"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, it's 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.
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; eugenism is definitely not something the Culture would agree with, but that's the general idea.
The Culture is set in our own timeline, the stories taking place between 1300 AD and 2100 AD, Earth being 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 that an 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.
Well, apparently that works. The Culture is 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/conspiration in the Culture called Contact, which is dedicated to, well, establish contact with other civilizations. The books focus 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, mostly trying to... well, 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, propaganda, up to 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 I mention they are quite advanced? And when I mean advanced, I really mean it. The Culture is ruled... ahem, benevolently oversaw by Minds, that is to say extremely powerful AIs (so powerful that they dedicate only a fraction of their power to such trivial matters and spend the rest bulding virtual worlds with 12 dimensions), and in general AIs are considered as citizens of the Culture, from the biggest sentient ships (because yes, all of their ships are sentient, why did you even ask?) to the smallest drones. Aside from being sentient, their ships have hulls made of force fields, because metal is for pussies anyway, can reach 230,000 times the speed of light and 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, that are basically Halo-style ringworlds scattered across the galaxy. Did I mention that 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? And in one novel, a ship save the life of a beheaded man by simply teleporting the severed head back and creating a new body from scratch.
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, although in the top ten, most advanced race in the setting). Actually, the first novel, Consider Phlebas features a galactic war between the Culture and an other race called the Idirans, and after a few years of being crushed, the Culture who finally started mobilizing simply steamrolls and utterly annihilate its foe. So while hippies they may be, there is one axiom that you should not forget "Don't Fuck with the Culture".
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 not grimdark but simply realism), and the fact that most of the stories starring the Culture take place on its borders or in other civilizations bring different point 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.
- 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.
- You can do pretty much whatever you want.
- No, really.
- 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.
- 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 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
- 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 switch genders both, 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 in a situation where the Culture's plan is so complicated it would make Tzeentch jealous.
- Other races laugh at you because your ships' names lack gravitas. Which has become a running gag among Minds, that will try to name as many ships as they can with the word "gravitas" in the name.
- 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 libertine Culture)
- Your personal drone is definitely crazy.
- The Empire of Azad
- The Affront