This, this is the one. In many ways this book is responsible for the continued existence and most of the posts on this blog, so feel free to laud and/or blame it as you will.
The State of the Art is a short story collection, structured around the novella which gives the collection its title. This novella (along with a couple of other stories) is set in the Culture universe, and acts as a bit of a prequel to Use of Weapons. It gives us the story of Diziet Sma on an early Contact mission to Earth, and tells of one of her colleague’s desire to go native. It’s a nicely done little piece, even if some of the social/satirical commentary is laid on a little thick, but ultimately it feels a little slight, a little underpowered compared to other works in the Culture continuity.
And to be honest, that’s a criticism you could justifiably extend to the whole collection. One of the other Culture-set stories (Descendent) stands up on its own as a well wrought examination of mutual dependency, hope, and hopelessness, but all the rest seem to lack for a bit of heft, for want of a better word. Road of Skulls, Odd Attachment, and Cleaning Up are all lightly amusing but really not much more, and Piece is another bluntly unsubtle satire, this time on belief and atheism. For all that I sympathise with its general thrust, it nevertheless deploys a couple of metatextual tricks that go beyond heavy handed and into the outright crass.
On reflection, I’m not sure if my reservations about the The State of the Art (the novella, not the collection) are unduly influenced by the company it keeps here. I think it would actually be pretty good in isolation, as it’s only meant to be an addition to the canon and doesn’t try to be anything more than it is, but in this company maybe it gets a bit tainted by association. It’s not a great collection, to be honest, as too many pieces feel like experiments; more half finished explorations of theme and style than fully formed tales in themselves. Clearly all writers need to and should experiment, but you’d expect a bit more in the way of quality control when it comes to actually publishing stuff. The State of the Art is one decent novella, a couple of interesting stories, and a fair bit of padding. Bit of a let down, really.