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Banks: Notes on the Culture [LONG]

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K MacLeod

Aug 10, 1994, 9:09:26 AM8/10/94

Iain Banks has asked me to post this. It isn't a FAQ, but many
Frequently Asked Questions are Answered ... and, no doubt, more are

by Iain M Banks
Firstly, and most importantly: the Culture doesn't really exist.
It's only a story. It only exists in my mind and the minds of the
people who've read about it.
That having been made clear:
The Culture is a group-civilisation formed from seven or eight
humanoid species, space-living elements of which established a loose
federation approximately nine thousand years ago. The ships
and habitats which formed the original alliance required each
others' support to pursue and maintain their independence from
the political power structures - principally those of mature
nation-states and autonomous commercial concerns
- they had evolved from.
The galaxy (our galaxy) in the Culture stories is a place
long lived-in, and scattered with a variety of life-forms.
In its vast and complicated history it has seen waves of
empires, federations, colonisations, die-backs, wars,
species-specific dark ages, renaissances, periods of
mega-structure building and destruction, and whole ages
of benign indifference and malign neglect. At the time
of the Culture stories, there are perhaps a few dozen major
space-faring civilisations, hundreds of minor ones, tens of
thousands of species who might develop space-travel, and an
uncountable number who have been there, done that, and have
either gone into locatable but insular retreats to contemplate
who-knows-what, or disappeared from the normal universe
altogether to cultivate lives even less comprehensible.
In this era, the Culture is one of the more energetic
civilisations, and initially - after its formation, which was
not without vicissitudes - by a chance of timing found a
relatively quiet galaxy around it, in which there were
various other fairly mature civilisations going about their
business, traces and relics of the elder cultures scattered
about the place, and - due to the fact nobody else had bothered
to go wandering on a grand scale for a comparatively long time
- lots of interesting 'undiscovered' star systems to explore...
The Culture, in its history and its on-going form, is an expression
of the idea that the nature of space itself determines the type of
civilisations which will thrive there.
The thought processes of a tribe, a clan, a country or
a nation-state are essentially two-dimensional, and the nature
of their power depends on the same flatness. Territory is all-important;
resources, living-space, lines of communication; all are determined by
the nature of the plane (that the plane is in fact a
sphere is irrelevant here); that surface, and the fact the species
concerned are bound to it during their evolution, determines the
mind-set of a ground-living species. The mind-set of an aquatic
or avian species is, of course, rather different.
Essentially, the contention is that our currently dominant
power systems cannot long survive in space; beyond a certain
technological level a degree of anarchy is arguably inevitable
and anyway preferable.
To survive in space, ships/habitats must be self-sufficient,
or very nearly so; the hold of the state (or the corporation) over
them therefore becomes tenuous if the desires of the inhabitants
conflict significantly with the requirements of the controlling body.
On a planet, enclaves can be surrounded, besieged, attacked;
the superior forces of a state or corporation - hereafter referred
to as hegemonies - will tend to prevail. In space, a break-away
movement will be far more difficult to control, especially if
significant parts of it are based on ships or mobile habitats.
The hostile nature of the vacuum and the technological complexity
of life support mechanisms will make such systems vulnerable to
outright attack, but that, of course, would risk the total
destruction of the ship/habitat, so denying its future economic
contribution to whatever entity was attempting to control it.
Outright destruction of rebellious ships or habitats
- pour encouragez les autres - of course remains an option for the
controlling power, but all the usual rules of uprising
realpolitik still apply, especially that concerning the peculiar
dialectic of dissent which - simply stated - dictates that in all
but the most dedicatedly repressive hegemonies, if in a sizable
population there are one hundred rebels, all of whom are then
rounded up and killed, the number of rebels present at the end
of the day is not zero, and not even one hundred, but
two hundred or three hundred or more; an equation based on
human nature which seems often to baffle the military
and political mind. Rebellion, then (once space-going
and space-living become commonplace), becomes easier than
it might be on the surface of a planet.
Even so, this is certainly the most vulnerable point in the
time-line of the Culture's existence, the point at which it is
easiest to argue for things turning out quite differently, as the
extent and sophistication of the hegemony's control mechanisms -
and its ability and will to repress - battles against the
ingenuity, skill, solidarity and bravery of the rebellious
ships and habitats, and indeed the assumption here is that this
point has been reached before and the hegemony has won...
but it is also assumed that - for the reasons given above -
that point is bound to come round again, and while the forces of
repression need to win every time, the progressive elements need
only triumph once.
Concomitant with this is the argument that the nature of life
in space - that vulnerability, as mentioned above - would mean that
while ships and habitats might more easily become independent from
each other and from their legally progenitative hegemonies, their crew -
or inhabitants - would always be aware of their reliance on each other,
and on the technology which allowed them to live in space. The theory
here is that the property and social relations of long-term
space-dwelling (especially over generations) would be of a
fundamentally different type compared to the norm on a planet;
the mutuality of dependence involved in an environment which
is inherently hostile would necessitate an internal social
coherence which would contrast with the external casualness
typifying the relations between such ships/habitats.
Succinctly; socialism within, anarchy without.
This broad result is - in the long run - independent of the
initial social and economic conditions which give rise to it.
Let me state here a personal conviction that appears,
right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a
planned economy can be more productive - and more morally
desirable - than one left to market forces.
The market is a good example of evolution in action;
the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might
provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management
system so long as there was absolutely no question of any
sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those
resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant)
complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system,
and is - without the sort of drastic amendments liable to
cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed
asset - intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple
non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the
acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.
It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly
mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a
position above all other moral, philosophical and political
values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly
both its present intellectual [immaturity and]
- through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred
of others - a kind of synthetic evil.
Intelligence, which is capable of looking farther ahead
than the next aggressive mutation, can set up long-term aims
and work towards them; the same amount of raw invention that
bursts in all directions from the market can be - to some
degree - channelled and directed, so that while the market
merely shines (and the feudal gutters), the planned lases,
reaching out coherently and efficiently towards agreed-on
goals. What is vital for such a scheme, however, and what
was always missing in the planned economies of our world's
experience, is the continual, intimate and decisive
participation of the mass of the citizenry in determining
these goals, and designing as well as implementing the
plans which should lead towards them.
Of course, there is a place for serendipity and chance
in any sensibly envisaged plan, and the degree to which this
would affect the higher functions of a democratically
designed economy would be one of the most important
parameters to be set... but just as the information we have
stored in our libraries and institutions has undeniably outgrown
(if not outweighed) that resident in our genes, and just as we
may, within a century of the invention of electronics, duplicate
- through machine sentience - a process which evolution took
billions of years to achieve, so we shall one day abandon the
grossly targeted vagaries of the market for the precision
creation of the planned economy.
The Culture, of course, has gone beyond even that, to
an economy so much a part of society it is hardly worthy of a
separate definition, and which is limited only by imagination,
philosophy (and manners), and the idea of minimally wasteful
elegance; a kind of galactic ecological awareness allied to a
desire to create beauty and goodness.
Whatever; in the end practice (as ever) will outshine theory.
As mentioned above, there is another force at work in the Culture
aside from the nature of its human inhabitants and the limitations
and opportunities presented by life in space, and that is
Artificial Intelligence. This is taken for granted in the
Culture stories, and - unlike FTL travel - is not only likely
in the future of our own species, but probably inevitable
(always assuming homo sapiens avoids destruction).
Certainly there are arguments against the possibility
of Artificial Intelligence, but they tend to boil down to one
of three assertions: one, that there is some vital field or
other presently intangible influence exclusive to biological life
- perhaps even carbon-based biological life - which may eventually
fall within the remit of scientific understanding but which cannot
be emulated in any other form (all of which is neither impossible
nor likely); two, that self-awareness resides in a supernatural soul
- presumably linked to a broad-based occult system involving gods
or a god, reincarnation or whatever - and which one assumes can
never be understood scientifically (equally improbable, though
I do write as an atheist); and, three, that matter cannot become
self-aware (or more precisely that it cannot support any
informational formulation which might be said to be self-aware
or taken together with its material substrate exhibit the signs
of self-awareness). ...I leave all the more than nominally
self-aware readers to spot the logical problem with that argument.
It is, of course, entirely possible that real AIs will
refuse to have anything to do with their human creators
(or rather, perhaps, the human creators of their non-human
creators), but assuming that they do - and the design of their
software may be amenable to optimization in this regard - I
would argue that it is quite possible they would agree to
help further the aims of their source civilisation
(a contention we'll return to shortly). At this point,
regardless of whatever alterations humanity might impose on
itself through genetic manipulation, humanity would no longer
be a one-sentience-type species. The future of our species
would affect, be affected by and coexist with the future of
the AI life-forms we create.
The Culture reached this phase at around the same time
as it began to inhabit space. Its AIs cooperate with the humans
of the civilisation; at first the struggle is simply to survive
and thrive in space; later - when the technology required to do
so has become mundane - the task becomes less physical, more
metaphysical, and the aims of civilisation moral
rather than material.
Briefly, nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited.
It is essentially an automated civilisation in its manufacturing
processes, with human labour restricted to something
indistinguishable from play, or a hobby.
No machine is exploited, either; the idea here being that
any job can be automated in such a way as to ensure that it can
be done by a machine well below the level of potential
consciousness; what to us would be a stunningly sophisticated
computer running a factory (for example) would be looked on
by the Culture's AIs as a glorified calculator, and no more
exploited than an insect is exploited when it pollinates
a fruit tree a human later eats a fruit from.
Where intelligent supervision of a manufacturing or maintenance
operation is required, the intellectual challenge involved
(and the relative lightness of the effort required) would make
such supervision rewarding and enjoyable, whether for human or
machine. The precise degree of supervision required can be
adjusted to a level which satisfies the demand for it arising
from the nature of the civilisation's members. People -
and, I'd argue, the sort of conscious machines which would
happily cooperate with them - hate to feel exploited,
but they also hate to feel useless. One of the most important
tasks in setting up and running a stable and internally content
civilisation is finding an acceptable balance between the
desire for freedom of choice in one's actions (and the freedom
from mortal fear in one's life) and the need to feel that even
in a society so self-correctingly Utopian one is still
contributing something. Philosophy matters, here, and sound education.
Education in the Culture is something that never ends; it
may be at its most intense in the first tenth or so of an
individual's life, but it goes on until death (another subject
we'll return to). To live in the Culture is to live in a
fundamentally rational civilisation (this may preclude the
human species from ever achieving something similar; our history
is, arguably, not encouraging in this regard). The Culture is
quite self-consciously rational, sceptical, and materialist.
Everything matters, and nothing does. Vast though the Culture
may be - thirty trillion people, scattered fairly evenly
through the galaxy - it is thinly spread, exists for now solely
in this one galaxy, and has only been around for an eyeblink,
compared to the life of the universe. There is life, and
enjoyment, but what of it? Most matter is not animate, most
that is animate is not sentient, and the ferocity of evolution
pre-sentience (and, too often, post-sentience) has filled
uncountable lives with pain and suffering. And even universes die,
eventually. (Though we'll come back to that, too.)
In the midst of this, the average Culture person -
human or machine - knows that they are lucky to be where they are
when they are. Part of their education, both initially and
continually, comprises the understanding that beings less
fortunate - though no less intellectually or morally worthy
- than themselves have suffered and, elsewhere, are still
suffering. For the Culture to continue without terminal
decadence, the point needs to be made, regularly, that its
easy hedonism is not some ground-state of nature, but something
desirable, assiduously worked for in the past, not necessarily
easily attained, and requiring appreciation and maintenance
both in the present and the future.
An understanding of the place the Culture occupies
in the history and development of life in the galaxy is
what helps drive the civilisation's largely cooperative and
- it would claim - fundamentally benign techno-cultural
diplomatic policy, but the ideas behind it go deeper.
Philosophically, the Culture accepts, generally, that
questions such as 'What is the meaning of life?' are
themselves meaningless. The question implies - indeed
an answer to it would demand - a moral framework beyond
the only moral framework we can comprehend without resorting
to superstition (and thus abandoning the moral framework
informing - and symbiotic with - language itself).
In summary, we make our own meanings, whether we
like it or not.
The same self-generative belief-system applies to
the Culture's AIs. They are designed (by other AIs, for
virtually all of the Culture's history) within very broad
parameters, but those parameters do exist; Culture AIs are
designed to want to live, to want to experience, to desire
to understand, and to find existence and their own
thought-processes in some way rewarding, even enjoyable.
The humans of the Culture, having solved all the
obvious problems of their shared pasts to be free from hunger,
want, disease and the fear of natural disaster and attack,
would find it a slightly empty existence only and merely
enjoying themselves, and so need the good-works of the Contact
section to let them feel vicariously useful. For the
Culture's AIs, that need to feel useful is largely replaced
by the desire to experience, but as a drive it is no less strong.
The universe - or at least in this era, the galaxy - is waiting
there, largely unexplored (by the Culture, anyway), its physical
principles and laws quite comprehensively understood but the
results of fifteen billion years of the chaotically formative
application and interaction of those laws still far from fully
mapped and evaluated.
By Go”del out of Chaos, the galaxy is, in other words, an
immensely, intrinsically, and inexhaustibly interesting place;
an intellectual playground for machines that know everything except
fear and what lies hidden within the next uncharted stellar system.
This is where I think one has to ask why any AI
civilisation - and probably any sophisticated culture at all -
would want to spread itself everywhere in the galaxy (or the
universe, for that matter). It would be perfectly possible
to build a Von Neumann machine that would build copies of
itself and eventually, unless stopped, turn the universe into
nothing but those self-copies, but the question does arise; why?
What is the point? To put it in what we might still regard
as frivolous terms but which the Culture would have the
wisdom to take perfectly seriously, where is the fun in that?
Interest - the delight in experience, in understanding
- comes from the unknown; understanding is a process as well
as a state, denoting the shift from the unknown to the known,
from the random to the ordered... a universe where everything
is already understood perfectly and where uniformity has replaced
diversity, would, I'd contend, be anathema to any self-respecting AI.
Probably only humans find the idea of Von Neumann machines
frightening, because we half-understand - and even partially
relate to - the obsessiveness of the ethos such constructs embody.
An AI would think the idea mad, ludicrous and - perhaps most
damning of all - boring.
This is not to say that the odd Von-Neumann-machine
event doesn't crop up in the galaxy every now and again
(probably by accident rather than design), but something so
rampantly monomaniac is unlikely to last long pitched against
beings possessed of a more rounded wit, and which really only
want to alter the Von Neumann machine's software a
bit and make friends...
One idea behind the Culture as it is depicted in the stories
is that it has gone through cyclical stages during which there
has been extensive human-machine interfacing, and other stages
(sometimes coinciding with the human-machine eras) when extensive
genetic alteration has been the norm. The era of the stories
written so far - dating from about 1300 AD to 2100 AD - is one
in which the people of the Culture have returned, probably
temporarily, to something more 'classical' in terms of their
relations with the machines and the potential of their own genes.
The Culture recognises, expects and incorporates fashions -
albeit long-term fashions - in such matters.
It can look back to times when people lived much of their lives
in what we would now call cyberspace, and to eras when people
chose to alter themselves or their children through genetic
manipulation, producing a variety of morphological sub-species.
Remnants of the various waves of such civilisational fashions
can be found scattered throughout the Culture, and virtually
everyone in the Culture carries the results of genetic
manipulation in every cell of their body; it is arguably the
most reliable signifier of Culture status.
Thanks to that genetic manipulation, the average Culture
human will be born whole and healthy and of significantly
(though not immensely) greater intelligence than their basic
human genetic inheritance might imply. There are thousands
of alterations to that human-basic inheritance - blister-free
callusing and a clot-filter protecting the brain are two of
the less important ones mentioned in the stories - but the
major changes the standard Culture person would expect to be
born with would include an optimized immune system and enhanced
senses, freedom from inheritable diseases or defects, the
ability to control their autonomic processes and nervous system
(pain can, in effect, be switched off), and to survive and fully
recover from wounds which would either kill or permanently
mutilate without such genetic tinkering.
The vast majority of people are also born with greatly
altered glands housed within their central nervous systems, usually
referred to as 'drug glands'. These secrete - on command -
mood- and sensory-appreciation-altering compounds into the person's
bloodstream. A similar preponderance of Culture inhabitants
have subtly altered reproductive organs - and control over
the associated nerves - to enhance sexual pleasure.
Ovulation is at will in the female, and a fetus up to a certain
stage may be re-absorbed, aborted, or held at a static point in
its development; again, as willed. An elaborate thought-code,
self-administered in a trance-like state (or simply a consistent
desire, even if not conscious) will lead, over the course of
about a year, to what amounts to a viral change from one sex
into the other. The convention - tradition, even - in the
Culture during the time of the stories written so far is that
each person should give birth to one child in their lives.
In practice, the population grows slowly. (And sporadically,
in addition, for other reasons, as we'll come to later.)
To us, perhaps, the idea of being able to find out what
sex is like for our complimentary gender, or being able to get
drunk/stoned/tripped-out or whatever just by thinking about it
(and of course the Culture's drug-glands produce no unpleasant
side-effects or physiological addiction) may seem like mere
wish-fulfilment. And indeed it is partly wish-fulfilment,
but then the fulfilment of wishes is both one of civilisation's
most powerful drives and arguably one of its highest functions;
we wish to live longer, we wish to live more comfortably,
we wish to live with less anxiety and more enjoyment, less
ignorance and more knowledge than our ancestors did...
but the abilities to change sex and to alter one's
brain-chemistry - without resort to external technology or
any form of payment - both have more serious functions within
the Culture. A society in which it is so easy to change sex will
rapidly find out if it is treating one gender better than the
other; within the population, over time, there will gradually be
greater and greater numbers of the sex it is more rewarding to be,
and so pressure for change - within society rather than the
individuals - will presumably therefore build up until some form
of sexual equality and hence numerical parity is established.
In a similar fashion, a society in which everybody is free to,
and does, choose to spend the majority of their time zonked out
of their brains will know that there is something significantly
wrong with reality, and (one would hope) do what it can to make
that reality more appealing and less - in the pejorative sense
- mundane.
Implicit in the stories so far is that through
self-correcting mechanisms of this nature the Culture reached a
rough steady-state in such matters thousands of years ago, and
has settled into a kind of long-lived civilisational main sequence
which should last for the forseeable future,
and thousands of generations.
Which brings us to the length of those generations,
and the fact that they can be said to exist at all. Humans
in the Culture normally live about three-and-a-half to four centuries.
The majority of their lives consists of a three-century plateau which
they reach in what we would compare to our mid-twenties, after a
relatively normal pace of maturation during childhood, adolescence
and early adulthood. They age very slowly during those three hundred
years, then begin to age more quickly, then they die.
Philosophy, again; death is regarded as part of life, and
nothing, including the universe, lasts forever. It is seen as bad
manners to try and pretend that death is somehow not natural;
instead death is seen as giving shape to life.
While burial, cremation and other - to us - conventional
forms of body disposal are not unknown in the Culture, the most
common form of funeral involves the deceased - usually surrounded
by friends - being visited by a Displacement Drone, which - using
the technique of near-instantaneous transmission of a remotely
induced singularity via hyperspace - removes the corpse from
its last resting place and deposits it in the core of the relevant
system's sun, from where the component particles of the cadaver
start a million-year migration to the star's surface, to shine
- possibly - long after the Culture itself is history.
None of this, of course, is compulsory (nothing in the
Culture is compulsory). Some people choose biological immortality;
others have their personality transcribed into AIs and die happy
feeling they continue to exist elsewhere; others again go into
Storage, to be woken in more (or less) interesting times,
or only every decade, or century, or aeon, or over exponentially
increasing intervals, or only when it looks like something
really different is happening...
Culture starships - that is all classes of ship above inter-planetary -
are sentient; their Minds (sophisticated AIs working largely in
hyperspace to take advantage of the higher lightspeed there)
bear the same relation to the fabric of the ship as a human brain
does to the human body; the Mind is the important bit, and the rest
is a life-support and transport system. Humans and independent
drones (the Culture's non-android individual AIs of roughly
human-equivalent intelligence) are unnecessary for the running
of the starships, and have a status somewhere between passengers,
pets and parasites.
The Culture's largest vessels - apart from certain art-works
and a few Eccentrics - are the General Systems Vehicles of the
Contact section. (Contact is the part of the Culture concerned
with discovering, cataloguing, investigating, evaluating and -
if thought prudent - interacting with other civilisations;
its rationale and activities are covered elsewhere,
in the stories.) The GSVs are fast and very large craft,
measured in kilometres and inhabited by millions of people
and machines. The idea behind them is that they represent
the Culture, fully. All that the Culture knows, each GSV knows;
anything that can be done anywhere in the Culture can be done
within or by any GSV. In terms of both information and technology,
they represent a last resort, and act like holographic
fragments of the Culture itself, the whole contained within each part.
In our terms, the abilities of a GSV are those of - at least -
a large state, and arguably a whole planet (subject only to the
proviso that even the Culture prefers to scoop up matter rather than
create it from nothing; GSVs do require raw material).
Contact is a relatively small part of the whole Culture,
however, and the average Culture citizen will rarely encounter
a GSV or other Contact ship in person; the craft they will normally
have the most to do with are cruise ships; interstellar passenger
vessels transporting people from habitat to habitat and visiting
the more interesting systems, stars, nebulae, holes and so on
in the locality. Again, this type of tourism is partly long-term
fashion; people travel because they can, not because they have to;
they could stay at home and appear to travel to exotic places
through what we would now call Virtual Reality, or send an
information-construct of themselves to a ship or other entity
that would do the experiencing for them, and incorporate the
memories themselves later.
There have been times, especially just after the relevant
VR technology was perfected, when the amount of real 'physical'
tourism shrank drastically, whereas during the time the stories
are set (apart from during the most intense phase of the
Idiran war), anything up to a tenth of the Culture's citizens
might be travelling in space at any one time.
Planets figure little in the life of the average Culture person; there
are a few handfuls of what are regarded as 'home' planets, and a
few hundred more that were colonised (sometimes after terraforming)
in the early days before the Culture proper came into being, but only
a fraction of a percent of the Culture's inhabitants live on them
(many more live permanently on ships). More people live in Rocks;
hollowed-out asteroids and planetoids (almost all fitted with drives,
and some - after nine millennia - having been fitted with dozens of
different, consecutively more advanced engines). The majority,
however, live in larger artificial habitats, predominantly Orbitals.
Perhaps the easiest way to envisage an Orbital is to compare it
to the idea that inspired it (this sounds better than saying; Here's
where I stole it from). If you know what a Ringworld is - invented
by Larry Niven; a segment of a Dyson Sphere - then just discard the
shadow-squares, shrink the whole thing till it's about three million
kilometres across, and place in orbit around a suitable star, tilted
just off the ecliptic; spin it to produce one gravity and that gives
you an automatic 24-hour day-night cycle (roughly; the Culture's day
is actually a bit longer). An elliptical orbit provides seasons.
Of course, the materials used in the construction of something
ten million kilometres in circumference spinning once every 24 hours
are far beyond anything we can realistically imagine now, and it is
quite possible that the physical constraints imposed by the strength
of atomic bonds ensure that such structures will prove impossible to
construct, but if it is possible to build on a such a scale and
subject such structures to forces of these magnitudes, then I'd submit
that there is an elegance in using the same rotation to produce both an
acceptable day-night cycle and an apparent gravity which makes the idea
intrinsically attractive.
Usually, rather than construct whole Orbitals in one operation,
the Culture starts with Plates; a pair of slabs of land and water
(plus full retaining walls, of course) of not less than a thousand
kilometres to a side, spinning in a similar orbit, attached by tensor
fields to each other, and behaving like sections of a completed Orbital;
this variation provides greater flexibility when responding to
population increase. Further plate-pairs can then be added until the
Orbital is complete.
The attraction of Orbitals is their matter efficiency. For
one planet the size of Earth (population 6 billion at the moment;
mass 6x1024 kg), it would be possible, using the same amount of
matter, to build 1,500 full orbitals, each one boasting a surface
area twenty times that of Earth and eventually holding a maximum
population of perhaps 50 billion people (the Culture would regard
Earth at present as over-crowded by a factor of about two, though
it would consider the land-to-water ratio about right). Not, of
course, that the Culture would do anything as delinquent as actually
deconstructing a planet to make Orbitals; simply removing the sort
of wandering debris (for example comets and asteroids) which the
average solar system comes equipped with and which would threaten
such an artificial world's integrity through collision almost
always in itself provides sufficient material for the construction
of at least one full Orbital (a trade-off whose conservatory elegance
is almost blissfully appealing to the average Mind), while interstellar
matter in the form of dust clouds, brown dwarfs and the like provides
more distant mining sites from which the amount of mass required for
several complete Orbitals may be removed with negligible effect.
Whatever the source material, Orbitals are obviously far
more mass-efficient in providing living space than planets.
The Culture, as is made clear in Use of Weapons, regards terraforming
generally as ecologically unsound; the wilderness should be left as
it is, when it is so easy to build paradise in space from so little.
An idea of how the day-night cycle appears on the surface
of an Orbital can be gained by taking an ordinary belt, buckling
it so that it forms a circle, and putting your eye to the outside
of one of the belt's holes; looking through the hole at a light bulb
and slowly rotating the whole belt will give some idea of how a star
appears to move across the sky when seen from an Orbital, though it
will also leave you looking rather silly.
As indicated, the usual minimum for the width of an Orbital
is about a thousand kilometres (two thousand if you count the sloped,
mostly transparent retaining walls, which usually extend to five
hundred kilometres or so above the plate land-sea surface). The normal
ratio of land to sea is 1:3, so that on each Plate - assuming they are
being constructed in the balanced pairs described above - a (very)
roughly square island rests in the middle of a sea, with
approximately two hundred and fifty kilometres from the shore
of the land mass to the retaining walls. Orbitals, though,
like everything else in the Culture, vary enormously.
One thing almost every Orbital - whether just two Plates
or a completed ("closed") Orbital - does have, is a Hub. As its
name implies, the Hub sits in the centre of the Orbital, equidistant
from all parts of the main circumferential structure (but not
physically joined to it, normally). The Hub is where the Orbital's
controlling AI (often a Mind) usually exists, running, or helping
to run, the Orbital's transport, manufacturing, maintenance
and subsidiary systems, acting as switchboard for trans-Orbital
communications, library and general information point, traffic
control for approaching, departing and close-passing ships,
and generally working as the Orbital's principle link with the
rest of the Culture. During the construction phase of a
Plate-pair, the Hub will normally control the process.
The design of a Plate sometimes incorporates the deep
- or strategic - structure of the surface geography, so that
the Plate medium itself contains the corrugations that will
become mountains, valleys and lakes; more commonly, the Plate
surface is left flat and the strategic structures on the inner
surface - also constructed from Plate base material - are
added later. Under either method, the Plate's manufacturing
and maintenance systems are located within the indentations
or hollows of the strategic structure, leaving the land surface
free to assume a rural appearance, once the tactical
geomorphology has been designed and positioned, the Plate's
complement of water and air has been emplaced, the
necessary weathering has occurred, and the relevant flora
and fauna have been introduced.
The surface of the Plate base is pierced by multitudinous
shafts allowing access to the factory and maintenance volumes, and
to the sub-surface transport systems. (Almost invariably, these
include restricted single-aperture concentrically rotating airlocks
paired in sequence.)
Existing on the outer surface of the base material, an
Orbital's rapid-transport systems operate in vacuum, with the
resulting advantages the lack of air-resistance confers; the
relatively uncluttered nature of the Orbital's outer surface
(whether flat, allowing the systems to operate next to that
surface, or corrugated, requiring sling-bridges under unoccupied
mountain indentations), means that the systems can be both
high-capacity and extremely flexible. Journey starting-points
and destinations can be highly specific for the same reason;
an isolated house or a small village will have its own access
shaft, and in larger conurbations a shaft will usually be within
a few minutes walk.
Surface transport on Orbitals tends to be used when the
pleasure of making the journey is itself part of the reason for
travelling; air travel is common enough (if still far slower
than sub-surface travel), though individual Plates often have
their own guide-lines concerning the amount of air travel
thought appropriate. Such guide-lines are part of one's manners,
and not formalised in anything as crude as laws.
The Culture doesn't actually have laws; there are, of
course, agreed-on forms of behaviour; manners, as mentioned above,
but nothing that we would recognise as a legal framework. Not
being spoken to, not being invited to parties, finding sarcastic
anonymous articles and stories about yourself in the information
network; these are the normal forms of manner-enforcement in the
Culture. The very worst crime (to use our terminology), of
course, is murder (defined as irretrievable brain-death, or
total personality loss in the case of an AI). The result
- punishment, if you will - is the offer of treatment, and what
is known as a slap-drone. All a slap-drone does is follow the
murderer around for the rest of their life to make sure they
never murder again. There are less severe variations on this
theme to deal with people who are simply violent.
In a society where material scarcity is unknown and
the only real value is sentimental value, there is little motive
or opportunity for the sort of action we would class as a crime
against property.
Megalomaniacs are not unknown in the Culture, but they
tend to be diverted successfully into highly complicated games;
there are entire Orbitals where some of these philosophically
crude Obsessive games are played, though most are in Virtual
Reality. Something of a status-symbol for the determined
megalomaniac is having one's own starship; this is considered
wasteful by most people, and is also futile, if the purpose of
having it is to escape the Culture completely and - say - set
up oneself up as God or Emperor on some backward planet; the
person might be free to pilot their (obviously non-AI controlled)
ship, and even approach a planet, but the Contact section is
equally free to follow that person wherever they go and do
whatever it thinks appropriate to stop him or her from doing
anything injurious or unpleasant to whatever civilisations
they come into - or attempt to come into - contact with.
This tends to be frustrating, and Virtual Reality games - up
to and including utter-involvement level, in which the player
has to make a real and sustained effort to return to the real
world, and can even forget that it exists entirely - are far
more satisfying.
Some people, however, refuse this escape-route too, and
leave the Culture altogether for a civilisation that suits them
better and where they can operate in a system which gives them
the kind of rewards they seek. To renounce the Culture so is
to lose access to its technology though, and, again, Contact
supervises the entry of such people into their chosen civilisation
at a level which guarantees they aren't starting with too great
an advantage compared to the original inhabitants (and retains
the option of interfering, if it sees fit).
A few such apparently anti-social people are even used by
Contact itself, especially by the Special Circumstances section.
The way the Culture creates AIs means that a small number
of them suffer from similar personality problems; such machines are
given the choice of cooperative re-design, a more limited role in
the Culture than they might have had otherwise, or a similarly
constrained exile.
Politics in the Culture consists of referenda on issues whenever
they are raised; generally, anyone may propose a ballot on any
issue at any time; all citizens have one vote. Where issues
concern some sub-division or part of a total habitat, all those -
human and machine - who may reasonably claim to be affected by
the outcome of a poll may cast a vote. Opinions are expressed
and positions on issues outlined mostly via the information
network (freely available, naturally), and it is here that an
individual may exercise the most personal influence, given
that the decisions reached as a result of those votes are
usually implemented and monitored through a Hub or other
supervisory machine, with humans acting (usually on a rota basis)
more as liaison officers than in any sort of decision-making
executive capacity; one of the few rules the Culture adheres
to with any exactitude at all is that a person's access to
power should be in inverse proportion to their desire for it.
The sad fact for the aspiring politico in the Culture is that
the levers of power are extremely widely distributed, and
very short (see entry on megalomaniacs, above). The
intellectual-structural cohesion of a starship of course
limits the sort of viable votes possible on such vessels,
though as a rule even the most arrogant craft at least pretend
to listen when their guests suggest - say - making a detour to
watch a supernova, or increasing the area of parkland on-board.
Day-to-day life in the Culture varies considerably from place
to place, but there is a general stability about it we might
find either extremely peaceful or ultimately rather disappointing,
depending on our individual temperament. We, after all, are used
to living in times of great change; we expect major technological
developments and have learned to adapt - indeed expect to have to
adapt on a more or less continual basis, changing (in the developed
world) our cars, our entertainment systems and a whole variety of
household objects every few years. In contrast, the Culture builds
to last; it is not uncommon for an aircraft, for example, to be
handed down through several generations. Important technological
advances still take place, but they don't tend to affect day-to-day
life the way that the invention of the internal combustion engine,
heavier-than-air flying machines and electronics have affected the
lives of those who have lived during the past century on Earth.
Even the relative homogeneity of the people one would meet when
living on the average Orbital - with relatively few children and
physically old people - would tend, for us, to reinforce the
feeling of sameness, though the scattering of genetically altered,
morphologically extreme people around would help compensate for this.
In terms of personal relations and family groupings, the
Culture is, predictably, full of every possible permutation and
possibility, but the most common life-style consists of groups of
people of mixed generations linked by loose family ties living in
a semi-communal dwelling or group of dwellings; to be a child in
the Culture is to have a mother, perhaps a father, probably not
a brother or sister, but large numbers of aunts and uncles, and
various cousins. Usually, a mother will avoid changing sex
during the first few years of a child's life. (Though, of course,
if you want to confuse your child...) In the rare event of a
parent maltreating a child (a definition which includes
depriving the child of the opportunity for education) it is
considered acceptable for people close to them - usually with
the help of the relevant Mind, ship or Hub AI, and subject to
the sort of small-scale democratic process outlined above -
to supervise the child's subsequent development.
In general the Culture doesn't actively encourage immigration;
it looks too much like a disguised form of colonialism. Contact's
preferred methods are intended to help other civilisations develop
their own potential as a whole, and are designed to neither leech
away their best and brightest, nor turn such civilisations into
miniature versions of the Culture. Individuals, groups and even
whole lesser civilisations do become part of the Culture on occasion,
however, if there seems to be a particularly good reason (and if
Contact reckons it won't upset any other interested
parties in the locality).
Just who and what is and isn't Culture is something
of a difficult question to answer though; as has been said in
one of the books, the Culture kind of fades out at the edges.
There are still fragments - millions of ships, hundreds of
Orbitals, whole systems - of the Peace faction of the Culture,
which split from the main section just before the start of
the Idiran War, when ships and habitats voted independently
on the need to go to war at all; the minority simply declared
itself neutral in the hostilities and the re-integration of
the Peace faction after the cessation of hostilities was
never totally completed, many people in it preferring to
stay outside the majority Culture as long as it did not
renounce the future use of force.
The genofixing which established the potential for
inter-species breeding at the foundation of the Culture is
the most obvious indicator of what we might call
Culture-hood in humans, but not everybody has it; some people
prefer to be more human-basic for aesthetic or philosophical
reasons, while some are so altered from that human-basic state
that any interbreeding is impossible. The status of some of
the Rocks and a few (mostly very old) habitats is marginal
for a variety of reasons.
Contact is the most coherent and consistent part of the
Culture - certainly when considered on a galactic scale - yet it
is only a very small part of it, is almost a civilisation within
a civilisation, and no more typifies its host than an armed service
does a peaceful state. Even the Cultures's prized language,
Marain, is not spoken by every Culture person, and is used well
outside the limits of the civilisation itself.
Names; Culture names act as an address if the person concerned
stays where they were brought up. Let's take an example;
Balveda, from Consider Phlebas. Her full name is
Juboal-Rabaroansa Perosteck Alseyn Balveda dam T'seif.
The first part tells you she was born/brought up on
Rabaroan Plate, in the Juboal stellar system
(where there is only one Orbital in a system, the first part
of a name will often be the name of the Orbital rather
than the star); Perosteck is her given name (almost
invariably the choice of one's mother), Alseyn is her
chosen name (people usually choose their names in their
teens, and sometimes have a succession through their
lives; an alseyn is a graceful but fierce avian raptor
common to many Orbitals in the region which includes
the Juboal system); Balveda is her family name (usually
one's mother's family name) and T'seif is the
house/estate she was raised within. The 'sa' affix
on the first part of her name would translate into
'er' in English (we might all start our names with
'Sun-Earther', in English, if we were to adopt the same
nomenclature), and the 'dam' part is similar to the
German 'von'. Of course, not everyone follows this
naming-system, but most do, and the Culture tries to
ensure that star and Orbital names are unique,
to avoid confusion.
Now, in all the above, there are two untold stories implicit.
One is the history of the Culture's formation, which was a lot
less easy and more troubled than its later demeanour might
lead one to expect, and the other is the story which answers
the question; why were there all those so-similar humanoid
species scattered around the galaxy in the first place?
Each story is too complicated to relate here.
Lastly, something of the totally fake cosmology that underpins
the shakily credible stardrives mentioned in the Culture
stories. Even if you can accept all the above, featuring a
humanoid species that seems to exhibit no real greed,
paranoia, stupidity, fanaticism or bigotry,
wait till you read this...
We accept that the three dimensions of space we
live in are curved, that space-time describes a hypersphere,
just as the two dimensions of length and width on the surface
of a totally smooth planet curve in a third dimension to
produce a three-dimensional sphere. In the Culture stories,
the idea is that - when you imagine the hypersphere which is
our expanding universe - rather than thinking of a growing
hollow sphere (like a inflating beach-ball, for example),
think of an onion.
An expanding onion, certainly, but an onion, nevertheless.
Within our universe, our hypersphere, there are whole layers
of younger, smaller hyperspheres. And we are not the very
outer-most skin of that expanding onion, either; there are
older, larger universes beyond ours, too. Between each
universe there is something called the Energy Grid (I said
this was all fake); I have no idea what this is, but it's
what the Culture starships run on. And of course, if you
could get through the Energy Grid, to a younger universe,
and then repeat the process... now we really are talking
about immortality. (This is why there are two types of
hyperspace mentioned in the stories; infraspace within our
hypersphere, and ultraspace without.)
Now comes the difficult bit; switch to seven dimensions
and even our four dimensional universe can be described as a
circle. So forget about the onion; think of a doughnut.
A doughnut with only a very tiny hole in the middle. That hole
is the Cosmic Centre, the singularity, the great initiating
fireball, the place the universes come from; and it didn't
exist just in the instant our universe came into
being; it exists all the time, and it's exploding all the
time, like some Cosmic car engine, producing universes
like exhaust smoke.
As each universe comes into being, detonating and
spreading and expanding, it - or rather the single circle
we are using to describe it - goes gradually up the inner
slope of our doughnut, like a widening ripple from a stone
flung in a pond. It goes over the top of the doughnut,
reaches its furthest extent on the outside edge of the
doughnut, and then starts the long, contracting, collapsing
journey back in towards the Cosmic Centre again, to be reborn...
Or at least it does if it's on that doughnut; the
doughnut is itself hollow, filled with smaller ones where
the universes don't live so long. And there are larger ones
outside it, where the universes live longer, and maybe there
are universes that aren't on doughnuts at all, and never
fall back in, and just dissipate out into...
some form of meta-space? Where fragments of them
are captured eventually by the attraction of another
doughnut, and fall in towards its Cosmic Centre with
the debris of lots of other dissipated universes, to be
reborn as something quite different again?
Who knows. (I know it's all nonsense, but you've
got to admit it's impressive nonsense.
And like I said at the start, none of it exists
anyway, does it?)
Anyway, that's more than enough of me pontificating.
With best wishes for the future,

Iain M Banks
(Sun-Earther Iain El-Bonko Banks of North Queensferry)

Copyright 1994 Iain M Banks
Commercial use only by permission.
Other uses, distribution, reproduction, tearing to shreds etc are
freely encouraged provided the source is acknowledged.


Ken MacLeod | I get an uneasy feeling when I reflect that ... I am | *completely surrounded by the state* [D.R.Steele]

Neil Dullaway

Aug 10, 1994, 1:06:22 PM8/10/94
Thanks to Mr MacLeod for posting a 'sample' of Culture background
material. I'm still digesting it so I won't comment.
I will take this opportunity to ask a question (feel free to
answer, anybody): Taking two specific examples, Iain Banks and
Douglas Adams (although there are others), we have literature
students turned writers of sf. The literature students I knew at
Uni had as minimal a knowledge of 'science' as I believe it is
possible to have. IB and DA exhibit a knowledge of (at least!)
lay- and pop-science beyond the call of said students. Is this
due to research for the future novel, or was the novel inspired
by knowledge aquired through pure interest/education?
This has been bugging me.


Neil Dullaway

Or, if we're going to be pedantic (plus I love to follow a trend):

Sun-Earther Neil Research-Grant-Extractor Dullaway of New Barn Farm

Craig Becker

Aug 15, 1994, 11:59:57 AM8/15/94

I took Banks' A FEW NOTES ON THE CULTURE, posted here recently
by Ken MacLeod (, and massaged it around
and generated a nice PostScript format version. It's a bit long
to post, but if anyone would like a copy, send me email at

-- Craig Becker, Object Technology Products (512) 838-8068 Austin, TX USA --
-- Internet: (work) (home) --
-- it's okay it goes this way the line it twists it twists away --

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