Special Circumstances, abbreviated SC, is a "secret service"-type organisation that exists within the fictional anarchist utopian science fiction civilisation known as the Culture. It forms a background and plot device in several novels and shorter works of Iain M. Banks.
Special Circumstances is part of a larger fictional Culture organisation called Contact, which coordinates Culture interactions with (and in) other less-developed, universe-aware civilisations. SC exists to fulfil this role when circumstances exceed the moral capacity of Contact, or where the situation is highly complex and requires highly specialized skills, such as in The Player of Games. Special Circumstances also does the "dirty work" of the Culture, a function made especially complicated by the normally very high ethical standards the Culture sets itself. SC acts in a way that has been compared with the democratising intentions of real-world liberal intent on overcoming the world's (and especially other nations') evils by benign interference.
In the novels, Special Circumstances, essentially a secret service/black ops unit often provides the main plot device linking the Culture and other civilisations being intervened in. The "good works" (for which Special Circumstances does the dirty work) are the wider plot device for allowing interaction between the advanced Culture and the "barbaric" societies it tries to improve. In the same vein, Banks has noted that the perfect society of the Culture creates well-adjusted, content people—who are (for story purposes) rather boring. Therefore, many of the Culture novels deal with outside agents or mercenaries in the employ of Special Circumstances.
Interventions by SC usually take the form of covert operations (military or otherwise) designed to strengthen or weaken factions within less advanced civilizations. Special Circumstances does not always "play nice" like the rest of the Culture. Their activities have been known to include assassinations, manipulation and blackmail.
Typically, the interventions aim to improve the situation of less advanced civilizations, and to get them closer to the Culture ideal. Sometimes interventions may also be intended to nip future challenges to the Culture in the bud (The Player of Games). While the Culture believes that it can statistically prove that most interventions achieve this end, operations are not always successful. Some, as in Look to Windward, may even be disastrous for the intervened civilization.
Special Circumstances regularly pairs its humanoid agents with a combat drone in a long-term partnership. This combination is described as being famous well beyond the Culture to the point approaching a cliché as "...a partnership you could, allegedly, still frighten children and bad people with." The drone is supposed to provide protection and a more level-headed point of view to the SC agent.
SC has been known to make use of terror weapons. An example of a Culture terror weapon is the EDust Assassin, an assassin composed entirely of sentient nanomachines known as EDust, or "everything dust". EDust assassins are ruthlessly efficient, capable of taking almost any shape or form, and possess potent weaponry capable of destroying entire buildings.
Place in society
In times of war (as seen in Consider Phlebas), the Contact section of the Culture, and in particular Special Circumstances, acts as a military intelligence and special forces service. In general life, SC is rarely seen or heard of, and is one of the few organizations within the Culture which does not provide information about its actions, working largely in secret, apparently controlled and guided only by a number of the more secretive Minds. The special status of Special Circumstances is best explained by Bora Horza Gobuchul in Consider Phlebas:
- "Even before the [Idiran-Culture] war, its standing and its image within the Culture had been ambiguous..."
- "It had about it too an atmosphere of secrecy (in a society that virtually worshipped openness), which hinted at unpleasant, shaming deeds..."
Contact membership is seen as a high achievement for people of the Culture as even the best of the best still tend to be too many for the limited available places. SC membership, even more difficult to obtain (and attributed only by invitation) is seen as still more desirable; while SC often deals with (and sometimes furthers) what Culture citizens hate the most (barbarity, violence and actions of questionable ethics), it is also seen as romantic and dashing.
Examples range from Ulver Seich in Excession ("She sighed. 'I suppose so,' she said, rolling her eyes. 'Join Contact and go exploring…' [Y]ou will never have a better chance of getting into Contact, even Special Circumstances, and with them owing you a favour; or two. Do you understand? This is your big chance, girl.'"), to Yime Nsokyi in Surface Detail ("This is the bod who's famous in the Culture because she turned down SC").
Surface Detail even mentions a competition to take the place of avatars on SC ships; "Poor fool won some sort of competition to replace a ship’s avatar for a hundred days or a year or something similar... if I’d really been sneaky I’d have left the dumb fuck with a batch of implanted false memories full of whatever Contact wank-fantasies he’d been imagining before he took the gig in the first place.". This was said by the Mind of a war ship belonging to a class designed to be somewhat "sadistic" as others believed the Culture had become "soft".
- "... 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."
The SC idea that an advanced civilisation should covertly help those less advanced is similar to the ideas and actions of Progressors in the Noon Universe of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, as well as the agents of Canopus in the Shikasta novels of Doris Lessing.
The activities of SC are entirely at odds with the Prime Directive in the Star Trek universe. See Section 31 for a similar organisation in the Star Trek context. Commentators have argued that for storyline purposes, the Star Trek directive is broken almost as much in that franchise as intentional intervention occurs in Banks' universe, but the Star Trek characters have to be described as trying to not intervene, whereas Banks can let his characters act purposefully.
- Special Circumstances: Intervention by a Liberal Utopia - Brown, Chris, Millennium - Journal of International Studies, 2001(subscription required)
- Interview with Iain M. Banks, Matter, Orbit, 2008
- Look to Windward
- Use of Weapons
- The Player of Games
- Matter - Iain M. Banks, Orbit, 2008