One of the crown jewels of contemporary speculative fiction is Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. The books deal with a utopian civilization called simply “The Culture,” which is composed of “seven or eight humanoid species” along with Artificial Intellegences (AIs). The Culture is more than 9,000 years old, and spans the Milky Way; but it is only one of hundreds of space-faring civilizations in the galaxy.
Despite the Culture’s long history and incredible technology, Banks has said that the stories already written take place from about 1300 AD to 2100 AD — In our past or near future! I love that subtle jab at our own civilization. How primitive and ignorant might we seem, if only we knew what else was out there?
I am ashamed to say that I’ve never finished a Culture novel. I started and abandoned both Consider Phlebas (the first Culture book, though they don’t need to be read in order) and Excession. I will have to remedy that soon! In the meantime, I did pick up Banks’ collection The State of the Art, which features two Culture stories and an essay called “A Few Notes on The Culture.” That essay is a wonderful overview of this beautifully complex fictional civilization.
Here’s a taste:
[V]irtually everyone in the Culture carries the results of genetic manipulation in every cell of their body; it is arguably the most reliable signifier of Culture status.
Thanks to that genetic manipulation, the average Culture human will be born whole and healthy and of significantly (though not immensely) greater intelligence than their basic human genetic inheritance might imply. There are thousands of alterations to that human-basic inheritance […] but the major changes the standard Culture person would expect to be born with would include an optimized immune system and enhanced senses, freedom from inheritable diseases or defects, the ability to control their autonomic processes and nervous system (pain can, in effect, be switched off), and to survive and fully recover from wounds which would either kill or permanently mutilate without such genetic tinkering.
The vast majority of people are also born with greatly altered glands housed within their central nervous systems, usually referred to as “drug glands.” These secrete — on command — mood- and sensory-appreciation-altering compounds into the person’s bloodstream. A similar preponderance of Culture inhabitants have subtly altered reproductive organs — and control over the associated nerves — to enhance sexual pleasure. Ovulation is at will in the female, and a fetus up to a certain stage may be re-absorbed, aborted, or held at a static point in its development; again, as willed. An elaborate thought-code, self-administered in a trance-like state (or simply a consistent desire, even if not conscious) will lead, over the course of about a year, to what amounts to a viral change from one sex into the other. The convention — tradition, even — in the Culture during the time of the stories written so far is that each person should give birth to one child in their lives.
It’s worth noting that Culture people generally live between three and four hundred years, but do die — Although there are exceptions!
Some people choose biological immortality; others have their personality transcribed into AIs and die happy feeling they continue to exist elsewhere; others again go into Storage, to be woken in more (or less) interesting times, or only every decade, or century, or aeon, or over exponentially increasing intervals, or only when it looks like something really different is happening…
I love speculative fiction exactly for this sort of imaginative evaluation of all the various ways human civilization could be improved. Not to put us down; just to put our achievements and failures in the bigger-picture context of what might be possible if we stopped killing each other and started working together.
The Culture stories are largely about problems and paradoxes that confront liberal societies […] Even the Culture has to compromise its ideals where diplomacy and its own security are concerned. (wikipedia).
I should try to read one of these books one day.