Friday, 22 February 2008

Review: "Dark Benediction" by Walter M. Miller and "State of the Art" by Iain M. Banks

As you may have noticed, I tend to process books by comparing them with books I've already read. Having just finished two collections of short stories, I figured I would write a review of both and compare them to each other.

"Dark Benediction" is a collection of stories by Walter M. Miller, most famous for having written "Canticle for Liebowitz". "State of the Art" is billed as the only collection of short stories by Iain M. Banks, whose "Player of Games" I recently finished and reviewed here.

I enjoy well written short stories quite a bit, as you may have guessed from my earlier reviews of the Saki and Charles Herman Bosman collections. A good short story cuts away a lot of the descriptive detail and just presents the bare ideas. Some authors (such as Borges) excel at the short form. Others such as Philip Dick write good short stories with the occasionally brilliant highlight.

Of the two collections, I would say that "Dark Benediction" is the better collection. Many of the stories are memorable, engaging, poignant, with only the occasional misfire that seems dated or rings hollow. I highly recommend the collection (previously published as "The Best of Walter Miller Jr").

"State of the Art" on the other hand, is somewhat uneven. A number of the stories seem like early attempts. They don't build up much of an engaging set of ideas, and their resolution is unsatisfying (I particularly disliked "Odd Appendage", which just felt like a poorly crafted joke told at too great a length rather than a decent story). The two that rise above the rest are "Descendant" and the titular "State of the Art". "State of the Art" is a novella set in the same universe as "Player of Games", and the longer form suits the material and Banks' writing style. The dynamic of "State of the Art" is well chosen, as it allows Banks to expound on the Culture as well as Earth in the late 1970s. I'd say it's worth picking up a copy just for "State of the Art" and "Descendant", but I'll probably stick to his longer works from now on.

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