The state of the art, p.6
The State of the Art,
Iain M. Banks
The suit - officially as smart as me, and with similar rights - could have gone its own way if it wanted. It didn’t have to come to war.
‘Why shouldn’t I come with you?’
‘But what’s in it for you?’
‘What’s in it for you?’
‘But I’m human; I can’t help feeling like this. I want to know what you think the machines’ excuse is.’
‘Oh, come on; you’re a machine too. We’re both systems, we’re both matter with sentience. What makes you think we have more choice than you in the way we think? Or that you have so little? We’re all programmed. We all have our inheritance. You have rather more than us, and it’s more chaotic, that’s all.’
There is a saying that we provide the machines with an end, and they provide us with the means. I have a fleeting impression the suit is about to trot out this hoary adage.
‘Do you really care what happens in the war?’ I ask it.
‘Of course,’ it says, with what could almost be a laugh in its voice. I lie back and scratch. I look at the camera.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ I tell it. ‘How about I find a very bright picture and wave it about now, in the dark?’
‘You can try it, if you want.’ The suit doesn’t sound very encouraging. I try it anyway, then my arm gets tired waving the camera around. I leave it propped up against a rock, shining into space. It looks very lonely and strange, that picture of a sunny orbital day, sky and clouds and glittering water, bright hulls and tall sails, fluttering pennants and dashing spray, in this dead and dusty darkness. It isn’t all that bright though; I suspect reflected starlight isn’t much weaker. It would be easy to miss, and they don’t seem to be looking anyway.
‘I wonder what happens to us all in the end,’ I yawn, sleepy at last.
‘I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.’
‘Won’t that be fun,’ I murmur, and say no more.
The suit says this is day twenty.
We are in the foothills on the far side of the mountains we saw in the distance from the escarpment. I am still alive. The pressure in the suit is reduced to slow down the loss rate from the leak, which the suit has decided is not a hole as such, but increased osmosis from several areas where too much of the outer layers ablated when we were falling. I am breathing pure oxygen now, which lets us bring down the pressure significantly. It might be coincidence, but the food from the recycler tube tastes better since we switched to pure gas.
There is a dull ache all the time from my belly, but I am learning to live with it. I’ve stopped caring, I think. I’ll live or I’ll die, but worrying and complaining won’t improve my chances. The suit isn’t sure what to make of this. It doesn’t know whether I have given up hope or just become blasé about the whole thing. I feel no guilt at keeping it guessing.
I lost the camera.
I was trying, eight days ago, to take a photograph of a strange, anthropomorphous rock formation in the high mountains, when the camera slipped from my fingers and fell into a crevice between two great boulders. The suit seemed almost as unhappy as I was; normally it could have lifted either of those rocks into the air, but even together the two of us couldn’t budge either of them.
My feet are hard and calloused, now, which makes walking a lot easier. I am becoming hardened generally. I’ll be a better person when I come out of this, I’m sure. The suit makes dubious noises when I suggest this.
I’ve seen some lovely sunsets recently. They must have been there all the time, but I didn’t notice them. I make a point of watching them now, sitting up to observe the sweep and trace of trembling, planetary air and the high clouds wisping and curling, coming and going, levels and layers of the wrapping atmosphere shifting through its colours and turning like smooth, silent shells.
There is a small moon I hadn’t noticed either. I put the external glasses on as high as they will go and sit looking at its grey face, when I can find it. I rebuked the suit for not reminding me the planet had a moon. It told me it hadn’t thought it was important.
The moon is pale and fragile looking, and pocked.
I have taken to singing songs to myself. This annoys the suit intensely, and sometimes I pretend that’s one of the major rewards of such vocal self-indulgence. Sometimes I think it really is, too. They are very poor songs, because I am not very good at making them up, and I have a terrible memory for other people’s. The suit insists my voice is flat as well, but I think it’s just being mean. Once or twice it has retaliated by playing music very loudly through my headphones, but I just sing louder and it gives in. I try to get it to sing along with me, but it sulks.
‘Oh once there was a space-man,
And a happy man was he.
Flew through the big G,
And really saw it all, yes,
But then one day, I’m afraid,
He happened to trip up,
Stumbled on a pla-anet
And landed in the dirt.
It wouldn’t really have been so bad,
But the worst was yet to come;
His one and only companion
Was a suit that da da dum.
The suit it was a shit-bag
And thought the man a lout,
And what it really wanted
Was to be inside-out.
Inside-out, inside-out, inside inside-out,
Inside-out, inside-out, inside inside-out!’
And so on. There are others, but they are mostly to do with sex, and so fairly boring; colourful but monotonous.
My hair is growing. I have a thin beard.
I have started masturbating, though only every few days. It is all recycled, of course. I claim the suit as my lover. It is not amused.
I miss my comforts, but at least sex can be partially recreated, whereas all the rest seem unreal, no more than dreams. I have started dreaming. Usually it is the same dream; I am on a cruise of some sort, somewhere. I don’t know what form of transport I’m on, but somehow I know it’s moving. It might be a ship, or a seaship, or an airship, or a train . . . I don’t know. All that happens is that I walk down a fleecy corridor, passing plants and small pools. Some sort of scenery is going by outside, when I can see outside, but I’m not paying very much attention. It might be a planet seen from space, or mountains, or desert, it might even be underwater; I don’t care. I wave to some people I know. I am eating something savoury to tide me over to dinner, and I have a towel over my shoulder; I think I’m going for a swim. The air is sweet and I hear some very soft and beautiful music which I almost recognize, coming from a cabin. Wherever, whatever it is I am in, it is travelling very smoothly and quietly, without sound or vibration or fuss; secure.
I’ll appreciate all that if I ever see it again. I’ll know then what it is to feel so safe, so pampered, so unafraid and confident.
I never get anywhere in that dream. I’m always simply walking, each and every time I have it. It is always the same, always as sweet; I always start and finish in the same place, everything is always the same; predictable and comforting. Everything is very sharp and clear. I miss nothing.
Day thirty. The mountains way behind us, and me - us - walking along the top of an ancient lava tunnel. I’m looking for a break in the roof because I think it’ll be fun to walk along within the tunnel itself - it looks big enough to walk inside. The suit says we aren’t heading in exactly the right direction for the base, following the tunnel, but I reckon we’re close enough. It indulges me. I deserve to be indulged; I can’t curl up like a little ball at night any more. The suit decided we were losing too much oxygen each time we melded the limbs and inflated the suit at night, so we’ve stopped doing that. I hated feeling trapped, and unable to scratch, at first, but now I don’t mind so much. Now I have to sleep with my legs in its legs and my arms in its arms.
The lava tunnel curves away in the wrong direction. I stand looking at it as it wiggles away into the distance, up a great slope to a distant, extin
‘Let’s get down and head in the right direction, shall we?’ the suit says.
‘Oh, all right,’ I grumble. I get down. I’m sweating. I wipe my head inside the helmet, rubbing it up and down, like an animal scratching. ‘I’m sweating,’ I tell it. ‘Why are you letting me sweat? I shouldn’t be sweating. You shouldn’t be letting me sweat. You must be letting your attention wander. Come on; do your job.’
‘Sorry,’ the suit says, in an unpleasant tone. I think it should take my comfort a little more seriously. That’s what it’s there for, after all.
‘If you want me to get out and walk, I will,’ I tell it.
‘That won’t be necessary.’
I wish it would suggest a rest. I feel weak and dizzy again, and I could feel the suit doing most of the work as we got down from the roof of the lava tunnel. The pain in my guts is back. We start walking over the rubble-covered plain once more. I feel like talking.
‘Tell me, suit, don’t you wonder if it’s all worth it?’
‘If what’s all worth what?’ it says, and I can hear that condescending tone in its voice again.
‘You know; living. Is it worth all the . . . bother?’
‘No, I don’t ever wonder about it.’
‘Why not?’ I’m keeping my questions short as we walk, conserving energy and breath.
‘I don’t need to wonder about that. It’s not important.’
‘It’s an irrelevant question. We live; that’s enough.’
‘Oh. That easy, huh?’
The suit is silent after that. I wait for it to say something, but it doesn’t. I laugh, wave both our arms about. ‘I mean, what’s it all about, suit? What does it all mean?’
‘What colour is the wind? How long is a piece of string?’
I have to think about that. ‘What’s string?’ I have to ask finally, suspecting I’ve missed something.
‘Never mind. Keep walking.’
Sometimes I wish I could see the suit. It’s weird, now that I think about it, not being able to see who I’m talking to. Just this hollow voice, not unlike my own, sounding in the space between the inside of my helmet and the outside of my skull. I would prefer a face to look at, or even just a single thing to fix my attention on.
If I still had the camera I could take a photograph of us both. If there was water here I could gaze at our reflection.
The suit is my shape, extended, but its mind isn’t mine; it’s independent. This perplexes me, though I suppose it must make sense. But I’m glad I chose the full 1.0 intelligence version; the standard 0.1 type would have been no company at all. Perhaps my sanity is measured by the placing of a decimal point.
Night. It is the fifty-fifth night. Tomorrow will be the fifty-sixth day.
How am I? Difficult to say. My breathing has become laboured, and I’m sure I’ve become thinner. My hair is long now and my beard quite respectable, if a little patchy. Hairs fall out, and I have to squirm and pull to get an arm into the body of the suit to poke the hairs into the waste unit each night, or they itch. I am woken up at night by the pain inside me. It is like a little life itself, pawing and scraping to get out.
Sometimes I dream a lot, sometimes not at all. I have given up singing. The land goes on. I had forgotten planets were so big. This one’s smaller than standard, and it still seems to go on and on without end. I feel very cold, and the stars make me cry.
I am tormented by erotic dreams, and can do nothing about them. They are similar to the old dream, of walking on the ship or the seaship or whatever it is . . . only in this dream the people around me are naked, and caressing each other, and I am on my way to my lover . . . but when I wake up and try to masturbate, nothing happens. I try and try, but I only exhaust myself. Perhaps if the dream was more powerfully erotic, more imaginative . . . but it stays the same.
I’ve been thinking about the war a lot recently, and I think I’ve decided it’s wrong. We are defeating ourselves in waging it, will destroy ourselves by winning it. All our statistics and assumptions mean less the more they seem to tell. We surrender, in our militance, not to one enemy but to all we’ve ever fought, within ourselves. We should not be involved, we ought not to do a thing; we’ve gambled our fine irony for a mechanistic piety, and the faith we fight’s our own.
Get out, stay out, keep clear.
Did I say that?
I thought the suit said something there. I’m not sure. Sometimes I think it’s talking to me all the time when I’m asleep. It might even be talking to me all the time when I’m awake, too, but it’s only occasionally that I hear it. I think it’s mimicking me, trying to sound the way I sound. Perhaps it wants to drive me mad, I don’t know.
Sometimes I don’t know which of us has said something.
I shiver and try to turn over in the suit, but I can’t. I wish I wasn’t here. I wish all this hadn’t happened. I wish it was all a dream, but like the colours of the earth and air, it’s too consistent.
I feel very cold, and the stars make me cry.
‘Inside-out, inside-out, inside inside-out,
Inside-out, inside-out, inside inside-out!’
‘Oh, you’re talking to me at last.’
‘I said shut up!’
‘But I wasn’t saying anything.’
‘You were singing!’
‘I don’t sing. You were singing.’
‘Don’t lie! Don’t you dare lie to me! You were singing!’
‘I assure you -’
‘You were! I heard you!’
‘You’re shouting. Calm down. We still have a long way to go. We shan’t get there if you -’
‘Don’t you tell me to shut up!’
‘I didn’t. You told me to shut up.’
‘I said -’
‘What did you say?’
‘What? What did - who is that?’
‘If you’ll ju -’
‘Who are you? Who are you? Oh no, please . . .’
‘Look, ca -’
‘No, please . . .’
‘. . . please . . .’
‘. . . please . . . please . . . please . . . please . . .’
I don’t know what day this is. I don’t know where I am or how far I’ve come or how far there is still to go.
Sane now. There never was any suit voice. I made it all up; it was my own voice all the time. Some state I must have been in to imagine all that, to be so unable to cope with being down here, all alone, that I created somebody else to talk to, like some lonely kid with a friend nobody else can see. I believed in it when I thought I heard the voice, but I don’t hear it any more. Even at its most blandly credible it was just the flat calm of insanity. Temporary, fortunately. Everything is.
I don’t look at the stars any more, in case they start talking to me too.
Maybe the base is at the core. Maybe I am just walking round it and can never get any closer to it.
My limbs move on their own now; automatic, programmed. I hardly need to think. Everything is as it should be.
We don’t need the machines, any more than they need us. We just think we need them. They don’t matter. Only they need themselves. Of course a smart suit would have ditched me to save itself; we didn’t build them to resemble ourselves, but that’s the way it works out, in the end.
We created something a little closer to perfection than ourselves; maybe that’s the only way to progress. Let them try to do the same. I doubt they can, so they will always be less as well as more than us. It’s all just a sum, a whispered piece of figuring lost in the empty blizzards of white noise howling through the universe, brief oasis in an infinite desert, a freak bit of working-out in which we have transcended our
Going mad inside a space-suit, indeed.
I think I passed the place where the base used to be some time ago, but there was nothing there. I am still walking. I’m not sure I know how to stop.
I am a satellite; they, too, only stay up by forever falling forward.
The suit is dead around me, burned and scarred and blackened and lifeless. I don’t know how I could have dreamed it was alive. The very thought makes me shiver, inside here.
The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes