The state of the art, p.13
The State of the Art,
Iain M. Banks
He drew on the cigarette, studying me through the smoke. He crossed his legs and brushed some imaginary fluff off the trouser cuffs and stared at his shoes. ‘I’ve told the ship that when it leaves, I’m staying here on Earth. Regardless of what else might happen.’ He shrugged. ‘Whether we contact or not.’ He looked at me, challenging.
‘Any . . . particular reason?’ I tried to sound unfazed. I still thought it must be a woman.
‘Yes. I like the place.’ He made a noise between a snort and a laugh. ‘I feel alive for a change. I want to stay. I’m going to. I’m going to live here.’
‘You want to die here?’
He smiled, looked away from me, then back. ‘Yes.’ Quite positively. This shut me up for a moment.
I felt uncomfortable. I got up and walked round the room, looking at the bookshelves. He seemed to have read about the same amount as me. I wondered if he’d crammed it all, or read any of it at normal speed: Dostoevsky, Borges, Greene, Swift, Lucretius, Kafka, Austin, Grass, Bellow, Joyce, Confucius, Scott, Mailer, Camus, Hemingway, Dante. ‘You probably will die here, then,’ I said lightly. ‘I suspect the ship wants to observe, not contact. Of course -’
‘That’ll suit me. Fine.’
‘Hmm. Well, it isn’t . . . official yet, but I . . . that’s the way it’ll go, I suspect.’ I turned away from the books. ‘It does? You really want to die here? Are you serious? How -’
He was sitting forward in the chair, combing his black hair with one hand, pushing the long, ringed fingers through his curls. A silver stud decorated the lobe of his left ear.
‘Fine,’ he repeated. ‘It’ll suit me perfectly. We’ll ruin this place if we interfere.’
‘They’ll ruin it if we don’t.’
‘Don’t be trite, Sma.’ He stubbed the cigarette out hard, breaking it in half, mostly unsmoked.
‘And if they blow the place up?’
‘Well what?’ he demanded.
A siren sounded on the St Germain, dopplering. ‘Might be what they’re heading for. Want to see them moth themselves in front of their own -’
‘Ah, bullshit.’ His face crinkled with annoyance.
‘Bullshit yourself,’ I told him. ‘Even the ship’s worried. The only reason they haven’t made a final decision yet is because they know how bad it’ll look short term if they do.’
‘Sma, I don’t care. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to have any more to do with the ship or the Culture or anything connected with it.’
‘You must be crazy. As crazy as they are. They’ll kill you; you’ll get crushed under a truck or mangled in a plane crash or . . . burned up in some fire or something . . .’
‘So I take my chances.’
‘Well . . . what about what they’d call the “security” aspect? What if you’re only injured and they take you to hospital? You’ll never get out again; they’ll take one look at your guts or your blood and they’ll know you’re alien. You’ll have the military all over you. They’ll dissect you.’
‘Not very likely. But if it happens, it happens.’
I sat down again. I was reacting just the way the ship had known I would. I thought Linter was mad just the way the Arbitrary did, and it was using me to try and talk some sense into him. Doubtless the ship had already tried, but equally obviously the nature of Linter’s decision was such that the Arbitrary was the last thing that was going to have any influence. Technologically and morally the ship represented the most finely articulated statement the Culture was capable of producing, and that very sophistication had the beast hamstrung, here.
I have to admit I felt a degree of admiration for Linter’s stand, even though I still thought he was being stupid. There might or might not be a local involved, but I was already getting the impression it was more complicated - and more difficult to handle - than that. Maybe he had fallen in love, but not with anything as simple as a person. Maybe he’d fallen in love with Earth itself; the whole fucking planet. So much for Contact screening; they were supposed to keep people out who might fall like that. If that was what had happened then the ship had problems indeed. Falling in love with somebody, they say, is a little like getting a tune into your head and not being able to stop whistling it . . . except much more so, and - from what I’d heard - going native the way I suspected Linter might be was as far beyond loving another person as that was beyond getting a tune stuck in your head.
I felt suddenly angry, at Linter and the ship.
‘I think you’re taking a very selfish and stupid risk that’s not just bad for you, and bad for the . . . for us; for the Culture, but also bad for these people. If you do get caught, if you’re discovered . . . they are going to get paranoid, and they might feel threatened and hostile in any contact they are involved, in or ex. You could send them . . . make them crazy. Insane.’
‘You said they were that already.’
‘And you do stand a less chance of living your full term. Even if you don’t; so you live for centuries. How d’you explain that?’
‘They may have anti-geriatrics themselves by that time. Besides, I can always move around.’
‘They won’t have anti-geriatrics for fifty years or more; centuries if they relapse, even without a Holocaust. Yeah; so move around, make yourself a fugitive, stay alien, stay apart. You’ll be as cut off from them as you will be from us. Ah hell, you always will be anyway.’ I was talking loudly by now. I waved one arm at the bookshelves. ‘Sure read the books and see the films and go to concerts and theatre and opera and all that shit; you can’t become them. You’ll still have Culture eyes, Culture brain; you can’t just . . . can’t deny all that, pretend it never happened.’ I stamped one foot on the floor. ‘God dammit, Linter, you’re just being ungrateful!’
‘Listen, Sma,’ he said, rising out of the seat, grabbing his beer and stalking about the room, gazing out of the windows. ‘Neither of us owes the Culture anything. You know that . . . Owing and being obliged and having duties and responsibilities and everything like that . . . that’s what these people have to worry about.’ He turned round to look at me. ‘But not me, not us. You do what you want to do, the ship does what it wants to do. I do what I want to do. All’s well. Let’s just leave each other alone, yes?’ He looked back at the small courtyard, finishing his beer.
‘You want to be like them, but you don’t want to have their responsibilities.’
‘I didn’t say I wanted to be like them. To . . . to whatever extent I do, I want to have the same sort of responsibilities, and that doesn’t include worrying about what a Culture starship thinks. That isn’t something any of them normally tend to worry about.’
‘What if Contact surprises us both, and does come in?’
‘I doubt that.’
‘Me too, very much; that’s why I think it might happen.’
‘I don’t think so. Though it is we who need them, not the other way round.’ Linter turned and stared at me, but I wasn’t going to start arguing on a second front now. ‘But,’ he said after a pause, ‘the Culture can do without me.’ He inspected his drained glass. ‘It’s going to have to.’
I was silent for a while, watching the television flip through channels. ‘What about you though?’ I asked eventually. ‘Can you do without it?’
‘Easily,’ Linter laughed. ‘Listen, d’you think I haven’t -’
‘No; you listen. How long do you think this place is going to stay the way it is now? Ten years? Twenty? Can’t you see how much this place has to alter . . . in just the next century? We’re so used to things staying much the same, to society and technology - at least immediately available technology - hardly changing over our lifetimes that . . . I don’t know any of us could cope for long down here. I think it’ll affect you a lot more than the locals. They’re used to change, used to it all happening fast. All right, you like the way it is now, but what happens later? What if 2077 is as different from now as this is from 1877? This migh
He just stood looking at me. The TV showed part of a ballet in black and white, then an interview; two white men who looked American somehow (and the fuzzy picture looked US standard), then a quiz show, then a puppet show, again in monochrome. You could see the strings. Linter put his glass down on the granite table and went over to the Hi-fi, turning on the tape deck. I wondered what little bit of planetary accomplishment I was going to be treated to.
The picture on the screen settled to one programme for a while. It looked vaguely familiar; I was sure I’d seen it. A play; last century . . . American writer, but . . . (Linter went back to his seat, while the music began; the Four Seasons.)
Henry James, The Ambassadors. It was a TV production I’d seen on the BBC while I was in London . . . or maybe the ship had repeated it. I couldn’t recall. What I did recall was the plot and the setting, both of which seemed so apposite to my little scene with Linter that I started to wonder whether the beast upstairs was watching all this. Probably was, come to think of it. And not much point in looking for anything; the ship could produce bugs so small the main problem with camera stability was Brownian motion. Was The Ambassadors a sign from it then? Whatever; the play was replaced by a commercial for Odor-Eaters.
‘I’ve told you,’ Linter brought me back from my musings, speaking quietly, ‘I’m prepared to take my chances. Do you think I haven’t thought it all through before, many times? This isn’t sudden, Sma; I felt like this my first day here, but I waited for months before I said anything, so I’d be sure. It’s what I’ve been looking for all my life, what I’ve always wanted. I always knew I’d know it when I found it, and I have.’ He shook his head; sadly, I thought. ‘I’m staying, Sma.’
I shut up. I suspected that despite what he’d just said he hadn’t thought about how much the planet would change during his long likely lifetime, and there were still other things to be said, but I didn’t want to press too hard too quickly. I made myself relax on the couch and shrugged. ‘Anyway, we don’t know for sure what the ship’s going to do; what they’ll decide.’
He nodded, picked up a paperweight from the granite table and turned it over and over in his hand. The music shimmered through the room, like the sun on water reflected; points producing lines, dancing quietly. ‘I know,’ he said, still gazing at the heavy globe of twisted glass, ‘this must seem like a mad idea . . . but I just . . . just want the place.’ He looked at me - for the first time, I thought - without a challenging scowl or stern coolness.
‘I know what you mean,’ I said. ‘But I can’t understand it perfectly . . . maybe I’m more suspicious than you are; it’s just you tend to be more concerned for other people than for yourself sometimes . . . you assume they haven’t thought things through the way you would have yourself.’ I sighed, almost laughed. ‘I guess I’m assuming you’ll . . . hoping you’ll change your mind.’
Linter was silent for a while, still studying the hemisphere of coloured glass. ‘Maybe I will.’ He shrugged massively. ‘Maybe I will,’ he said, looking at me speculatively. He coughed. ‘Did the ship tell you I’ve been to India?’
‘India? No; no, it didn’t.’
‘I went there for a couple of weeks. I didn’t tell the Arbitrary I was going, though it found out, of course.’
‘Why? I mean why did you want to go?’
‘I wanted to see the place,’ Linter said, sitting forward in the seat, rubbing the paperweight, then replacing it on the granite table and rubbing his palms together. ‘It was beautiful . . . beautiful. If I’d had any second thoughts, they vanished there.’ He looked at me, face suddenly open, intent, his hands outstretched, fingers wide. ‘It’s the contrast, the . . .’ he looked away, apparently made less articulate by the vividness of the impression. ‘. . . the highlights, the light and shade of it all. The squalor and the muck, the cripples and the swollen bellies; the whole poverty of it makes the beauty stand out . . . a single pretty girl in the crowds of Calcutta seems like an impossibly fragile bloom, like a . . . I mean you can’t believe that the filth and the poverty hasn’t somehow contaminated her . . . it’s like a miracle . . . a revelation. Then you realize that she’ll only be like that for a few years, that she’ll only live a few decades, then she’ll wear and have six kids and wither . . . The feeling, the realization, the staggering . . .’ his voice trailed off and he looked, slightly helplessly, almost vulnerably, at me. It was just the point at which to make my most telling, cutting comment. But also just the point at which I could do no such thing.
So I sat still, saying nothing, and Linter said, ‘I don’t know how to explain it. It’s alive. I’m alive. If I did die tomorrow it would have been worth it just for these last few months. I know I’m taking a risk in staying, but that’s the whole point. I know I might feel lonely and afraid. I expect that’s going to happen, now and again, but it’ll be worth it. The loneliness will make the rest worth it. We expect everything to be set up just as we like it, but these people don’t; they’re used to having good and bad mixed in together. And that gives them an interest in living, it makes them appreciate opportunities . . . these people know what tragedy is, Sma. They live it. We’re just an audience.’ ›
He sat there, looking away from me, while I stared at him. The big-city noise grumbled beyond us, and the sunlight came and went in the room as shadows of clouds passed over us and I thought; you poor bastard, you poor schmuck, they’ve got you.
Here we are with our fabulous GCU, our supreme machine; capable of outgenerating their entire civilization and taking in Proxima Centauri on a day trip; packed with technology compared to which their citybusters are squibs and their Crays are less than calculators; a vessel casually sublime in its impregnable power and inexhaustible knowledge . . . here we are with our ship and our modules and platforms, satellites and scooters and drones and bugs, sieving their planet for its most precious art, its most sensitive secrets, its finest thoughts and greatest achievements; plundering their civilization more comprehensively than all the invaders in their history put together, giving not a damn for their puny armaments, paying a hundred times more attention to their art and history and philosophy than to their eclipsed science, glancing at their religions and politics the way a doctor would at symptoms . . . and for all that, for all our power and our superiority in scale, science, technology, thought and behaviour, here was this poor sucker, besotted with them when they didn’t even know he existed, spellbound with them, adoring them; and powerless. An immoral victory for the barbarians.
Not that I was in a much better position myself. I may have wanted the exact opposite of Dervley Linter, but I very much doubted I was going to get my way, either. I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t want to keep them safe from us and let them devour themselves; I wanted maximum interference; I wanted to hit the place with a programme Lev Davidovitch would have been proud of. I wanted to see the junta generals fill their pants when they realized that the future is - in Earth terms - bright, bright red.
Naturally the ship thought I was crazy too. Perhaps it imagined Linter and I would cancel each other out somehow, and we’d both be restored to sanity.
So Linter wanted nothing done to the place, and I wanted everything done to it. The ship - along with whatever other Minds were helping it decide what to do - was probably going to come down closer to Linter’s position than mine, but that was the very reason the man couldn’t stay. He’d be a little randomly-set time bomb ticking away in the middle of the uncontaminated experiment that Earth was probably going to become; a parcel of radical contamination ready to Heisenberg the whole deal at any moment.
There was nothing
I got him to show me around Paris in the Rolls, then we ate - magnificently - in Montmartre, and ended up on the Left Bank, wandering the maze of streets and sampling a profligate number of wines and spirits. I had a room booked at the George, but stayed with Linter that night, just because it seemed the most natural thing to do - especially in that drunken state - and anyway it had been a while since I’d had somebody to hug during the night.
Next morning, before I set off for Berlin, we both exhibited just the right amount of embarrassment, and so parted friends.
3.3: Arrested Development
There is something about the very idea of a city which is central to the understanding of a planet like Earth, and particularly the understanding of that part of the then-existing group-civilization5 which called itself the West. That idea, to my mind, met its materialist apotheosis in Berlin at the time of the Wall.
The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes