Recently reread Iain M. Banks’ great space opera, realizing the second time through that it was a different book than it was when I first read it 15 years ago. These are quotes I extracted because I liked them, they have no real thematic ties to each other.
The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had (at however great a remove) brought into being: the urge not to feel useless.
It was the Culture’s fault. It considered itself too civilized and sophisticated to hate its enemies; instead it tried to understand them and their motives, so that it could out-think them and so that, when it won, it would treat them in a way which ensured they would not become enemies again.
The Culture, there could be no doubt, relied profoundly on its machines for both its strategy and tactics in the war it was now engaged in. Indeed, a case could be made for holding that the Culture was its machines, that they represented it at a more fundamental level than did any single human or group of humans within the society. The Minds that the Culture’s factory craft, safe Orbitals and larger GSVs were now producing were some of the most sophisticated collections of matter in the galaxy. They were so intelligent that no human was capable of understanding just how smart they were (and the machines themselves were incapable of describing it to such a limited form of life).
General Systems Vehicles were like encapsulated worlds. They were more than just very big spaceships; they were habitats, universities, factories, museums, dockyards, libraries, even mobile exhibition centers. They represented the Culture — they were the Culture. Almost anything that could be done anywhere in the Culture could be done on a GSV. They could make anything the Culture was capable of making, contained all the knowledge the Culture had ever accumulated, carried or could construct specialized equipment of every imaginable type for every conceivable eventuality, and continually manufactured smaller ships: General Contact Units usually, warcraft now. Their complements were measured in millions at least. They crewed their offspring out of the gradual increase in their own population. Self-contained, self-sufficient, productive and, in peacetime at least, continually exchanging information, they were the Culture’s ambassadors, its most visible citizens and its technological and intellectual big guns. There was no need to travel from the galactic backwoods to some distant Culture home-planet to be amazed and impressed by the stunning scale and awesome power of the Culture; a GSV could bring the whole lot right up to your front door…
“This is— ” Fal was annoyed, enough to be a little stuck for words. “This is just us now. We haven’t evolved… we’ve changed a lot, changed ourselves a lot, but we haven’t evolved at all since we were running around killing ourselves. I mean each other.” She sucked her breath in, annoyed with herself now. The boy was smiling tolerantly at at her. She felt herself blushing. “We are still animals,” she insisted. “We’re natural fighters just as much as the Idirans.”
“Then how come they’re winning,” the boy smirked.
“They had a head start. We didn’t begin properly preparing for war until the last moment. Warfare has become a way of life for them; we’re not all that good at it yet because it’s been hundreds of generations since we had to do it. Don’t worry,” she told him, looking down at her empty glass and lowering her voice slightly, “we’re learning quite fast enough.”