For all its virtues, Star Trek was a series that often failed to do justice to its own ideas. We’re told that Starfleet is just one small part of a vast, advanced utopian civilization, but that means that the settings and characters of the various TV shows were atypical representatives of the Federation. We only ever saw brief glimpses of what ordinary life in such a society would be like.
Iain M. Banks, who died tragically early in 2013, did better with his Culture sci-fi series. Like the Federation, the Culture is a highly advanced spacefaring civilization, one among many in a galaxy with countless intelligent species, but most of the similarities end there. Rather than planets, most people of the Culture live on Orbitals, artificial ring-shaped worlds constructed in orbit around stars, or on starships. The Culture has ships of all sizes, but the biggest, called General Systems Vehicles or GSVs, are the size of large cities or small landmasses and can comfortably support millions or even billions of people.
The Culture is a hedonistic, post-scarcity society, with no disease, poverty or crime, where virtually any material desire can be easily fulfilled. Its citizens have all sorts of genetic enhancements, including built-in drug glands that they can activate at will to give them non-addictive highs, suppress pain, boost concentration, relax or sleep. Other modifications let them change gender just by thinking about it. They can live forever if they choose, or if they die, either by accident or by choice, it’s possible to download one’s total memories, consciousness and personality – your “mind-state” – and place it in a new body, or upload it into a virtual reality. The people of the Culture regard this as perfectly ordinary and routine, like backing up your hard drive.
The Culture’s system of government is somewhere between democracy and anarchy, but the real power doesn’t lie with its human inhabitants, nor with the non-humanoid aliens and sentient droids they mingle with. The true powers of the Culture are the Minds, benevolent and unimaginably powerful artificial intelligences that oversee the ships and Orbitals. Just like humans, the Minds have personalities all their own – some cheerful, some secretive, some amiable, some belligerent – and their bickering and bargaining is a constant theme of the series. One of Banks’ trademarks is for Minds to choose whimsical, elaborate names that reflect their personality or outlook. (Two of Elon Musk’s SpaceX drone ships are named in honor of Culture Minds.)
Most of the novels concern the Culture’s Contact arm, whose mission it is to establish diplomatic relations with other civilizations in the galaxy – some less advanced, others even more so – or the secretive Special Circumstances section, which is called into action in crises where the Culture’s normal rules don’t apply.
All the Culture books are standalones; though some books allude to events in previous books, they can be read in any order. If you want to get into the series, I’d recommend not starting with the first book, Consider Phlebas, which is about a war between the Culture and another species, the Idirans. It’s dark, violent and sad, very unlike the rest of the series. Plus, it’s scarcely even about the Culture, since it’s told from the perspective of someone on the other side of the war. (Banks revisits the Idiran war to better effect in a later novel, Look to Windward.)
A better starting point is the second book, The Player of Games, which concerns an ambassador of the Culture sent to a cruel interstellar empire built on the galaxy’s most complex game. It’s more accessible and a much better introduction to what the series is about. Some of my other favorites are Excession, a novel about a seemingly impossible anomalous artifact that the Culture and some other species all want to possess; and The Hydrogen Sonata, about the farewell party for a species that’s about to “Sublime” – i.e., shrug off their material forms and ascend to a higher plane of existence – and the revelation of a long-kept secret that arises in their last days.