The state of the art, p.14
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       The State of the Art, p.14

           Iain M. Banks
 
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  Perhaps I go into some sort of shock when I experience something deeply; I’m not sure, even at this ripe middle-age, but I have to admit that what I recall of Berlin is not arranged in my memory in any normal, chronological sequence. My only excuse is that Berlin itself was so abnormal - and yet so bizarrely representative - it was like something unreal; an occasionally macabre Disneyworld which was so much a part of the real world (and the realpolitik world), so much a crystallization of everything these people had managed to produce, wreck, reinstate, venerate, condemn and worship in their history that it defiantly transcended everything it exemplified, and took on a single - if multifariously faceted - meaning of its own; a sum, an answer, a statement no city in its right mind would want or be able to arrive at. I said we were more interested in Earth’s art than anything else; very well, Berlin was its masterpiece, an equivalent for the ship.

  I remember walking round the city, day and night, seeing buildings whose walls were still pocked with bullet holes from a war ended thirty-two years earlier. Lit, crowded, otherwise ordinary office buildings looked as though they’d been sandblasted with grains the size of tennis balls; police stations, apartment blocks, churches, park walls, the very sidewalks themselves bore the same stigmata of ancient violence, the mark of metal on stone.

  I could read those walls; reconstruct from that wreckage the events of a day, or an afternoon, or an hour, or just a few minutes. Here the machine-gun fire had sprayed, light ordinance like acid pitting, heavier guns leaving tracks like a succession of pickaxe blows on ice; here shaped-charge and kinetic weapons had pierced - the holes had been bricked up - and sprayed long rays of jagged holes across the stone; here a grenade had exploded, fragments blasting everywhere, shallow cratering the sidewalk and spraying the wall (or not; sometimes there was untouched stone in one direction, like a shrapnel shadow, where perhaps a soldier left his image on the city at the moment of his death).

  In one place all the marks, on a railway arch, were wildly slanted, cutting a swathe across one side of the arch, hitting the pavement, then slanting up on the other side of the alcove. I stood and wondered at that, then realized that three decades before some Red Army soldier had probably crouched there, drawing fire from a building across the street . . . I turned, and could even see which window . . .

  I took the West-operated U-bahn under the wall, cutting across from one part of West Berlin to the other, from Hallesches Tor to Tegel. At Friedrichstrasse you could quit the train and enter East Berlin, but the other stations under East were closed; guards with submachine guns stood watching the train rush through the deserted stations; an eerie blue glow lit this film-set of a scene, and the train’s passing sent ancient papers scattering, and lifted the torn corners of old posters still stuck to the wall. I had to make that journey twice, to be sure I hadn’t imagined it all; the other passengers had looked as bored and zombie-like as underground passengers usually do.

  There was something of that frightening, ghostly emptiness about the city itself at times. Although so surely enclosed, West Berlin was big; full of parks and trees and lakes - more so than most cities - and that, combined with the fact that people were still leaving the city in their tens of thousands each year (despite all sorts of grants and tax concessions designed to persuade them to stay) meant that while there was the same quality of high capitalist presence I’d been immersed in in London and sensed in Paris, the density was much reduced; there simply wasn’t the same pressure to develop and redevelop the land. So the city was full of those shot-up buildings and wide open spaces; bomb sites with shattered ruins on the skyline, empty-windowed and roofless like great abandoned ships adrift on seas of weeds. Alongside the elegance of the Kurfustendamm, this legacy of destruction and privation became just another vast art work, like the quaintly shattered steeple of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, set at the end of the K-damm like a folly at the end of an avenue of trees.

  Even the two rail systems contributed to the sense of unreality the city inspired, the sense of continually stepping from one continuum to another. Instead of the West running everything on its side, and the East everything on its, the East ran the S-bahn (above ground) on both sides, the West the U-bahn (underground) on both sides; the U-bahn served those ghostly stations under the East and the S-bahn had its own tumble-down, weed-strewn stations in the West. Both ignored the wall, indeed, because the S-bahn went over the top of it. And the S-bahn went underground in places. And the U-bahn surfaced frequently. Let me labour the point and say that even double-decker buses and double-decker trains added to the sense of a multilayered reality. In a place like Berlin, wrapping the Reichstag up like a parcel wasn’t even remotely as weird an idea as the city was itself.

  I went once via Friedrichstrasse and once through Checkpoint Charlie, into the East. Sure enough, there were places where time seemed to have stopped there too, and many of the buildings and signs looked as though a patina of dust had started settling over them thirty years ago, and never been disturbed since. There were shops in the East where one could only spend foreign currency. Somehow they just didn’t look like real shops; it was as though some seedy entrepreneur from a degenerate semi-socialist future had tried to create a fairground display modelled on a late twentieth-century capitalist shop, and failed, through lack of imagination.

  It wasn’t convincing. I wasn’t convinced. I was a little shaken, too. Was this farce, this gloomy sideshow trying to mimic the West - and not even doing that very well - the best job the locals could make of socialism? Maybe there was something so basically wrong with them even the ship hadn’t spotted it yet; some genetic flaw that meant they were never going to be able to live and work together without an external threat; never stop fighting, never stop making their awful, awesome, bloody messes. Perhaps despite all our resources there was nothing we could do for them.

  The feeling passed. There was nothing to prove this wasn’t just a momentary, and - coming so early - understandable aberration. Their history wasn’t so far off the mean track, they were going through what a thousand other civilizations had gone through, and no doubt in the childhood of each of those there had been countless occasions when all any decent, well-balanced, reasonable and humanely concerned observer would have wanted to do was scream in despair.

  It was ironic that in this so-called Communist capital they were so interested in money; at least a dozen people came up to me in the East and asked me if I wanted to change some. Would this represent a qualitative or quantitative change? I asked (blank looks, mostly). ‘Money implies poverty,’ I quoted them. Hell, they should engrave that in stone over the hangar door of every GCU.

  I stayed for a month, visiting all the tourist haunts, walking and driving and training and busing through the city, sailing on and swimming in the Havel, and riding through Grunewald and Spandau forests.

  I left by the Hamburg corridor, at the ship’s suggestion. The road went through villages stuck in the fifties. The eighteen fifties, sometimes; chimney sweeps on bikes wore tall black hats and carried their black-caned brushes over their shoulders like huge sooty daisies stolen from a giant’s garden. I felt quite self-conscious and rich in my big red Volvo.

  I left the car on a track by the side of the Elbe that night. A module sighed out of the darkness, dark on dark, and took me to the ship, which was over the Pacific at the time, tracking a school of sperm whales directly beneath and plundering their great barrel-brains with its effectors while they sang.

  4: Heresiarch

  4.1: Minority Report

  I should have known not to tell Li’ndane about Paris and Berlin, but I did. I was floating in the AG space with a few other people after a dip in the ship’s pool. I’d actually been talking to my friends, Roghres Shasapt and Tagm Lokri, but Li was there, eavesdropping avidly.

  ‘Ah,’ he said, floating over to wag one finger under my nose. ‘That’s it.’

  ‘That’s what?’

  ‘That monument. I see it now. Think about it.’
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  ‘The memorial to the Deportation, in Paris, you mean.’

  ‘Cunt. That’s what I mean.’

  I shook my head. ‘Li, I don’t think I know what you’re talking about.’

  ‘Ah, he’s just lusting,’ Roghres said. ‘He pined when you left last time.’

  ‘Nonsense,’ Li said, and flicked a blob of water at Roghres. ‘What I’m talking about is this; most memorials are like pricks; cenotaphs; columns. That monument Sma saw is a cunt; it’s even in a divide of the river; very pubic. From this, and Sma’s overall attitude, it’s obvious that Sma is sublimating her sexuality in all this Contact nonsense.’

  ‘Well I never knew that,’ I said.

  ‘Basically, what you want, Diziet, is to be fucked by an entire civilization, an entire planet. I suppose this makes you a good little Contact operative, if that’s what you want to be -’

  ‘Li, of course, is only here for the different tan,’ Tagm interrupted.

  ‘- but I would say,’ Li continued, ‘that it’s better not to sublimate anything. If what you want is a good screw -’ (Li used the English word) ‘- then a good screw is what you ought to have, not a meaningful confrontation with a backwater rockball infested with slavering death-zealots on a terminal power trip.’ ‘I still say it’s you who wants the good screw,’ Roghres said.

  ‘Exactly!’ Li exclaimed, throwing his arms wide, scattering more water drops, wobbling in the null G. ‘But I don’t deny it.’

  ‘Just Mr Natural,’ Tagm nodded.

  ‘What’s wrong with being natural?’ demanded Li.

  ‘But I remember just the other day you were saying that the trouble with humans is that they were too natural, not civilized enough,’ Tagm said, then turned to me. ‘Mind you, that was then; Li can change his colours faster than a GCU going for a refit record.’

  ‘There’s natural and natural,’ Li said. ‘I’m naturally civilized and they’re naturally barbarians, therefore I should be as natural as possible and they should do all they can not to be. But this is getting off the subject. What I say is that Sma has a definite psychological problem and I think that as I’m the only person on this machine interested in Freudian analysis, I should be the one to help her.’

  ‘That’s unbelievably kind of you,’ I told Li.

  ‘Not at all,’ Li waved his hand. He must have scattered most of his water drops towards us, because he was gradually floating away from us, towards the far end of the AG hall.

  ‘Freud!’ snorted Roghres derisively, a little high on Jumble.

  ‘You heathen,’ said Li, eyes narrowed. ‘I suppose your heroes are Marx and Lenin.’

  ‘Hell no; I’m an Adam Smith man myself,’ muttered Roghres. She started to tumble head over heels in the air, doing slow foetal-spreadeagle exercises.

  ‘Rubbish,’ Li spat (literally, but I saw it coming and dodged).

  ‘Li, you really are the horniest6 human on this ship,’ Tagm told him. ‘You’re the one who needs the analyst. This obsession with sex, it’s just not -’

  ‘I’m obsessed with sex?’ Li said, poking himself in the chest with a thumb, then throwing back his head. ‘HA!’ He laughed. ‘Listen;’ he arranged himself in what would have passed for a lotus position on Earth, had there been a floor to sit on, and put one hand on his hip while pointing the other vaguely to his right; ‘they’re the ones obsessed with sex. Do you know how many words there are for “prick” in English? Or “cunt”? Hundreds; hundreds. How many have we got? One; one for each, for——7 usage as well as for anatomical designation. Neither of them swear-words. All I do is readily admit I want to put one in the other. Ready, willing and interested. What’s wrong with that?’

  ‘Nothing as such,’ I told him. ‘But there’s a point where interest becomes obsession, and I think most people regard obsession as a bad thing because it makes for less variety, less flexibility.’

  Li, still floating slowly away from us, nodded fiercely. ‘I’ll just say one thing; it’s an obsession with flexibility and variety that makes this so-called Culture so boring.’

  ‘Li started a Boredom Society while you were away,’ Tagm explained, smiling at me. ‘Nobody else joined though.’

  ‘It’s going very well,’ Li confirmed. ‘I’ve changed the title to the Ennui League, by the way. Yes, boredom is an underrated facet of existence in our pseudo-civilization. While at first I thought it might be interesting, in a boring sense, for people to be together when they were extremely bored, I realize now that it is a profoundly moving and deeply average experience to do nothing whatsoever entirely and completely by yourself.’

  ‘You think Earth has a lot to teach us in this respect?’ Tagm said, then turned and said to the nearest wall. ‘Ship, put the air on medium, would you?’

  ‘Earth is a deeply boring planet,’ Li said gravely, as one end of the hall began to waft the air towards us, and the other turned intake. We began to drift in the breeze. ‘Earth? Boring?’ I said. The water was drying on my skin.

  ‘What is the point of a planet where you can hardly set foot without tripping over somebody killing somebody else, or painting something or making music or pushing back the frontier of science or being tortured or killing themselves or dying in a car crash or hiding from the police or suffering from some absurd disease or -’

  We hit the soft, porous intake wall (‘Hey, this wall sucks!’ Roghres giggled), and the three of us bounced, and passed Li, a little behind us and travelling in the opposite direction, still heading for the wall. Roghres watched him going by with the studied interest of a bar drunk watching a fly on the rim of a glass. ‘Far out.’

  ‘Anyway,’ I said, as we passed. ‘How does all this make it boring? Surely there’s so much going on -’

  ‘That it’s deeply boring. An excess of boringness does not make a thing interesting except in the driest academic sense. A place is not boring if you have to look really hard for something which is interesting. If there is absolutely nothing interesting about any particular place, then that is a perfectly interesting and quintessentially un-boring place.’ Li hit the wall and bounced. We had slowed, stopped, and reversed, so were coming back down again. Roghres waved at Li as we passed him.

  ‘But,’ I said, ‘Earth - let me get this right - Earth, where everything’s happening, is so full of interesting things that it’s boring.’ I squinted at Li. ‘Is that what you mean?’

  ‘Something like that.’

  ‘You’re crazy.’

  ‘You’re boring.’

  4.2: Happy Idiot Talk

  I’d talked to the ship about Linter the day after I saw him in Paris, and a few times subsequently. I don’t think I was able to offer much hope that the man would change his mind; the ship used its Depressed voice when we talked about him.

  Of course if the ship wanted to it could have made the whole argument academic by just kidnapping Linter. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became that the ship had bugs or microdrones or something trailing the man; at the first hint that he was thinking about staying the Arbitrary would have made sure that it couldn’t lose him, even when he went out without his terminal. For all I knew it watched all of us, though it protested that it didn’t when I asked it (about Linter the ship was evasive, and there’s nothing more slippery in the galaxy than a GCU being cagey, so a straight answer was out of the question.8 But draw your own conclusions.)

  Nothing would have been easier, technically, for the ship to drug Linter, or have a drone stun him, and bundle him into a module. I suppose it could even have displaced him; beamed him up like in Star Trek (which the ship thought was a great hoot).9 But I couldn’t see it doing anything like that.

  I have yet to meet a ship - and I don’t think I’d like to meet a ship - that didn’t take far more pride in its mental abilities than its physical power, and for the ship to kidnap Linter would be an admission that it hadn’t had the wit to out-think the man. No doubt it would make the best possible job of justifying such an act if it did
do it, and it would certainly get away with it - no quorum of other Contact Minds would offer it the choice of exile or restructuring - but boy would it lose face. GCUs can be bitchy as hell, and the Arbitrary would be the laughing-stock of the Contact fleet for months, minimum.

  ‘Would you even think about it?’

  ‘I think of everything,’ the ship replied tartly. ‘But no, I don’t think I’d do it, even as a last resort.’

  A whole bunch of us had watched King Kong and now we were sitting by the ship’s pool, snacking on kazu and sampling some French wines (all ship-grown, but statistically more authentic than the real thing, it assured us . . . No, me neither). I’d been thinking about Linter, and asked a remote drone what contingency plans had been made if it came to the worst.10

 
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