The state of the art, p.9
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       The State of the Art, p.9

           Iain M. Banks


  ‘Now, as I was saying . . . we could use this thing to vastly step up the productive capacity of certain key industries, and make possible the rapid deployment of emergency supplies in a disaster/crisis situation -’

  Good, thought Cesare. We can use it to bomb the Ruskies.

  ‘What?’ roared Matriapoll when he got back and they told him. ‘You told it to junk itself and it disappeared up its own asshole!’

  ‘It was an honest mistake,’ said Matriapoll’s foreman.

  ‘They’ll use it! They’ll infest every nearby planet and system they can lay their coordinates on!’

  ‘It’ll probably malfunction totally sooner or later; don’t worry about it. By the way, where’s your other Mate? I only see one.’

  ‘Don’t talk to me about it,’ Matriapoll said huffily. ‘The idiot took a Flyer for a joy-ride and collided with an S.S.T.’

  ‘You’re sure this is going to work sir?’

  ‘Sure it’ll work,’ Cesare said. They were sitting with a whole load of I.M.C.C. people and military and political types in the underground command-post under the matter transmitter. ‘We tested it by sending the same number of dummy warheads right round the world and back here. They were all bang-on. It’ll be a clean sweep. Nothing can go wrong.’

  The Transporter, unduly sensitive to, amongst other things, radiation, became somewhat mixed up however, and, to cut a short story shorter, it blitzed the Eastern seaboard of the United States of America, messed the Atlantic up a bit, and bombed Mauritania, Portugal and Ireland. After that it jammed and never worked again.

  Fosse thought that Mr Borges was taking it very well, considering (there was talk of a law suit). Cesare was on the phone, trying to trace somebody.

  ‘Anybody I know, sir?’

  Cesare looked up from the telephone, his eyes reflecting the embarrassing red splotches spread over the giant world map on the far side of the room. ‘You remember Feldman? Professor Feldman?’

  ‘No, sir; I don’t think I’ve ever met the person.’

  ‘Doesn’t matter; he’s dead. But I’m getting hold of his number two in Chicago; he’s all right. I’ve heard what it’s like in the East. It sounds terrible: famine, plague, cannibalism, anarchy, flooding, drought; the works. There’s fantastic scope for a pet project of mine I’ve been nursing along for a few years now. Called the Alternative Resources Project. It’s perfect for this situation. We’re ideally placed to take advantage of this. It’s a peach, believe me. We could clean up.’


  Hi kid. Well, there I was about to do some reading but instead I’m writing to you. I’ll explain later, but first a little story (bear with me - this is partly to take my mind off things, including the book I was starting to read, but also to set up the first of a couple of coincidences. Anyway.)

  It was . . . 1975, I think; have to check my diaries to be sure. I’d finished at Uni that spring and gone off hitch-hiking through Europe over the summer. Paris, Bergen, Berlin, Venice, Rabat and Madrid defined the limits of this whirlwind tour. Three months later I was on my way home, and after staying with Aunt Jess in Crawley, I’d used the last of my money to buy a bus ticket from London to Glasgow (hitching out of London was notoriously awful). Night bus, and it took ages, staying off the motorways would you believe. This was in the days before videos and minibars and hostesses and even toilets on buses. The old coach groaned and whined through the rain-smeared darkness, stopping at breeze block and Formica transport cafes; cold islands of fluorescence in the night.

  Especially then, buses were for the not so well off. I was the scruffy hitcher with long hair and jeans. I was sitting beside an old guy wearing shiny trousers and a worn tweed jacket; thin limbs and thick glasses. In front of us, an old lady reading People’s Friend; behind, two lads with yesterday’s Sun. The usual girning baby and harassed young mother, somewhere at the back. I watched the sodium lights drift by in droplet lines of orange, and alternated sitting upright in the cramped seat, and sliding down into it, aching knees against the back of the seat in front. And, for the first couple of hours or so, I was reading some SF novel (wish I could remember the name, but can’t).

  Later I tried sleeping. It wasn’t easy; you swung fretfully in and out, never fully awake or completely asleep, always conscious of the growling gear changes and the creaky ache in folded knees. Then the old guy started talking to me.

  I’m one of these anti-social types - well, as you know - who doesn’t like to acknowledge the presence of other people when I’m travelling; plus I was quite shy back then (believe it or not), and I really didn’t want to talk to some old geezer I imagined I had nothing in common with. But he started the conversation and I couldn’t be rude and just cut it off. If I remember right, he pointed at the SF book, wedged between my leg and the arm rest.

  ‘You believe in all that stuff then, do you?’ Scottish accent, not strong, maybe Borders or Edinburgh.

  I sighed. Here we go, I thought. ‘Sorry? How do you mean?’

  ‘UFOs and all that’

  ‘Well, no.’ I riffled the pages of the paperback, as though looking for clues. ‘I just like science fiction. Not much of it’s about UFOs; this isn’t. I probably wouldn’t read one about UFOs.’

  ‘Oh.’ He looked at the book (I was getting embarrassed by its gaudy, irrelevant cover, and put it away). ‘Are you a student?’

  ‘Yes. Well, no; I was. I graduated.’

  ‘Ah. Science, was it, you were doing?’


  ‘Oh. But you like science?’

  I’m sure that’s the way he put it. I jotted a lot of this down next day, and wrote a poem about it - ‘Jack’ - a couple of months later, and I’m sure if I had my notes with me they’d confirm that was how he put it: ‘You like science?’

  So we got on to what he’d always wanted to talk about.

  He - yes, his name was Jack - couldn’t understand how people thought they could tell something was so many million years old. How could anyone tell what came when and where? He couldn’t understand; he was a Christian and the Bible seemed much more sensible.

  Ever felt your heart sink? We’d been on the road two hours, we were barely past Northampton, and I was stuck - probably for the whole of the rest of the journey, judging from the guy’s accent - beside some ancient geek who thought the universe was created about tea-time in 4004 BC. Holy shit.

  Being young and stupid, I did actually try to explain (I watched ‘Horizon’; I got New Scientist, sometimes).

  Let the poem take up the story (from memory, so make allowances):

  And Christ, dear reader, what could I do?Oh, I made the lame, half-hearted try;

  I told him all was linked, that those same laws

  Of physics, chemistry, and math that let him sit here,

  In this bus, with the engine, on that road,

  Dictated through the ages what was so.

  Carbon 14 I mentioned, its slow and sure decay,

  Even magnetic alignments, frozen in the rocks

  By the heat of ancient fires;

  The associated fossils, floating continents,

  Erosion, continuity and change . . .

  But from the first tired syllable, in fact before,

  I knew it was pointless.

  And somewhere back

  Of all that well-informed-layman stuff,

  Something a little more like the real me listened,

  And looked at the old man’s glasses.

  - They were old, with thick frames, dark brown.

  The glass too was thick, and thick with dust.

  Dandruff, dead scales of old flesh, hairs

  Cemented there by grease and stale sweat,

  Obscured the views the scratches didn’t.

  And even if the prescription wasn’t years ago exceeded

  By his dying sight,

  The grime; that personal, impersonal dust,

  Sapped the bulky lenses of their use

  And, removed, inspected,

  How could those rheumy eyes unaided see

  This aggravation of their disability?

  (This was when I was into using rhyme only very sparingly, like any other poetic effect.) There was more, rather labouring the point about ‘views’ and cloudy thinking and so on, but passing swiftly on, we come to:

  He took in nothing.My throat got sore.

  The Borders came, and soon he left, met by his sister

  In some dismal little rain-soaked town.

  OK? So Cut To:

  Last week. Me with the hard core of the Creative Writing Group on an Intercity 125, heading for London for a reading at the ICA (Kathy Acker, Martin Millar, etc). I was sitting across from Mo - the good-looking Indian guy with the tash; very bright; chose us instead of Oxbridge, God knows why - and I tipped my micro-bottle of Grouse into the plastic glass and took out the book I was going to start reading, and Mo . . . just tensed. I’m not too hot on body language; I miss a lot, I know (you see - I do listen to what you say), but it was like Mo suddenly became an ice statue, and these waves of cold antagonism started flowing across the table at me. The others noticed too, and went quiet.

  So I’d taken The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie out of the old daypack, hadn’t I? And Mo’s sitting there like he expects the book to bubble and squirm and burst into flames right there in my hands.

  Now, I don’t know how much you’ve heard about the kerfuffle surrounding this book - it hasn’t exactly been front page news, and with any luck it won’t be - but since it was published quite a few Muslims have been demanding it be banned, withdrawn or whatever because it contains - so they say - some sort of semi-blasphemous material in it relating to the Koran. I’d talked about this general area of authorial freedom and religious censorship with a couple of classes, but still hadn’t read the novel, and it just hadn’t occurred to me somebody like Mo - who hadn’t been in either of those classes - might be on the side of the bad guys.

  ‘Mo; is there a problem?’

  ‘That is not a good book, Mr Munro,’ he said, looking at it, not me. ‘It is evil; blasphemous.’ (Embarrassed silence from the others.)

  ‘Look, Mo, I’ll put the book away if it offends you,’ I told him (doing just that). ‘But I think we have to talk about this. All right; I haven’t read the book myself yet, but I was talking to Doctor Metcalf the other day, and he said he had, and the passages some people found objectionable were . . . a couple of pages at most, and he couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I mean, this is a novel, Mo. It isn’t a . . . religious tract; it means to be fiction.’

  ‘That isn’t the point, Mr Munro,’ Mo said. He was looking at my little red rucksack as though there was a nuclear bomb inside it. ‘Rushdie has insulted all Muslims. He has spat in the face of every one of us. It’s as if he has called all our mothers whores.’

  ‘Mo,’ I said, and couldn’t help grinning as I put the rucksack down on the floor, ‘it’s only a story.’

  ‘The form is not important. It is a work in which Allah is insulted,’ Mo said. ‘You can’t understand, Mr Munro. There is nothing you hold that sacred.’

  ‘Oh no? How about freedom of speech?’

  ‘But when the National Front wanted to use the Students’ Union, you were with us on the demonstration, weren’t you? What about their freedom of speech?’

  ‘They want to take it away from everybody else; come on, Mo. You’re not denying them freedom of speech, you’re protecting the freedoms of the people they’d persecute if they were allowed any power.’

  ‘But in the short term you are denying them the right to state their views in public, are you not?’

  ‘The way you’d deny somebody the freedom to put a gun to another person’s head and pull the trigger, yes.’

  ‘So, clearly your belief in freedom generally can override any particular freedom; these freedoms are not absolute. Nothing is sacred to you, Mr Munro. You base your beliefs on the products of human thought, so it could hardly be otherwise. You might believe in certain things, but you do not have faith. That comes with submission to the force of divine revelation.’

  ‘So because I don’t have what I think of as superstitions, because I believe we just happen to exist, and believe in . . . science, evolution, whatever; I’m not as . . . worthy as somebody who has faith in an ancient book and a cruel, desert God? I’m sorry, Mo, but for me, Christ and Muhammed were both just men; charismatic, gifted in various ways, but still just mortal human beings, and the scholars and monks and disciples and historians who wrote about them or recorded their thoughts and their lives were inspired all right, but not by God; by something from inside them, something every writer has . . . in fact something every human has. Mo; definitions. Faith is belief without proof. I can’t accept that. Now, it doesn’t bother me that you can, so why does it bother you so much that I think the way I do, or Salman Rushdie thinks the way he does?’

  ‘Clearly, your soul is your own concern, Mr Munro. Rushdie’s is his. To think blasphemous thoughts is to restrict the sin to oneself, but to blaspheme in public is deliberately to assault those who do believe. It is to rape our souls.’

  Can you believe this? This guy’s heading for a First; his father’s an astro-physicist, for Christ’s sake. Mo’s probably going to be a lecturer himself (he already puts ‘clearly’ at the start of his sentences; good grief, he’s halfway there!). It’s very nearly 1989 but it’s midnight in the dark ages just the thickness of a book away, the thickness of a skull away; just the turn of a page away.

  So, an argument, while the leafless trees and the cold brown fields stream by beyond the carriage’s double-glazing, and the inevitable wailing child howled somewhere in the distance.

  But what do you say? I asked him about the kids who rode across the minefields on their Hondas, clearing the way for the Iranian Army, the hard way. Insane, to me. To Mo? Maybe misguided, maybe used, but still glorious. I told him that while I hadn’t read The Satanic Verses, I had read the Koran, and found it almost as ludicrous and objectionable as the Bible . . . and after that I got a bit loud, while Mo went very quiet and forbidding and curt, and one of the others had verbally to separate us. (Coincidence; I read the Penguin edition of the Koran - edited by a Jew, Mo claims, and unholy too because it puts the passages in the wrong order - and Viking, who publish ‘TSV’, are part of the same group . . . fertile ground for a conspiracy theory?)

  Mo and I shook hands, later on, but it spoiled the day.

  Good place to pause. They’ve just called us.

  Hi again. Well, here I am, Bloody Mary in one hand, pen in the other, using Rushdie’s book to lean on. Got an aisle to one side, empty seat to the other, so I can spread myself out (already taken my shoes off). Bit less crowded than I’d expected at this time of year. Jacksonville here I come. (I guess if it had been Harvard they’d have paid for Clipper Class, but you can’t have everything.)

  Right. The coincidences I was talking about. I started reading The Satanic Verses in the departure lounge there, and how does it begin? With two guys falling through the air after being blown up in a jumbo jet. Great. I mean not that I’m a nervous flier or anything, but this is not what one wishes to read before boarding a plane, correct? So that’s one. Plus those other two instances; of travel, a conversation/argument started by a book (by two books), reason against faith both times, somehow seem to belong together with this journey; bus, train, plane, a travelling trinity of functioning technology to compare and contrast with the paranoid psychoses of religious belief.

  What do you do with these people? (Never mind what they might do to us, if they ever get the whip hand; what chance would I have to teach ‘Reason and Compassion in Twentieth-Century Poetry’ in Tehran?) Reason shapes the future, but superstition infects the present.

  And coincidence convinces the credulous. Two things happen at the same time, or one after another, and we assume there must be a link; well, we sacrificed a virgin last year, and there was a good h
arvest. Of course the ceremony to raise the sun works - it comes up every morning doesn’t it? I say my prayers each night and the world hasn’t ended yet . . .

  Dung beetle thinking. Life is too complicated for there not to be continual coincidences, and we just have to come to terms with the fact that they merely happen and aren’t ordained, that some things occur for no real reason whatsoever, and that this is not a punishment and that is not a reward. Good grief; the most copper-bottomed, platinum-card proof of divine intervention, of some holy master-plan, would be if there were no coincidences at all! That really would look suspicious.

  I don’t know. Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong. I don’t mean that either the Christians or the Muslims actually have the truth, that either the geriatric gibberings of Rome or the hysterical spurtings out of Qom contain anything remotely resembling the real bottom line about Where We Come From or What It’s All About, but that both might represent the way humanity truly wants to be; perhaps they are its truest images. Maybe reason is the aberration (thought perishes).

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