The Culture is a fictional interstellar post-scarcity civilization or society created by the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks and features in a number of his space opera novels and works of short fiction, collectively called the Culture series.
In the series, the Culture is composed primarily of sentient beings of the pan-human variety, artificially intelligent sentient machines, and a small number of other sentient "alien" life forms. Machine intelligences range from human-equivalent drones to hyper-intelligent Minds. The Culture's economy is maintained automatically by its non-sentient machines, with high-level work entrusted to the Minds' subroutines, which allows its humanoid and drone citizens to indulge their passions, romances, hobbies, or other activities, without servitude. Many of the series' protagonists are humanoids who choose to work for the Culture's elite diplomatic or espionage organisations, and interact with other civilisations whose citizens hold wildly different ideologies, morals, and technologies.
The Culture has a grasp of technology which is advanced relative to most of the other civilisations which share the galaxy. Most of the Culture's citizens do not live on planets but in or on artificial habitats, such as huge orbitals, or on ships, the largest of which are home to billions of individuals. Biologically, the Culture's citizens have been genetically enhanced to live for centuries, and have modified mental control over their physiology, including the ability to introduce a variety of psychoactive drugs into their systems, change biological sex, or switch off pain at will. Culture technology is able to transform individuals into vastly different body forms but, for unclear reasons, the Culture standard form remains fairly close to human.
A central theme of the series is the ethical struggles which face the Culture when interacting with other societies - some of which brutalise their own members, pose threats to other civilisations, or threaten the Culture itself, the reactions to which conflict with the Culture's philosophy of peace and individual freedom. The Culture tends to make major decisions based on the consensus formed by its Minds and, if appropriate, its citizens. In one instance, a direct democratic vote of trillions – the entire population – decided The Culture would go to war with a rival civilisation. Those who objected to the Culture's subsequent militarisation broke off from the meta-civilisation, forming their own separate civilisation; a hallmark of the Culture is its ambiguity. In contrast to the many interstellar societies and empires which share its fictional universe, the Culture is difficult to define, geographically or sociologically, and "fades out at the edges".
The Culture is by far my favorite scifi series and has done more to influence my own ideological growth than any other piece of media in recent memory. Not only does Banks explore science fiction concepts in detail in ways that few others really touch (Surface Detail is a fun exploration of what 'brain uploading' would really entail for a civilization and for the individuals in it, complete with virtual Hells where simulations of people are sent to suffer for eternity), but he also explores social and philosophical concepts through the lens of an anarcho-socialist utopia interacting with other visions for society each meant to emphasize some aspect of human behavior or serve as a reflection of the ways in which we live. It also manages to do this all while maintaining a playfully dark and sardonic tone throughout and never shying away from either displaying the cruelty and brutality exhibited by sentient beings for one another or from pointing out the flaws and imperfections in its own vision for an ideal society. Banks makes his arguments generally through contrasts between the evils of the Culture and the evils of the societies they interact with, and he almost never skips an opportunity to troll the reader who is expecting the standard science fiction outcomes to the dilemmas he presents.
You may also know the Culture from the fact that they have awesome ship names:
Two of which have been borrowed for two SpaceX autonomous spaceport drone ships (Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You)
Amazon has also acquired the rights to Consider Phlebas, and intends to start producing a series based on it:
While the Culture remains in every way just a scifi fantasy replete with made up ideas and technologies meant more to demonstrate a point than to reflect reality, there have been more people in recent years looking to Banks' overarching social/philosophical ideas as a rough model for how we really could live in a post-automation society.
The dialectical nature of fully automated luxury gay space communism squares nicely with the contradictory status of technology in Marxian economic theory. Marx identified technological progress as one of capitalism’s fundamental sources of agitation. Capitalists extract surplus value by exploiting working-class labor power, and competitive market pressures dictate that the value be reinvested as capital. This continuous capitalization causes a constant revolution in technology and the productive efficiencies achieved by such advancement cause the capitalist’s own rate of profit to fall. The only way to maintain profits is to increase the proportion by which workers are exploited. And so the cycle of exploitation and accumulation continues and intensifies, generating all the attendant pain and social instability you’d expect from such a mechanism.
But it was Marx’s expectation that at some point in the telescoping absurdity, mechanical automation would hit some kind of a terminal threshold, such that practically no human work would be needed to sustain commodity production. Marx writes, “Capital here—quite unintentionally—reduces human labor, expenditure of energy, to a minimum. This will redound to the benefit of emancipated labor, and is the condition of its emancipation.” Capitalism, the system anchored in the exploitation of human labor, would inadvertently abolish the fount of its own value. In the reversal, technology would serve as the basis for workers’ liberation. And so, as in the dialectics of the meme, Marxian progress arises from, rather than in spite of, the contradiction at hand.
If you read radical-left literature from the 1960s and 1970s, you’ll see that many leftists took Marx’s cryptic predictions about technology to heart. For instance, the feminist utopian work of Shulamith Firestone partially relied upon the technological inevitability of “cybernetic communism.” Based on information available in the late 1960s, Firestone anticipated that machines would soon replace human beings in the sphere of commodity production. As a result, she could yadda-yadda-yadda the economics of utopia: “We are talking about the obsolescence of labor itself through cybernation, the radical re-structuring of the economy to make work, i.e. compulsory labor, particularly alienated wage labor, no longer necessary.” In this way, robotics “could act as the perfect equalizer, obliterating the class system based on exploitation of labor.” The change would have a profound effect on traditional social relations, bringing us into a post-work, post-scarcity political economy: “We will be beyond arguments about who is bringing home the bacon—no one will be bringing it home, because no one will be working.”
But even as the left pursues concrete policy goals, utopian thinking will still play a central role for the left. As the philosopher Stephen Eric Bronner put it, “Utopia is ultimately a regulative ideal: it provides us with a sense of how little civilization has achieved and anticipatory traces of what might be achieved in the future.” And so while taking power and implementing policy is crucial, the left should meanwhile resist the urge to become unduly fixated on pragmatism. Fetishizing practicality, realism, and reasonableness works for centrist, conservative, and reactionary ends; but for the left, those values are creeping anathema. The left’s stubborn insistence on realizing a better world—a substantially better world, one that is immeasurably freer, wiser, less mean, and more equal—is the sine qua non of progressive discourse. In other words, the present preposterousness of utopia is precisely makes it so worthy of imagination, contemplation, and pursuit.
There have also been plenty of criticisms of the Culture:
Investing all power in his individualistic, sometime eccentric, but always benign, A.I. Minds, Banks knew what he was doing; this is the only way a liberal anarchy could be achieved, by taking what is best in humans and placing it beyond corruption, which means out of human control. The danger involved in this imaginative step, though, is clear; one of the problems with the Culture novels as novels is that the central characters, the Minds, are too powerful and, to put it bluntly, too good.
This is a common criticism of the entire premise, which is that positing benevolent AI is itself a flawed hand-wave, but I think it doesn't reach down to the core of what Banks is trying to show with the Culture. There are plenty of malevolent AIs in the Culture series. In fact, the only things that are ever shown to pose a viable opposition to the Culture itself are Minds who for one reason or another want to attack the Culture (such as in Excession and Look to Windward), and the individualism of the Minds does lead to conflict and the need for the formation of various shifting coalitions between them. The Culture is not meant to have just chanced into existence based on having an incidentally incorruptible system, and many of the books detail the extreme lengths the Culture goes to in order to protect and maintain itself. Rather, what Banks seems to posit is that there exists a grouping of more or less universal moral principles that any sufficiently intelligent entity can discover that, if they are not followed, will inevitably lead a civilization to destroy itself. Each of the books in the Culture series is meant to show in detail the failings of societies that do not recognize or adhere to these principles. The Culture, it ends up, is so powerful explicitly because it is just a thing worth wanting.
The Culture stories are me at my most didactic, though it's largely hidden under all the funny names, action, and general bluster. The Culture represents the place we might hope to get to after we've dealt with all our stupidities. Maybe. I have said before, and will doubtless say again, that maybe we—that is, homo sapiens—are just too determinedly stupid and aggressive to have any hope of becoming like the Culture, unless we somehow find and isolate/destroy the genes that code for xenophobia, should they exist. Plus we'd have to develop AIs and let them be themselves; another big ask.
Let's talk about what kind of weird sex parties we would have if we were in the Culture.