BBC Radio 4, 29 April 2011
A science fiction tale about the visit of the Culture ship Arbitrary
to the Planet Earth in 1977. One member of the crew, Dervley Linter (Paterson Joseph) decides to stay and assume human form;
another member Diziet Sma (Nina Sosanya) retains her original form, but can still see why Linter has chosen what to do. Linter
eventually dies, the victim of an unprovoked attack in New York, and received a burial in outer space as per his instructions,
leaving Sma to reflect on her world and whether it is in any superior to that of Earth.
The device of having aliens visit Earth is a familiar one, giving Banks the chance
to comment on our planet's shortcomiings, while speculating on whether any possible alternatives exist. Banks' decision to
situate the action in the late 1970s gives him the chance to comment on the politics of that period: the repressiveness of
communism, the pointlessness of dividing up the city of Berlin; and the mindless violence characteristic of big cities like
New York in the pre-Giuliani era.
Nadia Molinari's production had Sma looking back on that period as narrator - although
she was well aware of what was wrong with Earth at that time, she could not help thinking that the planet possessed a vibrancy
conspicuously absent from her own pre-programmed existence under Ship's (Antony Sher's) control.
Nina's speculations were contrasted with Ship's complacency. As a temporary visitor
to Earth, he enjoyed its incidental pleasures (for example, sending a request for David Bowie's "Space Oddity" to be played
on the BBC World Service), while confidently believing in the superiority of his own world. He had little time for Earth's
"culture:" why bother to savour it when he already had everything?
Molinari's production proved a melancholy experience, suggesting that cross-cultural
cooperation was virtually impossible - either one had to follow Linter's example and transform oneself completely to accommodate
the mores of the target culture (a useful allegory for the assumption of particular citizenships), or else understand that
peoples of different nations could never communicate with one another. The production summed up Cold War politics: every nation
was so preoccupied with its own security that it could not reach out to other nations. Much was made of the late 1970s setting,
but we were left with the uncomfortable sense that such standoffishness still exists today, even in a world brought closer
together by organizations such as the European Union, the collapse of communism, and technological developments such as the
internet. Maybe we are all in a state of isolation, the prisoners of our cultural upbringing.