I returned to the re-read of the Culture books with the stories I skipped over in favor of Excession. First is Use of Weapons. I think it speaks to the quality of Banks’ craft here that I like this book so much, because if it weren’t executed so brilliantly, the subject matter would be very much not to my taste. This is the book that famously is told in two strands, one going forward and one backward, until they finish in twin revelations that would have next to no power if told in chronological order. I have a slight reservation about the mechanics of this format (book destroying spoilers, ROT13: vg ubcrf gur ernqre jvyy npprcg nf yvzvgrq-guveq cbvag bs ivrj jung’f ernyyl bzavfpvrag, sbe znkvzhz zvfyrnqvat pncnpvgl), but even that isn’t enough to keep me from admiring the book immensely.
In unfortunate contrast, “The State of the Art” is terrible. This is the Culture novella set on Earth, and it is roughly 99% long-winded political and philosophical discourse about human society, and 1% plot—or at least it feels that way. I only kept reading to see if anything was eventually going to happen—and then when it did, I wished I hadn’t bothered. The only thing interesting about this is that it’s set in 1977, thus demonstrating that the Culture is not an evolutionary product of Earth-humanity. There, now I’ve saved you from having to read it.