The Culture

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
It's More Fun in The Culture.

The Culture forms part of the setting and is the main protagonist civilization of eight SF novels and one short-story collection written to date by Iain M Banks:

The eponymous 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 guidance of the AI 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.

Tropes used in The Culture include:
  • 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: The Culture uses base 9.
  • Always Someone Better: The Excession.
  • Anachronic Order: Use of Weapons alternates between two storylines, one running normal, the other back to front. Look To Windward is about ¼ flashbacks. It's even a plot point.
    • Also Excession.
  • 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) ringworlds and Rings are full-size ringworlds.

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.

  • Artificial Gravity: Standard on ships in the series. But also averted by the orbitals, since they spin around to create centrifugal forces and do not have real gravity. That is why the standard antigrav units in armorsuits don't work there, as a unlucky mercenary finds out.
    • It should be noted that they could easily created equally large habitats as orbitals with artificial gravity but don't see the need to be wasteful or inefficient. Just because you have practically unlimited resources doesn't mean you need to be wasteful when a natural solution is available.
  • 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.
  • Author Appeal: You would be forgiven for assuming that Special Circumstances is made up entirely of sexy bisexual women and their sardonic knife missile partners, and who associate exclusively with roguish men who oppose The Culture's methods.
    • Given the ability of the average Culture citizen to change sex on a whim, the fact that this is actively encouraged (Anaplian's transition to the Culture in Matter), and that being less than good-looking is considered quirky, even perverse, all but a few humanoid Cultureniks will, at some point, be a sexy bisexual woman. Matter also references the combination of SC operative and drone as being a widely recognized dangerous combination in all civilizations familiar with the Culture. Drone personality appears to be Deadpan Snarker regardless of setting. So is this author appeal, or just the collision of several independent but very widespread Culture characteristics? Plus it seems to be the case that much of SC is made up of entities who make it very clear that they are not in SC, and/or are completely opposed to the Culture - except that they aren't.
  • 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.
  • Badass: Culture warships are deliberately designed to be somewhat gung ho, and are built to back it up. This results in said ships often putting themselves away for long storage in times of peace, because they'd get bored otherwise, and no-one wants them getting bored. If they do get bored you might just end up with another Sleeper Service, or if you're really unlucky, another Grey Area (a.k.a Meatfucker)
    • The Abominator class picket ship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints qualifies. The GFCF, who are Culture wannabes [see the Fan Boy entry], are under the impression that they're approximately equal to the Culture in technology and capable of handling Culture warships (and they are... when it comes to ordinary, centuries old Torturer class ships and they attack five to one). They are vastly disabused of this notion when they lose one third of their entire fleet, including their flagship, against this one ship. As far as the Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints is concerned, it was just a fun little skirmish that let it flex its muscles a bit.
  • Batman Gambit / Gambit Pileup: The drone's escape in the first chapter of Excession. Much else of Excession too. gambits are a hobby for the Minds.
    • You could also say the entire plot of Surface Detail. If Vatueil is in fact Cheradenine Zakalwe, we know that the Culture never took their eye off him after (or during) the events of Use of Weapons. A major part of Yime Nsokyi's plot is about how Special Circumstances tried to recruit her, and when she rejected them, they recruited and manipulated her anyway, without her knowing, simply because she was perfect for what they had intended. While she forms a rather insignificant part of the plot of the book, this proves that Special Circumstances don't let go of anybody, and are perfectly capable of the type of extreme manipulation that would be required to get Vatueil to win the war for the Anti-Hell side. They knew how we would act and put him in the right place. All along we are told that the Culture is staying out of the War, only paying a passing interest in case it spills into the Real, even though they very much have opinions about it, they are staking their entire reputation and their own Culture principles on not getting involved, and yet, if Vatueil is Zakalwe, they were more involved than anyone else, but still allowing themselves to be distant. If Vatueil had just been some random dude and the rest of the book had been identical, we couldn't conclusively say the Culture planned every moment of that book.
  • 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 be shaped by the cultures they meet, instead of the reverse.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: The Culture's whole hat can be nicely summed up as "Space Hippies". Hippies with really big sticks. 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:

"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."

  • BFG: The short story A Gift from the Culture mentions a antimatter-powered handgun capable of firing 10^8 W of plasma. The protagonists 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.
  • Body Backup Drive
  • 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 heaven.
  • Brick Joke: Banks uses this a lot; not for comedy, but 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Crazy Awesome 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 WoW might suddenly decides 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 civilizations while being laid back.
  • Can't Argue with Elves: Surprisingly averted. Despite the Culture being canonically the perfect civilization, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 backup their memories so that they can be reincarnated in a newly grown (or manufactured if they happen to be A Is) body if they get killed. Partially subverted in that some people deliberately choose not to use said technology, often because high risk sports are not exciting without the fear of death (did we mention how damn eccentric the average Culture citizen is?).
  • Death Seeker: Major Quilan in Look To Windward and also the Masaq' Orbital Hub Mind.
  • Deep-Immersion Gaming
  • 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.
  • Did Not Do the Research: The basic "nonary alphabet" of the Culture is described (in Excession) as being composed of 9-bit characters which display as a 3x3 grid. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how computers work and is incredibly wasteful. Either all Culture citizens memorize the bit-patterns of their entire 512 character alphabet (unlikely) or they have an alphabet made of crude-looking, single-case characters that takes up a tiny portion of the available 9 bits. A 3x3 grid really limits the appearance of the characters that make up an alphabet. The scheme used by every computer system ever invented by real-world humans is to represent characters as an arbitrary binary sequence (for example, the letter "a" is a byte with the numeric value 0x61) and to delegate display of that information to document rendering programs (the appearance of the letter "a" on your screen is determined by the program that reads 0x61 and decides what a lower case "a" looks like- this decision making process consumes far more than the 8 bit that make up the letter in a document, but you only have to do it once to display every "a" in every document).
    • Actually, given that one of the standard Culture drug-gland secretions is "photographic memory juice", its entirely likely that they do memorize the entire 512 character alphabet. And heck, in the real world it was once routine to make children memorize all 400 entries on the multiplication table, from 1*1=1 to 20*20=400.
  • 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 Screw from the Grey Area and dies horribly.
  • 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.
  • Enemy Mine
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • 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 or opt to have their consciousness uploaded. 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.
  • Fan Boy: 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 AI's 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...
    • As it happens, there is a very good reason for that.
  • 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![1]
  • 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.
  • 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!

  • 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 (over a period of months).
  • 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, this is the favored programming, 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 novels in The Culture have these.
  • The Handler: Diziet Sma to Zakalwe. Also Flere-Imsaho to Gurgeh.
  • Heaven
  • The Hedonist: The AhForgetIt Tendency, for citizens who think the Culture proper is too serious(!!)
  • Hegemonic Empire: The Culture itself.
  • 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.
  • 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 Not So 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-Atiskaw 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 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 he's hurting her.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: See A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away below. The appendix of Consider Phlebas says Earth is Contacted in the 22nd Century.
  • Kill'Em All: As mentioned above the ending of Consider Phlebas manages to kill everyone but the Mind they were looking for. Matter doesn't really fare a lot better. It's also the approach that some ROUs employ. Surprisingly enough not the philosophies of the Shoot Them Later and Killing Time. Well, when they're not faced with someone who wants to pick a fight.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Both Look to Windward and Consider Phlebas are lines from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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. [2] 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.
  • Malignant Plot Tumor: Matter
  • Meaningful Name: The ships names reflect their Mind's personality or function. The Other Wiki provides a full list.
  • Mechanical Lifeforms
  • Memory Gambit: The Chelgrians' scheme in Look to Windward involves one.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 while she was pregnant.. 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.
  • Nanomachines: Multiple occurrences e.g. an assassin made of e-dust and a memoryform gun disguised as a tooth.
  • 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.
  • Not Using The C Word: Inversions is set in this universe, but the Culture is never named as such. Special Circumstances gets a name check.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Matter. Face Palm. Also collides with Don't Touch It, You Idiot!, due to the small problem of the Sealed Evil in a Can that someone decided to open!
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • Plot Parallel
  • Really Seven Hundred 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.
  • 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 (or, well, Banks) 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 themselfes and are under the control of godlike Minds.
  • Scary Dogmatic Aliens: While the Culture has a rather condenscending 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.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The Iln from Matter
  • 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 name is much longer and is nicknamed "Dizzy" by her Robot Buddy.
  • 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.
  • Starship Luxurious
  • 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.
  • Technical Pacifist: The message of the Culture to the universe could be summarized as "make love, not war: you have no chance of beating us anyway."
  • Technology Marches On: While the Culture was always ridiculously technologically advanced, it's kind of noticeable that details like the very instant message/message board discussion-like Mind communications only started being mentioned in more recent books, written after the internet entered popular use.
  • They Would Cut You Up: Diziet Sma says this to a Contact colleague who plans to stay on Earth.
  • Title Drop: There is one in Matter:

Holse smiled sadly. "Matter, eh, sir?"
"Matter." Hyrlis sighed.

  • Tractor Beam: Effectors are sometimes used this way.
  • Transhuman: Well, duh.
  • Translation Convention: Marain, the Culture's official language, doesn't distinguish between genders, 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.
  • Utopia: the Culture.

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.

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.

    • Crucially, the Culture's own utopian society is not in itself dependent on morally reprehensible means. SC's major use of this trope is when they're helping other cultures be less atrocious to each other in the long run -- when they're rolling out to defend the Culture from a threat or crisis they're generally able to be more straightforward about what they're doing.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Bora's species, the Changers, in Consider Phlebas can change (over a period of days) to look like anyone they want.
  • 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.
  • 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. (Gridfire, incidentally, involves using the fabric of space and time as a weapon.) Along with some of their handheld weapons, as well. The pocket-size gun in A Gift from the Culture comes to mind.
  • 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.
  • We Will Not Use Photoshop in the Future: Avoided in The Player of Games. It is a specific plot point that only direct real-time observation by a Mind-level intellect can produce a recording of an event with high enough fidelity that (other Minds) could tell it apart from a fake. To produce an audiovisual recording capable of fooling merely human senses beyond the possibility of detection is stated to be a routine task for the Culture equivalent of desktop PC freeware.
  1. Albeit only by packing much of its volume solid with engine.
  2. Use of Weapons very briefly implies one of the characters has been to Earth; it's Diziet Sma, whose recounts her time on Earth in The State of the Art.