State of the Art.
-The first time I read this I viewed it as a light-weight but fairly charming and consistently amusing piece, with its own usual Culture blend of humor and pathos. After rereading it I think this was wrong, the novella is very bad, with a horrifically weak plot and overall poorly conceived.
-To begin with the humor. It's simply too much, too garish and not hung on anything meaningful. Banks is a great humorist, but that works when its balancing something--often something quite grotesque, at other points just a substantive character moment or interesting piece of creativity. Here, it's people going around doing ostensibly funny things, often as part of deliberate jokes, and it's just so stupid and meaningless I can't connect. This gets into a major issue with characterization that I talk about bellow.
-More central, though, is the basic failure of the plot. Nothing really happens. The whole thing is aggressively pointless by the end. It puts in all kinds of interesting possibilities out there, but refuses to narratively engage with any of them. What we're left with is a lot of discussion on mundane affairs and the drama of several extraordinarily stupid people. What's more, this whole little trip and the non-Contact option makes the Cultureverse Earth into basically an urban fantasy---all kinds of interesting things lurk in the shadow but none of it changes the lives of the wider populace. It's pretty obvious from the getgo that Contact will not be made--'77 as a choice suggested that--and lots of characters speculating what the Culture might want to do with Earth and them speculating how Earth would respond if they knew isn't something we need a book for. It's something a commentary thread like this can do, nothing in that distinction is a story.
-The whole thing is transparently only there because Banks wanted to have the Culture reflect on Earth, and offer some meta-statements on science fiction. Fair enough, but given that the way he does it is a cheat. Banks has his characters play directly off the notions of science fiction, which for this is---Star Wars and Star Trek, and a smattering of other pop culture. Reasonable if one is to assume just an engagement with the wider culture and sociology of mass expectations for the SF Other, but the novella's scope isn't that widely centered. Plainly it's a way for the readers to speculate on ways the Culture contrasts with wider science fiction. Given that, it's just taking cheap potshots to focus on the films and television. The Culture is of course based on a book series, if Banks was doing this at all effectively he'd have to give some contrast with the future expected in genre books of the time and the "real" one embodied in his polity.
The Arbitrary visits Earth in 1977. At that point, prominent recent SF novels included: Philip K. Dick's Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Asimov's The Gods Themselves and Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Why doesn't the story offer a side by side with one of them (Le Guin's, in particular, actually has a lot of similarity, and does its deconstruction of utopia and dystopia a fair bit better than Banks has ever managed). There could be an interesting sort of dialog if put in that standard, a kind of intense and funny meta-narrative like Adam Roberts' recent Yellow Blue Tibia. But no, what Banks offers is more in the way of 'expectations of time travel lol' which just comes across as smug in all the wrong ways.
-Which brings us around to the issue of characterization, which is a failure. In essence I don't care about any of the exaggerated, two-dimensional portraits we're presented with here. The Arbitrary is probably the most interesting, and it doesn't go much beyond random pranks and a fairly undefined disquiet with the Culture's core mission. Some amusing moments and a flair for good lines, but the wider psychology isn't really there. Sma is a tiny fragment of the character she was (strictly speaking will be) in Use of Weapons. Which wouldn't be bad in itself but her tone of thinking just feels off, and isn't in itself terribly engaging. Fundamentally her reflections on Earth and conviction that there must be contact aren't very profound, and after a point come across as overly pleading/whiny.
-Then there's Li. What was the point of the character again? He's so inflated, bombastic, over the top in proposals---it's like watching a typical Space Battler stroll around the Culture trying to get things rolling his way, and it doesn't make for any kind of substantive impact.
-Still better than Linter, who just ups and goes mascohistic in a terribly uncompelling way. It's simply too abrupt, unreasoned and over-the-top to feel like a legitimate subversion of the Culture's call. Convenient is the strongest impression I get from that, with a character whose a walking hollow void to generate something in the way of tension. And the circumstances of his death are too melodramatic for me to get into that moment to any extent.
-Of a bit more worth are the larger thematic issues brought up, but here I"m also dissatisfied. The unique point here, unlike earlier works, is critiquing the Culture as static, overly unchanging compared with Earth. Therefore the planet, for all its cruelty, ignorance and violence, offers a prospect of transformation and vitality, of experienced newness that is lacking in the Culture. This is in itself a good reason for disatisfication with the Culture, what bothers me about it is that it's something that even applies to the Culture. This polity is technologically stagnant compared to Earth why, exactly? The slow advancement is a feature of the group across the series, but here it's in sharpest relief and it doesn't make sense. The Culture clearly hasn't "maxed out" the tech that's scientifically possible in this universe. It has greater numbers of people than the present, much higher intellects available, immortality and a great desire for innovation for innovation's sake. That should produce more empirical investigations and rate of breakthroughs, on a variety of levels. The brainbug that a much more technologically sophisticated group would at a certain point have almost no further tech growth isn't unique to Banks, but it's a conceit that annoys me and it featured particularly prominently here.
-I'm also bugged by how aggressively West-centered this whole trip and study are. Sure, there's one line about one of Sma's colleagues visiting Japan, and an equally brief mention that some point soon the West's hegemony over the larger planet is going to run out. But still, in a study of 20th century humanity it's overwhelmingly focused on Western Europe and the United States, with a brief glance as the Iron Curtain for hypocrisy and Asia for mass-murder. The shelf of literature mentioned at one point is: Dostoevsky, Borges, Greene, Swift, Lucretius, Kafka, Austin, Grass, bellow, Joyce, Confucius, Scoot, Mailer, Camus, Hemingway, Dante. Shakespeare is also mentioned prominently. Not completely Western but pretty heavily, and all these works are the type of Great Books one would expect to find on a standard Anglo-American shelf. Why, then, are the Culture representatives adopting such a parochial view in their survey of the planet? Why do they effectively take America and allies as the dominant cultural force of the species? I have to say, this isn't a bias I'd expected Banks to have, and it adds a disquieting tone to the larger survey. Contrast again with Yellow Blue Tibia.
-It's not a complete failure. High points include: actually making a Mind a real character for the first time, some insight into Contact as against Special Circumstances, and the scene where the crew eat human. That last is just the right brand of grotesque Banksian humor--so unlike what one would expect of an uber-tolerant utopia, and yet with no actual ethical cost, thus making for an evocative image. Still, overall I'm glad that Banks hasn't done other Culture novellas. Going by this sample it doesn't suit him, producing something grotesquely bloated and irrelevant for a short story and far too meager to effectively deliver the story or insights it thinks it does. Or it could be just his notion of brining Earth into line with the Cultureverse. More than anything else, the smug tone amidst the narrative linked to the weakness of the actual story leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Similar to and better than: Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic
Similar to and worse than: Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia