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The Culture is a fictional interstellar anarchic, socialist, and utopian society created by the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks which features in a number of science fiction novels and works of short fiction by him, collectively called the Culture series.
The Culture is characterized by being a post-scarcity society (meaning that its advanced technologies provide practically limitless material wealth and comforts for everyone for free, having all but abolished the concept of possessions), by having overcome almost all physical constraints on life (including disease and death) and by being an almost totally egalitarian, stable society without the use of any form of force or compulsion, except where necessary to protect others.
Minds, powerful artificial intelligences, have an important role to play in this society. They administer this affluence for the benefit of all. As one commentator has said,
In vesting all power in his individualistic, sometime eccentric, but always benign, AI Minds, Banks knew what he was doing; this is the only way a liberal anarchy could be achieved, by taking what is best in humans and placing it beyond corruption, which means out of human control. The danger involved in this imaginative step, though, is clear; one of the problems with the Culture novels as novels is that the central characters, the Minds, are too powerful and, to put it bluntly, too good.
The novels of the Culture cycle, therefore, mostly deal with people at the fringes of the Culture: diplomats, spies, or mercenaries; those who interact with other civilizations, and who do the Culture's dirty work in moving those societies closer to the Culture ideal, sometimes by force.
In this fictional universe, the Culture exists concurrently with human society on Earth. The time frame for the published Culture stories is from roughly AD 1300 to AD 2800, with Earth being contacted around AD 2100, though the Culture had covertly visited the planet in the 1970s in The State of the Art.
The Culture itself is described as having been created when several humanoid species and machine sentiences reached a certain social level, and took not only their physical, but also their civilizational evolution into their own hands. In The Player of Games, the Culture is described as having existed as a space-faring society for eleven thousand years.
The Culture is a symbiotic society of artificial intelligences (AIs) (Minds and drones), humanoids and other alien species who all share equal status. As mentioned above, all essential work is performed (as far as possible) by non-sentient devices, freeing sentients to do only things that they enjoy (administrative work requiring sentience is undertaken by the AIs using a bare fraction of their mental power, or by people who take on the work out of free choice). As such, the Culture is also a post-scarcity society, where technological advances ensure that no one lacks any material goods or services. As a consequence, the Culture has no need of economic constructs such as money (as is apparent when it deals with civilizations in which money is still important). The Culture rejects all forms of economics based on anything other than voluntary activity. "Money is a sign of poverty" is a common saying in the Culture.
Marain is the Culture's shared language. Designed by early Minds, the Culture believes (or perhaps has proved, or else actively made true) the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language influences thought, and Marain was designed to exploit this effect, while also "appealing to poets, pedants, engineers and programmers". Designed to be represented either in binary or symbol-written form, Marain is also regarded as an aesthetically pleasing language by the Culture. The symbols of the Marain alphabet can be displayed in three-by-three grids of binary (yes/no, black/white) dots and thus correspond to nine-bit wide binary numbers.
Related comments are made by the narrator in The Player of Games regarding gender-specific pronouns, and by general reflection on the fact that Marain places much less structural emphasis on (or even lacks) concepts like possession and ownership, dominance and submission, and especially aggression. Many of these concepts would in fact be somewhat theoretical to the average Culture citizen.
Marain itself is also open to encryption and dialect specific implementations for different parts of the Culture. M1 is basic Nonary Marain, the three-by-three grid. All Culture citizens can communicate in this variant. Other variants include M8 through M16, which are encrypted by various degrees, and are typically used by the Contact Section. Higher level encryptions exist, the highest of these being M32. M32 and lower level encrypted signals are the province of Special Circumstances. Use of M32 is reserved for extremely secret and reserved information and communication within Special Circumstances. That said, M32 has an air of notoriety in the Culture, and in the thoughts of most may best be articulated as "the Unbreakable, Inviolable, Holy of Holies Special Circumstances M32" as described by prospective SC agent Ulver Seich. Ships and Minds also have a slightly distasteful view of SC procedure associated with M32, one Ship Mind going so far as to object to the standard SC attitude of "Full scale, stark raving M32 don't-talk-about-this-or-we'll-pull-your-plugs-out-baby paranoia" on the use of the encryption (Excession).
There are no laws as such in the Culture. Social norms are enforced by convention (personal reputation, 'good manners' and by, as described in The Player of Games, possible ostracism and involuntary supervision for more serious crimes). Minds generally refrain from using their all-seeing capabilities to influence people's reputations, though they are not necessarily themselves above judging people based on such observations, as described in Excession. Minds also judge each other, with one of the more relevant criteria being the quality of their treatment of sentients in their care. Hub Minds for example are generally nominated from well-regarded GSV (the largest class of ships) Minds, and then upgraded to care for the billions living on the artificial habitats.
The only serious prohibitions that seem to exist are against harming sentient beings, or forcing them into undertaking any act (another concept that seems unnatural to and is, in fact, almost unheard of by almost all Culture citizens). As mentioned in The Player of Games, the Culture does have the occasional "crime of passion" (as described by an Azadian) and the punishment was to be "slap-droned", or to have a drone assigned to follow the offender and "make sure [they] don't do it again".
While the enforcement in theory could lead to a Big Brother-style surveillance society, in practice social convention among the Minds prohibits them from watching, or interfering in, citizens' lives unless requested, or unless they perceive severe risk. The practice of reading a sentient's mind without permission (something the Culture is technologically easily capable of) is also strictly taboo, and Minds that do so are considered deviant and shunned by other Minds (see GCU Grey Area). At one point it is said that if the Culture actually had written laws, the sanctity of one's own thoughts against the intrusion of others would be the first on the books.
This gives some measure of privacy and protection; though the very nature of Culture society would, strictly speaking, make keeping secrets irrelevant: most of them would be considered neither shameful nor criminal. It does allow the Minds in particular to scheme amongst themselves in a very efficient manner, and occasionally withhold information.
It has been argued within the novels by opponents of the Culture that the role of humans in the Culture is nothing more than that of pets, or parasites on Culture Minds, and that they can have nothing genuinely useful to contribute to a society where science is close to omniscient about the physical universe, where every ailment has been cured, and where every thought can be read. Many of the Culture novels in fact contain characters (from within or without the Culture) wondering how far-reaching the Minds' dominance of the Culture is, and how much of the democratic process within it might in fact be a sham: subtly but very powerfully influenced by the Minds in much the same ways Contact and Special Circumstances influence other societies. Also, except for some mentions about a vote over the Idiran-Culture War, and the existence of a very small number of 'Referrers' (humans of especially acute reasoning), few biological entities are ever described as being involved in any high-level decisions.
On the other hand, the Culture can be seen as fundamentally hedonistic (one of the main objectives for any being, including Minds, is to have fun) rather than to be 'useful'. Also, Minds are constructed, by convention, to care for and value human beings. While a General Contact Unit (GCU) does not strictly need a crew (and could construct artificial avatars when it did), a real human crew adds richness to its existence, and offers distraction during otherwise dull periods. In Consider Phlebas it is noted that Minds still find humans fascinating, especially their odd ability to sometimes achieve similarly advanced reasoning as their much more complex machine brains.
To a large degree, the freedoms enjoyed by humans in the Culture are only available because Minds choose to provide them. Nevertheless, social convention within the community of Minds seem to make it impossible, as well as abhorrent, that these freedoms should be curtailed in a society that cares about the happiness of its members. The freedoms include the ability to leave the Culture when desired, often forming new associated but separate societies with Culture ships and Minds, most notably the Zetetic Elench and the ultra-pacifist and non-interventionist Peace Faction.
The Culture is a posthuman society, which originally arose when seven or eight roughly humanoid space-faring species coalesced into a quasi-collective (a group-civilization) ultimately consisting of approximately thirty trillion (short scale) sentient beings (this includes artificial intelligences). In Banks' universe, a good part (but by no means an overwhelming percentage) of all sentient species is of the "pan-human" type, as noted in Matter. It is not explained how this similarity in many species came about.
Although the Culture was originated by humanoid species, subsequent interactions with other civilizations have introduced many non-humanoid species into the Culture (including some former enemy civilizations), though the majority of the biological Culture is still pan-human. Little uniformity exists in the Culture, and its citizens are such by choice, free to change physical form and even species (though some stranger biological conversions are irreversible, and conversion from biological to artificial sentience is considered to be what is known as an Unusual Life Choice). All members are also free to join, leave, and rejoin, or indeed declare themselves to be, say, 80% Culture.
Techniques in genetics have advanced in the Culture to the point where bodies can be freed from built-in limitations. Citizens of the Culture refer to a normal human as "human-basic" and the vast majority opt for significant enhancements; severed limbs grow back, sexual physiology can be voluntarily changed from male to female and back (though the process itself takes time), sexual stimulation and endurance are strongly heightened in both sexes (something that is often subject of envious debate among other species), pain can be switched off, toxins can be bypassed away from the digestive system, automatic functions such as breathing or heart rate can be switched to conscious control, and bones and muscles adapt quickly to changes in gravity without the need to exercise. The degree of enhancement found in Culture individuals varies to taste, with certain of the more exotic enhancements limited to Special Circumstances personnel (for example, weapons systems embedded in various parts of the body).
Most Culture individuals opt to have drug glands that allow for hormonal levels and other chemical secretions to be consciously monitored, released and controlled. These allow owners to secrete on command any of a wide selection of synthetic drugs, from the merely relaxing to the mind-altering: 'Snap' is described in Use of Weapons and The Player of Games as "The Culture's favourite breakfast drug". "Sharp Blue" is described as a utility drug, as opposed to a sensory enhancer or a sexual stimulant, that helps in problem solving. "Quicken", mentioned in Excession, speeds up the user's neural processes so that time seems to slow down, allowing them to think and have mental conversation (for example with artificial intelligences) in far less time than it appears to take to the outside observer. "Sperk", as described in Matter, is a mood- and energy-enhancing drug, while other such self-produced drugs include "Calm", "Gain", "Charge", "Recall", "Diffuse", "Somnabsolute", "Softnow", "Focal", "Edge", "Drill", "Gung", and "Crystal Fugue State". The glanded substances have no permanent side-effects and are non-habit-forming.
For all their genetic improvements, the Culture is by no means eugenically uniform. Human members in the Culture setting vary in size, colour and shape as in reality, and with possibly even further natural differences: in the novella The State of the Art, it is mentioned that a character "looks like a Yeti", and that there is variance among the Culture in minor details such as the number of toes or of joints on each finger. It is mentioned in Excession that:
"the tenor of the time had generally turned against … outlandishness and people had mostly returned to looking more like people over the last millennium", previously "as the fashions of the intervening times had ordained – people … had resembled birds, fish, dirigible balloons, snakes, small clouds of cohesive smoke and animated bushes".
Some Culture citizens opt to leave the constraints of a human or even humanoid body altogether, opting to take on the appearance of one of the myriad of other galactic sentients (perhaps in order to live with them) or even non-sentient objects as commented upon in Matter (though this process can be irreversible if the desired form is too removed from the structure of the human brain). Certain eccentrics have chosen to become drones or even Minds themselves, though this is considered rude and possibly even insulting by most humans and AIs alike.
While the Culture is generally pan-humanoid (and tends to call itself "human"), various other species and individuals of other species have become part of the Culture.
As all Culture citizens are of perfect genetic health, the very rare cases of a Culture citizen showing any physical deformity are almost certain to be a sort of fashion statement of somewhat dubious taste.
Almost all Culture citizens are very sociable, of great intellectual capability and learning, and possess very well-balanced psyches. Their biological make-up and their growing up in an enlightened society make neuroses and lesser emotions like greed or (strong) jealousy practically unknown, and produce persons that, in any lesser society, appear very self-composed and charismatic. Character traits like strong shyness, while very rare, are not fully unknown, as shown in Excession. As described there and in Player of Games, a Culture citizen who becomes dysfunctional enough to pose a serious nuisance or threat to others would be offered (voluntary) psychological adjustment therapy and might potentially find himself under constant (non-voluntary) oversight by representatives of the local Mind. In extreme cases, as described in Use of Weapons and Surface Detail, dangerous individuals have been known to be assigned a "slap-drone", a robotic follower who ensures that the person in question doesn't continue to endanger the safety of others.
As well as humans and other biological species, sentient artificial intelligences are also members of the Culture. These can be broadly categorised into drones and Minds. Also, by custom, as described in Excession, any artifact (be it a tool or vessel) above a certain capability level has to be given sentience.
Drones are roughly comparable in intelligence and social status to that of the Culture's biological members. Their intelligence is measured against that of an average biological member of the Culture; a so-called "1.0 value" drone would be considered the mental equal of a biological citizen, whereas lesser drones such as the menial service units of Orbitals are merely proto-sentient (capable of limited reaction to unprogrammed events, but possessing no consciousness, and thus not considered citizens; these take care of much of the menial work in the Culture). The sentience of advanced drones has various levels of redundancy, from systems similar to that of Minds (though much reduced in capability) down to electronic, to mechanical and finally biochemical back-up brains.
Although drones are artificial, the parameters that prescribe their minds are not rigidly constrained, and sentient drones are full individuals, with their own personalities, opinions and quirks. Like biological citizens, Culture drones generally have lengthy names. They also have a form of sexual intercourse for pleasure, called being "in thrall", though this is an intellect-only interfacing with another sympathetic drone.
While civilian drones do generally match humans in intelligence, drones built especially as Contact or Special Circumstances agents are often several times more intelligent, and imbued with extremely powerful senses, powers and armaments (usually forcefield and effector-based, though occasionally more destructive weaponry such as lasers or, exceptionally, "knife-missiles" are referred to) all powered by antimatter reactors. Despite being purpose built, these drones are still allowed individual personalities and given a choice in lifestyle. Indeed, some are eventually deemed psychologically unsuitable as agents (for example as Mawhrin-Skel notes about itself in The Player of Games) and must choose (or choose to choose) either mental reprofiling or demilitarisation and discharge from Special Circumstances.
Physically, drones are floating units of various sizes and shapes, usually with no visible moving parts. Drones get around the limitations of this inanimation with the ability to project "fields": both those capable of physical force, which allow them to manipulate objects, as well as visible, coloured fields called "auras", which are used to enable the drone to express emotion. There is a complex code of drone body language based on aura colours and patterns (which is fully understood by biological Culture citizens as well).
In size drones vary substantially: the oldest still alive (eight or nine thousand years old) tend to be around the size of humans, whereas later technology allows drones to be small enough to lie in a human's cupped palm; modern drones may be any size between these extremes according to fashion and personal preference. Some drones are also designed as utility equipment with its own sentience, such as the gelfield protective suit described in Excession.
By contrast to drones, Minds are orders of magnitude more powerful and intelligent than the Culture's other biological and artificial citizens. Typically they inhabit and act as the controllers of large-scale Culture hardware such as ships or space-based habitats. Unsurprisingly, given their duties, Minds are tremendously powerful: capable of holding millions of simultaneous conversations with the citizens that live aboard them, while running all of the functions of the ship or habitat. To allow them to perform at such a high degree, they exist partially in hyperspace to get around such hindrances to computing power as the speed of light.
During the time of Consider Phlebas, Minds were estimated to number in the several hundreds of thousands.
Culture Minds choose their own names (which then also identify the craft they inhabit, if any), and their choices are often whimsical and humorous. Ship-based Minds are identified by a three-letter prefix denoting class (such as GSV or GCU), followed by their personal name, such as:
Presumably to avoid the cumbersome repetition of such long names, the inhabitants of ships and habitats tend to refer to the overseeing local Mind simply as the "Ship" or the "Hub", for example.
Culture military craft are often designed to be ugly and graceless, lacking the Culture's usual aesthetic style, and it has been theorised that this is because Culture citizens wish to distance themselves from the military aspects of their society. Their ship classes, reflecting the Culture's profound distaste of war and resultant refusal to disguise their weapons with euphemisms, are always unpleasant (such as the Gangster class, Torturer class, Psychopath class and Thug class). Their self-given names are often tinged with menace (but still tend to be whimsical), such as:
Since the Mind concerned chooses its own name this may sometimes even indicate a degree of self-hatred over its purpose for existence. Warship Minds are somewhat out of the normal Culture's behaviour range, designed to be more aggressive and less ambivalent about violence than the usual Culture citizen.
Minds generally view their crew/inhabitants as 'interesting companions' and interact with them through remotely controlled devices, often drones or humanoid 'avatars'. Examples of more diverse interactive systems are animals such as small fish suspended in their own anti-gravity sphere of water.
As a sidenote, the fact that artificial intelligences are accepted as citizens of the Culture was a major factor in the Idiran-Culture War, which is explored in Consider Phlebas. This citizenship of AIs (which the Culture promotes in other societies it encounters) has other more general consequences. For instance, despite a high degree of automation within Culture technology, menial tasks are often undertaken by non-sentient technology, to avoid the exploitation of sentient lifeforms (though Minds often work at administrative tasks using bare fractions of their enormous mental capabilities).
Some humanoid or drone Culture citizens have long names, often with seven or more words. Some of these words specify the citizen's origin (place of birth or manufacture), some an occupation, and some (chosen later in life by the citizen themselves) may denote specific philosophical or political alignments, or make other similarly personal statements. An example would be Diziet Sma, whose full name is Rasd-Coduresa Diziet Embless Sma da' Marenhide:
Iain Banks has given his own Culture name as "Sun-Earther Iain El-Bonko Banks of Queensferry"
The Culture has a relatively relaxed attitude towards death. Genetic manipulation and the continual benevolent surveillance of the Minds make natural or accidental death almost unknown. Advanced technology allows citizens to make backup copies of their personalities, allowing them to be resurrected in case of death, although as these are merely copies, consciousness is not continued, and the original individual is not truly reborn, just replaced. The form of that resurrection can be specified by the citizen, with personalities returning either in the same biological form, in an artificial form (see below), or even just within virtual reality. Some citizens choose to go into "storage" (a form of suspended animation) for long periods of time, out of boredom or curiosity about the future.
Attitudes individual citizens have towards death are very varied (and have varied throughout the Culture's history). While many, if not most, citizens make some use of backup technology, many others do not, preferring instead to risk death without the possibility of recovery (for example when engaging in extreme sports). These citizens are sometimes called "disposables", and are described in Look to Windward. Taking into account such accidents, voluntary euthanasia for emotional reasons, or choices like sublimation, the average lifespan of humans is described in Excession as being around 350 to 400 years, but can be longer. Some citizens choose to forgo death altogether, although this is rarely done and is viewed as an eccentricity. Other options instead of death include conversion of an individual's consciousness into an AI, joining of a group mind (which can include biological and non biological consciousnesses), or subliming (usually in association with a group mind).
Concerning the lifespan of drones and Minds, given the durability of Culture technology and the aforementioned options of mindstate backups, it is reasonable to assume that they live as long as they choose. Even Minds, with their utmost complexity, are known to be backed up (and reactivated if they for example die in a risky mission, see GSV Lasting Damage). It is noted that even Minds themselves do not necessarily live forever either, often choosing to eventually sublime or even committing suicide (as does the triple-mind GSV Lasting Damage due to its choices in the Culture-Iridian war).
The Culture (and other societies) have developed powerful anti-gravity abilities, closely related to their ability to manipulate forces themselves.
In this ability they can create action-at-a-distance – including forces capable of pushing, pulling, cutting, and even fine manipulation, and forcefields for protection, visual display or plain destructive ability. Such applications still retain restrictions on range and power: while forcefields of many cubic kilometres are possible (and in fact, orbitals are held together by forcefields), even in the chronologically later novels, such as Look to Windward, spaceships are still used for long-distance travel and drones for many remote activities.
With the control of a Mind, fields can be manipulated over vast distances. In Use of Weapons, a Culture warship uses its electromagnetic effectors to hack into a computer light years away.
Artificial intelligences (and to a lesser degree, the non-sentient computers omnipresent in all material goods), form the backbone of the technological advances of the Culture. Not only are they the most advanced scientists and designers the Culture has, their lesser functions also oversee the vast (but usually hidden) production and maintenance capabilities of the society.
The Culture has achieved artificial intelligences where each Mind has thought processing capabilities many orders of magnitude beyond that of human beings, and data storage drives which, if written out on paper and stored in filing cabinets, would cover thousands of planets skyscraper high (as described by one Mind in Consider Phlebas). Yet it has managed to condense these entities to a volume of several dozen cubic metres (though much of the contents and the operating structure are continually in hyperspace).
At the same time, it has achieved drone sentiences and capability of Special Circumstance proportions in forms that could fit easily within a human hand, and built extremely powerful (though not sentient) computers capable of fitting into tiny insect-like drones. Some utilitarian devices (such as spacesuits) are also provided with artificial sentience. These specific types of drones, like all other Culture AI, would also be considered citizens–though as described in the short story "Descendant", they may spend most of the time when their 'body' is not in use in a form of remote-linked existence outside of it, or in a form of AI-level virtual reality.
A major feature of its post-scarcity society, the Culture is obviously able to gather, manipulate, transfer and store vast amounts of energy. While not explained in detail in the novels, this involves antimatter and 'grid energy', a postulated energy field dividing the universe from a mirroring anti-matter universe, and providing practically limitless energy. Transmission or storage of such energy is not explained, though these capabilities must be powerful as well, with tiny drones capable of very powerful manipulatory fields and forces.
The Culture also uses various forms of energy manipulation as weapons, with "Gridfire" (a method of creating a dimensional rift to the energy grid, releasing astronomical amounts of energy into a region of non-hyperspace) being described as a sort of ultimate weapon more destructive than condensed antimatter bombardment. One character in Consider Phlebas refers to gridfire as "the weaponry of the end of the universe".
The Culture (at least by the time of The Player of Games) has developed a form of teleportation capable of transporting both living and unliving matter instantaneously via wormholes. This technology has not rendered spacecraft obsolete – in Excession a barely apple-sized drone was displaced for no further than a light-second at maximum range (mass being a limiting factor determining range), a tiny distance in galactic terms. The process also still has a very small chance of failing and killing living beings, but the chance is described as being so small (1 in 61 million) that it normally only becomes an issue when transporting a large number of people and is only regularly brought up due to the Culture's safety conscious nature.
Displacement is an integral part of Culture technology, being widely used for a range of applications from peaceful to militaristic. Displacing warheads into or around targets is one of the main forms of attack in space warfare in the Culture universe. The Player of Games mentions that drones can be displaced to catch a person falling from a cliff before they impact the ground, as well.
The Culture has the capability to read and store the full sentience of any being, biological or artificial, and to thus reactivate a stored being after its death. Note that this also necessitates the capability to read thoughts, but as described in Look to Windward, doing this without permission is considered heavily taboo.
As an almost fully space-borne culture, starships (next to orbitals) are the main living spaces, vehicles and ambassadors of the Culture. A proper Culture starship (as defined by hyperspace capability and the presence of a Mind to inhabit it) may range from several hundreds of metres to several dozens of kilometres. The latter may be inhabited by billions of beings and are artificial worlds in their own right, including whole ecosystems.
The Culture (and most other space-faring species in its universe) use a form of Hyperspace-drive to achieve faster-than-light speeds. Banks has evolved a (self-confessedly) technobabble system of theoretical physics to describe the ships' acceleration and travel, using such concepts as "infraspace" and "ultraspace" and an 'energy grid' between universes (from which the warp engines 'push off' to achieve momentum). An 'induced singularity' is used to access infra or ultra space from real space; once there, 'engine fields' reach down to the Grid and gain power and traction from it as they travel at high speeds.
These hyperspace engines do not use reaction mass and hence do not need to be mounted on the surface of the ship. They are described as being very dense exotic matter, which only reveals its complexity under a powerful microscope. Acceleration and maximum speed depend on the ratio of the mass of the ship to its engine mass. As with any other matter aboard, ships can gradually manufacture extra engine volume or break it down as needed. In Excession one of the largest ships of the Culture redesigns itself to be mostly engine and reaches a speed of 233,000 times lightspeed. Within the range of the Culture's influence in the galaxy, most ships would still take years of travelling to reach the more remote spots.
Other than the engines used by larger Culture ships, there are a number of other propulsion methods such as gravitic drive at sublight speeds, with antimatter, fusion and other reaction engines occasionally seen with less advanced civilizations, or on Culture hobby craft.
Warp engines can be very small, with Culture drones barely larger than fist-size described as being thus equipped. There is also at least one (apparently non-sentient) species (the "Chuy-Hirtsi" animal), that possesses the innate capability of warp travel. In Consider Phlebas, it is being used as a military transport by the Idirans, but no further details are given.
The Culture has highly advanced nanotechnology, though descriptions of such technology in the books is limited. Many of the described uses are by or for Special Circumstances, but there are no indications that the use of nanotechnology is limited in any way. (In a passage in one of the books, there is a brief reference to the question of sentience when comparing the human brain or a "pico-level substrate".)
One of the primary clandestine uses of nanotechnology is information gathering. The Culture likes to be in the know, and as described in Matter "they tend to know everything." Aside from its vast network of sympathetic allies and wandering Culture citizens one of the primary ways that the Culture keeps track of important events is by the use of practically invisible nanobots capable of recording and transmitting their observations. This technique is described as being especially useful to track potentially dangerous people (such as ex-Special Circumstance agents). Via such nanotechnology, it is potentially possible for the Culture (or similarly advanced societies) to see everything happening on a given planet, orbital or any other habitat. The usage of such devices is limited by various treaties and agreements among the Involved.
Much of the Culture's population lives on orbitals, vast artificial worlds that can accommodate billions of people. Others travel the galaxy in huge space ships such as General Systems Vehicles (GSVs) that can accommodate hundreds of millions of people. Almost no Culture citizens are described as living on planets, except when visiting other civilizations. The reason for this is partly because the Culture believes in containing its own expansion to self-constructed habitats, instead of colonising or conquering new planets. With the resources of the universe allowing permanent expansion (at least assuming non-exponential growth), this frees them from having to compete for living space.
The Culture, and other civilizations in Banks' universe, are described as living in these various, often constructed habitats:
These are vast, brown dwarf-sized bubbles of atmosphere enclosed by force fields, and (presumably) set up by an ancient advanced race at least one and a half billion years ago. There is only minimal gravity within an airsphere. They are illuminated by moon-sized orbiting planetoids that emit enormous light beams.
Citizens of the Culture live there only very occasionally as guests, usually to study the complex ecosystem of the airspheres and the dominant life-forms: the "dirigible behemothaurs" and "gigalithine lenticular entities", which may be described as inscrutable, ancient intelligences looking similar to a cross between gigantic blimps and whales. The airspheres slowly migrate around the galaxy, taking anywhere from 50 to 100 million years to complete one circuit. In the novels no one knows who created the airspheres or why, but it is presumed that whoever did has long since sublimed but may maintain some obscure link with the behemothaurs and lenticular entities. Guests in the airspheres are not allowed to use any force-field technology, though no reason has been offered for this prohibition.
The airspheres resemble in some respects the orbit-sized ring of breathable atmosphere created by Larry Niven in The Integral Trees, but spherical not toroidal, require a force field to retain their integrity, and arose by artificial rather than natural processes.
One of the main types of habitats of the Culture, an orbital is a ring structure orbiting a star as would a planet. Unlike a Ringworld or a Dyson Sphere, an orbital does not enclose the star (being much too small). Like a ringworld, the orbital rotates to provide an analog of gravity on the inner surface. A Culture orbital rotates about once every 24 hours and has gravity-like effect about the same as the gravity of Earth, making the diameter of the ring about 3,000,000 km, and ensuring that the inhabitants experience night and day. Orbitals feature prominently in many Culture stories.
Though many other civilizations in the Culture books live on planets, the Culture as it currently exists has little direct connection to planet life. A small number of homeworlds of the founding member species of the Culture are mentioned in passing, and a few hundred human-habitable worlds were colonised (some being terraformed) before the Culture chose to turn towards artificial habitats, preferring to keep the planets it encounters wild. Since then, terraforming has become looked down on by the Culture as inelegant, ecologically problematic and possibly even immoral. Less than one percent of the population of the Culture lives on planets, and many find the very concept a bit bizarre.
This respect is not absolute though; in Consider Phlebas, some Minds suggest testing a new technology on a "spare planet" (knowing that it could be destroyed in an antimatter explosion if unsuccessful). It should be assumed from their normal ethics, that this planet would have been lifeless to start with. It is also quite possible, even probable, that the suggestion was not made in complete seriousness.
Ringworld-like megastructures exist in the Culture universe but are referred to simply as "Rings" with a capital R. These habitats are not described in detail but one is recorded as having been destroyed (along with 3 Spheres) in the Idiran-Culture war. In Matter, the Morthanveld people possesses ringworldlike structures made of innumerable various-sized tubes. Those structures encircle a star just like Niven's Ringworld and are about the same size.
These are asteroids and other non-planetary bodies hollowed out for habitation and usually spun for centrifugal artificial gravity. Rocks (with the exception of those used for secretive purposes) are described as having faster-than-light space drives, and thus can be considered a special form of spaceship. Like Orbitals, they are usually administered by one or more Minds.
Rocks do not play a large part in most of the Culture stories, though their use as storage for mothballed military ships (Pittance) and habitats (Phage Rock, one of the founding communities of the Culture) are both key plot points in Excession.
Shellworlds are introduced in Matter, and consist of multilayered levels of concentric spheres in four dimensions held up by innumerable titanic interior towers. Their extra dimensional characteristics render some products of Culture technology too dangerous to use and yet others ineffective, notably access to hyperspace. They were built millions of years ago as vast machines intended to cast a forcefield around the whole of the galaxy for unknown purposes. The species that developed this technology are now lost, and many of the remaining shellworlds have become inhabited, often by many different species throughout their varying levels. Many still hold deadly secret defence mechanisms, often leading to great danger for their new inhabitants, giving them one of their other nicknames: Slaughter Worlds.
Ships in the Culture are intelligent individuals, often of very large size, controlled by one or more Minds. The ship is considered the Mind's body. Some ships (e.g., GSVs) are tens or even hundreds of kilometers in length and may have millions or even billions of residents who live on them full time, and together with Orbitals represent the main form of habitat for the Culture. Such large ships may temporarily contain smaller ships with their own populations, and/or manufacture such ships themselves.
In Use of Weapons, the protagonist Zakalwe is allowed to acclimatise himself to the Culture by wandering for days through the habitable levels of a ship (the GSV Size Isn't Everything described as over 80 kilometers long) eating and sleeping at the many locations which provide food and accommodation throughout the structure, and enjoying the various forms of contact possible with the friendly and accommodating inhabitants.
Dyson spheres also exist in the Culture universe but are only mentioned in passing and are simply called "Spheres". Three spheres are recorded as having been destroyed in the Idiran-Culture war.
In Matter, the Morthanveld Nestworld of Syaung-un is a "Sphere World" consisting of a complex, recursive arrangement of transparent tubes within tubes, all revolving around a small central star. The Nestworld is alleged to contain forty trillion Morthanveld, more intelligent beings than on all the Culture and associated worlds put together. There are also noted to be other Nestworlds, but none as big as Syaung-un.
The Culture, living mostly on massive spaceships and in artificial habitats, and also feeling no need for conquest in the typical sense of the word, possesses no borders. Its sphere of influence is better defined by the (current) concentration of Culture ships and habitats as well as the measure of effect its example and its interventions have already had on the 'local' population of any galactic sector. As the Culture is also a very graduated and constantly if slowly changing society, their societal boundaries are also constantly in flux (though they tend to be continually expanding during the novels), peacefully 'absorbing' societies and individuals.
While the Culture is one of the most advanced and most powerful of all galactic civilizations, it is but one of the "high-level Involved" (called "Optimae" by some less advanced civilizations), the most powerful non-sublimed civilizations which mentor or control the others.
An Involved society is a highly advanced group that has achieved galaxy-wide involvement with other cultures or societies. There are a few dozen Involved societies, and hundreds or thousands of well-developed (interstellar) but insufficiently influential societies or cultures, or those well-developed societies known as "galactically mature" which do not take such a dynamic role in the galaxy as a whole. In the novels, the Culture might be considered the premier Involved society, or at least, the most dynamic and energetic, especially given that the Culture itself is a growing multicultural fusion of Involved societies. The Involved are contrasted with the Sublimed (sometimes colloquially referred to as the Elder civilizations due to the fact that they are no longer around), groups that have reached a high level of technical development and galactic influence but subsequently abandoned the physical Reality, ceasing to take serious interventionist interest in galactic civilization. They are also contrasted with what some Culture people loosely refer to as "barbarians", societies of intelligent beings which lack the technical capacity to know about or take a serious role in their interstellar neighbourhood.
The Involved are also contrasted with hegemonising swarms (a term used in several of Banks' Culture novels). These are entities that exist to convert as much of the universe as possible into more of themselves; most typically these are technological in nature, resembling more sophisticated forms of grey goo, but the term can be applied to cultures that are sufficiently single-minded in their devotion to mass conquest, control, and colonisation. Both the Culture and the author (in his Notes On the Culture) find this behavior quixotic and ridiculous. Most often, societies categorized as hegemonising swarms consist of species or groups newly-arrived in the galactic community with highly expansionary and exploitative goals. The usage of the term "hegemonising swarm" in this context is considered derisive in the Culture and among other Involved, and is used to indicate their low regard for those with these ambitions by comparing their behavior to that of mindless self-replicating technology. The Culture's central moral dilemma regarding intervention in other societies can be constructed as a conflict between the desire to help others and the desire to avoid becoming a hegemonising swarm themselves.
Although leading a comfortable life within the Culture, many of its citizens feel a need to be useful, and to belong to a society that does not merely exist for their own sake, but that also helps improve the lot of sentient beings throughout the galaxy. For that reason, the Culture carries out "good works", covertly or overtly interfering in the development of lesser civilizations, with the main aim to gradually guide them towards less damaging paths. As Culture citizens see it, these good works provide the Culture with a "moral right to exist".
A group within the Culture, Contact, is responsible for its interactions (diplomatic or otherwise) with other civilizations (though non-Contact citizens are apparently not prevented from travelling or interacting with other civilizations). Further within Contact, an intelligence organisation named Special Circumstances exists to deal with interventions which require more covert behaviour; the interventionist approach that the Culture takes to advancing other societies may often create resentment in the affected civilizations, and thus requires a rather delicate touch.
In Matter, it is described that there are a number of other galactic civilizations that come close to or potentially even surpass the Culture in power and sophistication. The Culture is very careful and considerate of these groupings, and while still trying to convince them of the Culture ideal, will be much less likely to openly interfere in their activities.
In Surface Detail, three more branches of Contact are described: Quietus, the Quietudinal Service, whose purview is dealing with those entities who have retired from biological existence into digital form and/or those who have died and been resurrected; Numina, which is described as having the charge of contact with races that have sublimed; and Restoria, a subset of Contact which focuses on containing and negating the threat of swarms of self-replicating creatures ('hegswarms').
While the Culture is normally pacifist, Contact historically acts as its military arm in times of war, while Special Circumstances can be considered its secret service and its military intelligence. During war, most of the strategic and tactical decisions are taken by the Minds, with apparently only a small number of especially gifted humans, the "Referrers", being involved in the top-level decisions. It is shown in Consider Phlebas that actual decisions to go to war (as opposed to purely defensive actions) are based on a vote of all Culture citizens, presumably after vigorous discussion within the whole society.
It is described in various novels that the Culture is extremely reluctant to go to war, though it may start to prepare for it long before its actual commencement. In the Idiran-Culture War (possibly one of the most hard-fought wars for the normally extremely superior Culture forces), various star systems, stellar regions and many orbital habitats were overrun by the Idirans before the Culture had converted enough of its forces to military footing. The Culture Minds had had enough foresight to evacuate almost all its affected citizens (apparently numbering in the many billions) in time before actual hostilities reached them. As shown in Player of Games, this is a standard Culture tactic, with its strong emphasis on protecting its citizens rather than sacrificing some of them for short-term goals.
War within the Culture is mostly fought by the Culture's sentient warships, the most powerful of these being war-converted GSVs, which are described as powerful enough to oppose whole enemy fleets. The Culture has little use for conventional ground forces (as it rarely occupies enemy territory, and has little territory of its own); combat drones equipped with knife missiles do appear in Descendant and "terror weapons" (basically intelligent, nano-form assassins) are mentioned in Look to Windward, while infantry combat suits of great power (also usable as capable combat drones when without living occupants) are used in Matter.
Comparisons are often made between the Culture and the twentieth and twenty first century Western civilization(s), particularly their interventions in less-developed societies. These are often confused with regard to the author's assumed politics.
In its foreign policy, the Culture is reminiscent of neoconservative idealism, with a policy of intervening in foreign societies to promote its own cultural values.
Many[who?] believe that the Culture is a utopia carrying significantly greater moral legitimacy than the West's, by comparison, proto-democracies. While Culture interventions can seem similar at first to Western interventions, especially when considered with their democratising rhetoric, the argument is that the Culture operates completely without material need, and therefore without the possibility of baser motives. This is not to say that the Culture's motives are purely altruistic; a peaceful, enlightened universe full of good neighbours lacking ethnic, religious, and sexual chauvinisms is in the Culture's interest as well. Furthermore, the Culture's ideals (in many ways similar to those of the liberal perspective today) are to a much larger extent realised internally in comparison to the West.
Many of the practices employed by Special Circumstances would be considered distasteful even in the context of a Western democracy. Examples are the use of mercenaries to perform the work that the Culture doesn't want to get their hands dirty with, and even outright threats of invasion (the Culture has issued ultimatums to other civilizations before). Some commentators have also argued that those SC agents tasked with civilising foreign cultures (and thus potentially also changing them into a blander, more Culture-like state) are also those most likely to regret these changes, with parallels drawn to real-world special forces trained to operate within the cultural mindsets of foreign nations.
The events of Use of Weapons are an example of just how dirty Special Circumstances will play in order to get their way and the conspiracy at the heart of the plot of Excession demonstrates how at least some Minds are prepared to risk killing sentient beings when they conclude that these actions are beneficial for the long term good. Special Circumstances represents a very small fraction of Contact, which itself is only a small fraction of the entire Culture, making it comparable again to size and influence of modern intelligence agencies.
The Culture stories are largely about problems and paradoxes that confront liberal societies. The Culture itself is an "ideal-typical" liberal society; that is, as pure an example as one can reasonably imagine. It is highly egalitarian; the liberty of the individual is its most important value; and all actions and decisions are expected to be determined according a standard of reasonability and sociability inculcated into all people through a progressive system of education. It is a society so beyond material scarcity that for almost all practical purposes its people can have and do what they want. If they do not like the behavior or opinions of others, they can easily move to a more congenial Culture population centre (or Culture subgroup), and hence there is little need to enforce codes of behavior.
Even the Culture has to compromise its ideals where diplomacy and its own security are concerned. Contact, the group that handles these issues, and Special Circumstances, its secret service division, can employ only those on whose talents and emotional stability it can rely, and may even reject self-aware robots built for its purposes that fail to meet its requirements. Hence these divisions are regarded as the Culture's elite and membership is widely regarded as a prize; yet also, as described in many of the novels, something that can be shameful as it contradicts many of the Culture's moral codes.
Within Contact and Special Circumstances, there are also inner circles that can take control in crises, somewhat contradictory to the ideal notions of democratic and open process the Culture espouses. Contact and Special Circumstances may suppress or delay the release of information, for example to avoid creating public pressure for actions they consider imprudent or to prevent other civilizations from exploiting certain situations.
In dealing with less powerful regressive civilizations, the Culture usually intervenes discreetly, for example by protecting and discreetly supporting the more liberal elements, or subverting illiberal institutions. For instance, in Use of Weapons, the Culture operates within a less advanced illiberal society through control of a business cartel which is known for its humanitarian and social development investments, as well as generic good Samaritanism. In Excession, a sub-group of Minds conspires to provoke a war with the extremely sadistic Affront, although the conspiracy is foiled by a GSV that is a deep cover Special Circumstances agent. As of 2008 only one story, Consider Phlebas (1987), pits the Culture against a highly illiberal society of approximately equal power: the aggressive, theocratic Idirans. Though they posed no immediate, direct threat to the Culture, the Culture declared war because it would have felt useless if it allowed the Idirans' ruthless expansion to continue. The Culture's decision was a value-judgement rather than a utilitarian calculation, and the "Peace Faction" within the Culture seceded. Later in the timeline of the Culture's universe, the Culture has reached a technological level at which most past civilizations have Sublimed, in other words disengaged from Galactic politics and from most physical interaction with other civilizations. The Culture continues to behave "like an idealistic adolescent".
As of 2008, three stories force the Culture to consider its approach to more powerful civilizations. In one incident during the Culture-Idiran War, they strive to avoid offending a civilization so advanced that it has disengaged from Galactic politics, and note that this hyper-advanced society is not a threat to either the welfare or the values of the Culture. In Excession, an overwhelmingly more powerful individual from an extremely advanced civilization is simply passing through on its way from one plane of the physical Reality to another, and there is no real interaction. In the third case it sets up teams to study a civilization that is not threatening but is thought to have eliminated aggressors in the past.
The Culture novels comprise (in publishing and mostly chronological order):
When asked in Wired magazine (June 1996) whether mankind's fate depends on having intelligent machines running things, as in the Culture, Banks replied:
Not entirely, no. I think the first point to make about the Culture is, I'm just making it up as I go along. It doesn't exist and I don't delude myself that it does. It's just my take on it. I'm not convinced that humanity is capable of becoming the Culture because I think people in the Culture are just too nice – altering their genetic inheritance to make themselves relatively sane and rational and not the genocidal, murdering bastards that we seem to be half the time.
But I don't think you have to have a society like the Culture in order for people to live. The Culture is a self-consciously stable and long-lived society that wants to go on living for thousands of years. Lots of other civilizations within the same universe hit the Culture's technological level and even the actuality of the Culture's utopia, but it doesn't last very long – that's the difference.
The point is, humanity can find its own salvation. It doesn't necessarily have to rely on machines. It'll be a bit sad if we did, if it's our only real form of progress. Nevertheless, unless there's some form of catastrophe, we are going to use machines whether we like it or not. This sort of stuff has been going on for decades and mainstream society is beginning to catch up to the implications of artificial intelligence.
In a 2002 interview with Science Fiction Weekly magazine, when asked:
Excession is particularly popular because of its copious detail concerning the Ships and Minds of the Culture, its great AIs: their outrageous names, their dangerous senses of humour. Is this what gods would actually be like?
If we're lucky.