List of societies of the Culture setting

List of societies of the Culture setting

Various fictional societies are depicted in the Culture stories of Iain M. Banks. For the Culture itself, see The Culture.



The Affront are a species described in Excession. Originally named after their homeworld Issorile, their current name was given to them by another Involved species - the Padressahl - after they ate the members of a Padressahl trade mission to Issorile. They embraced their given name, proud of their exuberant sadism.

Critics have remarked on how Banks uses the Affront's combination of geniality and buffoonery (compared to a caricature of British landed gentry) to offset their brutality and sadism, in a bid to both amuse and discomfort his readers.[1]


An average adult Affronter's body consists of a floating, bulbous mass about two metres in diameter, which hangs from a frilled gas sac one to five metres in diameter depending on their desired buoyancy and which can be deflated and covered by protective plates.

Six to eleven tentacles of varying length and thickness grow from the central mass, of which at least four end in leaf shaped paddles. Many affronters have lost one or more tentacles in combat or duels. Beaks on the front and rear of the central mass cover the creature's mouth and genitals, respectively. The eyes and ears are held on stalks above the fore beak (they also have a sensor bump atop the gas sac). An anus/gas vent is located in the bottom centre of the main body. The latter is one of their sources of propulsion, though they usually 'walk' on their limbs or 'paddle' through the air unless in a hurry.

Their homeworld is described as a 'fog-bound moon-planet', probably similar to a larger version of Saturn's moon Titan. Affronters require a high pressure, low temperature environment, and breathe an atmosphere composed mostly of nitrogen and methane, plus other trace hydrocarbons.


The Affront became a major galactic species - of a power and advancement sufficient enough to prevent too direct an intervention by the Culture - by virtue of several coincidences. Discovered by the Padressahl, a much more powerful species at that time, they proved impervious to the Padressahl's Culture-like attempts to change their predatory outlook towards other species, or to change their sadistic nature. When the Padressahl eventually sublimed, the Affront were advanced enough to start expanding widely from their local sphere of influence, which by chance lay on the other side of the galaxy from the Culture. By the time the two civilisations came into closer contact, shortly after the Idiran-Culture War, the Culture was not willing to entertain another massive military action to contain the Affront (even though it was at the height of its military power). Clandestine efforts to moderate their society did however continue, and after the Affront's warlike actions in Excession, the Culture started more direct steps in limiting their expansion and behaviour.

Affront society is described in Excession as being "a never ending, self perpetuating holocaust of pain and misery", where the strong prey upon weaker species and individuals. The Affront therefore pose a difficult moral problem for the Culture with its reluctance for direct intervention. However, the Affront are intelligent and cooperative enough (ritual or spontaneous duels notwithstanding) to build a stellar empire, and to develop advanced technology, or else steal it. They have also received some Culture technology (such as the ability to build orbitals) in exchange for grudgingly kept promises of better behaviour.

Among their own technological accomplishments is a strong aptitude for genetic engineering, which they developed long before spaceflight. They use this skill almost exclusively on 'prey species', which tend to be changed so as to provide greater sport (and opportunity for sadism) during the communal hunts forming a major part of the Affront culture. One of the few changes to their own species was the redesign of their females to make sex painful for them, a choice exemplary of the reasons they are considered abhorrent by the Culture.


The Azadians are the major species described in The Player of Games. The Azadians are a humanoid race with various peculiar physical and societal parameters; their society is called the Empire of Azad.


Generally humanoid, with short legs, their faces are described as slightly bloated, flat and pale. (These would be relative to a Culture norm, not an Earth one.) Most crucially however, Azadians are composed of three sexes - a 'male' having a penis whose sperm is then fertilised by an 'apex' sex which has ovaries and a 'reversible vagina' used as an ovipositor to implant the fertilised eggs in the 'female' sex.[2]


Stemming from the Planet Eä in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, the Empire of Azad is, by the time it is contacted by the Culture, a major stellar empire, ruled by a single emperor and an imperial bureaucracy - something described as very rare in the universe of the Culture, as such systems are considered too inflexible to produce the technological advances required for a stellar society. Their success is at least partially attributed to the eponymous game of Azad, which plays a central role in their society and has existed since before the Azadians started colonising other worlds.[3]

The technological level of the empire is described as being much lower than the Culture's, though it seems to be in contact with enemies of the Culture who sometimes furnish it with Culture-equivalent technology.

At the end of The Player of Games, the Empire of Azad is in massive internal turmoil based on the results of Culture intervention. It is implied that this was the result sought by Special Circumstances, who see the upheaval as an opening for change to a more advanced, more Culture-like society.


In Banks' story, the distinction of three sexes causes even harsher social stratification between the genders than found in humanity, with the 'apex' sex being the clearly - and harshly - dominant sex. In addition to this factor, two other elements shape their society.

The game of Azad - often just 'The Game' - is not only a testing mechanism for entry (at all levels) into the various branches of bureaucracy, military and other careers of the Empire - up to the very post of the Emperor belonging to the best player of the game. It also serves to influence or directly determine the current governing strategies, political faction fights and multiple other elements of Azad's society. It is, in short, a philosophy and a governing system, all played on multiple extremely complex room-sized boards shaped like layered pyramidal landscapes, and using various holographic pieces as well as playing cards and other elements. While the game is not the only way of resolving conflicts in the Empire (assassinations, for example, are also a possibility), even conflicts on the board can take on a deadly edge, with participants sometimes wagering submission to violence (sexual and otherwise), the amputation of body parts, or their lives outright.

This leads to the final element strongly influencing their society, namely the fact that Azadian society has an extremely strong undercurrent of physical and emotional cruelty. While only the lower classes celebrate this sadism in the open, the perversions of the upper classes are all the more imaginative, with whole television networks available only to the elite being devoted to snuff and torture.

As a result, Azadian society is highly stratified, and while outwardly pompous and grand, also marked by deep moral corruption, which galvanises the Culture's representatives into direct action.


Changers, described in Consider Phlebas, are a pan-human subspecies genetically engineered as a weapon in the distant past by an unknown species. They are capable of impersonating any humanoid being of similar size by restructuring their body to resemble the individual.


Changers have the ability to grow, shrink and mold their body as willed, changing everything from looks to actual muscles and bones, though most major changes - induced by a trance-like state - take several days. The impersonation is nearly perfect outwardly, making visual identification as an imposter almost impossible. They are even capable of modifying the genotype of the bulk of their cells to match that of another person through a virus based biological process, presumably maintaining their native genetic structure in protected stem cells for later renormalization.

Changers also have conscious control of most of their bodily functions - these include the ability to produce copious amounts of sweat or small quantities of acid on their skin (useful for close combat or escaping from bonds, respectively), while the ability to shape their bone structure also allows them to slip through bonds if they have enough time.

Changers also have various natural weapons, with their bite, spittle and nails containing poisons or acidic substances, and have perfected associated techniques in disguises, impersonation (psychological tactics as well as subconscious behaviour) and combat (assassination and self-defense) to improve their abilities.


Because of the threat they pose to most humanoid societies that depend on appearance as a means of identity, the Changers are an almost universally reviled species, and are usually killed where found. By the time of Culture novels, they were isolated to a single large asteroid, known as Heibohre, where they lived in a clan system of paramilitary structure. Some left that world for various reasons, and by the time of the Idiran-Culture War, many were working for the Idirans, mostly out of a dislike for the Culture. The Changers were destroyed as a species in the later stages of the war.


The Chelgrians, described in Look to Windward, are a recently contacted race, which subsequently suffered a major civil war with billions of dead when a failed Culture intervention caused a collapse of its millennia-old caste system.


The chelgrians are a mammalian species with two sexes, male and female, and evolved from an apex predator of their homeworld. They somewhat resemble a tiger with six legs. However, in the course of evolving from animal to sentient being the mid legs have fused, making them tripedal (walking on the rear legs and the mid leg). They are between three and four metres in length and one and a half to two metres in height, and have two arms ending in six digit hands that resemble paws. They are furred with various markings and have large carnivore teeth.


The Culture had decided to change Chelgrian society via covert intervention to diminish the caste system that was considered an impediment to Chel’s development. Unfortunately Chel erupted into civil war as an indirect result of the Culture’s actions. Shocked by this disastrous turn of events, the Culture announced that they had been manipulating Chel all along. The admission succeeded in stopping the war, but also created strong hatred towards the Culture.

The need of the Chelgrien-Puen (the sublimed part of the Chelgrian society) to take revenge on the Culture drives the events in Look to Windward.


Chelgrian society takes the form of a rigidly enforced caste system, though sufficiently technologically advanced enough to be considered Involved (that is to say similarly advanced to the majority of space faring species).

They are an especially notable race because of an event in their history, as six percent of the Chelgrian population sublimed when they had been Involved for only a few hundred years. For this to happen to a young race is unusual, for it to happen to only part of a race moreso, and there was another unexpected and remarkable outcome: the sublimed part of the population maintained links with the majority part of the population which has not moved on, calling itself the Chelgrian-Puen (the 'gone before'). As a unique phenomenon in the Culture universe, it also strongly influences the society's outlook, as the Chelgrian-Puen consider themselves (and are accepted as) the gatekeepers of the Chelgrian heaven.


The Dra'Azon are a Sublimed civilisation who appear in Consider Phlebas. Like most Sublimed species, they take little interest in galactic affairs, but do maintain and guard the "Planets of the Dead", worlds that have suffered global catastrophe, and are preserved in their post-apocalyptic state. Why the Dra-Azon do this is not clear. In the book, the Dra'Azon allow access to Schar's World — one of the Planets of the Dead — at seeming whim, or at least without discernible motivation. A message from them ends with the enigmatic warning, "There is death here".

The fear that they will provoke the planet's guardians to react to their actions and intents on Schar's World leads the characters to ponder the powerful Dra'Azon's apparent uninterest in the events as they unfold.


The Homomda are a major galactic race, somewhat further advanced than the Culture, but not yet as removed from the material universe as the Dra'Azon or the Sublimed civilisations. They see themselves as acting as a balancing factor between other major races.


The Homomda have a tripedal, pyramid-formed structure.[4]


Among the history revealed about the Homomda is that they gave shelter to the 'Holy Remnants' of the Idiran species when they were driven from their world and almost made extinct by another species. They used the Idirans (who share similarities to their tripedal form) as elite mercenary troops and later helped them reconquer their homeworld and expand their own sphere of influence. In the Idiran-Culture War, they supported the Idirans against the Culture, due to a policy of trying to prevent one species (or group) from attaining too much influence in the galaxy, similar to real-world Great Britain before World War I.

After sustaining heavy losses during the decades-long war - even with their ships being described as more powerful than most Culture ships (Appendices of Consider Phlebas) - they eventually struck a truce with the Culture and withdrew from the conflict. This was a major factor in the eventual Idiran defeat.

In Look To Windward it is noted that the Homomda consider the Culture to be immature, impulsive - childish, in a word. However, the Homomda character central to the novel feels warmth for his Culture friends, and finds himself increasingly changing from an 'Ambassador' to a Culture citizen.


The Idirans are a major galactic race, most known for their war against the Culture. By the time of Consider Phlebas, they are an aggressive but calculating warrior species which considers it their holy duty to bring order to the universe and its lesser races.


Full-grown Idirans stand about three meters tall on a tripod of legs and have two arms. There is some hint of fully trilateral symmetry in their ancestry, as a third, vestigial, arm has evolved into a chest-flap which the Idirans use to create loud, booming warning signals. They have a saddle-shaped head with two eyes at each end of the saddle.

Idirans are biologically immortal (or, more correctly, ageless) and are very resilient to physical damage as they are protected by a natural keratinous body-armour and can withstand catastrophic damage and even remain conscious, though they do not naturally regenerate. They are dual hermaphrodites, each half of a couple impregnating the other. After one or two pregnancies Idirans lose their fertility and develop into the warrior stage, reaching greater size and weight, the armour hardening fully. Idiran warriors are capable of taking enormous amounts of damage and can survive massive trauma that would kill a human being instantly-for example, losing a large fraction of their head.

The biological immortality was a result of their evolution as the 'top monster on a planet full of monsters', where strong natural selection pressure and a strong background radiation (causing mutations) prevented the biological immortality from stifling the evolution of the species.


Once the Idirans had tamed their environment they lived in peace and solitude for forty-five thousand years until they were almost made extinct by alien invaders. In response (and in reflection of their physical change from breeder to warrior), they turned into a warrior race and attempted to conquer and convert all other races in the galaxy to bring about the order their God desires (see 'Society' below). This successful and brutal expansion eventually resulted in the Idiran-Culture War. Their religious need to defend and hold once-conquered territory at all costs is described as having been part of their downfall, competing with the Culture's spaceborne flexibility.

Idir, the homeworld of the species, was never conquered during the war, though the Culture succeeded in removing the artificial restraints holding back the development of the planet-wide information network, which then upgraded itself to sentience, 'becoming a Culture Mind in all but name'. This and the loss of the war itself precipitated major changes in Idiran society.


The Idirans are a deeply religious people and believe in a single, rational God who wants a better existence for his creation. Everything in life has its place and it is desirable to bring about order by putting things into their right places. This belief developed while they were struggling for survival in the harsh and chaotic conditions of their home world. Idirans also believe that they are the only beings with immortal souls - as other species do not even possess biological immortality, they see no reason to assume they would possess the spiritual kind. In this way, they treat all other sentient races as similar to very intelligent pets.

By the time of the later novels, the Idirans have become 'Culturized' to some degree, with some having joined Culture ship crews.


The Medjel are a 'companion' (or slave) species to the Idirans. They originally evolved in a social symbiosis with the Idirans, who later bred them as a companion species over the course of forty thousand years (by the time of the Idiran-Culture War). They are reckoned to be about two thirds as intelligent as the average human. Outnumbering Idirans by about 12 to 1 but being genetically loyal to them, they provide good, if unimaginative, soldiers and servants.

Physically, the medjel are about two metres long, with green-brown skin. They have flat, long heads with distinct muzzles, walk on four feet and use two front feet as hands. The tail of the military medjel is docked.


The Morthanveld, described in Matter, are a spiniform aquatic species, who are described as a high-level involved society, meaning that they are part of the 'Optimae', those highest tier of civilisations in power and sophistication to which the Culture itself is counted.


The Morthanveld are described as milky-coloured spheres of approximately a metre in diameter, with hundreds of spines, which are quite flexible and some serve manipulatory functions. They can also be adorned with rings and other decorations and their colour-change is a form of body-language, and squirts of water molecules (assumed to be coded via chemicals) also serve as a form of communication.[5]


There is so far relatively little description of the society of the Morthanveld in the Banks novels. They are described as being technologically and otherwise on a similar level as the Culture, and also control vast spheres of the galaxy, including being the mentors of various lesser galactic races such as the Nariscene. They have a rudimentary remaining money system, but according to the Culture, are approaching a stage in their development when they will turn into a similar post-scarcity society - a potential cusp which the Culture has chosen to not endanger by interventionary moves which it might attempt with less advanced societies. The Morthanveld have vast numerical superiority over The Culture, as a single Morthanveld "Nestworld" - consisting of a complex, recursive arrangement of transparent tubes within tubes, all revolving around a small central star - is said to be home to more Morthanveld citizens than there are Culture citizens anywhere.[6]


The Nariscene, described in Matter, are an insectile species, described as a mid-level Involved society, meaning that they are both a mentored species as well as mentoring lesser species in turn.


The Nariscene are described as six-limbed insectiles covered with keratinous shells. Their bodies have five segmentations, and are around a metre and a half long (not counting manipulatory stalks with their mandibles), though sizes change with sub-species, with the lesser individuals in a hierarchy being slightly smaller. They often implant jewelry or tools and weapons straight into their carapaces. They communicate partly via scented gas squirts.[5] They often use 'exoskeletons' with anti-gravity devices.[6]

Their procreation seems to be at least partly based on a 'Queen' spawning new Nariscene. The mate of the queen (who dies in his highly-honoured duty) is selected based on the requirements of the 'Imperial Procreational College' which selects the desired genotype according to the current requirements of the species every generation. The clans of the Nariscene may then bid for the honour to go to one of their own.[5]


There is only limited description of the society of the Nariscene in the Banks novels. They are described as being mentors of the Oct, and are in turn mentored by the much more powerful Morthanveld, a relationship which seems reasonably cordial. Their society seems to centre on clans existing in a feudal system with an immortal Queen (though the 'Everlasting' term may be ceremonial).[5]


The Oct, described in Matter, are a crab-like species, described as a lower-level involved society, meaning that they are mentored by higher societies, though they in their specific case also mentor a non-involved society on the shellworld of Sursamen.


The Oct are described as having ovoid bodies the size of a human child's torso, coloured deep blue and covered with thick bristly green hairs. They have eight limbs (four of them serving as arms, four as legs), which are triple-jointed and described as 'broken-looking'. They are joined to the main body at black joint-stubs, which are set in rows along the side of the Oct's body in not-quite symmetrical order.[7]

They are often seen with support backpacks which house anti-gravity equipment and support equipment which the Oct seem to need for survival or comfort, as the system is connected to 'face masks' and circulates fluids. They are also described as preferring to live underwater and often leaking or leaving behind fluids from their equipment or a thin fluid membrane which covers their bodies.[6][7]


The Oct society is strongly centered around their belief (expressed in seemingly religious terms, though the Oct are known to be very incomprehensible) that they are the 'Inheritors' of the 'Veil', that species which long past created the shellworlds of the Culture universe before disappearing. However, other societies have shown this to be demonstrably false, and consider the Oct to be a little bit weird as well as somewhat pathetic. The Oct in turn have a strong hatred for the Aultridia, another species connected to the shellworlds.[6]


  1. ^ A Companion to Science Fiction - Seed, David; Blackwell Publishing, 2005, Page 561-562
  2. ^ The Player of Games - Banks, Iain M., Orbit 2005, Page 74
  3. ^ The Player of Games - Banks, Iain M., Orbit 2005, Page 76
  4. ^ Banks, Ian M (1988). Consider Phlebas. Orbit. pp. 504. ISBN 1857231384. 
  5. ^ a b c d Matter - Banks, Iain M., Orbit 2008, Page 55-71
  6. ^ a b c d Matter - Banks, Iain M., Orbit 2008
  7. ^ a b Matter - Banks, Iain M., Orbit 2008, Page 30-31

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