"You might call them soft, because they’re very reluctant to kill, and they might agree with you, but they’re soft the way the ocean is soft, and, well; ask any sea captain how harmless and puny the ocean can be."
- – Cheradenine Zakalwe, Use of Weapons
The Culture is a series of Scifi novels by Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, about a spacefaring utopian society called 'The Culture'. The stories focus mainly on space politics, ethical dilemmas, black humor, sexuality, and despair.
However, a lot of its relevance on /tg/ stems mainly from the fact that the universe in general is so ridiculously fucking powerful and can utterly and completely assrape nearly anything put against it, for better or worse.
The Culture is a galactic civilization which serves as the main setting for many Iain M Banks novels and short stories, the first novel in the series being Consider Phlebas.
It is basically what would have happened if the humans from the Golden Age of Technology did not have a small problem with genocidal Men of Iron. More cynically, it is what would happen if the government of Brave New World was a galactic superpower: making sure everyone wants for nothing, but desperate for something to fill the emptiness. Well, they are a bit less extreme than that; eugenicism is definitely not something the Culture would agree with, but that's the general idea.
The Culture is set in our own timeline, with the stories taking place between 1300 AD and 2100 AD; Earth is contacted roughly around 2100 AD. It is the product of six or seven pan-human civilizations that decided to merge together 10,000 years ago and create what is basically a space utopia. The Culture is a post-scarcity society, where basically everything is available for free, time being the only resource to take into account. It does not have a centralized government, as it is more a society than a real state or nation. Very few written laws exist (and if you feel the need to ask what are these written laws, then there is clearly something wrong with you) and people are basically allowed to do pretty much whatever they want. Now, in the novels, we do not have many details about how the Culture actually works, but, in Banks' words, it's "an ethical and cynical anarchy that tries to be a rather good society, following socialist, libertarian and anarchist principles.
(This may sound weird if you're from that part of the English speaking world where the term "libertarian" was hijacked by a guy in a dumb-looking bowtie with a weird fixation on selling babies; in most other locales, "liberal" is basically synonymous with capitalist, and "libertarian" more or less means "left-anarchist").
Well, apparently that works. The Culture has been around since ten millennia, and is now considered to be one of the most powerful civilizations of the galaxy. And they aren't, contrary to many utopias, hiding anything. The Culture is a genuine utopia and a very good place to live, which is actually quite rare in sci-fi in general, and modern sci-fi in particular.
Now, where is the trick?
Well, you do not attain such a level of power in the galaxy while being space hippies all the time. There is a faction/intelligence service in the Culture called Contact, which is dedicated to establishing contact with other civilizations. The books focuses on the interaction between the Culture and said civilizations, mainly through the eyes of people that belong to Special Circumstances, which is basically the Culture's CIA. They try to influence other civilizations to make sure they will, one day or an other, end up joining the Culture willingly. Said interactions may imply technological transfers, or propaganda for the purpose of starting revolutions and civil wars. Space hippies inside, sure, but imperialist outside. The Culture is like a sponge that slowly absorbs other civilizations over the course of millennia.
Oh, and did we mention they are quite advanced? And when we say advanced, we really mean it. The Culture is ruled... ahem, benevolently overseen by extremely powerful AIs called Minds; so powerful are these Minds that they dedicate only a fraction of their power to such trivial matters, and spend the rest building virtual worlds with 12 dimensions. From the biggest sentient ships (because yes, all of their ships are sentient, why did you even ask?) to the smallest drones, AIs in general are considered citizens of the Culture. Aside from being sentient, their ships have hulls made of force fields (because metal is for pussies anyway), and can reach 230,000 times the speed of light; the biggest ones measure in hundreds of kilometers and can carry entire ecosystems with billions of people on board.
Oh, and the Culture does not live on planets, because that's absolutely inelegant, so they use Orbitals, basically Halo-style Ringworlds that are scattered across the galaxy. Instead they prefer to build massive residential space stations in orbit around either planets or around stars that can be more easily calibrated for the comfort of their residents. This is regarded as significantly superior to either building a biosphere from scratch on a lifeless planet or tinkering with a pre-existing ecosystem and hoping you don't cause mass extinctions in the process. Realistically, this is actually better than settling on a planet and hoping for the best, because it'd be very rare for a planet to be optimal for a species that never evolved on it and the environment would be much easier to control. But of course, nobody has ever actually lived on a space station with its own significant gravitational pull but (presumably, we're not sure about some people) everyone who has written a story published on Earth has been on Earth at least once, so most science fiction and space fantasy works go for planets. The Culture absolutely can make megastructures like Ringworlds that encircle the entire star or Dyson spheres, but consider them wasteful; they don't have enough members to populate a Ringworld even remotely densely, and they can vastly exceed the power output of a star with far smaller devices than a sun-encompassing swarm of satellites/metal shell, so a Dyson sphere would be absolutely pointless.
The average Culturnik may live for 400 years and technically reach immortality, even if it is not considered as fun (and thus not really popular). In one novel, a ship saved the life of a beheaded man by simply teleporting the severed head back and creating a new body from scratch. This isn't as far fetched as you'd think, as studies have shown that it's possible to sustain the life of complex mammals like dogs with severed heads with mid twentieth century medical technology, and humans can survive a few seconds after decapitation based on studies done at executions via beheading. Growing a new body entirely for the head is rather out of the reach of our current medical technology, but there's nothing that would make it actually impossible in the laws of physics, you'd just have to make sure the body you grow is compatible with the tissue of the head. The body is also quite adept at reconnecting nerves for severed limbs if they're sewn back on; when somebody loses a limb usually, doctors will try seeing if they can't stitch the limb back on, with prosthetic limbs only being considered if it's beyond recovery (though obviously the Culture uses something much more sophisticated).
Last but not least, the Culture are peaceful and not pacifist. Which means that, contrary to certain people, they won't invade you without a reason, but if you fuck with the Culture, they can and most certainly will obliterate you. The base weapon of their military ships is "gridfire", which basically amounts to using the fabric of space and time as a weapon. That actually says a lot about Banks' universe, considering that the Culture is NOT the most advanced race in the setting, although certainly in the top ten. To wit, the first novel Consider Phlebas features a galactic war between the Culture and another race called the Idirans; after a few years of being crushed, the Culture finally started mobilizing and simply steamrolls and utterly annihilate its foe. After this, the Culture started designing actual dedicated warships, going so far as to give them obviously threatening class designations like Torturer, Thug, and Murderer (remember now, their ships are all sentient). Their most powerful warship, the Abominator, is so overpowered in the current setting that it was capable of wiping out millions (not an exaggeration) of enemy vessels unaided, and actually did so far slower than it needed to because it was enjoying itself too much to finish the engagement quickly.
Other races find it odd that a race like the Culture turned out to be so martially capable; the wiser Involved civilizations note that whilst most races start off more aggressive and learn to tone down, the peaceful Culture had to do the opposite. So while hippies they may be, there is one axiom that you should not forget: "Don't Fuck With the Culture".
In essence, the peace of the culture is maintained by having enough firepower to make anyone who wants to declare war on them regret that decision. It's the same theory that kept the Soviets and Americans from going for broke with tens of millions of dudes crammed next to each other in a small part of Europe. If either decided to go balls to wall, the other would destroy them in the process. So instead of outright war to jockey for power and position, most societies engage in proxy conflicts with smaller powers or factions of smaller powers, espionage, and manipulating the societies and economies of less powerful civilisations. Given that warships are capable of unleashing over a thousand times more energy than god damn supernovas, and can devastate solar systems by braking too hard in hyperspace while fighting at several hundred thousand times the speed of light... it's probably for the best that all out war between the major powers is rare.
For those of you who study history, it's important to note that the Culture is able to enjoy its lifestyle because the conditions of its home setting allow for it, something significantly more important than its guiding beliefs in deciding the kind of society it is. (On the other hand, lots of civilisations in the books have or had at least some of the same tech as the early Culture and actively use it to commit atrocities or were destroyed by it, so it could also be argued that the Culture would not be remotely like itself if it didn't start with a clear philosophical grounding.) It's doubtful whether humanity in Warhammer 40k was ever at the general level of technology that the Culture was, let alone to the point of being able to ensure MAD in short order with any conceivable foe. The Culture also doesn't have to contend with creatures of Chaos OR a Void Dragon eager to hijack most A.Is. Also of importance is that in the Culture's galaxy, international relationships actually have reached a level of normalcy where most issues are resolved with diplomacy or indirect conflict. rather than with total warfare; the Imperium's four most serious enemies are essentially impossible to buy, bargain, negotiate, or reason with.
Why the hell is that interesting?
Because it's a rather original take on the human galactic society theme: the socialist/libertarian/anarchist utopia. Banks called the Culture a rather good society, and it's exactly what it is - a civilization that tries to be as good and benevolent as it can, both inside and outside of its (very loose) borders. It may actually be the only utopia in recent sci-fi. And it's a realistic utopia, to a certain extent; the consequences of its imperialism are sometimes quite grimdark. In fact, Banks' fiction overall is quite grimdark, but never goes into grimderp. Some might say it's simply realism. The fact that most of the stories starring the Culture take place on its borders or in other civilizations bring different points of view about this society that is, ultimately, the main character of Banks' sci-fi - a character that manages to be both extremely reasonable and sometimes batshit insane while remaining realistic and believable.
Good reasons to live in the Culture
- Any form of work is now a hobby.
- You live for at least 400 years, but immortality is absolutely a thing, although you'll get bored of it and put yourself in storage or autoeuthanize yourself.
- You can change sex at will (takes a few months, though).
- Every Culturnik has a gland that can synthesize any drug, without side effects or addiction of course. That also includes a very deep control over your body.
- Your ships have awesome names. Seriously. Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath is one of them. Well, also a hell of a lot of them are puns, plays on words or running jokes. For example, Frank Exchange of Views is a fast warship, while one of them most powerful referenced is called Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraint. See this list for more comedy.
- You can do pretty much whatever you want.
- No, really.
- The only things you can't do are the obvious really bad things.
- Of course, if you want your own planet, it'll take a while, but why not?
- You can live in simulations so complex their simulations have simulations.
- War is but history. Except when galactic wars break out. Even then...
- Even then your chances of actually dying are quite low, given the number of medical, back-up and consciousness-transferring systems the Culture has.
- Name a landscape or a place you would like to live in. One Orbital somewhere has it.
- If a landscape or a place you would like to live in doesn't exist. You can have it custom built for you.
- With a bit of luck, the drone that accompanies you is not crazy.
- Name a game or a sport. It is played somewhere in the Culture. You could even become a professional (read: hobbyist) Player Of Games.
- Want some action, travels and overly complicated plots? The nearest Contact recruitment office is here for you.
- Travel wherever you want.
- You live in a space utopia instead of this and you still complain?
Why it might sometimes not be that good
- They laugh at the Prime Directive from Star Trek and make the Federation look like ultraconservative capitalists.
- The Mind of your Orbital/Ship knows everything about you. Not that it cares, mind you. But still.
- Minds and Drones will always be benevolent for you. Which doesn't mean they can't troll you with style.
- Everyone can change sex at will, and it's actually a common custom for heterosexual couples to both switch genders, each parent bearing the child of the other. Thus, expect extremely complicated family and relationship issues.
- Things get boring after a while. So much that you could want to join Special Circumstances...
- Which, apart from the fact that they do not recruit people like this, is not always a good idea. You will probably end up as a cog in the machine of a Culture plan so complicated it would make Tzeentch jealous.
- Other races laugh at you because your death-ships' names lack gravitas... which has become a running gag among Minds, who now try to jam the word "gravitas" in the name of as many ships as they can.
- You live in a place where there are weapons that can kill you while still making you believe you are alive. And one of the military Minds is called Meatfucker by the others - how do you think it took that nickname? (It read organic beings' minds, something that's considered deviant and taboo even among the hyper anarchistic Culture.)
- Your personal drone is definitely crazy.
- The Idiran Empire - a race of tripod like reptiles that evolved on a deathworld, forcing the Idiran race to evolve into a tall, armour-plated, biologically immortal warrior race. Their religion is an odd form of racial solipsism; only beings with souls are considered sentient, souls can only exist in an immortal body, therefore only Idirans deserve to exist. The Culture, with its (unarguably) actually sentient Minds and Drones, are seen as the exemplars of sacrilege, hence why the Idirans declared a Jihad war against them. Despite being roughly equal to the Culture technologically and having superior allies, they ultimately end up losing the war (prompting the other galactic civs to coin the term "don't fuck with the Culture") and tone down their xenophobic tendencies over the following centuries, ironically becoming more Culture-like in the process.
- The Homomdan Empire/Polity - The only race outright stronger than the Culture, not including the Sublimed. They view themselves as the space police who need to keep any one force from growing too fast too quickly to maintain "balance", but they aren't malicious about it and have pretty lenient limits. They're pretty cool with the Culture on the whole, and when the two got into a border skirmish (which the Culture were fighting at the same time as the Idiran war) they ended up as friendly trading partners afterward.
- The Sublimed - technically not a race but are encountered by virtually every spacefaring society. The Sublimed are the end stage of almost every civilization, representing ascension into an energy based being residing in an adjacent dimension. The technology to do so isn't actually that complicated, but only a Mind level AI or sizeable planetary community can Sublime and still maintain any meaningful presence. They're effectively capable of doing anything they want, but don't tend to interact with the material universe, save for seemingly random and inscrutable actions (like flinging moons at the planets of civilisations that hunt the local variety of space whale, or keeping people away from memorial planets of dead civilisations with weaponized barriers of spacetime). Many civilisations have tried to enter the Sublime without subliming first. Almost all attempts result in failure, and the tiny number that enter and come back aren't mentally capable of describing what it's like. The Culture is considered unusual because it's had the ability to Sublime for millennia, but hasn't - the Sublimed themselves consider them the equivalent of a party guest that stays a bit too long. The Culture, conversely, finds it a bit too convenient that most civilisations sublime everyone at once, implying coercion of some kind. Even when a Subliming goes well, the local galactic community have to make sure that less advanced civilisations don't make a rush for the abandoned remains of the civilisation and disrupt the local order.
- The Empire of Azad - an autocratic monarchy of humanoids based in an isolated part of the galaxy. They have made contact with other galactic civilisations, but all have been technologically inferior - the Culture is the only civilisation they have encountered that are more advanced, to a ludicrous degree. Their main shtick is having three sexes (males as workers and soldiers, females as trinkets and breeders, and an "apex" sex that controls everything). The other more important feature is the game of Azad: A ludicrously complicated board-game played on football pitch sized boards, it plays like a real life version of Civilisation writ large (the specifics are left deliberately vague). The complexity of game simulates the skills needed to rule the empire, so the winner of the regular tournament becomes the Emperor. Male and Female Azadians are allowed to play, but are never allowed to get very far due to the apex sex being the only ones allowed to hold offices and having access to specialised schools and learning drugs. The Culture encounters them during a period of aggressive expansion, which isn't a positive thing as Banks intended them to be a dark reflection of parts of our own civilisations. The Culture sends a professional game-player to participate in the tournament (in an unofficial capacity), effectively acting as a proxy war between the Empire and the Culture.
- The Affront - a race of gas-dwelling octopus-like beings that can be best described as a cross between a jolly British colonial aristocrat and your average Dark Eldar. At best, they are considered to be boisterously good-natured (if they become your friend, you're in for life) and, at their worst, monstrously sadistic; one of the first things they did when they achieved genetic engineering was to alter their females and young males to only feel terror and agony in any sexual situation as a means of population control and because the older and more powerful males considered it more fun that way). It's not that they can't understand the concept of morality, but rather that they take the idea of pain building character to a rather grotesque extreme. This attitude carries over to their other race relations, with less powerful races being considered as fair game and more powerful races to be placated enough to let them keep doing terrible things. Even worse, the Affront seem to thrive on the negative attention they get from their neighbours, even changing their name to the Affront from whatever they were called originally. The Culture is put into a difficult position with them, as they are too advanced to be readily manipulated and don't pose any threat to the Culture to prompt military action. This doesn't last long.
- The Chelgrians - A civilisation of five-legged cat-like predators. Their society was historically dominated by hereditary castes, with all the social issues that would imply. They're unique in that not only a part of their civilisation sublimed independently of the majority (named the Chelgrian Puen), but they also keep in regular contact with their living descendants, who universally revere them. They are also a rare example of the Culture getting things really wrong with their Special Circumstances interventions, as their attempts to dismantle the caste system from within Chelgrian society led to a devastating civil war that killed 5 billion Chelgrians. The Puen were not happy when the Culture fessed up and contrived to balance the books by destroying a Culture Orbital that contained an equal number of lives. It failed for a variety of reasons, and the Culture responded by sending a Terror Weapon (a nanocloud assasin) to murder the conspirators in ways that would make a Eversor blanch.
- The Morthanveld - An equivalent level species to the Culture comprised of water-based Spiniforms. Their primary form of communication is shooting subtly altered molecules of water at people (no really). They are on good relations with the Culture but tend to be cagey of them, partly because they know exactly what the Culture are capable of and what Special Circumstances try to do. They are also seen as a responsible civilisation and so are given oversight of one of the Shellworld Mega Structures left behind by an ancient civilisation. They don't reside on ring like Orbitals but instead construct gargantuan rings of overlapping, insecting toroids in a dyson sphere around empty stars. The largest of these "Nestworlds" contains more sentients than the entire Culture combined.
- The Saal - a humanoid species living on one of the middle levels of a Shellworld - think of a planetary form of a Russian Doll, spheres inside spheres inside other spheres. No one knows who built them or why - theories range from a network of shield emitters to protect the galaxy from extragalactic threats or a cage to enslave everyone instead. Regardless, the original builders aren't around anymore. The Saal attained an early industrial monarchy technologically but were fully aware of there being space bound civilisations beyond their world. Their ancestors were placed on the Shellworld as a form of punishment for unknown crimes. They suffer a rather bad case of regicide, leading their surviving prince to find his sister - who just happens to be a Culture Special Circumstances agent. They're desperate to find anything that will give them an edge technologically which leads to them digging up things best left alone...
- The Sichultean Enablement - another humanoid species. They've only had FTL travel for a short amount of time, but are trying to do anything to jump tech levels as fast as they can. As a society, they appear to be a capitalist-based democracy, albeit with some odd cultural practices. The most notable is the process of Entagliation: a form of indentured servitude for a variety of civil infractions like debt or contract breach, and marked by elaborate tattoos all over their bodies. This wouldn't be too controversial in itself, except that it's usually wildly disproportionate to the crime (indefinite servitude and diminished autonomy/civil rights for a finite crime), as well as potentially applying to any children or descendants, culpability be damned. In these cases, the tattoos can be applied on a genetic level in the womb.
- The GFCF - Short for the Geseptian-Fardesile Cultural Federacy. Small fairy-like beings with a lesser tech level to the Culture. They are, essentially, an entire race of Culture Fanboys, imitating their favourite civilisation in numerous ways (but not quite getting it right). The Culture itself is rather baffled at the whole thing, despite normally liking other civilisations being more like them. Turns out that they're not as innocent as they'd first appear, nor as powerful as they think they are - one Culture ship wipes out an entire armada of their ships in several seconds.
- The Pavulians - a herd species of quadrupeds with two prehensile trunks instead of conventional limbs. Fairly religious and generally deferential to older authority, as befitting their evolutionary history as herd animals. An otherwise unremarkable species, save for one incredibly dark secret: They send their citizens to Hell when they die... Okay, it's a virtual hell, and what's sent is a mind-state captured at the point of death, and then placed in a perfectly accurate simulation of what their people consider Hell to be (often crafted with the assistance of "creative" consultants). As the galactic community at large treats mind-states as being equivalent to the real person they were when they were alive, it's regarded as a needed social tool by its advocates, but a despicably unnecessary act by most everyone else. It isn't helped by the fact that the general public don't know for certain if the hells actually exist, nor by the fact that hosting the data farms necessary to keep all the mind-states and separate hells running smoothly is a very lucrative trade. The Culture publicly disapproves of the Hells, and is a covert participant in the entirely simulated wars to contest the issue.
- The Gzilt - a race of minorly reptilian humanoids who were almost one of the founding species of the Culture, but declined at the last minute. Like many other species before them, on reaching a certain level of ennui they decide to Sublime, leaving all their tech and territory to other species as a kind of civilisational will. Their culture is organised into clan-like regiments based on periods of compulsory military service, and a permanent reserve status on leaving active duty. They have one religion based on a holy text that appeared randomly in their pre-history. The book had a variety of technological and social shortcuts built into the religious language, as well as listing several prophecies that then happened to all come true. The book's seeming infallibility lead the Gzilt to a certain arrogant civilisational mindset, seeing themselves as the favoured people in the galaxy, despite many other civilisations having similar occurrences or - in the case of the Sublimed and Minds - being actual godlike beings. There's just one problem: The Book was a social experiment by a rogue alien scientist into manipulating the development of young races, which worked just a little too well. As this revelation is the kind of thing that could cause enormous civil wars, not to mention botching the impending Subliming, the remains of the Gzilt military attempt to destroy the secret before they ascend.