The state of the art, p.16
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       The State of the Art, p.16

           Iain M. Banks
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  ‘But Sma, they’re living according to their instincts, or trying to. We’re so proud of living according to our conscious belief, but we’ve lost the idea of shame. And we need that too. We need that even more than they do.’

  ‘What? ’ I shouted. I whirled round, took him by the shoulders and shook him. ‘We should be what? Ashamed of being conscious? Are you crazy? What’s wrong with you? How can you say something like that?’

  ‘Just listen! I don’t mean they’re better; I don’t mean we should try to live like them, I mean that they have an idea of . . . of light and shade that we don’t have. They’re proud sometimes, too, but they’re ashamed as well; they feel all-conquering and powerful but then they realize how powerless they really are. They know the good in them, but they know the evil in them, too; they recognize both, they live with both. We don’t have that duality, that balance. And . . . and can’t you see it might be more fulfilling for one individual - me - who has a Culture background who is aware of all life’s possibilities, to live in this society, not the Culture?’

  ‘So you find this . . . hellhole more fulfilling?’

  ‘Yes, of course I do. Because there’s - because it’s just so . . . alive. In the end, they’re right Sma; it doesn’t really matter that a lot of what’s going on is what we - or even they - might call “bad”; it’s happening, it’s there, and that’s what matters, that’s what makes it worthwhile to be here and be part of it.’

  I took my hands off his shoulders. ‘No. I don’t understand you. Dammit Linter, you’re more alien than they are. At least they have an excuse. God, you’re the fucking mythical recent convert, aren’t you? The fanatic. The zealot. I’m sorry for you, man.’

  ‘Well . . . thank you.’ He looked to the sky, blinking again. ‘I didn’t want you to understand me too quickly, and -’ he made a noise that was not quite a laugh ‘- I don’t think you are, are you?’

  ‘Don’t give me that pleading look.’ I shook my head, but I couldn’t stay angry with him looking like that. Something subsided in me, and I saw a sort of shy smile steal over Linter’s face. ‘I am not,’ I said, ‘going to make this easy for you, Dervley. You’re making a mistake. The biggest you’ll ever make in your life. You’d better realize you’re on your own. Don’t think a few plumbing changes and a new set of bowel bacteria are going to make you any closer to homo sapiens either.’

  ‘You’re a friend, Diziet. I’m glad you’re concerned . . . but I think I know what I’m doing.’ ›

  It was time for me to shake my head again, so I did. Linter held my hand while we walked back down to the bridge and then out of the park. I felt sorry for him because he seemed to have realized his own loneliness. We walked round the city for a while, then went to his apartment for lunch. His place was in a modern block down towards the harbour, not far from the massiveness of the city hall; a bare flat with white walls and little furniture. It hardly looked lived in at all save for a few late Lowry reproductions and sketches by Holbein.

  It had clouded over in late morning. I left after lunch. I think he expected me to stay, but I only wanted to get back to the ship.

  4.4: God Told Me To Do It

  ‘Why did I do what?’

  ‘What you did to Linter. Alter him. Revert him.’

  ‘Because he asked me to do it,’ the ship said. I was standing in the top hangar deck. I’d waited till I was back on the ship before I confronted it, via a remote drone.

  ‘And of course it had nothing to do with hoping he might dislike the feeling so much he’d come back into the fold. Nothing to do with trying to shock him with the pain of being human when the locals have at least had the advantage of growing up with it and getting used to the idea. Nothing to do with letting him inflict a physical and mental torture on himself so you could sit back and say “I told you so” after he came crying to you to take him back.’

  ‘Well as a matter of fact, no. You obviously believe I altered Linter for my own ends. That’s not true. I did what I did because Linter requested it. Certainly I tried to talk him out of it, but when I was convinced that he meant what he said and he knew what he was doing and what it entailed - and when I couldn’t reasonably decide he was mad - I did what he asked.

  ‘It did occur to me he might not enjoy the feeling of being something close to human-basic, but I thought it was obvious from what he’d said when we were talking it over beforehand that he didn’t expect to enjoy it. He knew it would be unpleasant, but he regarded it as a form of birth, or rebirth. I thought it unlikely he would be so unprepared for the experience, and so shocked by it, that he would want to be returned to his genofixed norm, and even less likely that he would go on from there to abandoning his idea of staying on Earth altogether.

  ‘I’m a little disappointed in you, Sma. I thought you would understand me. One’s object in trying to be scrupulously fair and even-handed is not to seek praise, I’m sure, but one would hope that having done something more honest than convenient, one’s motives would not be questioned in such an overtly suspicious manner. I could have refused Linter’s request; I could have claimed that I found the idea unpleasant and didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I could have built a perfectly adequate defence on aesthetic distaste alone; but I didn’t.

  ‘Three reasons: One; I’d have been lying. I don’t find Linter any more repellent or disgusting than I did before. What matters is his mind; his intellect and the state it’s in. Physiological details are largely irrelevant. Certainly his body is less efficient than it was before; less sophisticated, less damage-resistant, less flexible over a given range of conditions than, say, yours . . . but he’s living in the Twentieth Century West, and at a comparatively privileged economic level; he doesn’t have to have brilliant reflexes or better night-sight than an owl. So his integrity as a conscious entity is less affected by all the alterations I’ve carried out on him than it already was by the very decision to stay on Earth in the first place.

  ‘Two; if anything is going to convince Linter we’re the good guys, it’s being fair and reasonable even when he might not be being so. To turn on him because he’s not doing just as I would like, or just as any of us might like, would be to force him further into the idea that Earth is his home, humanity his kin.

  ‘Three; - and this would be sufficient reason by itself - what are we supposed to be about, Sma? What is the Culture? What do we believe in, even if it hardly ever is expressed, even if we are embarrassed about talking about it? Surely in freedom, more than anything else. A relativistic, changing sort of freedom, unbounded by laws or laid-down moral codes, but - in the end - just because it is so hard to pin down and express, a freedom of a far higher quality than anything to be found on any relevant scale on the planet beneath us at the moment.

  ‘The same technological expertise, the same productive surplus which, in pervading our society, first allows us to be here at all and after that allows us the degree of choice we have over what happens to Earth, long ago also allowed us to live exactly as we wish to live, limited only by being expected to respect the same principle applied to others. And that’s so basic that not only does every religion on Earth have some similar form of words in its literature, but almost every religion, philosophy or other belief system ever discovered anywhere else contains the same concept. It is the embedded achievement of that oft-expressed ideal that our society is - perversely - rather embarrassed about. We live with, use, simply get on with our freedom as much as the good people of Earth talk about it; and we talk about it as often as genuine examples of this shy concept can be found down there.

  ‘Dervley Linter is as much a product of our society as I am, and as such, or at least until he can be proved to be in some real sense “mad”, he’s perfectly correct in expecting to have his wishes fulfilled. Indeed the very fact he asked for such an alteration - and accepted it from me - may prove his thinking is still more Culture-than Earth-influenced.

  ‘In short, even if I had thought that I had sound tact
ical reasons for refusing his request, I’d have had just as difficult a job justifying such an action as I would have had I just snapped the guy off-planet the instant I realized what he was thinking. I can only be sure in myself that I am in the right in trying to get Linter to come back if I am positive that my own behaviour - as the most sophisticated entity involved - is beyond reproach, and in as close accord with the basic principles of our society as it is within my power to make it.’

  I looked at the drone’s sensing band. I’d stood stock still during all this, unreacting. I sighed.

  ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I don’t know; that sounds almost . . . noble.’ I folded my arms. ‘Only trouble is, ship, that I can never tell when you’re on the level and when you’re talking just for the sake of it.’

  The unit stayed where it was for a couple of seconds, then turned and glided off, without saying another word.

  4.5: Credibility Problem

  The next time I saw Li, he was wearing a uniform just like Captain Kirk’s in Star Trek.

  ‘Well, what on earth,’ I laughed.

  ‘Don’t mock, alien,’ Li scowled.

  I was reading Faust in German and watching two of my friends playing snooker. The gravity in the snooker room was a little less than standard, to make the balls roll right. I’d asked the ship (when it was still talking to me) why it hadn’t reduced its internal G to Earth’s average, as it had done with its day-night cycle. ‘Oh, it would have meant too much recalibration,’ the ship had said. ‘I couldn’t be bothered.’ How’s that for God-like omnipotence?

  ‘You won’t have heard,’ Li said, sitting beside me, ‘having been on EVA, but I’m intending to become captain of this tub.’

  ‘Are you really? Well that’s fascinating.’ I didn’t ask him what or where the hell EVA was. ‘And how exactly do you propose attaining this elevated, not to say unlikely position?’

  ‘I’m not sure yet,’ Li admitted, ‘but I think I have all the qualifications for the post.’

  ‘Consider the liminal cue given; I know you’re going to -’

  ‘Bravery, resourcefulness, intelligence, the ability to handle men - women -; a razor sharp wit and lightning fast reactions. Also loyalty and the ability to be ruthlessly objective when the safety of my ship and crew are at stake. Except, of course, when the safety of the Universe as we know it is at stake, in which case I would reluctantly have to consider making a brave and noble sacrifice. Naturally, should such a situation ever arise, I’d try to save the officers and crew who serve beneath me. I’d go down with the ship, of course.’

  ‘Of course. Well, that’s -’

  ‘Wait; there’s another quality I haven’t mentioned yet.’

  ‘Are there any left?’

  ‘Certainly. Ambition.’

  ‘Silly of me. Of course.’

  ‘It will not have escaped your attention that until now nobody ever thought of wanting to become captain of the Arb.’

  ‘A perhaps understandable lapse.’ Jhavins, one of my friends, brought off a fine cut on the black ball, and I applauded. ‘Good shot.’

  Li prodded my shoulder. ‘Listen properly.’

  ‘I’m listening, I’m listening.’

  ‘The point is that my wanting to become captain, I mean even thinking of the idea, means that I should be the captain, understand?’

  ‘Hmm.’ Jhavins was lining up an unlikely cannon on a distant red.

  Li made an exasperated noise. ‘You’re humouring me; I thought you at least would argue. You’re just like everybody else.’

  ‘Ah,’ I said. Jhavins hit the red, but just left it hanging over the pocket. I looked at Li. ‘An argument? All right; you - anybody - taking command of the ship is like a flea taking over control of a human . . . maybe even like a bacteria in their saliva taking them over.’

  ‘But why should it command itself? We made it; it didn’t make us.’

  ‘So? And anyway we didn’t make it; other machines made it . . . and even they only started it off; it mostly made itself. But anyway, you’d have to go back . . . I don’t know how many thousand generations of its ancestors before you found the last computer or spaceship built directly by any of our ancestors. Even if this mythical “we” had built it, it’s still zillions of times smarter than we are. Would you let an ant tell you what to do?’

  ‘Bacterium? Flea? Ant? Make up your mind.’

  ‘Oh go away and de-scale a mountain or something, you silly man.’

  ‘But we started all this; if it hadn’t been for us -’

  ‘And who started us? Some glop of goo on another rock-ball? A super-nova? The big bang? What’s starting something got to do with it?’

  ‘You don’t think I’m serious, do you?’

  ‘More terminal than serious.’

  ‘You wait,’ Li said, standing up and wagging a finger at me. ‘I’ll be captain one day. And you’ll be sorry; I had you down tentatively as science officer, but now you’ll be lucky to make nurse in the sickbay.’

  ‘Ah, away and piss on your dilithium crystals.’

  5. You Would If You Really Loved Me

  5.1: Sacrificial Victim

  I stayed on the ship for a few weeks after that. It started talking to me again after a couple of days. I forgot about Linter for a while; everybody on the Arbitrary seemed to be talking about new films or old films or books, or about what was happening in Kampuchea, or about Lanyares Sodel, who was off fighting with the Eritreans. Lanyares used to live on a plate where he and some of his pals played games of soldiers using live kinetic ammunition. I recalled hearing about this and being appalled; even with medical gear standing by and a full supply of drug glands it sounded slightly perverse, and when I’d found out they didn’t have anything to protect their heads, I’d decided these guys were crazy. You could have your brains splattered over the landscape! You could die!

  But they enjoyed the fear, I suppose. I’m told some people do.

  Anyway, Lanyares told the ship he wanted to take part in some real fighting. The ship tried to talk him out of it, but failed, so sent him down to Ethiopia. It tracked him by satellite and tailed him with scout missiles, ready to zap him back to the ship if he was badly wounded. After some badgering, and having obtained Lanyares’s permission, the ship put the view from the missiles trailing him onto an accessible channel, so anybody could watch. I thought this was in even more dubious taste.

  It didn’t last. After about ten days Lanyares got fed up because there wasn’t much happening and so he had himself taken back up to the ship. He didn’t mind the discomfort, he said, in fact it was almost pleasant in a masochistic sort of way, and certainly made shipboard life seem more attractive. But the rest had been so boring. Having a good ring-ding battle on a plate landscape designed for the purpose was much more fun. The ship told him he was silly and packed him back off to Rio de Janeiro to be a properly behaved culture-vulture again. Anyway, it could have sent him to Kampuchea, I suppose; altered him to make him look Cambodian and thrown him into the middle of the butchery of Year Zero. Somehow I don’t think that was quite what Lanyares had been looking for though.

  I travelled around more of Britain, East Germany and Austria when I wasn’t on the Arbitrary. The ship tried me in Pretoria for a few days, but I really couldn’t take it; perhaps if it had sent me there first I’d have been all right, but after nine months of Earth maybe even my Cultured nerves were getting frayed, and the land of Separate Development was just too much for me. I asked the ship about Linter a few times, but only received All-Purpose Non-Committal Reply Number 63a, or whatever, so after a bit I stopped asking.

  ‘What is beauty?’

  ‘Oh ship, really.’

  ‘No, I’m being serious. We have a disagreement here.’

  I stood in Frankfurt am Main, on a suspension footbridge over the river, talking to the ship via my terminal. One or two people looked at me as they walked by, but I wasn’t in the mood to care.

  ‘All right, then. Beauty is something th
at disappears when you try to define it.’

  ‘I don’t think you really believe that. Be serious.’

  ‘Look ship, I already know what the disagreement is. I believe that there is something, however difficult to define, which is shared by everything beautiful and cannot be signified by any other single word without obscuring more than is made clear. You think that beauty lies in utility.’

  ‘Well, more or less.’

  ‘So where’s Earth’s utility?’

  ‘Its utility lies in being a living machine. It forces people to act and react. At that it is close to the theoretical limits of efficiency for a non-conscious system.’

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