The state of the art, p.18
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       The State of the Art, p.18

           Iain M. Banks
 
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  ‘To combat this insidious and disgusting travesty of sensible human relationships on a truly fundamental level was patently impossible on an infested dunghill like Earth, so deprived as it obviously was of meaningful genetic choice at a fundamental level and therefore philosophical options on a more accessible scale, and it became obvious - through the perverse logic inherent in the species and the process they had entailed - that the only way to react to such a system that had any chance of making it worse, and conditions that much less bearable, was to accept it on its own terms; go into competition with it!

  ‘Now, quite apart from the fact that, from the point of view of the Earther, socialism suffers the devastating liability of only exhibiting internal contradictions when you are trying to use it as an adjunct to your own stupidity (unlike capitalism, which again, from the point of view of the Earther, happily has them built in from the start), it is the case that because Free Enterprise got there first and set up the house rules, it will always stay at least one kick ahead of its rivals. Thus, while it takes Soviet Russia a vast amount of time and hard work to produce one inspired lunatic like Lysenko, the West can so arrange things that even the dullest farmer can see it makes more sense to burn his grain, melt his butter and wash away the remains of his pulped vegetables with his tanks of unused wine than it does to actually sell the stuff to be consumed.

  ‘And note that even if this mythical yokel did decide to sell the stuff, or even give it away - the Earthers have an even more devastating trick they can perform; they show you that those foods aren’t even needed anyway! They wouldn’t feed the least productive, most unimportant untouchable from Pradesh, tribesperson from Darfur or peon from Rio Branco! The Earth has more than enough to feed all its inhabitants every day already! A truth so seemingly world-shattering one wonders that the oppressed of Earth don’t rise up in flames and anger yesterday! But they don’t, because they are so infected with the myth of self-interested advancement, or the poison of religious acceptance, they either only want to make their own way up the pile so they can shit upon everybody else, or actually feel grateful for the attention when their so-called betters shit on them!

  ‘It is my contention that this is either an example of the most formidable and blissfully arrogant use of power and existing advantage . . . or scarcely credible stupidity.

  ‘Now then. Suppose we make ourselves known to this ghastly rabble; what happens?’ Li stretched his arms out, and looked round us all just long enough to get a few people starting to answer him back, then roared on; ‘I’ll tell you what! They won’t believe us! Oh, so we have moving maps of the galaxy accurate to a millimetre contained in something the size of a sugar cube, oh so we can make Orbitals and Rings and get across the galaxy in a year and make bombs too small to see that could tear their planet apart . . .’ Li sneered, let one hand flap limp. ‘Nothing. These people expect time travel, telepathy, matter transmission. Yes, we can say, “Well, we do have a very limited form of prescience through the use of anti-matter at the boundary of the energy grid which lets us see nearly a milli-second into . . .” or “Well, we usually train our minds in a way not entirely compatible with natural telepathic empathy, such as it is, but see this machine here . . . ? Well, if you ask it nicely . . .” or “Well, displacing isn’t quite transmission of matter, but . . .”13 They will laugh us out of the UN building; especially when they discover we haven’t even got out of our home galaxy yet . . . unless you count the Clouds, but I doubt they would. And anyway; what is the Culture as a society compared to what they expect? They expect capitalists in space, or an empire. A libertarian-anarchist utopia? Equality? Liberty? Fraternity? This is not so much old-fashioned stuff as simply unfashionable stuff. Their warped minds have taken them away on an evaporatingly stupid side track off the main sequence of social evolution, and we are probably more alien than they are capable of understanding.

  ‘So, the ship thinks we should just sit and watch this pack of genocidal buffoons for the next few millenia?’ Li shook his head, wagged one finger. ‘I think not. I have a better idea, and I shall put it into effect as soon as I am elected captain. But now,’ he raised his hands and clapped. ‘The sweet course.’

  The drones and units reappeared, holding small steaming bowls of meat. Li topped up a few of the glasses nearest him and urged everybody else to refill their own as the final course was distributed. I’d just about filled myself up on the cheeses, but after Li’s speech I seemed to have a bit more room. Still, I was glad my bowl was small. The aroma coming off the meat was quite pleasant, but I didn’t think, somehow, it was an Earth dish.

  ‘Meat as a sweet dish?’ Roghres said, sniffing the gently steaming bowl. ‘Hmm; smells sweet, certainly.’

  ‘Shit,’ Tel Ghemada said prodding at her own bowl, ‘I know what this is . . .’

  ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Li said, standing with a bowl in one hand and a silver fork in the other. ‘A little taste of Earth . . . no; more than that: a chance for you to participate in the rough and tumble of living on a squalid backwater planet without actually having to leave your seat or get your feet dirty.’ He stabbed a bit of the meat, put it in his mouth, chewed and swallowed. ‘Human flesh, ladies and gents; cooked muscle of hom. sap . . . as I suspect few of you might have guessed. A little on the sweet side for my palate, but quite acceptable. Eat up.’

  I shook my head. Roghres snorted. Tel put her spoon down. I sampled some of Li’s unusual dish while he continued. ‘I had the ship take a few cells from a variety of people on Earth. Without their knowledge, of course.’ He waved the sword vaguely at the table behind us. ‘Most of you over there will be eating either Stewed Idi Amin or General Pinochet Chilli Con Carne; here in the centre we have a combination of General Stroessner Meat Balls and Richard Nixon Burgers. The rest of you have Ferdinand Marcos Sauté and Shah of Iran Kebabs. There are, in addition, scattered bowls of Fricaséed Kim Il Sung, Boiled General Videla, and Ian Smith in Black Bean Sauce . . . all done just right by the excellent - if leaderless - chef we have around us. Eat up! Eat up!’

  We ate up, most of us quite amused. One or two thought the idea a little too outré, and some affected boredom because they thought Li needed discouragement not accomplices, while a few were just too full already. But the majority laughed and ate, comparing tastes and textures.

  ‘If they could see us now,’ Roghres giggled. ‘Cannibals from outer space!’

  When we were mostly done, Li stood on the table again and clapped his hands above his head. ‘Listen! Listen! Here’s what I’ll do if you make me captain!’ The noise died away slowly, but there was still a fair amount of chattering and laughter. Li raised his voice. ‘Earth is a silly and boring planet. If not, then it is too deeply unpleasant to be allowed to exist! Dammit, there’s something wrong with those people! They are beyond redemption and hope! They are not very bright, they are incredibly bigoted, and unbe-fucking-lievably cruel, both to their own kind and any other species that has the misfortune to stray within range, which of course these days means damn nearly every species; and they’re slowly but determinedly fucking up the entire planet . . .’ Li shrugged and looked momentarily defensive. ‘Not a particularly exciting or remarkable planet, for a lifesustainer type, true, but it’s still a planet, it is quite pretty, and the principle remains. Frighteningly dumb or majestically evil, I suggest there is only one way to deal with this incontestably neurotic and clinically insane species, and that is to destroy the planet!’

  Li looked round at this point, waiting to be interrupted, but nobody was rising to the bait. Those of us not distracted by the drink, whatever drugs, or each other, just sat smiling indulgently and waited to see what Li’s next crazy idea was. He went on. ‘Now, I know this might seem a little extreme to some of you -’ (cries of ‘no no’, ‘bit lenient if you ask me’, ‘wimp!’ and ‘yeah; nuke the fuckers’) ‘- and more importantly very messy, but I have talked it over with the ship, and it informs me that the best method from my point of view is actually
quite elegant, as well as extremely effective.

  ‘All we do is drop a micro black hole into the centre of the planet. Simple as that; no untidy debris left floating about, no big, vulgar flash, and, if we do it right, no upsetting the rest of the solar system. It takes longer than displacing a few tonnes of CAM into the core, but even that has the advantage of giving the humans time to reflect on their past follies, as their world is eaten away beneath them. In the end, all you’d have left is something about the size of a large pea in the same orbit as the Earth, and a minor amount of X-ray pollution from meteoric material. Even the moon could stay where it is. A rather unusual planetary sub-system, but - in terms of scale as much as anything else - a fitting monument, or memorial -’ (Here Li smiled at me. I winked back.) ‘- to one of the more boringly inept rabbles marring the face of our fair galaxy.

  ‘Couldn’t we just wipe the place clear with a virus, I hear you ask? But no. While it is true that the humans have still done relatively little damage to their planet so far - from a distance it still looks fine - it is still the case that the place has been contaminated. Even if we wiped all human life off the rock-ball, people would still look down at the thing and shiver, recalling the pathetic but fiercely self-destructive monsters that once stalked its surface. However . . . even memories find it difficult to haunt a singularity.’

  Li stuck the point of the light sword into the top of the table and made to lean on the pommel; the wood flared and burned, and the sword started to drill through the flaming redwood in a cloud of smoke. Li pulled the sword out, shoved it in its scabbard and repeated the manoeuvre while somebody poured a small fortune in wine over the burning wood. (‘Did they have scabbards?’ Roghres asked, puzzled. ‘I thought they just turned it off . . .’ ) The resulting steam and fumes rose dramatically around Li as he leant on the pommel of the sword and looked seriously and sincerely at all of us. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he nodded, grim-faced. ‘This, I submit, is the only solution; a genocide to end all genocides. We have to destroy the planet in order to save it. Should you decide to do me the honour of electing me as your ruler, to serve you, I shall set about putting this plan into immediate effect, and shortly Earth, and all its problems, will cease to exist. Thank you.’

  Li bowed, turned, stepped down and sat.

  Those of us who’d still been listening clapped, and eventually more or less everybody joined in. There were a few fairly irrelevant questions about stuff like accretion disks, lunar tidal forces, and conservation of angular momentum, but after Li had done his best to answer those, Roghres, Tel, Djibard and I went to the head of the table, lifted Li up, carried him down the length of the table to the sound of cheers, took him into the lower accommodation level, and threw him in the pool. Fused the light sabre, but I don’t think the ship meant to leave Li with something that dangerous to wave around anyway.

  We finished the fun off on a remote beach in Western Australia in the very early morning, swimming off our heavy bellies and wine-fuddled heads in the slow rollers of the Indian Ocean, or basking in the sunlight.

  That’s what I did; just lay there on the sand, listening to a still pool-damp Li tell me what a great idea it was to blow the entire planet away (or suck the entire planet away). I listened to people splashing in the waves, and tried to ignore Li. I dozed off, but I was woken up for a game of hide-and-seek in the rocks, and later we sat around and had a light picnic.

  Later, Li had us all play another game; guess the generalization. We each had to think of one word to describe humanity; Man, the species. Some people thought it was silly, just on principle, but the majority joined in. There were suggestions like ‘precocious’, ‘doomed’, ‘murderous’, ‘inhuman’, and ‘frightening’. Most of us who’d been on-planet must have been falling under the spell of humanity’s own propaganda, because we tended to come up with words like ‘inquisitive’, ‘ambitious’, ‘aggressive’, or ‘quick’. Li’s own suggestion to describe humanity was ‘MINE!’, but then somebody thought to ask the ship. It complained about being restricted to one word, then pretended to think for a long time, and finally came up with ‘gullible’. ‘Gullible?’ I said.

  ‘Yeah,’ said the remote drone. ‘Gullible . . . and bigoted.’

  ‘That’s two words,’ Li told it.

  ‘I’m a fucking starship; I’m allowed to cheat.’

  Well, it amused me. I lay back. The water sparkled, the sky seemed to ring with light, and way in the distance a black triangle or two carved the perimeter of the field the ship was laying down under the chopping blue sea.

  6: Undesirable Alien

  6.1: You’ll Thank Me Later

  December. We were finishing off, tying up the loose ends. There was an air of weariness about the ship. People seemed quieter. I don’t think it was just tiredness. I think it was more likely the effect of a realized objectivity, a distancing; we had been there long enough to get over the initial buzz, the honeymoon of novelty and delight. We were starting to see Earth as a whole, not just a job to be done and a playground to explore, and in looking at it that way, it became both less immediate and more impressive; part of the literature, something fixed by fact and reference, no longer ours; a droplet of knowledge already being absorbed within the swelling ocean of the Culture’s experience.

  Even Li had quieted down. He held his elections, but only a few people were indulgent enough to vote, and we just did it to humour him. Disappointed, Li declared himself the ship’s captain in exile (no, I never understood that either), and left it at that. He took to betting against the ship on horse races, ball games and football matches. The ship must have been fixing the odds, because it ended up owing Li a ridiculous amount of money. Li insisted on being paid so the ship fashioned him a flawless cut diamond the size of his fist. It was his, the ship told him. A gift; he could own it. (Li lost interest in it after that though, and tended to leave it lying around the social spaces; I stubbed a toe on it at least twice. In the end he got the ship to leave the stone in orbit around Neptune on our way out of the system; a joke.)

  I spent a lot of time on the ship playing Tsartas music, though more to compose myself than anything else.14

  I had my Grand Tour, like most of the others on the ship, so spent a day or so in all the places I wanted to see; I saw sunrise from the top of Khufu and sunset from Ayers Rock. I watched a pride of lions laze and play in Ngorongoro, and the tabular bergs calve from the Ross ice shelf; I watched condors in the Andes, musk ox on the tundra, polar bears on the Arctic ice and jaguars slinking through the jungle. I skated on Lake Baikal, dived over the Great Barrier Reef, strolled along the Great Wall, rowed across Dal and Titicaca, climbed Mount Fuji, took a mule down the Grand Canyon, swam with the whales off Baja California, and hired a gondola to cruise round Venice, through the cold mists of winter under a sky that to me looked old and tired and worn.

  I know some people did go to the ruins at Angkor, safety guaranteed by the ship, its drones and knife missiles . . . but not I. No more could I visit the Potala, however much I wanted to.

  We were due for a couple of months R&R on an Orbital in Trohoase cluster; standard procedure after immersion in a place like Earth. Certainly, I wasn’t in the mood for any more exploring for a while; I was drained, sleeping five or six hours a night and dreaming heavily, as though the pressure of artificially crammed information I’d started out with as briefing - combined with everything I’d experienced personally - was too much for my poor head, and it was leaking out when my guard was down.

  I’d given up on the ship. Earth was going to be a Control; I’d failed. Even the fall-back position, of waiting until Armageddon, was disallowed. I argued it out with the ship in a crew assembly, but couldn’t even carry the human vote with me. The Arbitrary copied to the Bad For Business and the rest, but I think it was just being kind; nothing I said made any difference. So I made music, took my Grand Tour, and slept a lot.

  I finished my Tour, and said goodbye to Earth, on the cliffs of a chilly, wind-swe
pt Thíra, looking out over the shattered caldera to where the ruby-red sun met the Mediterranean; a livid plasma island sinking in the wine-dark sea. Cried.

  So I wasn’t at all pleased when the ship asked me to hit dirt for one last time.

  ‘But I don’t want to.’

  ‘Well, that’s all right, if you’re quite sure. I’m not asking you to do it for your own good, I must admit, but I did promise Linter I’d ask, and he did seem quite anxious to see you before we left.’

  ‘Oh . . . but why? What does he want from me?’

  ‘He wouldn’t say. I didn’t talk to him all that long. I sent a drone down to tell him we were leaving soon, and he said he would only talk to you. I told him I’d ask but I couldn’t guarantee anything . . . he was adamant though; only you. He won’t talk to me. Oh well. Such is life. Not to worry. I’ll tell him you won’t -’ the small unit started to drift away, but I pulled it back.

  ‘No; no, stop; I’ll go. God dammit, I’ll go. Where? Where does he want to meet?’

  ‘New York City.’

  ‘Oh no,’ I groaned.

  ‘Hey, it’s an interesting place. You might like it.’

  6.2: The Precise Nature Of The Catastrophe

 
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