The Culture is characterised by being a post-scarcity society (meaning that its advanced technologies provide practically limitless material wealth and comforts for everyone for free, having all but abolished the concept of possessions), by having overcome almost all physical constraints on life (including disease and death) and by being an almost totally egalitarian, stable society without the use of any form of force or compulsion, except where necessary to protect others.
The effect and control that 'Minds' - the extremely powerful AIs that administer this affluence for the benefit of all - have over the Culture is very central both to the setting and as a narrative constraint. As one commentator has expressed it:
The novels of the Culture cycle, therefore, mostly deal with people at the fringes of the Culture - diplomats, spies or mercenaries - those who interact with other civilisations, and who do the Culture's dirty work in moving those societies closer to the Culture ideal, sometimes by force.
In the fictional universe Banks has created, the Culture exists concurrently with human society on Earth, rather than representing an imagined future for the human race. Seen from Earth, the time frame for the published Culture stories is from roughly AD 1300 to AD 2100, with Earth being Contacted during the end of the time frame, though the Culture had previously visited the planet in The State of the Art.
The Culture itself is described as having been created when several humanoid species and machine sentiences reached a certain societal level, and took not only their physical, but also their civilisational evolution into their own hands. In The Player of Games, the Culture is described as having existed as a space-faring society for eleven thousand years.
The Culture is a symbiotic society of AIs (Minds, Drones) and humanoids who all share equal status. As mentioned above, all essential work is performed (as far as possible) by non-sentient devices, freeing sentients to do only things that they enjoy (administrative work requiring sentience is undertaken by the AIs using a bare fraction of their mental power, or by people who take on the work out of free choice). As such, the Culture is also a post scarcity society, where technological advances ensure that no-one wants for any material goods or services. As a consequence, the Culture has no need of economic constructions such as money (as is apparent when it deals with civilisations in which money is still important).
The Culture's shared language is Marain, designed by early Minds. The Culture believes (or perhaps has proved, or else actively made true) the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that language influences thought, and Marain was designed to exploit this effect, while also 'appealing to poets, pedants, engineers and programmers'. Designed to be represented either in binary, base-nine or symbol-written form, Marain is also regarded as an aesthetically pleasing language. The nonary (Base 9) language can be written in three-by-three grids of digital (yes/no, black/white) dots.
Related comments are made by the narrator in The Player of Games regarding gender-specific pronouns, and by general reflection on the fact that Marain places much less structural emphasis on (or even lacks) concepts like possession and ownership, dominance and submission and especially aggression. Many of these concepts would in fact be somewhat theoretical to the usual Culture citizen.
There are no laws as such in the Culture. Social norms are enforced by convention (personal reputation, 'good manners' and by, as described in The Player of Games, possible ostracism for more serious crimes). Minds generally refrain from using their all-seeing capabilities to influence people's reputations, though they are not necessarily themselves above judging people based on such observations, as described in Excession. Minds also judge each other, with one of the more relevant criteria being the quality of their treatment of sentients in their care. Hub Minds for example are generally nominated from well-regarded GSV (the largest class of ships) Minds, and then upgraded to care for the billions living on the artificial habitats.
The only serious prohibitions that seem to exist are against harming sentient beings, or forcing them into undertaking any act (another concept that seems unnatural - in fact is almost unheard of - to almost all Culture citizens). While the enforcement in theory could lead to a Big Brother-style surveillance society, in practice social convention among the Minds prohibits them from watching, or interfering in, citizens' lives unless requested, or unless they perceive severe risk. The practice of reading a sentient's mind without permission - something the Culture is technologically easily capable of - is also strictly taboo, and Minds that do so are considered deviant and shunned by other Minds (see GCU Grey Area). At one point it is said that if the Culture actually had written laws, the sanctity of one's own thoughts against the intrusion of others would be the first on the books. This gives some measure of privacy and protection - though the very nature of Culture society would, strictly speaking, make keeping secrets irrelevant: most of them would be considered neither shameful nor criminal. However, it does allow the Minds in particular to scheme amongst themselves in a very efficient manner, and occasionally withhold information.
It has been argued that the role of humans in the Culture is nothing more than that of pets, or parasites on Culture Minds, and that they can have nothing genuinely useful to contribute to a society where science is close to omniscient about the physical universe, where every ailment has been cured, and where every thought can be read. Many of the Culture novels in fact contain characters (from within or without the Culture) wondering how far-reaching the Minds' dominance of the Culture is, and how much of the democratic process within it might in fact be a sham - subtly but very powerfully influenced by the Minds in much the same ways Contact and Special Circumstances influence other societies. Also, except for some mentions about a vote over the Idiran-Culture War, and the existence of a very small number of 'Referrers' (humans of especially acute reasoning), few biological entities are ever described as being involved in any high-level decisions.
On the other hand, the Culture can be seen as fundamentally hedonistic - one of the main objectives for any being, including Minds, is to have fun - rather than to be 'useful'. Also, Minds are constructed, by convention, to care for and value human beings. While a General Contact Unit (GCU) does not strictly need a crew (and could construct artificial avatars when it did), a real human crew adds richness to its existence, and offers distraction during otherwise dull periods. In Consider Phlebas it is noted that Minds still find humans fascinating, especially their odd ability to sometimes achieve similarly advanced reasoning as their much more complex machine brains.
To a large degree, the freedoms enjoyed by humans in the Culture are only available because Minds choose to provide them. Nevertheless, social convention within the community of Minds seem to make it impossible, as well as abhorrent, that these freedoms should be curtailed in a society that cares about the happiness of its members. The freedoms include the ability to leave the Culture when desired, often forming new associated but separate societies with Culture ships and Minds, most notably the Elench and the ultra-pacifist and non-interventionist Peace Faction.
The Culture is a posthuman society, which originally arose when seven or eight roughly humanoid space-faring species coalesced into a quasi-collective - a 'group-civilisation' - ultimately consisting of approximately thirty trillion (short scale) sentient beings (this includes artificial intelligences). In Banks' universe, a good part (but by no means an overwhelming percentage) of all sentient species is of the 'pan-human' type, as noted in Matter. However, it is not explained how this similarity in many species came about.
Although the Culture was originated by humanoid species, subsequent interactions with other civilisations have introduced many non-humanoid species into the Culture (including some former enemy civilisations), though the majority of the biological Culture is still pan-human. However, little uniformity exists in the Culture, and its citizens are such by choice, free to change physical form and even species (though some stranger biological conversions are irreversible, and conversion from biological to artificial sentience is frowned upon as something of an aberration). All members are also free to join, leave, and rejoin, or indeed declare themselves to be, say, 80% Culture.
Techniques in genetics have advanced in the Culture to the point where bodies can be freed from built-in limitations. Citizens of the Culture refer to a 'normal' human as 'human-basic' and the vast majority opt for significant enhancements; severed limbs grow back, sexual physiology can be voluntarily changed from male to female and back (though the process itself takes time), sexual stimulation and endurance are strongly heightened in both sexes (something that is often subject of envious debate among other species), pain can be 'switched off', toxins can be bypassed away from the digestive system, automatic functions such as breathing or heart rate can be switched to conscious control, and bones and muscles adapt quickly to changes in gravity without the need to exercise. The degree of enhancement found in Culture individuals varies to taste, with certain of the more exotic enhancements limited to Special Circumstances personnel (for example fingernails able to emit weapons-grade laser light).
Most Culture individuals opt to have 'drug glands' that allow for hormonal levels and other chemical secretions to be consciously monitored, released and controlled. These allow owners to secrete on command any of a wide selection of synthetic drugs, from the merely relaxing to the mind-altering: 'Snap' is described in Use of Weapons and The Player of Games as "The Culture's favourite breakfast drug". 'Sharp Blue' is described as a utility drug, as opposed to a sensory enhancer or a sexual stimulant and helps in problem solving. 'Quicken', mentioned in Excession, speeds up the user's perception of time so that they can accomplish thoughts and mental conversations in far less time than it appears to take to the outside observer. 'Sperk', as described in Matter, is a mood- and energy-enhancing drug, while other such self-produced drugs include 'Calm', 'Gain', 'Charge', 'Recall', 'Diffuse', 'Somnabsolute', 'Softnow', 'Focus', and 'Crystal Fugue State'. The glanded substances have no permanent side-effects and are non-habit-forming.
For all their genetic improvements, the Culture is by no means eugenically uniform. Human members in the Culture setting vary in size, colour and shape as in reality, and with possibly even further natural differences: in the novella The State of the Art, it is mentioned that a character "looks like a Yeti", and that there is variance among the Culture in minor details such as the number of toes or of joints on each finger. It is mentioned in Excession that:
Some Culture citizens opt to leave the constraints of a human or even humanoid body altogether, opting to take on the appearance of one of the myriad of other galactic sentients (perhaps in order to live with them) or even non-sentient objects (though this process can be irreversible if the desired form is too removed from the structure of the human brain). Certain eccentrics have chosen to become drones or even Minds themselves, though this is considered rude and possibly even insulting by most humans and AIs alike.
While the Culture is generally pan-humanoid (and tends to call itself 'human'), various other species and individuals of other species have become part of the Culture.
As all Culture citizens are of perfect genetic health, the very rare cases of a Culture citizen showing any physical deformity are almost certain to be a sort of 'fashion statement' of somewhat dubious taste.
Almost all Culture citizens are very sociable, of great intellectual capability and learning, and possess very well-balanced psyches. Their biological makeup and their growing up in an enlightened society make neuroses and 'lesser emotions' like greed or (strong) jealousy practically unknown, and produce persons that, in any lesser society, appear very self-composed and charismatic. Character traits like strong shyness, while very rare, are however not fully unknown, as shown in Excession. As described there and in Player of Games, a Culture citizen who becomes dysfunctional enough to pose a serious nuisance or threat to others would be offered (voluntary) psychological adjustment therapy and might potentially find himself under constant (non-voluntary) oversight by representatives of the local Mind.
As well as humans and other biological species, sentient artificial intelligences are also members of the Culture. These can be broadly categorised into drones and Minds. It should also be noted that by custom, as described in Excession, any artifact (be it a tool or vessel) above a certain capability level has to be given sentience.
Drones are roughly comparable in intelligence and social status to that of the Culture's biological members. Their intelligence is measured against that of an average biological member of the Culture - a so-called "1.0 value" drone would be considered the mental equal of a biological citizen, whereas lesser drones such as the menial service units of Orbitals are merely proto-sentient (capable of limited reaction to unprogrammed events, but possessing no consciousness, and thus not considered citizens - these take care of much of the menial work in the Culture). The sentience of advanced drones has varying levels of redundancy, from systems similar to that of Minds (though much reduced in capability) down to electronic, atomechanical and finally biochemical back-up brains.
Although drones are artificial, the parameters that prescribe their minds are not rigidly constrained, and sentient drones are full individuals, with their own personalities, opinions and quirks. Like biological citizens, Culture drones generally have lengthy names. They also have a form of 'sexual' intercourse for pleasure, called being 'in thrall', though this is an intellect-only interfacing with another sympathetic drone.
While civilian drones do generally match humans in intelligence, drones built especially as Contact or Special Circumstances agents are often several times more intelligent, and imbued with extremely powerful senses, powers and armaments (usually forcefield and 'effector'-based, though occasionally more 'offensive' weaponry such as lasers or, exceptionally, 'knife-missiles' are referred to) all powered by antimatter reactors. Despite being purpose built, these drones are still allowed individual personalities and given a choice in lifestyle. Indeed, some are eventually deemed psychologically unsuitable as agents (for example as Mawhrin-Skel notes about itself in The Player of Games) and must choose (or chose to choose) either mental reprofiling or demilitarisation and discharge from Special Circumstances.
Physically, drones are floating units of varying size and shape, usually with no visible moving parts. Drones get around the limitations of this inanimation with the ability to project 'fields' - both those capable of physical force, which allow them to manipulate objects, as well as visible, coloured fields called 'auras', which are used to enable the drone to express emotion. There is a complex code of drone body language based around aura colours and patterns (which is fully understood by biological Culture citizens as well).
In size drones vary substantially: the oldest still alive (eight or nine thousand years old) tend to be around the size of humans, whereas later technology allows drones to be small enough to lie in a human's cupped palm; however modern drones may be any size between these extremes according to fashion and personal preference. Some drones are also designed as utility equipment with its own sentience, such as the gelfield protective suit described in Excession.
By contrast to drones, Minds are orders of magnitude more powerful and intelligent than the Culture's other biological and artificial citizens. Typically they inhabit and act as the controllers of large-scale Culture hardware such as ships or space-based habitats. As such, Minds are usually identified with and known by the same name as the physical object they operate and live within. Unsurprisingly, given their duties, Minds are tremendously powerful: capable of holding millions of conversations simultaneously with any of the citizens that live aboard them, while running all of the functions of the ship or habitat. To allow them to perform at such a high degree, they exist partially in hyperspace to get around such hindrances to computing power as the speed of light.
During the time of Consider Phlebas, Minds were estimated to number in the several hundreds of thousands.
Culture Minds choose their own names (which then also identify the craft they inhabit, if any), and their choices are often whimsical and humorous. Ship-based Minds are identified by a three-letter prefix denoting class (such as GSV or GCU), followed by their personal name, such as:
Presumably to avoid the cumbersome repetition of such long names, the inhabitants of ships and habitats tend to refer to the overseeing local Mind simply as the "Ship" or the "Hub", for example.
Culture military craft are often designed to be ugly and graceless, lacking the Culture's usual aesthetic style, and it has been theorised that this is because Culture citizens wish to distance themselves from the military aspects of their society. Their ship classes, reflecting the Culture's profound distaste of war and resultant refusal to disguise their weapons with euphemisms, are always unpleasant (such as the Gangster class, Torturer class, Psychopath class and Thug class). Their self-given names are often tinged with menace (but still tend to be whimsical), such as:
Since the Mind concerned chooses its own name this may sometimes even indicate a degree of self-hatred over its purpose for existence. Warship Minds are somewhat out of the normal Culture's behaviour range, designed to be more aggressive and less ambivalent about violence than the usual Culture citizen.
Minds generally view their crew/inhabitants as 'interesting companions' and interact with them through remotely controlled devices, often drones or humanoid 'avatars'. Examples of more diverse interactive systems are animals such as small fish suspended in their own anti-gravity sphere of water.
As a sidenote, the fact that artificial intelligences are accepted as citizens of the Culture was a major factor in the Idiran-Culture War, which is explored in Consider Phlebas. This granting of citizenship to AIs (which the Culture promotes in other societies it encounters) has other more general consequences. For instance, despite a high degree of automation within Culture technology, menial tasks are often undertaken by non-sentient technology, to avoid the exploitation of sentient lifeforms (though Minds often work at administrative tasks using bare fractions of their enormous mental capabilities).
Culture citizens - humanoid or drone - have long names, often with seven or more words. Some of these words specify the citizen's origin (place of birth or manufacture), some an occupation, and some (chosen later in life by the citizen himself) may denote specific philosophical or political alignments, or make other similarly personal statements. An example would be Diziet Sma whose full name is Rasd-Codurersa Diziet Embless Sma da' Marenhide:
The Culture has a relatively relaxed attitude towards death. Genetic manipulation and the continual benevolent surveillance of the Minds make natural or accidental death almost unknown. Advanced technology allows citizens to make "backup" copies of their personalities, allowing them to be resurrected in case of death. The form of that resurrection can be specified by the citizen, with personalities returning either in the same biological form, in an artificial form (see below), or even just within virtual reality. Some citizens choose to go into 'storage' (a form of suspended animation) for long periods of time, out of boredom or curiosity about the future.
However, as is made clear in the novels, attitudes individual citizens have towards death are very variable (and have varied throughout the Culture's history). While many, if not most, citizens make some use of 'backup' technology, many others do not, preferring instead to risk death without the possibility of recovery (for example when engaging in extreme sports). These citizens are sometimes called 'disposables', and are described in Look to Windward. Taking into account such accidents, voluntary euthanasia for emotional reasons, or choices like sublimation, the average lifespan of humans is described in Excession as being around 350 to 400 years, but can be longer. Some citizens choose to forgo death altogether, although this is rarely done and is viewed as an eccentricity. Other options instead of death include conversion of an individual's consciousness into an AI, joining of a group mind (which can include biological and non biological consciousnesses), or subliming (usually in association with a group mind).
Concerning the lifespan of drones and Minds, given the durability of Culture technology and the aforementioned options of mindstate 'back-ups', it is reasonable to assume that they live as long as they choose. Even Minds, with their utmost complexity, are known to be backed up (and reactivated if they for example die in a risky mission, see GSV Lasting Damage). In Excession, however, it is noted that even Minds themselves do not necessarily live forever either - often choosing to eventually sublime or even committing suicide.
The Culture (and other societies) have developed powerful anti-gravity abilities, closely related to their ability to manipulate forces themselves.
In this ability they can create action-at-a-distance - including forces capable of pushing, pulling, cutting, and even fine manipulation, and forcefields for protection, visual display or plain destructive ability. Such applications still retain restrictions on range and power: while forcefields of many cubic kilometres are possible (and in fact, Orbitals are held together by forcefields), even in the chronologically later novels, such as Look to Windward, spaceships are still used for long-distance travel and drones for many remote activities.
Artificial intelligences (and to a lesser degree, the non-sentient computers omnipresent in all material goods), form the backbone of the technological advances of the Culture. Not only are they the most advanced scientists and designers the Culture has, their lesser functions also oversee the vast (but usually hidden) production and maintenance capabilities of the society.
The Culture has achieved artificial intelligences where each Mind has thought processing capabilities many orders of magnitude beyond that of human beings, and data storage drives which, if written out on paper and stored in filing cabinets, would cover thousands of planets skyscraper high (as described by one Mind in Consider Phlebas), yet has managed to condense these entities to a volume of several dozen cubic metres (though much of the contents and the operating structure are continually in hyperspace)
At the same time, it has achieved drone sentiences of human-or-above intellectual ability in barely apple-sized form, and built extremely powerful (though not sentient) computers capable of fitting into tiny insect-like drones. Some utilitarian devices (such as spacesuits) are also provided with artificial sentience. These specific types of drones, like all other Culture AI, would also be considered citizens - though as described in Descendant, they may spend most of the time their 'body' is not in use in a form of remote-linked existence outside of it, or in a form of AI-level virtual reality.
A major feature of its post-scarcity society, the Culture is obviously able to gather, manipulate, transfer and store vast amounts of energy. While not explained in detail in the novels, this involves antimatter and 'grid energy', a postulated energy field dividing the universe from a mirroring anti-matter universe, and providing practically limitless energy. Transmission or storage of such energy is not explained, though these capabilities must be powerful as well, with tiny drones capable of very powerful manipulatory fields and forces. The Culture also uses various forms of energy manipulation as weapons, with 'Gridfire' - a method of coaxing the energy grid into releasing astronomical amounts of energy into a specific region of non-hyperspace (Consider Phlebas refers to black hole singularities as being in continuous concorporation with the grid) - being described as a sort of ultimate weapon more destructive than condensed antimatter bombardment. One character in Consider Phlebas refers to gridfire as "the weaponry at the end of the universe".
The Culture (at least by the time of The Player of Games) has developed a form of teleportation capable of transporting both living and unliving matter instantaneously via wormholes. This technology has not rendered spacecraft obsolete - in Excession a barely apple-sized drone was displaced for no further than a light-second at maximum range (mass being a limiting factor determining range), a tiny distance in galactic terms. The process also still has a very small chance of failing and killing living beings, but in the later books the chance is described as being so minuscule that it becomes more an emotional issue than a real danger.
Displacement is however an integral part of Culture technology, being widely used for a range of applications from peaceful to militaristic. Displacing warheads into or around targets is one of the main forms of attack in space warfare in the Culture universe.
The Culture has the capability to read and store the full sentience of any being, biological or artificial, and to thus 'reactivate' a stored being after its death. Note that this also necessitates the capability to read thoughts, but as described in Look to Windward, doing this without permission is one of the few real crimes of the Culture.
As an almost fully space-borne culture, starships (next to Orbitals) are the main living spaces, vehicles and ambassadors of the culture. A proper Culture starship (as defined by hyperspace capability and the presence of a Mind to inhabit it) may range from several hundreds of metres to many hundred kilometres. The latter may be inhabited by billions of beings and are artificial worlds of their own, including whole ecosystems.
The Culture (and most other space-faring species in its universe) use a form of Hyperspace-drive to achieve faster-than-light speeds. Banks has evolved a (self-confessedly) technobabble system of theoretical physics to describe the ships' acceleration and travel, using such concepts as 'infraspace' and 'ultraspace' and an 'energy grid' between universes (from which the warp engines 'push off' to achieve momentum). An 'induced singularity' is used to access infra or ultra space from real space, once there 'engine fields' reach down to the Grid and gain power and traction from it as they travel at high speeds.
These hyperspace engines do not use reaction mass and hence do not need to be mounted on the surface of the ship. They are described as being very dense exotic matter, which only reveals its complexity under a powerful microscope. Acceleration and maximum speed depend on the ratio of the mass of the ship to its engine mass. As with any other matter aboard, ships can gradually manufacture extra engine volume or break it down as needed. In Excession one of the largest ships of the Culture redesigns itself to be mostly engine and reaches a speed of 233,000 times lightspeed. It should be noted that within the range of the Culture's influence in the galaxy, even such speeds can translate to years of travelling to the more remote spots.
Other than the engines used by larger Culture ships, there are a number of other propulsion methods such as gravitic drive at sublight speeds, with antimatter, fusion and other reaction engines occasionally seen with less advanced civilisations, or on Culture hobby craft.
Warp engines can be very small, with Culture drones barely larger than fist-size described as being thus equipped. There is also at least one (apparently non-sentient) species (the 'Chuy-Hirtsi' animal), that possesses the innate capability of warp travel. In Consider Phlebas it is being used as a military transport by the Idirans, but no further details are given.
The Culture has highly advanced nanotechnology, though descriptions of such technology in the books is limited. Many of the described uses are by or for Special Circumstances, however there are no indications that the use of nanotechnology is limited in any way.
One of the primary clandestine uses of nanotechnology is information gathering. The Culture likes to be in the know, and as described in Matter "they tend to know everything." Aside from its vast network of sympathetic allies and wandering Culture citizens one of the primary ways that the Culture keeps track of important events is by the use of practically invisible nanobots capable of recording and transmitting their observations. This technique is described as being especially useful to track potentially dangerous people (such as ex-Special Circumstance agents). Via such nanotechnology, it is potentially possible for the Culture (or similarly advanced societies) to see everything happening on a given planet, orbital or any other habitat. However, the usage of such devices is limited by various treaties and agreements among the Involved.
Much of the Culture's population lives on Culture Orbitals, vast artificial worlds that can accommodate billions of people. Others travel the galaxy in huge space ships such as GSVs ('General Systems Vehicles') that can accommodate hundreds of millions of people. Almost no Culture citizens are described as living on planets, except when visiting other civilisations. The reason for this is partly because the Culture believes in containing its own expansion to self-constructed habitats, instead of colonising or conquering new planets. With the resources of the universe allowing permanent expansion (at least assuming non-exponential growth), this frees them from having to compete for living space.
The Culture, and other civilisations in Banks' universe, are described as living in these various, often constructed habitats:
Rocks do not play a large part in most of the Culture stories, though their use as storage for mothballed military ships (Pittance) and habitats (Phage Rock, one of the founding communities of the Culture) are both key plot points in Excession.
Ships in the Culture are intelligent individuals, often of very large size, controlled by one or more Minds. The ship is considered the Mind's 'body'. Some ships (General Systems Vehicles) are tens or even hundreds of kilometers in length and may have millions or even billions of residents who live on them full time. Such large ships may temporarily contain smaller ships with their own populations, and/or manufacture such ships themselves.
In Use of Weapons, the protagonist Zakalwe is allowed to acclimatise himself to the Culture by wandering for days through the habitable levels of a ship (the GSV "Size Isn't Everything" described as over 80 kilometers long) eating and sleeping at the many locations which provide food and accommodation throughout the structure, and enjoying the various forms of contact possible with the friendly and accommodating inhabitants.
This respect is not absolute though; in Consider Phlebas, some Minds suggest testing a new technology on a 'spare planet' (knowing that it could be destroyed in an antimatter explosion if unsuccessful). It should be assumed from their normal ethics, however, that this planet would have been lifeless to start with. It's also quite possible, even probable, that the suggestion was not made in complete seriousness.
The Culture, living mostly on massive spaceships and in artificial habitats, and also feeling no need for conquest in the typical sense of the word, possesses no borders. Its sphere of influence is better defined by the (current) concentration of Culture ships and habitats as well as the measure of effect its example and its interventions have already had on the 'local' population of any galactic sector. As the Culture is also a very graduated and constantly if slowly changing society, their societal boundaries are also constantly in flux (though they tend to be continually expanding during the novels), peacefully 'absorbing' societies and individuals.
It should be noted that while the Culture is one of the most advanced and most powerful of all galactic civilisations, it is but one of the 'Optimae', being the most powerful non-sublimed civilisations which mentor or control lesser species.
Although leading a comfortable life within the Culture, many of its citizens feel a need to be useful, and to belong to a society that does not merely exist for their own sake, but that also helps improve the lot of sentient beings throughout the galaxy. For that reason, the Culture carries out "good works", covertly or overtly interfering in the development of lesser civilisations, with the main aim to bring them - often very gradually - closer to the Culture ideal in both technology and social norms. As Culture citizens see it, these good works provide the Culture with a "moral right to exist".
A group within the Culture, Contact, is responsible for its interactions (diplomatic or otherwise) with other civilisations (though non-contact citizens are apparently not prevented from travelling or interacting with other civilisations). Further within Contact, an intelligence organisation named Special Circumstances exists to deal with interventions which require more covert behaviour - the interventionist approach that the Culture takes to advancing other societies may often create resentment in the affected civilisations, and thus requires a rather delicate touch.
In Matter, it is described that there are a number of other galactic civilisations that come close to or potentially even surpass the Culture in power and sophistication. The Culture is very careful and considerate of these groupings, and while still attempting to move them towards the Culture ideal, will be much less likely to openly interfere in their activities.
While the Culture is normally pacifist, Contact historically acts as its military arm in times of war, while Special Circumstances can be considered its secret service and its military intelligence. During war, most of the strategic and tactical decisions are taken by the Minds, with apparently only a small number of especially gifted humans, the 'Referrers', being involved in the top-level decisions. It is however shown in Consider Phlebas that actual decisions to go to war (as opposed to purely defensive actions) are based on a vote of all Culture citizens, presumably after vigorous discussion within the whole society.
It is described in various novels that the Culture is extremely reluctant to go to war, though it may start to prepare for it long before its actual commencement. In the Idiran-Culture War (possibly one of the most hard-fought wars for the normally extremely superior Culture forces), various star systems, stellar regions and many orbital habitats were overrun by the Idirans before the Culture had converted enough of its forces to military footing. It should be noted however, that the Culture Minds had had enough foresight to evacuate almost all its affected citizens (apparently numbering in the many billions) in time before actual hostilities reached them. As shown in Player of Games, this is a standard Culture tactic, with its strong emphasis on protecting its citizens rather than sacrificing some of them for short-term goals.
War within the Culture is mostly fought by the Culture's sentient warships, the most powerful of these being war-converted GSV - which are described as powerful enough to oppose whole enemy fleets. The Culture has very little use for conventional ground forces (as it rarely occupies enemy territory, and has little territory of its own), however combat drones equipped with knife missiles do appear in Descendant and 'terror weapons' (basically intelligent, nanoform assassins) are mentioned in Look to Windward, while infantry combat suits of great power (also usable as capable combat drones when without living occupants) are used in Matter.
Comparisons are often made between the Culture and the twentieth and twenty first century Western civilisation(s), particularly their interventions in less-developed societies. These are often confused with regard to the author's assumed politics.
Many believe that the Culture is an utopia carrying significantly greater moral legitimacy than the West's, by comparison, proto-democracies. While Culture interventions can seem similar at first to Western interventions, especially when considered with their democratising rhetoric, the argument is that the Culture operates completely without material need, and therefore without the possibility of baser motives. This is not to say that the Culture's motives are entirely altruistic; a peaceful, enlightened universe is in the Culture's enlightened interest. Furthermore, the Culture's ideals - in many ways similar to those of the liberal perspective today - are to a much larger extent realised internally in comparison to the West.
Some transhumanists hold up the Culture as a model of the type of society they hope to ultimately achieve.
The Culture can also be considered to be only too similar to today's Western societies - bent on interfering with less developed societies out of any number of reasons; a sense of guilt at their own comfort relative to others, moral righteousness (similar in a sense to Crusaders or Missionaries), or even just providing the Culture with a reason for its own existence beyond pure hedonism.
Many of the practices employed by Special Circumstances would be considered distasteful even in the context of a Western democracy. Examples are the use of mercenaries to perform the work that the Culture doesn't want to get their hands dirty with, and even outright threats of invasion (the Culture has issued ultimatums to other civilisations before). Some commentators have also argued that those SC agents tasked with civilising foreign cultures (and thus potentially also changing them into a blander, more Culture-like state) are also those most likely to regret these changes, with parallels drawn to real-world special forces trained to operate within the cultural mindsets of foreign nations.
Use of Weapons is an excellent example of just how dirty Special Circumstances will play in order to get their way and the conspiracy at the heart of Excession demonstrates how at least some Minds are prepared to risk killing people when they conclude that their actions are beneficial for the long term good. However, Special Circumstances represents a very small fraction of Contact, which itself is only a small fraction of the entire Culture, making it comparable again to size and influence of modern intelligence agencies.
"Not entirely, no. I think the first point to make about the Culture is, I'm just making it up as I go along. It doesn't exist and I don't delude myself that it does. It's just my take on it. I'm not convinced that humanity is capable of becoming the Culture because I think people in the Culture are just too nice - altering their genetic inheritance to make themselves relatively sane and rational and not the genocidal, murdering bastards that we seem to be half the time."
"But I don't think you have to have a society like the Culture in order for people to live. The Culture is a self-consciously stable and long-lived society that wants to go on living for thousands of years. Lots of other civilisations within the same universe hit the Culture's technological level and even the actuality of the Culture's utopia, but it doesn't last very long - that's the difference."
"The point is, humanity can find its own salvation. It doesn't necessarily have to rely on machines. It'll be a bit sad if we did, if it's our only real form of progress. Nevertheless, unless there's some form of catastrophe, we are going to use machines whether we like it or not. This sort of stuff has been going on for decades and mainstream society is beginning to catch up to the implications of artificial intelligence."
In a 2002 interview with Science Fiction Weekly magazine, when asked:
"Excession is particularly popular because of its copious detail concerning the Ships and Minds of the Culture, its great AIs: their outrageous names, their dangerous senses of humour. Is this what gods would actually be like?"
"If we're lucky."