Source: My collection
Description: This first ever collection of Iain Bank's short fiction includes a novella never before published in Britian-- The State of the Art. A Striking addition to the growing body of Culture lore, it adds definition and scale to the previous works by using Earth of 1977 as contrast. The other stories in this collection, all previously published in magazines and anthologies, range from science fiction to horror, dark-coated fantasy to morality tale. All bear the indefinable stamp of Iain Banks staggering talent. (from the back cover)
Review: Of the eight stories in this collection, I'd only call two of them bad. I'm not sure what the point of either "Piece" or "Scratch" was. The former, seemed to be trying to say something, but I'm not sure what. Spoiler: Well, other than Iain Banks probably should have avoided airplane related terrorism as a source of inspiration. The latter is written in a rather strange style and I'm not entirely sure it had a narrative.
As for the rest of the stories, I can't say I was overly impressed with most of them, however both "Road of Skulls" and "A Gift from the Culture" left me wanting to know the rest of the story that was obviously there, so I guess I'd call them more incomplete feeling than mediocre.
"Cleaning Up" and "Odd Attachment" both felt complete, and I didn't regret reading either of them, but they didn't feel like anything I'd bother to read a second time. (Warning: Banks has a tendency towards gruesome violence at times, which shows up, in spades, in "Odd Attachment.")
That leaves us with the title novella and "Descendant." "The State of the Art" gives an interesting look at the Culture and what the Contact division does most of the time, but its a story probably best appreciated if you're already familiar with the Culture.
My favorite story by far was "Descendant." While technically a Culture story, it actually should be able to stand by itself just fine. It tells the age old story of a man and his intelligent spacesuit, trying to survive after their ship was destroyed in a battle.
This is a mixed bag of short stories, but I felt most of it was worth reading, at least once, if you like Banks' work.