The Culture

The Culture novels are a series of books written by prolific author Iain Banks under the name Iain M. Banks to separate them from another series of novels written as Iain Banks. The Culture itself is the imagined civilization within which the books are set.

The Culture is somewhat different from many of the other SF "worlds". For a start, the people that live in the Culture are motivated primarily by fun.

Pretty much all the onerous or unpleasant tasks required to make things happen are taken on (willingly) by sentient machines: they repay the cost of having themselves built in the first place by a period of useful labour, after which they "retire" into society along with the people. These people, by the way, have genetically engineered glands in their brains by means of which they can provide themselves with a wide variety of stimulants, sedatives and psychedelics any time they please.

The principle is that machines are good at working, so they do that, while people are good at playing, so they do that.

IainBanks offers A Few Brief Notes on TheCulture here: http://www.cs.bris.ac.uk/~stefan/culture.html.

Culture Novels are typified by the presence of a futuristic star-faring race known as TheCulture.

The Culture novels are...


My favourite thing about the Culture books is the NamesOfCultureShips?. Ultimate Ship The Second, Ethics Gradient, Gunboat Diplomat, Prosthetic Conscience, Frank Exchange Of Views, etc etc etc.

(See http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~and1000/banks/ships.html for a full list.)

-- AlanFrancis


The Culture stories perhaps give us some idea of what an UpWing society might look like. -- Keithbraithwaite


What do the humans contribute to justify the cost of having themselves built?

Art, literature, games, love, fun, capriciousness.

What do the humans contribute to the machines to justify the cost of having themselves built?

Huh? One of the cleverest design features found in animals is their ability to assemble new instances without outside intervention.

So, if the machines do all the work, they must assemble themselves. Yes, they do.

At what point are humans necessary in this society? Why do the machines care to support these lazy, resource consuming bags of water? Put 'em to work!

You aren't paying attention. Here's the answer again: Art, literature, games, love, fun, capriciousness.

Final question: if the machines care about art and they are sentient (which implies they can make art themselves), why can't they make their own art? Even more importantly, why can't they make art that is relevant to the machines?

They do and they are, they can, they do, it is. They don't see that this obviates the need for humans to make human art that is relevant to humans, as well. There are hints in the books that manipulating the human side of the Culture, and other human and non-human cultures, is itself a form of entertainment for the senior machines (the "Minds") that run the Culture, over and above their other, machine specific, fun and games. Read the books, it does all make sense. -- KeithBraithwaite

You're missing the point - humans are human and Minds are something else entirely. Minds are aware of the fact that they are ultimately the pinnacle of a machine that exists in 4 dimensions - the clues in the name CULTURE. Without the humans, there'd be no initial "leg". In addition, see Player of Games to see that out of 18 trillion humans there are roughly 30-40 who are capable of thinking as concisely as Minds. This is clearly impossible - hence the Minds don't understand everything about Humans yet... -- IainHowe

It is never claimed that there a people who can think as concisely as minds. There are 30-40 in 18 trillion whose *subconcious* processing is useful (i.e. correct) enough times to be worth including as input for decision making.

Well, as the human arrives at the useful answer with significantly less "processor time" or data than the Mind in question, I think that covers the definition of concise quite adequately. Or am I doing a "Wisdom Like Silence" and debating semantics needlessly? :) IainHowe

On the gripping hand, TheCulture is so ludicrously powerful that the cost of keeping billions of humans entertained is negligible.

The attitude of the Cultures Minds to humans is rather akin to how we regard butterflies in our garden which could be easily swatted at any moments notice, yet we don�t because they a provide a momentarty bright distraction at a cost so trivial it would be more expensive to count than to ignore.

I think that's harsh. The Minds, on the whole, seem to have some sort of kinship with humans (and other sentient species - there are non-humans in the Culture too). They are also useful allies, as has been discussed, when dealing with civilisations outside the Culture (many SC operatives are human). My favourite Culture book is "Look to Windward" - the man/machine relationship is beautifully described.

Based on ConsiderPhlebas?, PlayerOfGames?, and Excession, the man/machine relationship is an ugly and disturbing one.

First, there is no indication in either book that Minds have any names. Ships and avatars have names but Minds do not. For instance, the Not Invented Here refers to the ship exclusively, and the minds that made up the Quietly Confident were never named at all (nor even given designations like 1 of 3).

There are very few indications that Minds in a shared grouping are externally indistinguishable to a human or drone observer. The only case where I believe this is discussed in detail is the Sleeper Service, where one of the Minds was rumoured to have marooned the other two in smaller ships, seizing control of the mainship. I suspect the relationship between groupMinds is closer even than that between twins -- IainHowe

Second, Minds only ever communicate with humans through drones, avatars, terminals or comm screens. They are not part of the environment, you do not speak to a Mind as you would someone in the same room as you (an avatar is not a Mind), let alone a friend.

In Excession I believe one of the Ship minds speaks as a disembodied voice. And given the number of dimensions that Minds see into, is their concept of 'in the room' the same as that of a humans? -- IainHowe

Third, both Minds and drones are referred to as "ship" and "drone" which is supremely disprespectful. That's like calling a person "human" or a female human "woman". Note that saying "ship" is unnecessary to signify who you're talking to since people could develop a common gesture (such as looking up at the ceiling) for this purpose. IOW, addressing a ship as "ship" is inexcusable, it's just disrespectful period.

I think what you're referring to is the most heinous Culture insult - to suggest that someone is not an individual. Most of the worst Culture epithet's strip the targets distinctiveness from them. 'Drone' or 'Ship' or 'Machine' or, for Humans, 'Meat'. -- IainHowe

Fourth, both immortality (in all forms) and neural lace communication are mediated by Minds. IOW, the Minds have meat people by their cojones.

I agree with the truth of that, but don't see the sinister side of it that obviously makes you shudder. Minds run all the largest Orbitals and Ships were 'storing' occurs and where communications systems are based. Of course they control these things -- IainHowe

Fifth, the idea of drones having sex, of exchanging pleasure, is repugnant to humans, even those humans who are friendly to drones. Because of course, drones aren't people like us.

It was less repugnant than it was a matter of little interest and some amusement, as with Byr in Excession. Compare the benign amusement and bafflement of Byr with Skaffen's voyeurism and ask yourself which is worse? I don't think we have enough evidence that all the Meat Organisms of the Culture view Drone sex as icky -- IainHowe

Sixth, drones are ... "drones" (mindless slaves), "devices", "machines" and "it"s, never ever "he" or "she" despite the fact that GSVs have "daughtercraft".

Drones are often spoken of that way, I agree, but not exclusively. Churt Lyne got on fine with a Ship Mind. Skaffen Amtishkaw had a defined personality, and was referred to by name, except when Sma was angry with him. Drones are sometimes sentient and sometimes not - I think this is the source of your confusion. Some Drones ARE devices. Some aren't. And you're reading too much into "daughtercraft" - ships have been female since they were made of wood -- IainHowe

Seven, drones and Minds aren't people. People refers to human beings only, nonhumanoid meat people if you're stretching it. Drones and Minds are certainly accorded all the rights of a sentient being in the Culture. If that's not what you mean, then please elaborate! -- IainHowe

Eight, drones and Minds have more in common with an Intel 8086 CPU and human beings with flatworms than either of them have with each other. Shared sentience isn't important, origin / descendance / ancestry / provenance / construction history is. Drones and Minds were created by organics and their origin/descendance/ancestry/provenance/construction has always been bound up around the history of the organics in their midst. Given the enormous difference in power and intelligence between a standard person and a standard Mind, you cannot expect them to be equal in every way. -- IainHowe

Nine, drones have colour auras, not emotions. The only emotions drones have that are worth knowing are formal (blue) and anger (white). I believe White was the frosty sort of anger. The important thing here is that field colours are the Drones methods of EXPRESSING emotion to their human companions. A Drone's field colour is about as true an indication of its emotional state as a forced laugh is for a human. There is evidence that they simply don't bother with them, if pressed for time. Churt Lyne was in a very annoying but important conversation with an unreasonable Ulver Seich when he emoted the field colours that you mention. I believe Skaffen Amtiskaw uses some other field colours with Sma. Observable behaviour in both Drones and Minds would indicate that they feel a variety of emotions - Pride, Anger, Amusement, Affection, Curiosity and so forth -- IainHowe

Ten, it's worth translating the Azad's third sex into a form we comprehend, this is not the case with either drone emotions or drone/Mind sentience.

Oh, and on a different subject, nobody has brought up the central reason why Minds do not kill off meat people (and it ain't art). It's because Minds are altruistic and killing off meat people would be immoral. I find that reason unbelievable. I find it unreasonable too. I think they haven't because they've never been in competition for scarce resources -- IainHowe

I also find it unbelievable that IainBanks would like to live in TheCulture, no matter what he says. I believe that Gobuchul's viewpoint is closest to Banks' feelings on the matter.

Finally, again based on ConsiderPhlebas? and Excession, despite its obscene wealth, the Culture is not PostScarcity (which is what makes its wealth obscene).


The machines keep the humans as pets. The pets get used sometimes, much as we would use a sheepdog or a horse, but they are rarely essential. Not all machines bother - there are manned ships and unmanned ones, and a ship may change from being one to the other.

The Culture likes to consider itself a rational society. The author says he loves the Culture and would like to live there, but the books seem ambivalent to me. Most of it would be dull to read about. However, there are other societies in the galaxy which are not part of TheCulture, and so a section called Contact deals with what amounts to foreign policy. And because these other societies are not always rational, it is not always possible to resolve issues merely by explaining to them where their best interests lie. And so there is a section of Contact called SpecialCircumstances.

The books are mainly concerned with the interactions at the fringes of the Culture, for eg the activities of SpecialCircumstances. Some of the other societies don't much like uppity machines (See! I said they were irrational) so many of the stories involve humans.

By the way, as I understand it the non-creative, unpleasant jobs are done by non-sentient machines. Creative jobs are surely pleasant ones by definition.

Note that the issue the role or status of Humans in the Culture is very much part of the Culture novels. It is most explicitly debated by characters in "Consider Phlebas", but the tension is part of the background of most of them. "Excession" is interesting in that the central plot does not involve humans at all, although the various subplots do.

Going by Consider Phlebas, Excession and Player of Games, humans predominate among meat people in both Culture and Contact. GSVs have human societies, Contact has human representatives, and "people" refers to humans.

There is no reason given for any of this and the timing is all wrong. In particular, the Culture was created by eight different civilizations millennia old, with the addition of many other civilizations along the way, whereas homo sapiens superior is only one species a few centuries old.

two cents of a newbie wiki-er: As I recall, "human" is a blanket term really meaning "humanoid species" since (for reasons nobody really knows) such species are remarkably common and similar. I always got the distinct impression that humans as in us, homo sapiens, quite possibly don't feature at all and if we did would just be "another backward human species". But hey, I could be wrong!

Another way to explain this is: humans were created by bacteria to carry them to the moon.

Or even humans are the result of millions of years of the evolution of water so that it can travel uphill.

I've always enjoyed the quote (by RobertAntonWilson, I believe) that Humans are DNA's way of making more DNA.

Are you perhaps thinking of RobertHeinlein's: "A zygote is a gamete's way of making more gametes. This may be the purpose of the universe.", perhaps? -- MikeSmith


And here I thought our purpose in life was to worship GOD.

You shouldn't believe everything you read.

Maybe one of the best comebacks I've ever read, heh ... although I am no athiest myself, I arrived at my faith through self-inspection rather than any outside pressure.--RuninSun?

In fact the Culture stories do sometimes feature civilizations that have "sublimed" and attained pretty much god-like status. It wouldn't occur to anyone to worship them. Avoid provoking them, yes; placate them, maybe; worship, no. Well, no one sensible, anyway.
There seems to be many similarities between the Culture novels and the society described in TheRealityDysfunction? by PeterHamilton? - I wonder who thought of it first? -- ChanningWalton

Which one? There are quite a few societies in TheRealityDysfunction?.

Channing probably means the Edenists. They resemble the culture in that they are a high-tech utopia in a universe of lower-tech non-utopias. Other than that, they are rather different: TheCulture is built around AI and advanced physics (force fields, hyperdrives, that sort of thing), whereas the Edenists are still primarily human, and use biotech (wildly unfeasible biotech, like living starships and so on). I think the biggest difference is that TheCulture is basically Minds with human hangers-on, whereas the Edenists are humans with biomachines at their service. -- TomAnderson

Sorry - haven't been around for a while and now its so long since I read TheRealityDysfunction? I'm struggling to remember. I think the similarity I found was what Tom describes. --ChanningWalton

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