10 top gadgets from Iain M Banks' Culture universe
5th Apr 2013 | 14:28
These don't exist yet, but they should
It's hard to know what to do when a literary idol announces their imminent demise.
This week, with typical deadpannery, writer Iain Banks broke the devastating news that he is "officially Very Poorly" and has just months to live.
We decided that list-making is an appropriate response.
Iain (M) Banks' mainstream and science fiction has brought us much joy over the years – particularly his Culture series – about an anarchic, super-evolved, egalitarian spacefaring civilisation. Each time we've read a new Culture novel, We swear we've felt new neural pathways fizzing into existence.
In the Culture, humans and Artificial Intelligences (AIs) enjoy equal societal standing; crime, personal wealth and disease are so far in the past as to be considered bad taste; and everyone has ready access to technology that's indistinguishable from magic.
Basically, Culture citizens are enlightened and weaponised space-Scandinavians.
Here are ten other perks of the Culture:
1. Sex, drugs and eugenics
Culture humans are so evolved that eugenics are de rigeur across the species. Humans live 300 years plus, can change gender at will, and have sexy bits that are genetically optimised for pleasure. Cor.
Most people are also born with natural "drug glands" which secrete non-habit forming mood and sensory-altering substances. These include the trippy 'Crystal Fuge State' and 'Quicken', which speeds up mental processes so people can talk to AIs without having to ask them to repeat themselves.
And there are no hangovers or comedowns, so nobody's buzz is harshed. Like we said, enlightened space-Scandinavians.
2. Switching off pain
In a society of planet-hopping poly-centenarians, physical injury is inevitable. But Culture humans are hardy. Severed limbs grow back, bones thicken and thin according to gravitational need, and autonomic processes like breathing and blinking can be switched to conscious control.
Best of all, though, is the ability to turn pain off at will. Which begs the question: would Fifty Shades of Grey even work in a Culture scenario?
3. Body modification
Want to look like an Aspidistra? You can in the Culture. Four arms? Not a problem. Chewbacca? Be my guest. In The State of the Art, one character looks like a Yeti. Most people look like people, though, although some choose otherwise.
The book Excession describes some outré past, where: "as the fashions of the intervening times had ordained – people ... had resembled birds, fish, dirigible balloons, snakes, small clouds of cohesive smoke and animated bushes".
4. Starships, warships and drones
Culture starships are sentient and planet-sized, and tend towards the whimsical, with names like Of Course I Still Love You and Just Read The Instructions. Even warships come in the gleefully aggressive Killer, Torturer, Psychopath and Gangster classes. Daww.
Should any human passengers feel weird about padding round a giant space-bound conference centre and addressing the air around them, the ship can talk to them via a human-sized drone. In my mind, this drone always has the voice of Captain Birdseye, and is something that P&O should maybe look into.
5. Grid energy
Can a universe technically count as a gadget? It can when you're a super-advanced spacefaring democracy. Everything the Culture uses – from coffee machines to seriously scary space weaponry – is powered by limitless energy from the Grid, a field which separates our universe from a mirroring antimatter universe.
Grid energy is also indirectly behind technology that allows people to do things like hack computers light years away.
We like to think that this is because, no matter how evolved the Culture is, its citizens still receive parental requests to "debug my computer while I pop to the garden centre".
6. Knife missiles
Contact and Special Circumstances are the Culture's spy and military arms. They're under the radar and engage in the odd dodgy practice but, most importantly, they have all the cool toys. One of these is a knife missile – which remains a normal utensil until its owner is in danger, at which point it takes to the air and slices and dices the enemy before they can react.
If it feels like it, we mean. Knife missiles are of course sentient, and sometimes a bit chippy.
7. EDust assassins
These are sentient nanomachines made of EVERYTHING ("Everything- Dust" or "EDust") which can take the shape of ANYTHING (you, me, that dog poo) and level entire buildings. EDust assassins are one of Special Circumstances' "Terror Weapons", and they impress me so much that I'm slightly worried that I'm actually North Korea.
8. Atomic tattoos
In the novel Surface Detail, an indentured servant (belonging to an unenlightened non-Culture slaver, obviously) is branded with a beautiful tattoo signifying ownership. The tattoo is written into the structure of every cell of her body, replicating itself into infinite smallness inside her DNA.
When her owner murders her, the Culture revives the slave, and she uses her tattoo to wreak her revenge. Take that, Steig Larsson.
9. Mosquito drones – now available on Earth?
In the novel Consider Phlebas, a tiny robot mosquito collects a blood sample from a human. According to the rumour mill, this isn't a million miles away from possible military developments today. Maybe 500,000 miles away, but not a million.
10. Personality backups and goodbyes
In a move that's at once heartbreaking and reassuring, Iain M Banks has made the Culture's attitude to death a philosophical one.
Death is essentially optional in the Culture – many people "back up" their personalities in case they shuffle off the mortal coil accidentally (extreme sports are big in the Culture). Then a copy of the individual can be reborn in the same form, a different one, or purely in virtual reality.
If they're bored they may choose to go into storage and wake up some time in the future. Also, biological and AI individuals – and entire civilisations – can "sublime"; that is, leave the material universe behind altogether and segue into some mysterious immaterial existence.
And finally, should a Culture citizen's natural body give out, once the appropriate respects have been paid, they will be displaced directly into the heart of their home sun.
Want to read more? Check out the Culture series on Amazon.
So long, and thanks for all the drones.