10 top gadgets from Iain M Banks' Culture universe

Mosquito drones – now available on Earth?
Are mosquito drones a reality? And do they make that annoying WEEEEEE noise?

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.

Iain Banks

Iain Banks in 2009 [Image credit: Tim Duncan]

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.

Get a robot to fire you into the heart of the sun. YOLO

Get a robot to fire you into the heart of the sun. YOLO

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.