Victim

  5.2: Not Wanted On Voyage

  6. Undesirable Alien6.1: You’ll Thank Me Later

  6.2: The Precise Nature Of The Catastrophe

  6.3: Halation Effect

  6.4: Dramatic Exit, Or,

  Thank You And Goodnight

  7. Perfidy, Or, A Few Words From ‘The Drone’

  The State of the Art

  1: Excuses And Accusations

  Dear Mr Petrain

  I do hope you will accept my apologies for keeping you waiting so long. Included herewith - at last! - is the information you asked me for all that time ago. My personal well-being, after which you so kindly enquired, is all I could hope for. As you will probably have been told, and doubtless observed from my location (or rather lack of it) above, I am no longer in Contact ordinaire, and my position in Special Circumstances is such that I occasionally have to leave my present address for considerable periods of time, often with only a few hours notice during which to attend personally to any outstanding business. Apart from these sporadic jaunts, my life is one of lazy luxury on a sophisticated stage three-four (uncontacted) where I enjoy all the benefits of an interestingly, if not exotically, foreign planet sufficiently developed to possess a reasonably civilized demeanour without suffering overmuch the global sameness which so often accompanies such progress.

  A pleasant life, then, and when I am called away it usually feels more like a holiday than an unwelcome interruption. In fact, the only grit in the eye is a rather self-important Offensive-model drone whose exaggerated concern for my physical safety, if not my peace of mind, frequently becomes more exasperating than it is comforting (my theory is that SC finds drones whose robust pugnacity has led them to some overly-violent act in the past and then tells these pathological devices to guard their human Special Circumstancer successfully, or be componented. But that is by the bye).

  Anyway, what with the remoteness of my habitation and the fact I’ve been off-planet for the past hundred days or so (with drone, of course), and the delay while I consulted my notes and tried to dig from my memory what scraps of conversation and ‘atmosphere’ I could, and then fretting over the best way to present the resulting data . . . well, all this has taken rather a long time, and to be honest the sedate mode of my present life has not helped me to be as brisk as I would have liked in the execution of this task.

  I am glad to hear that you are only one of many scholars specializing in Earth; I always did think the place well worth studying, and perhaps even learning from. Thankfully, then, you will have all the information that could possibly qualify as background, and I apologize in advance if anything I include doubles on this; but while I have stuck as strictly as memory (machine and human) will allow to what actually happened those hundred and fifteen years ago, I have nevertheless tried to make the presentation of the following events and impressions as general and self-contained as possible, believing this to be the best way of attempting to conform with your request to describe what it really felt like to be there at the time. I trust this combination of fact and sensation does not unduly affect the utility of either when you come to process the result in the course of your studies, but in the event that it does, and also if you have any other questions about Earth at that time which you think I might be able to help answer, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me; I am only too happy to shed what light I can on a place that affected everyone who was there both profoundly and - in the main, I suspect - permanently.

  What follows, then, is as much as I and my bank can remember. The conversations I have had to reconstruct, as a rule; I did not then practise full-record, it being a minor piece of the ship’s (frankly tediously) eccentric etiquette not to ‘over-observe’ (its words) life on board. Some dialogue, mostly on-planet, was recorded, however, and I have placed these sections between the following two symbols: ‹ ›. They have undergone a degree of tidying up - removing the usual ‘umms’ and ‘ahs’ and so on - but the original recordings are available to you from my bank without further authorization, should you feel you require them. For the sake of brevity I have reduced all Full Names to one or two parts, and done my best to anglicize them. All the times and dates are Earth-relative /local (Christian calendar).

  Incidentally, I was most pleased to receive your news about the Arbitrary and its escapades over these last few decades; I confess to having been rather out of touch recently, and became quite nostalgic on hearing again of that misfit machine.

  But back to Earth, and back all those years ago, and by the way my English has suffered over the past century of neglect; the drone is translating all this, and any mistakes are bound to be its.

  Diziet Sma

  2: Stranger Here Myself

  2.1: Well I Was In The Neighbourhood

  By the spring of the year 1977 AD, the General Contact Unit Arbitrary had been stationed above the planet Earth for the best part of six months. The ship, of the Escarpment class, middle series, had arrived during the previous November after clipping the edge of the planet’s expanding electro-magnetic emission shell while on what it claimed was a random search. How random the search pattern was I don’t know; the ship might well have had some information it wasn’t telling us about, some scrap of rumour half remembered from somebody’s long-discredited archives, multitudinously translated and re-transmitted, vague and uncertain after all that time and movement and change; just a mention that there was an intelligent human-ish species there, or at least the beginnings of one, or the possibility of one . . . You could ask the ship itself about this easily enough, but getting an answer might be another
matter (you know what GCUs are like).

  Anyway, there we were over an almost classic sophisticated stage three perfect enough to have come right out of the book, from a footnote if not a main chapter. I think everybody, including the ship, was delighted. We all knew the chances of stumbling across something like Earth were remote, even looking in the most likely places (which we weren’t, officially), yet all we had to do was switch on the nearest screen or our own terminals and see it hanging there, in real space, less than a microsecond away, shining blue and white (or black velvet scattered with light motes), its wide, innocent face ever changing. I remember staring at it for hours at a time on occasion, watching the weather patterns’ slow swirl if we were stationary relative to it, or gazing at its rolling curve of water, cloud and land mass if we were moving. It looked at once serene and warm, implacable and vulnerable. The contradictory nature of these impressions worried me for reasons I could not fully articulate, and contributed to a vague feeling of apprehension I already had that somehow the place was a little too close to some perfection, slightly too textbookish for its own good.

  It needed thinking about, of course. Even while the Arbitrary was still turning and decelerating, and then running through the old radio waves on its way to their source, it was both pondering itself and signalling the General Systems Vehicle Bad For Business, which was tramping a thousand years core-ward, and which we had left after a rest and refit only a year before. What else the Bad might have contacted to help it mull over the problem is probably on record somewhere, but I haven’t considered it important enough to search out. While the Arbitrary described graceful power-orbits around Earth and the great Minds were considering whether to contact or not, most of us in the Arbitrary were in a frenzy of preparation.

  For the first few months of its stay the ship acted like a gigantic sponge, soaking up every scrap, every bit of information it could find anywhere on the planet, scouring tape and card and file and disc and fiche and film and tablet and page and scroll, recording and filming and photographing, measuring and charting and mapping, sorting and collating and analyzing.

  A fraction of this avalanche of data (it felt like a lot but it was actually pifflingly small, the ship assured us) was stuffed into the heads of those of us sufficiently close in physique to pass for human on Earth, after a little alteration (I got a couple of extra toes, a joint removed from each finger and a rather generalized ear, nose and cheekbone job. The ship insisted on teaching me to walk differently as well), and so by the start of ’77 I was fluent in German and English and probably knew more about the history and current affairs of the place than the vast majority of its inhabitants.

  I knew Dervley Linter moderately well, but then one knows everybody on a ship of only three hundred people. He had been on the Bad for Business at the same time as I, but we had only met after we both joined the Arbitrary. Both of us had been in Contact for about half the standard stretch, so neither of us were exactly novices. This, to me, makes his subsequent course of action doubly mystifying.

  I was based in London for January and February, spending the time tramping through museums (viewing exhibits the ship already had perfect 4D holos of, and not seeing the crated artefacts there wasn’t room to show which were stored in basements or somewhere else entirely, which the ship also had perfect holos of), going to movies (which the ship of course had copies of compiled from the very best prints), and - more relevantly, perhaps - attending concerts, plays, sports events and every sort and type of gathering and meeting the ship could discover. I spent quite a lot of time just walking around and looking, getting people talking. All very dutiful, but not always as easy or stress-free as it sounds; the bizarre sexual mores of the locals could make it surprisingly awkward for a woman simply to go up and start talking to a man. I suspect if I hadn’t been a good ten centimetres taller than the average male I’d have had more trouble than I did.

  My other problem was the ship itself. It was always trying to get me to visit as many places as possible, do as much as I could, see all the people I was able to; look at this, listen to that, meet her, talk to him, watch that, wear this . . . it wasn’t so much that we wanted to do different things - the ship rarely tried to get me to do anything I wouldn’t want to do - simply that the thing wanted me to be doing something all the time. I was its envoy to the city, its one human tendril, a root through which it sucked with all its might, trying to feed the apparently bottomless pit it called its memory.

  I took holidays from the rush, in the remote, wild places; Ireland’s Atlantic coast and the Scottish highlands and islands. In County Kerry, in Galway and Mayo, in Wester Ross and Sutherland and Mull and Lewis I dallied while the ship tried to bring me back with threats and cajolings and promises of all the exciting work it had for me to do.

  But in early March I was finished in London, so I was sent to Germany and told to wander, asked to drift and travel round and given a few places and dates, things to do and see and think about.

  Now that I had stopped using English, as it were, I felt free to start reading works in that language for pleasure, and that was what I did in my spare time, what little of it there was.

  The year turned, gradually there was less snow, the air became warmer, and after thousands upon thousands of kilometres of roads and railway tracks and dozens of hotel rooms, I was called back in late April to the ship, to reel off my thoughts and feelings to it. The ship was trying hard to get the mood of the planet, to form the sort of impression that only direct human interaction can provide the raw material for. It was sorting and rearranging and randomizing and re-sorting its data, looking for patterns and themes, and trying to gauge and relate all the sensations its human agents had encountered, measuring them against whatever conclusions of its own it had come to while swimming through the ocean of facts and figures it had already dredged from the world. We were by no means finished, of course, and I and all the others who were down on-planet would be there for some months yet, but it was time to get some first impressions.

  2.2: A Ship With A View

  ‘So you think we should contact, do you?’

  I was lying, sleepy and contented and full after a large dinner, sprawled over a cushion couch in a rec area with the lights dimmed, my feet on the arm of the seat, my arms folded, my eyes closed. A gentle, warm draught, vaguely Alpine in its fragrance, was displacing the smell of the food I and some of my friends had consumed. They were off playing some game in another part of the ship, and I could just hear their voices over the Bach I had persuaded the ship to like, and which it was now playing for me.

  ‘Yes I do. And as soon as possible, too.’

  ‘They’d be upset.’

  ‘Too bad. It’s for their own good.’ I opened my eyes and flashed what was, I hoped, a palpably contrived smile at the ship’s remote drone, which was sitting at a slightly drunken angle on the arm of the couch. Then I closed my eyes again.

  ‘Probably it would be, but that isn’t the point, really.’

  ‘What is the point then, really?’ I knew the answer too well already, but kept hoping the ship would come up with a more convincing reason than the one I knew it was going to give. Maybe one day.

  ‘How,’ the ship said through the drone, ‘can we be sure we’re doing the right thing? How do we know what is - or would be - for their own good, unless, over a very long period, we observe matched areas of interest - in this case planets - and compare the effects of contacting and not contacting?’

  ‘We ought to know well enough by now. Why sacrifice this place to some experiment we already know the results of?’

  ‘Why sacrifice it to your own restless conscience?’

  I opened one eye and looked at the remote drone on the couch arm. ‘A moment ago we agreed it would probably be for the best, for them, if we went in. Don’t try and cloud the issue. We could do it, we should do it. That’s what I think.’

  ‘Yes,’ said the ship, ‘but even so there would be technical difficulties, given
the volatility of the situation. They’re on a cusp; a highly heterogeneous but highly connected - and stressedly connected - civilization. I’m not sure that one approach could encompass the needs of their different systems. The particular stage of communication they’re at, combining rapidity and selectivity, usually with something added to the signal and almost always with something missed out, means that what passes for truth often has to travel at the speed of failing memories, changing attitudes and new generations. Even when this form of handicap is recognized all they ever try to do, as a rule, is codify it, manipulate it, tidy it up. Their attempts to filter become part of the noise, and they seem unable to bring any more thought to bear on the matter than that which leads them to try and simplify what can only be understood by coming to terms with its complexity.’

 
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