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Literature / The Culture

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"You might call them soft, because they’re very reluctant to kill, and they might agree with you, but they’re soft the way the ocean is soft, and, well; ask any sea captain how harmless and puny the ocean can be."
Cheradenine Zakalwe, Use of Weapons

The Culture is a series of novels (and some short stories) by Iain M. Banks which share a common setting, the civilization known as The Culture.

The Culture is a star-spanning "empire" organized along socialist/libertarian/anarchist principles, achieved through post-scarcity technology. The seven or eight humanoid species that founded the Culture along with the others which joined later live without want, and without the need to work; practically anything they can ask for, they can receive. This is largely because the organic Culturniks are under the benevolent de-facto dictatorship... ahem, guidance of the A.I. Minds that control the starships and space habitats the entire Culture lives on.

For some, even utopia can wear thin without a sense of direction. Therefore, the Culture gleefully throws its weight behind Contact — an agency/program/conspiracy that exists to help other species and governments in the galaxy reach the Culture's standard of living without being too disruptive of their societies. And for the cases where standard diplomacy, or even open warfare, would not help, there exist... Special Circumstances, the Special Ops wing of Contact that intervenes as discreetly as possible (but as messily as needed) to make the universe a better place, at least by the Culture's standards.

The novels mostly follow the interaction between the Culture and other species and societies — both less and more powerful than themselves.

The Culture provides examples of the following tropes:

  • All Love Is Unrequited: The Culture's fluid attitude to relations makes this a somewhat rare problem. Appears a lot, however, in Inversions.
  • Alternative Number System: although the Culture numbering system is often described as "base 9", this isn't actually the case... it refers only to the 3x3 grid on which Marain characters are formed. The actual numbering system appears to be base 8, as there are occasional references to the "standard" Culture human form (such as it is) having 8 digits rather than 10.
  • Anachronic Order:
    • The novels themselves don't quite occur in publication order, though it's rarely noticeable as only Look To Windward is a Sequel Episode, and only a very, very small number of characters ever make a second appearance.Chronological Note 
    • Use of Weapons alternates between two storylines, one running normal, the other back to front.
    • Look to Windward is about 1/4 flashbacks. It's even a plot point.
    • Excession, as well as pieces of 'Look to Windward' are told as their own stand alone plot thread. The thread is linear within itself but events presented within a thread may not be relative to the book as a whole, with jumps between viewpoints also jumping in time but without informing the reader. This creates dramatic tension by letting threads only be placed chronologically when they meet up, so you can't necessarily tell which group of characters is ahead of the game and which is reacting until the climax.
  • Animated Armor: Contact suits contain a rudimentary (by Culture standards) artificial intelligence and are fully capable of operating without any input from the wearer, and will in fact override user input if necessary to keep their wearer alive. Even when not worn, they can be externally commanded and are fully operable.
  • Apocalypse How
    • The epilogue of Consider Phlebas gives the final tally of casualties of the Idiran-Culture-War in terms of sentient beings lost, destruction of ships, infrastructure, stars, etc. Spheres are Dyson Spheres, Orbitals are miniature (3 million kilometres wide) ring worlds and Rings are full-size ringworlds. For context, the galactic community at the time considered it to be a fairly minor war, all things considered.
    Statistics. Length of war: forty-eight years, one month. Total casualties, including machines (reckoned on logarithmic sentience scale), medjel and non-combatants: 851.4 billion (± .3%). Losses: ships (all classes above interplanetary) - 91,215,660 (± 200); Orbitals - 14,334; planets and major moons - 53; Rings - 1; Spheres - 3; stars (undergoing significant induced mass-loss or sequence-position alteration) - 6.
    • A large chunk of the plot of Consider Phlebas takes place on a dead world whose inhabitants caused a planet-wide multi-species extinction with biological weapons.
    • The destruction of two of these stars is elaborated upon in Look to Windward when the light from their detonation reaches a Culture orbital over 800 years later.
  • Artificial Gravity: Standard on ships in the series. The orbitals use Centrifugal Gravity, and the standard antigrav units in armorsuits don't work there, as an unlucky mercenary finds out in Consider Phlebas.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: The Sublimed. This tends to occur when a civilisation reaches a certain tech level or societal stage. The Culture is theoretically capable of this, but they're suspicious of the fact that nearly all the other civilizations that sublimed didn't leave anybody behind. The only civilization known to have partially sublimed (the Chelgrians) is not exactly an encouraging role model either, since the Sublimed Chelgrians believe genocide is a form of justice. Individual Culturniks can Sublime independently of everyone else. It's also mentioned that those Sublimed races that bother to have any communication with corporeal beings have indicated that they consider the Culture immature, hedonistic, or even selfish for not embracing sublimation at their level of development.
    • The Hydrogen Sonata elaborates on the whole concept. Whilst individuals of a sufficient tech level can sublime whenever they want to, nothing short of a Mind level AI or gestalt civilisation community can sublime and maintain any sense of what they were before. The only example of a being who came BACK from the Sublime was a Culture ship Mind under specific orders to do so (after many, many, many failed attempts) and even then became the AI equivalent of brain damaged because it simply had no way of relating back to the universe it came from after having been beyond.
  • Author Appeal: You would be forgiven for assuming that Special Circumstances is made up entirely of hot bisexual women and their sardonic robot partners, and who associate exclusively with roguish men who oppose The Culture's methods.
    "SC agent + combat drone was a combination that was well known far beyond the Culture. Although perilously close to a cliché, it remained a partnership you could, allegedly, still frighten children and bad people with."
  • Backup Twin: Mindstate backups are a routine safety measure in the Culture. Since warships are guaranteed to be revived after their destruction and war can at times be slightly confusing there have been cases of real Backup Twins meeting when it turned out the original wasn't really destroyed.
  • Batman Gambit / Gambit Pile Up
    • The drone's escape in the first chapter of Excession. Much else of Excession too.
    • Gambits are a hobby for the Minds, and therefore this trope gets a very thorough workout in most of The Culture novels.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: The purpose of Contact. Depending on the visited culture's relative level of technology/power, the approach used varies from just being present as a good example, to covert operatives acting behind the scenes, mercenary engagements, gunboat diplomacy and (as a last resort) open warfare. Most of the Culture believe that it's always for the affected civilization's best interests however, even if they disagree. A major source of dramatic conflict in the books is the level of interference which is acceptable, and whether they even should be interfering in the first place. The Peace Faction of the Culture disagrees completely, to the point of semi-secession. The Zetetic Elench of Excession are a breakaway group of the Culture, who believe it's better to be shaped by the cultures they meet, instead of the reverse.
  • Beware the Mind Reader: The technological level is so high that the super-intelligent A.I. Minds are capable of reading the minds of humans, thanks to effectors that are used on humans to basically do a mind probe that has the nasty side effect of a Mind Rape. So their general consensus is not to do it unless it's absolutely necessary. One Mind (The Grey Area) was especially... "pragmatic" in this way, to the point all of its peer minds started calling it "Meat Fucker" rather than their proper name.
  • Beware the Nice Ones:
    • The Culture's whole hat can be nicely summed up as "Space Hippies". Hippies with reality-shattering superweapons. When outsiders are quizzed on the topic of the Culture and Warfare, the standard response is just: "Don't fuck with the Culture." A particularly apt example would be the fate of the Chelgrian conspirators in Look to Windward. If you threaten the lives of 50 billion citizens, then there are people in the Culture who will find you, will use their most potent weapons against you, will learn all your fears, and will kill you in the most anatomically and philosophically horrific way possible.
    • Several villains (including the Azadian Emperor and Veppers) hate the Culture for being weaklings who still appear to have flourished against the odds. Both seem to ignore the fact that you don't get as powerful as the Culture without having the capability of being very, very nasty indeed. But only when necessary. To quote the protagonist of Use of Weapons:
      Cheradenine Zakalwe: You might call them soft, because they're very reluctant to kill, and they might agree with you, but they're soft the way the ocean is soft, and, well; ask any sea captain how harmless and puny the ocean can be.
    • Reinforced in The Hydrogen Sonata. The Mistake Not..., a powerful Culture Ship, manages to talk down a rival warship (from an avowedly martial civilisation) from attacking it by saying that the peaceful Culture have had to gradually become more martially capable from their very inception, in comparison to other races that typically start off less peaceful and gradually learn to tone down. Not to mention what the Mistake Not...'s full name is.note 
  • BFG
    • The short story A Gift from the Culture mentions an antimatter-powered handgun capable of firing 10^8 W of plasma. The protagonist reflects that he would be able to level the entire city around him, in the end opting for just shooting down a starship. The gun is officially rated as a general purpose "peace" weapon not suitable for full battle use.
    • Cheradinine Zakalwe, mercenary extraordinaire from Use of Weapons, packs an arsenal of more capable arms. And, amusingly enough, an arsenal of less capable, but more entertaining, arms. He seems to think that the Culture's coherent radiation energy weapons simply aren't enough fun, what with them being small, convenient, and not really bothering to waste energy on visual effects. There's a scene in which Zakalwe blows up several targets (large chunks of ice, dyed black) with a relatively primitive weapon, simply for the fun of watching it make them go boom. There's more to BFG status than merely doing a lot of damage, after all.
    • Consider Phlebas features a subversion — a very powerful plasma gun, probably more powerful than anything the mercenaries had, small enough to be disguised as a tooth. All of the Combat Drones subvert this too... they're far more destructive than an arsenal of man-portable weapons, yet you could hold the smaller ones in a cupped palm.
  • Bizarre Alien Sexes: The dominant race of the Empire of Azad has three sexes: One is male, the "apex" has ovaries and "a kind of reversible vagina", and the female has a womb. The only non-sexual difference between the sexes is the eugenically bred-in lowered intelligence for non-apices. Sexism here sees females as breeders and domestics, males as workhorses and disposable soldiers.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: Subverted. The Culture are a self-declared anarchist utopia. Even in Contact and Special Circumstances (their diplomatic wing, and their equivalent of a military and intelligence/special forces divisions respectively, when needed), nobody has any "orders" per se: they are in no way compelled to do anything they don't want to (save through manipulation), though in practice the weight of public opinion (and the ability of Minds to think and teleconference between themselves at quantum speed) amounts to most Culture citizens operating roughly in sync most of the time. The Culture are also willing to subvert tyrannical empires by means of espionage — they prefer internal subversion and manipulation to violence, only go after regimes that commit actual atrocities, but while they're by no means Ax-Crazy, it's unwise to cross them because they can throw some really, really big bombs if backed into a corner.
  • Brain Uploading: Common in the Culture: long-term storage, leisure or simply the desire to have a safe backup are all motivations for Brain Uploading. The Chelgrians from Look to Windward carry devices that store their state of mind during death so they can be sent on to the artificial heaven crafted by their Sublimed ancestors.
  • Brick Joke: Banks uses this a lot; not only for comedy, but also to forcibly ram home a real sense of scale to the reader.
    • In Consider Phlebas, we are introduced to megaships: cruise ships that weigh over a billion tonnes, are several hours' walk from end to end, sail round orbital ringseas because they aren't designed to stop and take several years to reach maximum speed. Over a hundred pages later, the protagonist is onboard a General Systems Vehicle, and enters one of its General bays — at the edge of vision, in one of the far corners, a megaship is being packed away for transit...
    • Also, he mentions a ship called But Who's Counting in Look to Windward. The answer to the question comes a few books afterwards, in the name of the Me, I'm Counting, which is one of the Culture ships in Surface Detail.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: A lot of the Special Circumstances ships. Also a lot of the Special Circumstances agents... the more sane ones seem to oscillate between Badass Normal and Psycho for Hire. Pretty much every Culturnik can turn into one: the guy who's getting stoned thanks to the glands implanted into his brain, spending his days involved in orgies and his nights playing the much more involved local version of World of Warcraft might suddenly decide to build by himself ships capable of traveling at 10 light years per hour. Keep in mind that the Culture managed to become one of the most powerful and feared civilization while being laid back.
  • The Butcher: in Use of Weapons, the brutally insane character is referred to as "The Chairmaker". It makes sense considering what the chair is made of.
  • Can't Argue with Elves: Surprisingly averted. Despite the Culture being the perfect civilization (at least from their own point of view; dissenters are wrong of course), no member who ever gets caught up in a debate can ever fully defend its ideals. Then again, this would be considered a positive aspect by The Culture, which looks down upon blind nationalism and ideological inflexibility.
  • Centrifugal Gravity: Orbitals.
  • Colour-Coded Emotions: Drones often display a coloured force field to indicate their feelings. Most don't match our conceptions of colour / emotions (anger being red or sadness being blue) and a few are outright bizarre (mottled silver and iridescent oil). A drone can make its fields opaque (indicating they are deliberately hiding their emotions as a statement) or not display them at all (which is usually more utility based reasons than social).
  • Combat Tentacles: Never really used as such, but it's made clear that a lot of the activity the Affront engage in would not be possible for the average Culture citizen without wearing a special contact suit or having their genes modified.
  • Cool Ship: The whole range between 200km long arks in space carrying hundreds of millions of people and warships which can obliterate whole star systems, every single last of them controlled by those wacky godlike AIs. Also, most of their names are slightly on the humorous/cynical side. See for yourself.
  • Cross-Referenced Titles: Consider Phlebas and its sequel Look to Windward both take their titles from the same sentence in T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland.
  • Data Pad: Some Culture citizens who don't want to use Neural laces have Tablets.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Drones in general, and Diziet Sma's escort drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw from Use Of Weapons and State Of The Art in particular. A lot of the Minds are snarky. Especially the GCUs.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: The Changer impersonates the Captain of a group of Space Pirates in Consider Phlebas and the protagonist of Use of Weapons is a particularly despicable example of this.
  • Death Is Cheap: The Culture, as well as many other advanced societies, offer citizens the ability to back up their memories so that they can be reincarnated in a newly grown (or manufactured if they happen to be AIs) body if they get killed. Unrecorded death is quite permanent, however.
  • Death Seeker: Major Quilan in Look to Windward and also the Masaq' Orbital Hub Mind.
  • Deep-Immersion Gaming: Some people even choose to go so deep they temporarily go full Lotus-Eater Machine and forget it's a simulation.
  • Defector from Paradise: It's a utopia, but its members generally avoid subliming despite having the option.The civilization also has the State Sec Special Circumstances populated by those who instead of living a life of idle comfort, help protect and spread the Culture's ethos (often by any means possible). Probably not coincidentally, one Culture Living Ship is called the Bodhisattva (see the Religion examples).
  • Deflector Shields: Fields.
  • Deus Est Machina: The Minds.
    "Never forget I am not this silver body, Mahrai. I am not an animal brain, I am not even some attempt to produce an Al through software running on a computer. I am a Culture Mind. We are close to gods, and on the far side. We are quicker; we live faster and more completely than you do, with so many more senses, such a greater store of memories and at such a fine level of detail."
    • For Minds, base-level reality is ridiculously boring. So they don't actually live in it. To briefly elaborate, a Mind can perform its day to day functions with a minuscule amount of its processing power. The rest of it can be used to mentally simulate 12 dimensional universes inside their own "heads". The only problem is that it can become very addictive and they stop being able to distinguish what is real and what isn't.
    • Notably, the Culture is one of the very few galactic civilisations run (successfully) by AI's. Other examples tend to devolve into "hegemonising swarms" (self replicating robots) which are seen as a semi consistent galactic nuisance as and when they occur. Other attempts to create Culture level AI's result in what is known as a Perfect AI - an intelligence with no cultural baggage or preconceptions built in to their creation from their creators. Every single Perfect AI, without fail, has done absolutely nothing unless presented with the option of Subliming, which they do immediately and without fail if they are capable of doing so.
  • Difficult, but Awesome: Unlike most shape-shifters in fiction the Changers from Consider Phlebas can take days to transform and the process itself being heavily affected by things such as hunger, fatigue or injury. This combined with the facts that it requires a long period in a trance and that Changers are almost universally hated it is very possible you may find yourself unable to transform back again without severe personal risk. Despite all these problems however Bora Horza Gobuchul is living proof of just what someone could accomplish if they were skilled enough to get around them.
  • Do-Anything Robot: Drones, thanks to their forcefields.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?
    • A leader in Use of Weapons is guilty of rounding up unpopular ethnic minorities and sending them away on trains, supposedly for resettlement elsewhere, but they are never seen again, a reference to Nazi Germany . Bilingual Bonus; he has the title "Ethnarch," which means leader of a race. Very much the kind of title a Hitler Expy would award himself.
    • There's also that Commandant in Excession. He gets a Mind Rape from the Grey Area and dies horribly.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Most of the novels' titles end up having at least two meanings. Inversions is probably the sneakiest, since it wasn't originally announced as a Culture novel - it is, but it's an inverted Culture story, told entirely told from the point of view of the society the Culture is infiltrating. Only the reader will pick up the significance of the words "special circumstances".
  • Downer Ending: In the first novel, Consider Phlebas, every character except two dies, and one of them is said to have chosen suicide later on in life. The other lived a long happy existence, and is probably still around at the present date of the books. If you start the series with that book, beware: it's very depressing. Matter probably also qualifies.
  • Drugs Are Good: All narcotics and recreational drugs available to the entire population (many of them have genetically engineered glands that produce them on demand). Since, you can sober up instantly if you have to (also using the glands) and all medical problems are pretty much instantly curable too, they are just another fun way to pass the day.
  • Epunymous Title / Title Drop / You Are the Translated Foreign Word: As is alluded to at the beginning of the novel, in the Culture's language, Marain, the sobriquet Morat in the name of Jernau Morat Gurgeh translates to "the player of games". Towards the end of the novel, an Azadian who knows about the Culture refers to him as Morat, "the player of games". Their middle names are effectively self-chosen official nicknames. Lampshaded when another character comments that Gurgeh should have chosen another name: "gambler."
  • Every Device Is a Swiss-Army Knife: Fields and Effectors. There is very little that a suitably sized drone or ship cannot do with either. Effectors are capable of manipulating virtually any part of the electromagnetic spectrum on a micro and macro level. Fields are the ultimate multi-purpose tool, being capable of use as a weapon (hard-light blades), structural support, or even as surgical tools (one drone uses all these functions at once whilst performing the field equivalent of brain surgery within a few seconds).
  • Everyone Is Bi: Members of the Culture can change sex and sexual orientation at will. In The Player of Games the main character is considered somewhat odd because he has never been a woman or had sex with a man.
  • Evil Chancellor: At the beginning of Matter, a king's chief adviser and closest friend murders him, and then immediately sets himself up as a Regent for Life.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin:
    • "The Player Of Games" is about a guy who plays games. With the fate of an empire on the line. And also about Special Circumstances using him as a pawn in their own games
    • The "Changers" are shape-shifters.
    • The No Fixed Abode is a Sapient Ship with no planetary home base, though by no means the only such ship
  • Exposition of Immortality: A number of different entities across the Culture novels are either effectively immortal - drones and Minds certainly don't age or get ill - or very long-lived; most Cultureniks will have a lifespan approaching four centuries, potentially longer if they spend time in Storage, opt to have their consciousness uploaded, or just get the necessary genetic modifications. Most Culture warships, as an example, were created during the Idiran War which occurred roughly 600 to 1600 years before the later novels (post-Consider Phlebas) timeframes. Any ship Mind who remembers or actively participated in the Idiran War is, therefore, several hundred years old. Many drones are stated to be thousands of years old, constructed in the early days of the Culture as a society; their age reflected in their larger bodies and less advanced technologies.
  • Fanboy: The GFCF in Surface Detail. They are a less advanced species who have seen the power of the Culture and try to imitate it as much as possible whilst singing the Culture's praises publicly. However, everything they do is slightly off. They don't believe in granting AIs sentience rights, are perfectly happy with the idea of multiple mind state clones existing at the same time (something that does happen in the Culture, but try to avoid it as much as possible), and flat out get the whole ship naming idea wrong. Normally, the Culture likes civilisations following its example. Normally...
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: And How! The Culture literally doesn't have a ship that goes less than 500-1000 lights. Some of the faster demilitarized warships go upwards of 11 000 times the speed of light, and in Excession, a member of one of the largest ship classes hits approx. 223 000 times the speed of light!note 
  • Feudal Future: Not quite the future, but within the science fiction universe of the series, there are a number of non-Culture humanoid societies who could have stepped out of Medieval European Fantasy. Notably, Matter and Inversions use this type of setting to a great degree.
    • This is because those particular civilisations quite literally haven't matured past their equivalent of Feudalism. The spacefaring races in the series are quite notably non-feudal, with the possible exception of Azad.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Having a battleship that can destroy solar systems on a whim controlled by omnipotent AIs called (for example) Problem Child kinda qualifies. A more literal example appears in Use of Weapons, when Diziet Sma is aboard a warship that chooses as its avatar a small furry creature that asks Sma for a cuddle. In the same conversation:
    Diziet Sma: Xeny; you are a million-tonne starship; a Torturer-class Rapid Offensive Unit. Even—
    Xenophobe: But I'm demilitarised!
    Diziet Sma: Even without your principal armament, I bet you could waste planets if you wanted to—
    Xenophobe: Aw, come on; any silly GCU can do that!
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: Avatars provide a human-scale representation of a Mind that's easier for humans to interact with and relate to. While some of them are just robots to give a human something specific to talk to, others are more advanced and act as personality filters as well. A Mind can express multiple distinct personalities by using different avatars for different purposes, none of which even begin to do justice to the real thing.
  • Free-Love Future: Monogamy is stated to be rare in the Culture, where the vast majority of citizens are Ethical Sluts who can change gender more or less at will. Furthermore, near-universal Bio-Augmentation means they can generate aphrodisiacs from implanted drug glands and have artificially extended orgasms.
  • From a Single Cell: To make destroying the Culture harder, every single Ship of the Culture is able to rebuild it without help from others. This is just one of their backup plans.
  • Gender Bender: Culture citizens can change their sex at will (with a waiting period of months if they want another change).
  • Genius Loci: Every orbital, hub or other population center is controlled by one or more Minds.
  • Giant Flyer: Appear in both Look to Windward and Matter.
  • Gorn: In the Empire of Azad, access to this is one of the perks of the elite, but is kept hidden from tourists. Common programs include footage of soldiers raping women in conquered territories and televised punishments consisting of rape and torture. Also, some musical instruments are made out of people's bones (music critics).
  • Hand Cannon: Some characters in The Culture have these.
  • The Handler: Diziet Sma to Zakalwe. Also Flere-Imsaho to Gurgeh.
  • Healing Factor: One of the more realistic examples in the fantasy genre. A Culture human is capable of extraordinary levels of regeneration, but only if the injury wouldn't cause instant death. So for example you could rip off all four of their limbs at once ad they would just regrow later, but shoot them in the heart or decapitate them and they really die (unless they have access to the incredibly advanced medical facilities that can even regrow an entire new body for the head).
  • The Hedonist: A lot of citizens of the Culture are more or less that, and there is also some citizens who think the Culture proper is still too serious(!!)
  • Hegemonic Empire
    • The Culture itself.
    • Intentionally averted by the Zetetic Elench, one of the Culture's offshoot civilizations, who explicitly set out to be influenced rather than to influence others. They seem to be even less cohesive than the Culture as a result, since having any worlds at all would rather defeat the point.
  • Homosexual Reproduction: A major plot point in Excession revolves around the common lovers' practice of simultaneous pregnancies: after one half of the couple gets pregnant, they both change sexes (which stalls but doesn't abort the pregnancy), the other person gets pregnant, and then the now-male one becomes female again.
  • Hostile Terraforming: The Culture considers all terraforming hostile for this very reason. Also inefficient. Turning dead rocks into tailor-made Orbitals and Rings is much more desirable, on all points.
  • Human Aliens: "Human" is an umbrella term referring to all the species of bipedal, hairless ape that have evolved independently on worlds across the galaxy. Indeed, as shown by Yalson in Consider Phlebas, the "hairless" part is optional. There are some differences in skin color and proportions, but they're all still pretty much the same shape.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: The old King Beddun, a tertiary character in Inversions, has hunted illegal poachers.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Generally not called attention to, but several books show the Culture being no different than traits they criticize in their enemies. Use of Weapons has a lot of these: Skaffen-Amtiskaw considers Zakalwe Ax-Crazy (OK, he is) but Skaffen-Amtiskaw has a scene where he brutally slaughters some bandits in an incredibly Gorny way, basically having the machine-equivalent of an orgasm while he does it; Zakalawe acts really Trigger-Happy when he sees a room full of Culture weaponry to the disapproval of his partners, the question of why the supposedly peaceful Culture has created so many weapons isn't answered; Zakalawe is disgusted by a decadent (non-Culture local) party where the guests deliberately gave themselves sickening looking (but painless and reversible) injuries. Earlier in the novel, Sma is on a Culture ship where out of boredom, everyone decided to get colds. What is interesting though is that the Culture accepts it's being hypocritical. It just doesn't care. It's actually the reason why the main male protagonist in Excession wants to switch to an entirely different species.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: The norm in the Culture on account of the use of body modification to increase sexual pleasure. The first time Zakalwe has sex with a Culture woman, he is really startled and afraid she's having a horrible, agonising allergic reaction to his bodily fluids.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: The appendix of Consider Phlebas says Earth is Contacted in the 22nd Century. And a short story in The State of the Art reveals that a GCU stopped by in the late 70s and looked us over, deciding to leave us alone for a bit.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing:
    • Averted or even Inverted in Marain, which is stated to use the same pronouns for men, women, and all manner of sapient machines regardless of gender, species, or composition. So the only pronoun used in that language is effectively "It", and this serves to humanize everyone.
    • There's an attempt to invoke it with The Terror weapon at the end of Look To Windward, which was explicitly deprived of a name to better reflect its status as an abomination in the Culture's eyes. But It doesn't seem to have much of a problem with this.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Xide Hyrlis in Matter, addressing people secretly monitoring him for entertainment, though given an in-story reason to do so.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Both Look to Windward and Consider Phlebas are lines from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
  • Living Gasbag: The Affront are vaguely cephalopod-shaped beings with a massive gasbag.
  • Living Mood Ring: Drones often display a colored force field to show what mood they're in. They're blue by default, but turn white when angry and red when happy.
  • Loads and Loads of Rules
    • Azad from The Player of Games is described to the protagonist like this:
      ''"The idea, you see, is that Azad is so complex, so subtle, so flexible and so demanding that it is as precise and comprehensive a model of life as it is possible to construct. Whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance."
    • Since any place in the hierarchy of the "Empire of Azad" is assigned by one's success in an Azad tournament, this may be a case of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Though as it turns out, Azad really is a model of the player's approach to life: the Culture player's strategies mirror the Culture's basic philosophy and the Emperor's are purely imperialistic. So much so that when the Culture player actually wins, the Emperor goes Ax-Crazy and the entire empire revolts. At least partly because the Culture lied to the Culture player. It's not a nice friendly game, the result may very well determine whether the Azad Empire is taken over by the Culture or not. At least that's what the Culture told the Emperor, but, by the time the reader finds this out, the reader has long since discovered that the Culture also has no compunction whatsoever about lying, when necessary. One possible interpretation is that the Culture had no plans to come in and take over, because the Minds involved knew that simply adding that to the stress the Emperor (and the Empire) was under would cause him to snap. Another is, well, yes, they would come in, all guns blazing. The question is very definitely not settled by the time the book ends, but rendered rather moot by the Emperor going nuts and killing the gathered heads of the Empire's government. It may be a case of Fridge Brilliance on the Culture's part if they actually believed in the accuracy of Azad. If their player lost, the Empire would be a credible threat to their way of life. If he won, they just proved they don't need to bother with an invasion, because they have just proven to the Empire that the Culture is effectively superior and can out compete them into extinction if need be
  • Longevity Treatment: Citizens are genetically engineered to live for centuries, longer if they feel like it.
  • A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away...
    • Earth is only mentioned in the short story The State of the Art where a Culture ship and its crew visit our planet (in 1977). Humanity is totally oblivious to their presence. The mainline novels occur in the timeframe between AD 1300 and AD 2100. note  The epilogue of Consider Phlebas describes the Culture-Idiran War of the book's setting as part of a translation once Earth is contacted. The war's date is fixed between the 13th and 14th Century AD.
    • The name of the Bodhisattva OAQSnote  (in Surface Detail) vaguely implies Earth has made at least a very small cultural contribution by the time of that book's setting (sometime in the 27th+ century AD).
    • And the name of the Eight Rounds Rapid implies that contribution includes Doctor Who!
  • Meaningful Name: The ships names reflect their Mind's personality or function, and the same is true of some humans and at least two entire species.
    • The Gray Area and the Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints are both known for doing things that their society finds morally questionable. Because a Meaningful Name is so important to the Culture, not using someone's chosen name is a big deal, and the fact that the other ships choose to call Grey Area "Meatfucker" instead is significant.
    • The No Fixed Abode moves around wherever it feels like, since it's a ship.
    • The Sleeper Service carries a large number of "passengers" in suspended animation, their bodies arranged into elaborate artworks until the time comes to wake them up. It's also waiting for the go signal to play its part in an elaborate bit of espionage.
    • The Bora Horza Gobuchul zigzags this in universe — its name is meaningful but not in the way that most Culture ships choose - it's a personal tribute.
    • There's an entire species called "The Affront", who revel in cruelty and are generally as offensive to the Culture as they can be, because it amuses them.
    • The classes of Culture warships have names like "Murderer", "Torturer", and "Psychopath", which reflects how the Space Hippies of the Culture view warfare.
    • The protagonist of The Player Of Games is exactly that
  • Mechanical Evolution: it's been at least twelve thousand years since Minds stopped being anything resembling an AI that could be designed by a team of humans.
  • Mechanical Lifeforms: A lot. The Culture's Drones and ships, the Nauptre Reliquaria from Surface Detail and HegSwarms are some of the examples.
  • Memory Gambit: The Chelgrians' scheme in Look to Windward involves one.
  • Mental Fusion: Minds are capable of this to varying degrees. An Avatar normally acts like a direct embodiment of a Mind, but only represents a tiny fraction of its attention; Avatars become independent beings when separated from the Mind for some reason, but retain its memories and have no trouble slotting right back in when reunited with it; a Mind can directly control and subsume thousands of Mind-subcores, which can split off in the same way if the ship needs to launch shuttles or weapons platforms; and for the biggest example, Culture capital assets like GSVs or Orbitals are actually controlled by more than one Mind unit, linked to provide greater stability and power.
  • Mildly Military: When the Culture needs some armed forces the Minds politely inform more senior Minds that they are willing to take orders, the crews never wear uniforms, and the whole attitude is as civilian as possible, except that the Culture is amazingly good at kicking butt. Just ask the Idirians.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: The postscript on the Culture Wars as noted in Apocalypse How relates the deaths of trillions in a dry, deadpan tone. It's not even a big war by galactic history standards (or maybe it was; the description is a bit inconsistent).
  • Mind over Manners: Culture Minds, drones and ships are all quite capable of mind reading, but it is one of the society's biggest taboos. The one ship that regularly engages in mind-reading and -manipulation is disdainfully referred to as "Meatfucker" by its peers even centuries after its disappearance from the galaxy. To put this in perspective, calling the ship in question "Meatfucker" instead of its chosen name is considered such an insult that most Minds would commit suicide in shame over it.
  • Mind Rape: When a multimillion ton starship derided with the name Meatfucker comes after your grey cells, it ain't pretty.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: As The Culture is a free-love society, there is no stigma attached to promiscuity in either gender. They generally go with the Ethical Slut philosophy. The heroine of Use of Weapons does receive some snark from her Robot Buddy for her sexual habits, such as having an orgy with the entire crew of a starship, but no-one looks upon her badly for this, and the male protagonist of the novel is definitely attracted to her. In fact, in one book the protagonist is called a barbarian because he doesn't sleep with men and hasn't ever done a Gender Bender. Although in Excession, the male protagonist Really Gets Around, and sort of subverts the free-love ideology, by promising a degree of monogamy to someone (who warned him multiple times what it would cost him) and then cheated on her with another woman whilst in female form and pregnant with his partner's child.... She did not take it well.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: On the other hand, the parts of Excession that aren't driven by the Title Drop are driven by one woman who abstains from the Culture's sexual mores after her immediate youth.
    • One character in The Hydrogen Sonata has chosen to become neuter.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Both averted and played straight. Even the Culture warships, that are capable of levelling star systems, have snarky names like the Frank Exchange of Views or the Attitude Adjuster. However, warship class names are things like Gangster-class, Psychopath-class, and Torturer-class. Also counts as Meaningful Names, since it shows how the Culture really feels about going to war.
    • The Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints is a little subtle about it
    • A race that enjoys being called "The Affront" is not likely to be nice guys
    • And though he's not a military threat, it's probably not a good idea to play any kind of game for high stakes against a guy whose chosen name is The Player Of Games
    • Averted by "picket ships"note  and "militarised GSVs". These don't need intimidating names.
    • And, once again, Meatfucker. It doesn't really require any further explanation, other than perhaps the fact the "meat" involved is grey matter.
  • Nanomachines: Multiple occurrences e.g. an assassin made of e-dust and a memoryform gun disguised as a tooth.
  • Non-Heteronormative Society: The citizens of The Culture are bio-modified from “human basic” to such a degree that, among other things, they can change their biological sex more or less with a thought (though the process, when started, does take several months to complete). Interestingly though, this doesn’t necessarily affect the individual’s gender identity or even their sexual preferences. For instance, the main character in the short story “A Gift From the Culture” was born a heteronormative female, though has converted to a male body. Contrary to her/his expectations, she/he still prefers male sexual partners after the change.
  • Not Using The C Word: Inversions is set in this universe, but the Culture is never named as such, narrated as it is from the perspective of a low-tech world apparently being Contacted. Special Circumstances gets a name check.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: The protagonist's sidekick-drone in The Player of Games is instructed not only to wear a significantly larger hull, but also to occasionally shoot sparks, bump into things and pretend not to understand more than the Culture's own language in order to mask its true level of sophistication. In the end it is revealed, that even its inner hull was a disguise. He was in fact the drone that manipulated the protagonist into embarking onto the mission in the first place.
  • Oddball in the Series: Inversions Happens entirely in a single planet resembling medieval Europe, The culture is never explicitly mentioned and only noticeable if you're already familiar with it.
  • Our Humans Are Different: "Human" is an umbrella term referring to all the species of bipedal, hairless apes (or non-primate ape analogues) that have evolved independently across the galaxy. While it's frequently glossed over and agents of the utopian Culture were able to move about on Earth with only minor modifications, detailed descriptions note that there can be enough differences in the height, proportion, skin color, and reproductive processes to qualify as Rubber-Forehead Aliens. Others have drastically altered their physical forms to the point where they're only considered human for the sake of legal and oral convenience, and some Culture expatriates have even gone on to join other species.
  • Out of the Inferno: In Consider Phlebas, a Culture ship actually hides itself in the upper layers of a sun.
  • Overly Long Name
    • People in the Culture have multi-part names including the star system, world and place where they were born or constructed, their family name — or a name relating to the role they were built for, their given first name and a name chosen for themselves, in the order Star-World Firstname Chosenname Familyname Placeoforigin, e.g. "Sun-Earther Iain El-Bonko Banks of South Queensferry." In general use, they use the given name and family name.
    • Drone names apparently include some sort of "make and model", but are indistinguishable from "normal" Culture names if you don't understand the meaning.
    • Chelgrian names can be even longer: one character observes that Culture names function as addresses, but Chelgrian names function as biographies. A Chelgrian character who is from the highest social class, has served in the military and then entered a monastery and grieves for his wife (killed in war) has all of these attributes reflected in his full name.
    • The Mistake Not...'s full name is extremely long, so even other ships abbreviate it.
  • Planet Spaceship: The General Systems Vehicles. No more than a few hundred kilometres from end to end, mind you.
  • Post-Scarcity Economy: Under the benevolent guidance of the Minds the average Culture citizen has practically unlimited resources for their own amusement.
  • Really 700 Years Old: The average Culture citizen lives for about 300-400 years as a perfectly healthy young adult. One can become truly immortal by choice, but most avoid doing so because it is considered tacky. The minds and drones, of course, do not age at all and may be millennia old. A biological Culture Citizen can choose to stop their ageing or suspend telomeric degeneration but full blown biological immortality (which has been medically possible for thousands of years) is seen as being rather tasteless.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots
    • While the drones are not anthropomorphic in any way, they can at times be more relatable than the human characters. They are also built with an aura or field which changes color to reflect their current emotion.
    • Avatars, on the other hand, which are constructs sometimes used by Minds to talk to and interact with humans, can be realistic enough to fool humans at close range and even cursory scans by other ships (they can also be obviously robotic if the Mind so desires). If separated from the Mind for some reason, they can essentially become superhumans in their own right. It's entirely possible for a normal human to serve as an avatar, if this amuses the ship and human in question, resulting in a Literally Human Robot. This is seen as a bit creepy for the most part.
  • Robots Think Faster: In Excession, "eighteen fifty-three milliseconds" is long enough for a Drone to do a full systems check, scan the surroundings, review its logs and have an extended monologue. The Minds take this Up To Twelve, though, with the Killing Time carrying out an extended engagement in just eleven microseconds.
    • Lampshaded in The Hydrogen Sonata. The protagonist gets questioned by a Ship's Avatar and has to remind herself that, as a Culture Mind, it has probably run highly detailed predictive models of every possible conversational gambit she could try to play.
    • Also in The Hydrogen Sonata, the protagonist is informed of a situation being "unpromising", the avatar and android that accompany her then have a complete conversation and agree on a plan of action before she can ask "unpromising?" in fact, they do all this between her pronunciation of the "s" and "i" sounds and are able to interrupt her with the explanation before she's done with the word.
  • Running Gag: Due to ship naming conventions in the Culture (or more precisely the lack thereof) it is said that an unnamed civilization once criticized the Culture's ships for having names lacking in gravitas appropriate to their immense power. The Minds appear to have decided to have a bit of fun with this, some of them naming ships things like "Stood Far Back When the Gravitas Was Handed Out", "Gravitas... Gravitas... No, Don't Help Me, I'll Get It in a Moment...", "Low Gravitas Warning Signal", "Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall" and "Gravitas Free Zone".
  • Sapient Ship: The Culture's ships have the ability to repair and modify themselves and are under the control of godlike Minds.
  • Scary Dogmatic Aliens
    • While the Culture has a rather condescending view of the religious beliefs of other civilizations, most outsiders see the Culture's view on religion (often described as some variant of "militant secularism") as frightening and cult-like.
    • Played straight with the Idirans. Or is it?
  • Scifi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale: Pretty thoroughly averted. The numbers and ships get big. The war in Consider Phlebas ends with more than 850 billion people dead, and it's a small conflict.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The Iln device from Matter.
  • Show, Don't Tell: Despite being told that the concept of gender is so foreign and unknown to the Culture that there is no longer a direct translation for the words his and her; no male is ever described as wearing a skirt, dress, blouse or make-up despite a significant number of females being described as doing so.
  • Shout-Out: One Culture ex-warship in Matter goes by the name of Eight Rounds Rapid. The Ronte ships and maneuvers strongly resemble those in the arcade games Galaxian and Galaga.
  • Sliding Scale of Robot Intelligence: Most depicted knife-missiles and drones fall into the close-to-human band of the spectrum, while Minds, as mentioned above, are depicted as something of a scale-breaker.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Special Circumstances employ them on a regular basis. Some exiled-Minds are also Sociopathic Heroes.
  • Some Call Me "Tim": Culture citizens, both humanoid and drone are bearers of overly long names but commonly go by a shorter version. One of the closest examples to the trope is Diziet Sma, whose actual namenote  is much longer and is nicknamed "Dizzy" by her Robot Buddy.
    • A notable example is the Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath
  • Space Jews: The Scary Dogmatic Aliens of Consider Phlebas, the Idirans, actually have the term "jihad" used in the "translation" of their speech, and Banks is obviously drawing from at least some aspects of the West vs. Middle East conflict (the Idrians' fanatical religious views only came about as a result of unprovoked invasions by their enemies (eg. the Crusades leading to Islamic Fundamentalism) and the protagonists' arguments against the materialistic, interfering nature of the Culture mirror much contemporary 'anti-Western' feeling.
  • Space Nomads: Many people in The Culture live their lives on space craft which travel around, and consider planetary life to be a weird concept. Most live in Orbitals however.
  • Starship Luxurious: All mainstream Culture ships are (or can be) this, down to the shuttles. It's up to them and their inhabitants, really.
  • State Sec: Contact and Special Circumstances nominally serves as the Culture's Foreign Office and Secret Service, respectively. However, when war comes around, Contact then serves as a military arm, while SC takes care of military intel and special operations.
  • Superweapon Surprise: The apparently helpless zeppelin-like Behemothaur natives of the airsphere have some big brothers, who will see that your species goes extinct if you mess with their charges.
  • They Would Cut You Up: Diziet Sma says this to a Contact colleague who plans to stay on Earth; he is skeptical that it would actually come to this.
  • Technical Pacifist: The message of the Culture to the universe could be summarized as "make love, not war: if you do make war you won't be making it (or anything else) for long."
  • Title Drop: Fairly common. The Player of Games is a direct translation of the Marain word "Morat", and is said many times throughout the book. The titular Excession is the Culture name for some phenomenon that's beyond even their massive capacity to understand or explain. The Hydrogen Sonata is an actual piece of music, albeit one no one has ever successfully performed. Perhaps the most blatant example, though, comes from Matter:
    Holse smiled sadly. "Matter, eh, sir?"
    "Matter." Hyrlis sighed.
  • Tractor Beam: Fields are sometimes used this way.
  • Transhumans in Space: The average Culture citizen is next to biologically immortal, can change sexes at will, and has a few glands that produce drugs. And the Culture is spread across at least one galaxy.
  • Translation Convention
    • Marain, the Culture's official language, doesn't distinguish between genders in the linguistic sense (everyone gets the same pronoun regardless of genetalia), but the novels still do the way we normally do. Many other concepts embodied in the language itself seem to be hard to translate, as a narrating drone in State of the Art complains about having to do just that.
    • There are also complaints from the narrator in Player of Games about having to translate pronouns of a three-gendered species from Marain to English.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Apparently part of Banks' Signature Style. Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter, and Surface Detail all feature multiple alternating narrative viewpoints.
  • Utopia: The Culture. Straight from the horse's mouth: [1]
    Do you think of the Culture as a utopia? Would you live in it, if you could?
    Good grief yes, to both! What's not to like?... Well, unless you're actually a fascist or a power junkie or sincerely believe that money rather than happiness is what really matters in life. And even people with those bizarre beliefs are catered for in the Culture, albeit in extreme-immersion VR environments.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Averted for the Culture itself. Crucially, the Culture's own utopian society is not in itself dependent on morally reprehensible means... or indeed any sort of resource exploitation that affects any other civilisation. A recurring point is that the Culture chooses to get involved (occasionally in underhanded ways) with other galactic civilizations - because the one thing a utopian society can't provide internally is a sense that what you're doing matters to the Universe. So they choose to get involved, via Contact, and try and spread the Culture.
    • And this is effectively Special Circumstances' entire reason for existence:
      Zakalwe: I thought the rules were meant to be the same for everybody.
      Diziet Sma: They are. But 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.
      Zakalwe: To some people, that might sound like just a good excuse for bad behaviour.
      Diziet Sma: And perhaps they would be right. Maybe that is all it is. But if nothing else, at least we need an excuse; think how many people need none at all.
    • It is speculated that the unidentified Involveds backing the Chelgrian plot in Look To Windward were internal elements determined to ginger up the Culture By Any Means Necessary.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Bora's species, the Changers, in Consider Phlebas can change (over a period of days) to look like anyone they want.
  • War Is Glorious: There's just too much delight in the hardware and what it can do to avoid this one, though the Culture consciously tries to avoid this — among other things, their warships are dubbed "Thug", "Torturer", "Murderer" class, where other cultures would choose the likes of "Vengeance" or "Glory".
  • War Is Hell: With Banks you get to smell the corpses and sift through the ashes.
    • In Surface Detail it's more "Hell is War", since it involves virtual hells where war is the only form of social interaction that the victims are capable of experiencing.
  • Weapon of Mass Destruction: Anything a Culture ship might use during space combat qualifies, with gridfire and antimatter bombardment probably straying into Doomsday Device-territory. Along with some of their handheld weapons, as well. The pocket-size gun in A Gift from the Culture comes to mind.
    • Gridfire is referred to in passing as the "weaponry of the end of the universe". Effects are not dissimilar to a potentially star-swallowing wall of antimatter travelling faster than light when used in anger; merely world-shattering if used with finesse.
      • "The Grid" is the boundary between normal space and hyperspace. "Gridfire" is essentially using the fabric of space itself as a weapon.
  • We Will Have Perfect Health in the Future: People in the Culture actually exercise a great degree of control over their physiology, from common functions such as ignoring pain from injuries, to more exotic functions such as gravitational adaptation (in Player of Games, though in that case it kicked in automatically, and in Excession, where this is done willingly). In Use of Weapons, some people decide to give themselves colds out of boredom, implying that they wouldn't have them otherwise. So, yes, the Culture has cured the common cold.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Played with. The Culture has sentient drones, space ships, space suits, guns. All are considered citizens, in their own way. To the extent that even a nanoscale tattoo / personal protection device has a name and is a citizen. Excession gives a brief elaboration; namely that if a device's functioning is above a certain sapience threshold of AI sophistication it's a Culture citizen. If you're capable of having an opinion, you're part of the Culture, with all the freedoms that implies. Ships have the right to deny passage or service to anyone for any reason, drones have full partnership and say in any missions that they undergo with humans.
    • The Terror weapon at the end of Look To Windward was explicitly deprived of a name to better reflect its status as an abomination in the Culture's eyes. It doesn't seem to mind.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: The Culture is perfectly capable of granting immortality to its citizens, but it's generally seen as rather gauche; most people are content to live five to ten centuries and then allow themselves to die.
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: The Minds do not tell lies.
    They dissemble, evade, prevaricate, confound, confuse, distract, obscure, subtly misrepresent and willfully misunderstand with what often appears to be a positively gleeful relish and are generally perfectly capable of contriving to give one an utterly unambiguous impression of their future course of action while in fact intending to do exactly the opposite, but they never lie. Perish the thought.
  • Wowing Cthulhu: Special Circumstances agent Diziet Sma, when studying mid-70s Earth in The State of the Art, considered its civilization to be primitive and barbaric until she encounters a French Holocaust memorial, and is so touched and amazed that she begins to reevaluate the entire planet.
  • You Cannot Grasp the True Form: It's literally impossible for a human mind to contain enough information to understand how a Mind works or thinks, which is why it's easier to interact with avatars. Can be averted to a very limited extent by augmenting the human. This can also cause some significant trauma for an entity like an avatar if it gets cut off from its parent Mind, because it no longer has the mental power to comprehend its own memories properly.