Ship types of the Culture
The fictional universe of The Culture, created by Iain M Banks, contains a wide range of space vessels types, most of which contain sentient Minds and which play a key role in the society of the Culture and in the plots of the novels set within it. Most of the lengthy names of ship classifications are shortened to three-letter acronyms (e.g. GSV).
- 1 Capabilities
- 2 Systems Vehicles
- 3 Contact Units
- 4 Offensive Units
- 5 Other ship types
- 6 Behaviour and relations
- 7 See also
- 8 References
Beyond the capabilities of a full-scale Mind, Culture ships usually share a number of similar technological capabilities such as:
- Avatars - ships often, though not always, interact with their crews through Avatars. These semi-sentient creatures or drones, 'slaved' to the ship's Mind, seem to provide a more 'human' interface for passengers. They are most often a combination of visual and tactile forcefields, though depending on the mind's sensibilities, they may be actual physical entities, and in some cases sentient in themselves.
- Displacers - ships also possess short-range wormhole based teleportation capabilities, capable of, for example, transferring loads and passengers to or from a planet - though this entails a remote risk of catastrophic accident (apparently mostly taken care of by the time of Look to Windward).
- Electromagnetic effectors - a very powerful, precise and versatile tool using forcefields at range, it is also the main weapon of non-militarized Culture ships.
- Matter manipulation - this ability apparently includes transmutation of one substance to another, and allows construction of structures and machines on a nanotechnology scale, though the exact processes are not described.
- Warp drives - ships run on engines which allow them to travel at faster-than-light speeds via a hyperspace dimension. Speeds vary widely due to the long timespan covered in the novels, but journeys through the galaxy can still take years at the best known speeds.
- Shipyards - larger ships can construct smaller ships inside their General Bays (general-purpose holds or storage areas). Note that given time, any ship can construct more or less anything—however, some ships specialise in such matters.
A Systems Vehicle represents the full spectrum of the Culture's capabilities, since it can access all of the information known by the Culture and can make anything that the Culture can make. Systems Vehicles are enormously magnified von Neumann probes, as their essential components are engines, multi-purpose factories and Minds (advanced artificial intelligences). With these capabilities a Systems Vehicle can function as anything its Mind(s) and the Culture choose. The most common and most visible functions are:
- the principal habitats of many members of the Culture, with populations in the millions or billions. Much of the Culture's organic population lives in Systems Vehicles. The inhabitants have limited say in the running of the Systems Vehicle but can easily transfer to another Systems Vehicle or to a Rock or Orbital whose Mind's preferences are more compatible with their own.
- shipyards and motherships for lesser space ships, including General Contact Units (see below).
- in crises groups of Systems Vehicles (assisted by some smaller ships, mainly General Contact Units) act as the nearest thing to a government that the anarchistic Culture ever has.
When the Culture got embroiled in its first major war (early in the series of Culture stories), at first it had no specialist warships and had to use Systems Vehicles (mainly General Systems Vehicles, the largest class) and General Contact Units for combat. This was a waste of the resources and capabilities invested in Systems Vehicles–although their size and manufacturing capacity makes them formidable and sometimes devastating opponents, the cost of losing such a vessel was considered too high to risk them in general conflicts.
General Systems Vehicle
General Systems Vehicles (GSVs) are the Culture's largest type of ship, ranging between 25 km and 200 km in each dimension (including the fields protecting them and forming the exterior of their life-support system). GSVs which provide accommodation for biological members of the Culture generally have populations in the millions or billions, and can be considered worlds in their own right. However, they are also, with some lead time, able to transform into massive factories or warships. In one of the Culture novels (Excession), a GSV unloads its organic population and transforms itself into a very fast-moving shipyard/mothership, effectively deciding the outcome of the main plot thread. In the Culture novel Surface Detail one of the characters, Joiler Veppers, is informed that a single large GSV would be able to combat a fleet of 230,000,000 simple warships - representative of the combined force of an entire lesser civilisation - alone.
GSVs generally have little resemblance to traditional 'ship' design expectations, as they are enveloped in multitudes of fields which allow them to dispense with anything resembling an outer protective hull or shell, instead often being covered with parks and outside buildings. Their layers serve different purposes - from atmosphere containment, foreign object barriers and sensory input/signalling to traction fields for interstellar movement.
GSVs are so complex and so vital to the Culture that they are described as generally being controlled by three Minds (although the System Class GSV Empiricist is described as having seven in "The Hydrogen Sonata". So far (2008) Banks generally assumes that a GSV's three Minds agree on major issues, but has also explored the possibility and consequences of major disagreements, which can result in the losing Mind(s) being forced off the ship and the winning Mind(s) taking full control.
Classes of GSV are usually named after the largest planetary geological/geographical features. Some of the known classes of GSV are (in decreasing order of size and capability):
- System Class [multiple separate components suspended in a force field up to 200 km long]
- Plate Class [53 km long, 22 km wide, 4 km thick, or, including fields, up to 90 km long, 60 km wide, 20 km thick]
- Range Class
- Equator Class
- Continent Class
- Ocean Class
Medium Systems Vehicle
Medium Systems Vehicles (MSVs) are similar to GSVs but smaller. As the size of a typical GSVs tended to increase over time in the Culture's evolution, some ships which were previously designated as GSVs were "demoted" to MSVs. But a demoted ship with a good track record typically retains its influence (for example the Not Invented Here in Excession).
Some of the known classes of MSV are:
- Desert Class - Described as having inaugurated the "Very Large Fast Self-Sufficient Ship concept" some 2,000 years before the time of most Culture novels, later recategorised as Medium Systems Vehicle. Described as "three-and-a-bit" kilometer long ship with a material hull, rather than the later design of a set of decks inside nested, ellipsoid force fields.
- Steppe Class - Described as "relatively small".
- Trench Class
Limited Systems Vehicle
Limited Systems Vehicles (LSVs) are similar to MSVs but smaller. As ship sizes increased over time, some ships which were previously designated as MSVs were "demoted" to LSVs–though a demoted ship with a good track record will typically retain its influence.
Some of the known classes of LSV are:
- Air Class
- Tundra Class
General Contact Vehicle
General Contact Vehicles (GCVs) are a relatively new type of Culture vessel in the service of Contact. They provide expanded capability over the General Contact Unit, the main vessel that Contact utilizes, and straddle the gap between General Contact Units and Systems Vehicles.
While GCVs presumably fulfill similar roles to GCUs, they are also seen performing additional functions that GCUs are either not entrusted with or seen as incapable of doing. For example, in Excession, GCV Steely Glint was charged with coordinating the militarization of Culture forces and was de facto military commander for a given region of space.
The only known class of GCV is the:
- Plains Class
General Contact Unit
General Contact Units (GCUs) are fast, independent, general-purpose vessels which the Culture's Contact group uses for diplomacy, espionage, subversion and sabotage. The Culture has no policy of non-interference (such as the Prime Directive in the Star Trek series) and, to the contrary, often tries to change the course of civilisations of whose behaviour it disapproves or which it considers in need of advancement.
GCUs typically have a crew of Contact members, numbering around 300. GCUs' Minds are sometimes somewhat eccentric (not to be confused with Eccentric–see below).
In the early stages of a conflict, GCUs are able to act as warships until GOU and ROU types become available. Because the Culture is more advanced than most other spacefaring civilisations, GCUs are usually very effective in combat. However during the Idiran-Culture War the Culture started to produce GOUs and ROUs which are optimised for combat.
Classes of GCU are usually named after geographical features, some of the known classes are:
- Mountain Class
- Ridge Class
- Escarpment Class
- River Class
- Troubadour Class (historical)
GCUs are much smaller than GSVs (though small only by comparison), and are routinely carried within GSVs on long journeys.
One of the best known GCUs in Banks' stories is Grey Area, known widely by the other Minds as Meatfucker because it breaches the taboo against looking inside the minds of living creatures.
Limited Contact Unit
Limited Contact Units (LCUs) are mentioned in Excession and "The Hydrogen Sonata", and in the latter novel, the Scree Class is described as both rare and "…the smallest, energy-cheapest to build of all the Contact Units." The same passage (a conversation between two Minds inhabiting larger ships) says the Scree Class contains one Mind and only five human crew. Known classes are:
- Scree Class
After a long hiatus, the Culture only restarted specialist warship production during its only full-scale war against the Idirans. After that war it continued producing increasingly advanced Offensive Units but at a much slower rate. In Excession, a single Rapid Offensive Unit of the latest type successfully engages in combat against a fleet of Offensive Units left over from the Idiran-Culture war and survives the encounter.
Culture military doctrine has changed over the centuries. At one point, the Culture relied on several secret bases each housing hundreds and thousands of stored, inactive OUs ready to be called into battle once again. The Culture later transitioned to a force of immensely powerful craft, with their designations obscuring their true power, and scattering them throughout the galaxy.
Offensive Units' Minds are usually pugnacious and macho (particularly by the Culture's normal standards), and most non-combat ships regard Offensive Units with a mixture of respect and unease verging on mild contempt. Though OUs live for the thrill of battle, they also possess extreme intelligence befitting a Mind and are capable of advanced tactics, as opposed to using just brute force.
OUs frequently store a copy of their Mind state with another ship before going into action, and these backups are frequently installed in new ships if the OU does not survive. This is in part a reward for the self-sacrifice of the ships, and a motivation for bravery in combat. It is also a tacit admission by the Culture that it prefers peace over war–the number of warships required is small, and the creation of new warship Minds is also undesirable over the birth of peace-loving Minds.
General Offensive Unit
General Offensive Units (GOUs) are the most capable warships of the Culture, the epitome of the Culture's technology as applied (reluctantly) to warfare. The GOU has changed over the centuries, evolving to fit changing Culture military doctrine. While the earlier GOUs contained human crews, the latest Abominator-class GOUs no longer contain any human crew, as every centimeter of available space is dedicated to weaponry or ammunition. Known classes are:
- Murderer Class
- Delinquent Class
- Abominator Class
Rapid Offensive Unit
Rapid Offensive Units (ROUs) consist of little more than engines, weapons and the ship's Mind. While some ROUs are crewed, the crew complement on such vessels is much smaller than those of the more general purpose ships of the Culture, such as General Contact Units and General Systems Vehicles. ROUs and their demilitarised versions, Very Fast Pickets, are the Culture's fastest ships and have so far been described as having been outrun only once, by a GSV that self-optimised for speed (in the novel Excession). Immediately after the Idiran War, ROUs of the period could also be outrun by the small number (described as a limited edition by the Drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw) of Continent Class, subtype Prompt GSV. Subsequent developments have of course rendered this state of affairs obsolete, though the events involving the Excession give the lie to this assumption.
Known classes are:
- Killer Class (200 meters long)
- Torturer Class
- Psychopath Class
- Gangster Class
- Thug Class
- Inquisitor Class (prototype)
Limited Offensive Unit
Limited Offensive Units (LOUs) are a smaller type of warship along the line of GOUs.
Known classes are:
- Hooligan Class
- Delinquent Class
- Thug Class
- Troublemaker Class
Other ship types
During times of relative peace, some OUs have most or all of their weapons systems removed, and are known as (demilitarised) Rapid Offensive Units ((d)ROUs), (demilitarised) General Offensive Units ((d)GOUs), and (demilitarised) Limited Offensive Units ((d)LOUs).
For various reasons, some allegedly demilitarised (d)OUs actually still retain most or all of their armament; this is usually due to some faction wishing to covertly maintain a fully armed warship presence, such as Special Circumstances or an over-cautious Hub Mind.
(d)OUs maintain the same ship classes as they did when they were active service OUs.
Very Fast Picket / Fast Picket
Very Fast Pickets (VFPs) and Fast Pickets (FPs) are euphemisms for (d)OUs, as (d)OUs in civilian usage are typically used as ferries or rapid transport of people or material. Though the terms VFP/FP were invented after (d)OUs, they slowly gained acceptance until VFP/FPs became the preferred terms to describe demilitarised vessels.
Typically, VFP refer to (d)ROUs and FP refer to (d)GOUs and (d)LOUs.
Superlifters are relatively small Culture ships with large and powerful engines. Superlifters described as being 90% engine are mentioned in Excession, faster even than a Rapid Offensive Unit (or Very Fast Picket) over short distances. Superlifters were never militarised as a class, though they are described in Matter as often having served on the frontlines of the Idiran War, including being equipped with weapons.
They are mainly used as high-speed shuttles between Culture Systems Vehicles (when it is inconvenient for the larger ships to decelerate), as movers of raw materials for building Orbitals or other space habitats, and for providing other Culture ships with a 'boost' to aid in rapid deceleration or acceleration.
Known classes are:
- Cliff Class
- Delta Class
- Stream Class
Behaviour and relations
Since Culture ships are always integrated with a Mind they are beings in their own right. In some Culture stories ships are the major characters, and their relationships are central to the plot. Ships or groups of ships may belong to differing factions within or without the Culture, which compete for influence.
Ships which appear to have mental 'instability' (though only compared with the very reasoned rationality of the other Culture Minds) or act in ways that are otherwise considered eccentric or at odds with accepted standards of behavior are considered to be Eccentric. Eccentric is a descriptive term for ships and not a group in its own right; for example, ROU Shoot Them Later was both Eccentric and part of the AhForgetIt Tendency of the Culture Ulterior.
Eccentric ships are not considered to have rejected their society. They may still act as members or representatives of their civilisation, though they may be viewed as pariahs. However, being considered Eccentric usually does carry some consequences from other members of their society. Theoretically, Culture military doctrine excludes any Eccentric ships from being members of high-level Special Circumstances (SC) "military commands" (more properly known as a patchwork of SC Core Groups, Sub-Committees, and Committees), and presumably precludes them from Special Circumstances membership completely.
In practice, highly respected Eccentric ships can still be active members in the Culture military command. An additional reason that Eccentric ships can be part of the military command is that some Eccentrics may use their Eccentric status as a cover for SC or simply to conceal their political allegiances within the Culture. This allows them to act with a degree of secrecy not afforded to ships of the Culture proper. This also allows them freedom of action to carry out missions on behalf of Special Circumstances to protect Culture interests or values while allowing the Culture proper to maintain plausible deniability.
Sometimes a ship decides that it wishes to have a sabbatical from its duties in the Culture, especially after a particularly harrowing or ethically problematic situation (or maybe simply after being fed up with the Culture for a time). This sabbatical may be for some months, years, or longer.
Sabbaticalers are usually still considered Culture ships, and may or may not be Eccentric.
Occasionally ships conclude that their values are too different from the Culture—that the Culture is too cautious, conservative, or even warlike. These ships split off from the mainstream Culture and form splinter groups, which are collectively known as the Culture Ulterior. All known Ulterior groups are still, broadly speaking, generally considered part of the Culture by other civilisations, though they may be viewed with some derision as being a "hanger-on" to the Culture. Ulterior groups generally maintain strong relationships with the Culture (referred to by the AhForgetIt Tendency as the Mainland). Ulterior groups are generally considered allies; in addition to high levels of civilian interactions such as trade (of information or even material goods) and migration of people, Ulterior groups are considered trustworthy enough to share sensitive military secrets with and capable of seamlessly integrating with Culture military forces should it become necessary.
Known Ulterior groups include the Peace Faction, which considers the Culture (and particularly Special Circumstances) too willing to use force and violence to achieve its objectives. The Peace Faction was formed during the Idiran-Culture War, when they voted against going to war and split off from the Culture. The Zetetic Elench takes a philosophical view almost exactly the opposite of the Culture: they seek to be changed by other cultures, instead of the Culture's belief in Culturizing other civilisations. The AhForgetIt Tendency considers the Culture to be too serious and not devoted enough to hedonistic pleasures. Ironically, the Tendency has its version of Special Circumstances. There are no known cases where Culture ships willingly joined a completely different civilisation (the nearest a ship has ever come is described in The Hydrogen Sonata as being a mix of Culture and Zihdren-Remnanter, both physically and in terms of 'processing paradigms'); however, it's possible that Culture ships which have joined the Zetetic Elench have been subsumed by other civilization.
Absconded ships reject their Culture duties and go off on their own. These duties can include things such as caring for its biological citizens or following orders from their superiors in Contact or in Special Circumstances. Unlike Eccentrics, who still perform Culture duties (albeit in an eccentric manner), Absconded are not considered[by whom?] part of the mainstream Culture.
However, some Absconded ships, like Eccentrics, are nominally Absconded but remain secretly mainstream Culture ships undercover in the service of Special Circumstances.
There are instances of non-Culture ships joining the Culture, though few species have the technological capability to produce computers of Mind-like sentience which would qualify for Culture citizenship. Such vessels tend to defect to the Culture due to its more advanced and liberal treatment of artificial sentiences.
The novel Excession refers to convertcraft when describing the Full Refund, an ex-Homomdan battle cruiser, which has become a member of the Culture's Special Circumstances group.
- The Player of Games - Banks, Iain M., 1988, Page 113
- Consider Phlebas - Banks, Iain M., 1987, Page 471
- The Player of Games - Banks, Iain M., 1988, Page 107
- Excession - Banks, Iain M., 2003, Page 239
- Excession - Banks, Iain M., 2003, Page 188
- Matter - Banks, Iain M., 2008, Page 224
- Appendix of Matter - Banks, Iain M., 2008, Page 584
- Consider Phlebas - Iain M. Banks, 1987, Orbit 2001 reprint, Page 24
- Banks, Iain M. (2012). The Hydrogen Sonata. Orbit. p. 309.
- Consider Phlebas - Banks, Iain M., 1987, Page 309