The state of the art, p.17
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       The State of the Art, p.17
 

           Iain M. Banks
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  ‘You sound like Linter. A living machine, indeed.’

  ‘Linter is not totally wrong, but he is like somebody who has found an injured bird and kept it past the time it is recovered, out of a protectiveness he would not like to admit is centred on himself, not the animal. Well, there may be nothing more we can do for Earth, and it’s time to let go . . . in this case it’s we who have to fly away, but you see what I mean.’

  ‘But you agree with Linter there is something beautiful about Earth, something aesthetically positive no Culture environment could match?’

  ‘Yes, I do. Few things are all gain. All we have ever done is maximize what happens to be considered “good” at any particular time. Despite what the locals may think, there is nothing intrinsically illogical or impossible about having a genuine, functioning Utopia, or removing badness without removing goodness, or pain without pleasure, or suffering without excitement . . . but on the other hand there is nothing to say that you can always fix things up just the way you want them without running up against the occasional problem. We have removed almost all the bad in our environment, but we have not quite kept all the good. Averaged out, we’re still way ahead, but we do have to yield to humans in some fields, and in the end of course theirs is a more interesting environment. Naturally so.’

  ‘“May you live in interesting times.”’

  ‘Quite.’

  ‘I can’t agree. I can’t see the utility or the beauty in that. All I’ll give you is that it might be a relevant stage to go through.’

  ‘Might be the same thing. A slight time-problem perhaps. You just happen to be here, now.’

  ‘As are they all.’

  I turned round and looked at a few of the people walking by. The autumn sun was low in the sky, a vivid red disc, dusty and gaseous and the colour of blood, and rubbed into these well-fed Western faces in an image of a poison-price. I looked them in the eyes, but they looked away; I felt like taking them by the collar and shaking them, screaming at them, telling them what they were doing wrong, telling them what was happening; the plotting militaries, the commercial frauds, the smooth corporate and governmental lies, the holocaust taking place in Kampuchea . . . and telling them too what was possible, how close they were, what they could do if they just got their planetary act together . . . but what was the point? I stood and looked at them, and found myself - half involuntarily - glanding slow, so that suddenly they all seemed to be moving in slow-motion, trailing past as though they were actors in a movie, and seen on a dodgy print that kept varying between darkness and graininess. ‘What hope for these people, ship?’ I heard myself murmur, voice slurred. It must have sounded like a squawk to anybody else. I turned away from them, looking down at the river.

  ‘Their children’s children will die before you even look old, Diziet. Their grandparents are younger than you are now . . . In your terms, there is no hope for them. In theirs, every hope.’

  ‘And we’re going to use the poor bastards as a control group.’

  ‘We’re probably just going to watch, yes.’

  ‘Sit back and do nothing.’

  ‘Watching is a form of doing. And, we aren’t taking anything away from them. It’ll be as if we were never here.’

  ‘Apart from Linter.’

  ‘Yes,’ sighed the ship. ‘Apart from Mr Problem.’

  ‘Oh ship, can’t we at least stop them on the brink? If they do press the button, couldn’t we junk the missiles when they’re in flight, once they’ve had their chance to do it their way and blown it . . . couldn’t we come in then? It would have served its purpose as a control by then.’

  ‘Diziet, you know that’s not true. We’re talking about the next ten thousand years at least, not the lead time to the Third World War. Being able to stop it isn’t the point; it’s whether in the very long result it is the right thing to do.’

  ‘Great,’ I whispered to the swirling dark waters of the Main. ‘So how many infants have to grow up under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, and just possibly die screaming inside the radioactive rubble, just for us to be sure we’re doing the right thing? How certain do we have to be? How long must we wait? How long must we make them wait? Who elected us God?’

  ‘Diziet,’ the ship said, its voice sorrowful, ‘that question is being asked all the time, and put in as many different ways as we have the wit to devise . . . and that moral equation is being re-assessed every nano-second of every day of every year, and every time we find some place like Earth - no matter what way the decision goes - we come closer to knowing the truth. But we can never be absolutely certain. Absolute certainty isn’t even a choice on the menu, most times.’ There was a pause. Footsteps came and went behind me on the bridge.

  ‘Sma,’ the ship said finally, with a hint of what might have been frustration in its voice, ‘I’m the smartest thing for a hundred light years radius, and by a factor of about a million . . . but even I can’t predict where a snooker ball’s going to end up after more than six collisions.’

  I snorted, could almost have laughed.

  ‘Well,’ the ship said, ‘I think you’d better be on your way now.’

  ‘Oh?’

  ‘Yes. A passer-by has reported a woman on the bridge, talking to herself and looking at the water. A policeman is now on his way to investigate, probably already wondering how cold the water is, and so I think you should turn to your left and walk smartly away before he arrives.’

  ‘Right you are,’ I said. I shook my head as I walked off in the dusk light. ‘Funny old world, isn’t it, ship?’ I said, more to myself than to it.

  The ship said nothing. The suspended bridge, big as it was, responded to my stepping feet, moving up and down at me like some monstrous and clumsy lover.

  5.2: Not Wanted On Voyage

  Back on the ship.

  For a few hours the Arbitrary had left the world’s snowflakes unmolested, and gone collecting other samples at Li’s request.

  The first time Li saw me on the ship he’d come up to me and whispered, ‘Take him to see The Man Who Fell To Earth,’ and slunk off. The next time I saw him he claimed it was the first time and I must be hallucinating if I thought we’d met before. A fine way to greet a friend and admirer, claiming he’d been going about whispering cryptic messages . . .

  So; one moonless, November night, darkside over the Tarim Basin . . .

  Li was giving a dinner party.

  He was still trying to become captain of the Arbitrary, but he seemed to have his ideas about rank and democracy mixed up, because he thought the best way to become ‘skipper’ was to get us all to vote for him. So this was going to be a campaign dinner.

  We sat in the lower hangar space, surrounded by our hardware. There were about two hundred people gathered in the hangar; everybody still on the ship was present, and many had come back off-planet just for the occasion. Li had us all sit ourselves round three giant tables, each two metres broad and at least ten times that in length. He’d insisted they should be proper tables, and complete with chairs and place settings and all the rest, and the ship had reluctantly filched a small Sequoia and done all the carving and turning and whatever to produce the tables and everything that went with them. To compensate, it had planted several hundred oaks in its upper hangar, using its own stored biomass as a growing medium; it would plant the saplings on Earth before it left.

  When we were all seated, and had started talking amongst ourselves - I was sitting between Roghres and Ghemada - the lights around us dimmed, and a spotlight picked out Li, walking out of the darkness. We all sat back or craned forward, watching him.

  There was much laughter. Li had greenish skin, pointed ears, and wore a 2001-style spacesuit with a zig-zag silver flash added across the chest (held on by micro-rivets, he told me later). He sported a long red cape which flowed out behind from his shoulders. He held the suit helmet in the crook of his left arm. In his right hand he gripped a Star Wars light sword. Of course, the ship had made him a real one.
>
  Li walked purposefully to the head of the middle table, tramped on an empty seat at its head and strode onto the table top, clumping down the brightly polished surface between the glittering place settings (the cutlery had been borrowed from a locked and forgotten storeroom in a palace on a lake in India; it hadn’t been used for fifty years, and would be returned, cleaned, the next day . . . as would the dinner service itself, borrowed for the night from the Sultan of Brunei - without his permission), past the starched white napkins (from the Titanic; they’d be cleaned too and put back on the floor of the Atlantic), in the midst of the glittering glassware (Edinburgh Crystal, removed for a few hours from packing cases stowed deep in the hold of a freighter in the South China Sea, bound for Yokohama) and the candelabra (from a cache of loot lying under a lake near Kiev, sunk there by retreating Nazis judging from the sacks; also due to be replaced after their bizarre orbital excursion) until he stood in the centre of the middle table, maybe two metres from where I, Roghres and Ghemada sat.

  ‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ Li shouted, arms outstretched, helmet in one hand, sword humming brightly in the other. ‘The food of Earth! Eat!’

  He assumed a dramatic pose, pointing the sword back up the table, gazing heroically along its green glowing length, and leaning forward, one knee bending. The ship either manipulated its gravity field or Li had an AG harness under the suit, because he rose silently from the table and drifted along above it (holding the pose) to the far end, where he dropped gracefully and sat in the seat he’d used earlier as a step. There was scattered applause and some hooting.

  Meanwhile, dozens of drones and slaved trays had made their way out of the elevator shaft and approached the tables, bringing food.

  We ate. It was all ethnic food, though not actually brought up from the planet; vat-grown ship food, though not a gourmet on Earth could have spotted any difference between our stuff and the real thing. From what I could see, Li had used the Guinness Book of Records as his wine list. The ship’s copies of the wines involved were so good - we were told - that the ship itself couldn’t have told them apart from the real thing.

  We chomped and gurgled our way through an eclectic but relatively orthodox series of courses, chatting and fooling, and wondering whether Li had anything else planned; this all seemed disappointingly conventional. Li came round, asking how we were enjoying the meal, refilling our glasses, suggesting we try different dishes, saying he hoped he could count on our vote on election day, and sidestepping awkward questions about the Prime Directive.

  Finally, much later, maybe a dozen courses later, when we were all sitting there bloated and content and mellow and sipping on our brandies and whiskies, we got Li’s campaign speech . . . plus a dainty dish to set before the Culture.

  I was a little drowsy. Li had come round with huge Havana cigars, and I’d taken one, and let the drug get to me. I was sitting there, puffing determinedly on the fat drug-stick, surrounded by a cloud of smoke, wondering what the natives saw in a tobacco high, but otherwise feeling just fine, when Li banged on the table with the pommel of the light sword and then climbed up and stood where his place setting had been (bang went one of the Sultan’s plates, but I suspect the ship managed to repair it). The lights went out, leaving one spot on Li.

  I used some snap to clear the sleepiness and stubbed the cigar out.

  11‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Li said in a passable English, before continuing in Marain. ‘I have gathered you here this evening to talk to you about Earth and what should be done with it. It is my hope and wish that after you’ve heard what I have to say you will agree with me on the only possible course of action . . . but first of all, let me say a few words about myself.’ There were jeers and cat-calls as Li bent and took up his glass of brandy. He drained the glass and threw it over his shoulder. A drone must have caught it in the shadows because I didn’t hear it land.

  ‘First of all,’ Li rubbed his chin, stroking the long hair. ‘Who am I?’ He ignored a variety of shouts telling him ‘a total fucking idiot’, and the like, and continued. ‘I am Grice-Thantapsa Li Brase ’ndane dam Sione; I am one hundred and seventeen years old, but wise beyond my years. I have been in Contact only six years, but I have experienced much in that time, and so can speak with some authority on Contact matters. I am the product of perhaps eight thousand years of progress beyond the stage of the planet that lies beneath our feet.’ (Cries of ‘Not much to show for it, huh?’, etc.) ‘I can track my ancestry back by name for at least that amount of time, and if you went back to the first dim glimmerings of sentience and you could end up going back -’ (‘last week?’ ‘your mother’) ‘- through tens of thousands of generations.

  ‘My body is altered, of course; tuned to a high pitch of efficiency in terms of survivability and pleasure, -’ (‘don’t worry, it doesn’t show’) ‘- and just as I inherited that alteration, so shall I pass it on to any children of my own.’ (‘please, Li; we’ve just eaten.’) ‘We have remade ourselves just as we have made our machines; we can fairly claim to be largely our own work.

  ‘However; in my head, literally inside my skull, in my brain, I am potentially as stupid as the most recently born babe in the most deprived area on Earth.’ He paused, smiling, to let the cat-calls subside. ‘We are who we are as much because of what we experience and are taught as we grow - the way we are brought up, in other words - as we are because we inherit the general appearance of pan-humanism, the more particular traits associated with the Culture meta-species, and the precise genetic mix contributed by our parents, including all those wonderful tinkered-with bits.’ (‘tinker with your own bits, laddy.’)

  ‘So if I can claim to be morally superior to some denizen of those depths of atmosphere beneath us, it is because that is the way I was brought up. We are truly raised; they are squashed, trimmed, trained, made into bonsai. Theirs is a civilization of deprivation; ours of finely balanced satisfaction ever teetering on the brink of excess. The Culture could afford to let me be whatever it was within my personal potential to become; so, for good or ill, I am fulfilled.

  ‘Consider; I think I can truthfully claim to be a more-or-less average Culture person, as can all of us here. Certainly, we’re in Contact, so we might be a little more interested in travelling abroad and meeting people than the mean, but in general terms any one of us could be picked at random and represent the Culture quite adequately; the choice of who you would pick to represent Earth fairly I leave to your imagination.

  ‘But back to me; I am as rich and as poor as anybody in the Culture (I use these words because it’s to Earth I want to compare our present position). Rich; trapped as I am on board this uncaptained, leaderless tub, my wealth may not be very obvious, but it would seem immense to the average Earther. At home I have the run of a charming and beautiful Orbital which would seem very clean and uncrowded to somebody from Earth; I have unlimited access to the free, fast, safe and totally dependable underplate transport system; I live in a wing of a family home of mansion proportions surrounded by hectares of gorgeous gardens. I have an aircraft, a launch, the choice of mount from a large stable of aphores,12 even the use of what would be called a spaceship by these people, plus a wide choice of deep space cruisers. As I say, I’m constrained at the moment by being in Contact, but of course I could leave at any moment, and within months be home, with another two hundred years or more of carefree life to look forward to; and all for nothing; I don’t have to do anything for all this.

  ‘But, at the same time, I am poor. I own nothing. Just as every atom in my body was once part of something else, in fact part of many different things, and just as the elementary particles were themselves part of other patterns before they came together to form the atoms that make up the magnificent physical and mental specimen you see standing so impressively before you . . . yes, thank you . . . and just as one day every atom of my being will one day be part of something else - a star, initially, because that is the way we choose to bury our dead - again, so everything around m
e, from the food that I eat and the drink that I drink and the figurine that I carve and the house I inhabit and the clothes I wear so elegantly . . . to the module I ride to the Plate that I stand on and the star that warms me is there when I am there rather than because I am. These things may be arranged for me, but in that sense I only happen to be me, and they would be there for anybody else - should they desire them - too. I do not, emphatically not own them.

  ‘Now, on Earth things are not quite the same. On Earth one of the things that a large proportion of the locals is most proud of is this wonderful economic system which, with a sureness and certainty so comprehensive one could almost imagine the process bears some relation to their limited and limiting notions of either thermodynamics or God, all food, comfort, energy, shelter, space, fuel and sustenance gravitates naturally and easily away from those who need it most and towards those who need it least. Indeed, those on the receiving end of such largesse are often harmed unto death by its arrival, though the effects may take years and generations to manifest themselves.

 
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