The Culture is a civilisation in the Culture Universe, and the focus of Iain M Bank's books in the series. Described as a post-scarcity, anarchist, socialistic utopia, the Culture is run by the Minds - extremely powerful artificial intelligences. It is described as being roughly eleven thousand years old in The Player of Games.
The Culture is composed primarily of a mixture of artificial intelligences (Minds and drones) and humanoids, most of whom live on large starships or orbitals (see below). However, thanks to the science of the Culture, these are not strict divisions, with an individual able to change species, use cybernetic implants and the like should they desire to. Regardless, the Culture professes to treat all equally (insofar as that is possible).
The language used in the Culture is a Mind-designed one called Marain. Designed with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in mind, it works well for both the artificial intelligences and humanoids of the Culture, and has perhaps been designed to place much less emphasis on concepts such as possession or aggression than, for example, English.
Although generally a lawless society, the Culture enforces social norms through other means, such as personal reputation, upbringing, the extremely well-balanced psyches of almost all its citizens, and the ability of the local Mind or Minds to intervene when necessary. Unbalanced individuals are typically offered therapy, whilst the worst offenders are typically (and overtly) monitored at all times by the local Mind, and may be ostracised by the rest of society.
Most Culture citizens live on Orbitals: large ring structures that orbit a star in the same way planets do. They are positioned slightly edge-on to the star such that there is a day and night cycle. To generate gravity, most are spun around a central hub which usually contains the Mind that governs the orbital. In contrast the Culture uses very few planets, although asteroids and the like are occasionally used. A large part of the Culture's population is also based on board large starships. Dyson spheres and Ringworld-like structures have been noted as well, with three of the former and one of the latter being destroyed in the recent Idiran-Culture War.
Contact is responsible for co-ordinating the Culture's interactions with other civilisations, and approximately equates to both the foreign office and defence ministry. As per Player of Games it also has the power to limit access to information on other societies.
Special Circumstances is a division of Contact, and is effectively the secret service of the Culture. It is typically called in for operations that are morally dubious from Contact's point of view. In Use of Weapons, Diziet Sma states that:
- "... in Special Circumstances we deal in the moral equivalent of black holes, where the normal laws - the rules of right and wrong that people imagine apply everywhere else in the universe - break down; beyond those metaphysical event-horizons, there exist ... special circumstances. [...] That's us. That's our territory; our domain."
Weapons & Defences
Also known as "CAM", this, as the name suggests, is high-density antimatter, and is used in warheads both for combat between starships and even in personal weaponry.
Forcefields come in several varieties within the Culture universe, being used for everything from precision work to starship defence (and offence). These can also be used whilst within hyperspace to attack enemies not in hyperspace. The most famous type of forcefield is the Effector - a device that uses electromagnetic forcefields, primarily to hack into other computers. This gives the Culture a distinct advantage in most versus scenarios, as their ships can hide in hyperspace and, for example, disable the safety systems on the Death Star's main reactor, without the Death Star being able to fire back.
Displacers are wormhole generators that are used in warfare primarily to position warheads directly within a target. Maximum range of a displacer is determined by mass (in Excession, an apple-sized drone was displaced only a light-second at maximum range).
The Culture also employs lasers and other beam weapons on its warships, the most powerful of which is called Gridfire, and involves opening a rift to the Energy Grid (essentially the barrier between universes) and allowing this to release enormous amounts of energy into ordinary space.
Culture starships have been described as able to destroy planets by "braking" hard whilst travelling in hyperspace.
Although not necessarily used as a weapon, the Culture makes great use of nanotechnology for espionage purposes and the like.
Trapdoors are a defensive version of Displacers, designed to divert the energy of, say, a warhead displaced into a ship.
During the Idiran-Culture War, both sides were able to rapidly induce novas in stars.
The highest speed achieved by a Culture starship is 233,000c (the GSV Sleeper Service), although most ships travel much slower than that.
Ships (particularly General Systems Vehicles and the like) are quite capable of building large fleets of Culture starships and the like. The Sleeper Service was able to create 112,000 partially-slaved warships, and most large ships can do likewise. However, for sentient ships the Culture prefers to grow new Minds, as it views the creation of a new Mind as a process not dissimilar to how most people view having a child.