You wait twenty years for a decent radio SF adaptation to come along, and then we get not one, but several. The current BBC Radio sci-fi season, on Radio 3, Radio 4, and Radio 7—I can forgive them the "sci-fi" in exchange for a really good set of choices—has a number of choice selections, drawn predominantly from the political and social critique school of British science fiction including H. G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, John Christopher, and swinging by an adaptation of Blake’s Seven as well as a number of original stories—although you’d be hard pressed to tell from this selection that women write SF as well. One of the plays is by Anita Sullivan, but it would have been lovely to have, say, a dramatization of a Gwyneth Jones story. (They have just broadcast a C. L. Moore adaptation on Radio 7, but it is not part of the season.)
One of the well trailered highlights of the season, airing on Thursday 5th May, is Paul Cornell's adaptation of Iain M. Banks's "The State of the Art," a novella from 1991. There is very little science fiction on the radio; the last really excellent SF radio productions were Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels, and those earned their place through their humour. Since then I've heard the occasional adaptation of Zamyatin on the World Service, or Huxley's Brave New World, and Radio 3 has just broadcast an adaptation of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, but I can think of no broadcasts of contemporary science fiction—although I'd welcome correction. For those of us who argue that movies and television frequently make the mistake of trying to represent rather than conjure the images of the future, this absence has always seemed a little odd. Where romance requires deep, longing looks and plenty of conversation that goes nowhere, and crime fiction is often very heavily dependent on things seen, travel writing works very well on the radio with its endless descriptions and explanations, and there is one view of the genre that understands science fiction as travel writing of the imaginary. With its casual descriptions of the different and explanation of the familiar, and happy As You Know Bob dialogue, along with well developed techniques to avoid that cliché, science fiction may well be the perfect form of fiction for the radio.
Which is all to say that the adaptation of "The State of the Art" is very good indeed.
"The State of the Art" opens with the memories of the Culture agent Diziet Sma of the occasion when the Culture ship Arbitrary arrived in orbit over the planet Earth. Diziet Sma and some of her colleagues are made over to resemble Earth inhabitants and are sent down to check out the planet. Banks's novella is very obviously a riff on Star Trek contact and re-contact stories, in which utopia is explored and found to be flawed, or in which natives are rescued (despite the prime directive against interference) from their own degradation. It also owes a great deal to the classic utopian novel in which the outsider is escorted through utopia and marvels at his or her own degraded state in the face of such wondrous and obvious systematic happiness. If it is possible to sew three structures together and then turn the result inside out, that is what Banks achieved in "The State of the Art." A culture committed to interference identifies a culture that thinks itself harmonious (if not perfect) and neither draws that culture's attention to its imperfections, nor attempts to fix them. The outsider leaves utterly revolted, and in her moments of revulsion provides clues to the nature of the Culture. Diziet Sma's response to the artworks of Earth is horror because they come from pain and suffering. The sharp splinters of light in the genocide memorial—which, in a rare weak moment in the play, is not explained—do not arouse empathy in her breast for the lost talents they commemorate, but loathing for those who think a memorial is enough, or, as she says, a reminder not to do it again, before they turn around and do precisely that. The brilliance of "The State of the Art" has always been in the degree to which it (and Look to Windward) rubbish the notion that "man is not made from utopia" and art can only emerge from pain.
The dramatization of "The State of the Art" loses a little in the adaptation. Some of the careless humour of the Ship names and the section headings of the original report style is lost, and the move from a first-person report to the proscenium arch view of the radio theatre adaptation, and the translation of description into speech, and reported speech into direct exchange, change the tempo and emotional weight of sections of the novella; but this is an observation, not a criticism. Cornell’s adaptation is essentially faithful to the original, even if one or two of the startling visuals of Earth culture seen through the eyes of a Culture citizen are sacrificed. We lose some of the reasoning behind the final decision to leave Earth untouched, but none of the sense that this is both wise and cruel. The sense of dissonance and of outsiderness that Banks conjured is beautifully conveyed.
Cornell’s adaptation is reinforced by some excellent performances. Nina Sosyana renders the relatively untouched Sma of the early novella perfectly, and leaves ample room for the growing disenchantment and anger Sma develops towards the people of Earth. As Sma's determination to leave, and her anger with her colleague Linter for his infatuation with Earth grows, the sweetness of silver becomes the honed edge of steel and the Sma of Use of Weapons emerges, one for whom intervention is always better than non-intervention.
Paterson Joseph, as Linter, the man who falls in love with Earth, begins perhaps overly fascinated with the horrors and beauty of the planet, but by the end is conveying someone in the grip of ecstatic passion. The ship, played by Anthony Sher, in an amused drawl, is suave, absorbed, and finally saddened. Li (played by Graeme Hawley), the shipmate who refuses to change his body in order to descend to Earth, is perhaps a little too strongly modelled on Andy Hamilton, but it is fascinating to have this devil's advocate role played with such charming disengenuousness. He and the ship convey beautifully the degree to which attitude and opinion play rather different roles in Culture decision-making.
"The State of the Art" was and remains a very political novella; written in 1991, it has worn surprisingly well. Since it was written we've had several more genocides, and done very little about them, interfered in ways that had little to do with fixing society, and ignored moments when we might have made a difference. Our leaders still shudder at the idea that money might be the problem rather than the solution, even as our system of distributive capitalism grinds to a halt, and those who produce the raw materials of wealth are often the poorest in the world. We aren't short of nominations for Li's dictator-meat chilli con carne either, even if General Pinochet and Ian Smith are both gone. Delivered over the radio, the political anger of this novel may feel a little heavy-handed to SF fans, who are rather used to political diatribes in SF novels, but in a radio world whose fiction often feels stripped of all but historical politics, it remains shocking.
Farah Mendlesohn is the author of Rhetorics of Fantasy, and the editor of On Joanna Russ. She edited the journal Foundation for six years.