The fictional universe of The Culture, created by Iain M Banks, contains a wide range of space vessels types, most of which contain sentient Minds and which play a key role in the society of the Culture and in the plots of the novels set within it. Most of the lengthy names of ship classifications are shortened to three-letter acronyms (e.g. GSV). All ships are intelligent entities run by Minds, normally three Minds, but sometimes up to seven Minds.
A Systems Vehicle represents the full spectrum of the Culture's capabilities, since it can access all of the information known by the Culture and can make anything that the Culture can make. Systems Vehicles are enormously magnified von Neumann probes, as their essential components are engines, multi-purpose factories and Minds (advanced artificial intelligences). With these capabilities a Systems Vehicle can function as anything its Mind(s) and the Culture choose. The most common and most visible functions are:
- the principal habitats of many members of the Culture, with populations in the millions or billions. Much of the Culture's organic population lives in Systems Vehicles. The inhabitants have limited say in the running of the Systems Vehicle but can easily transfer to another Systems Vehicle or to a Rock or Orbital whose Mind's preferences are more compatible with their own.
- shipyards and motherships for lesser space ships, including General Contact Units?.
- in crises groups of Systems Vehicles (assisted by some smaller ships, mainly General Contact Units) act as the nearest thing to a government that the anarchistic Culture ever has.
When the Culture got embroiled in its first major war (early in the series of Culture stories), at first it had no specialist warships and had to use Systems Vehicles (mainly General Systems Vehicles, the largest class) and General Contact Units for combat. This was a waste of the resources and capabilities invested in Systems Vehicles–although their size and manufacturing capacity makes them formidable and sometimes devastating opponents, the cost of losing such a vessel was considered too high to risk them in general conflicts.
General Systems Vehicle (GSV)
Medium Systems Vehicle (MSV)
Limited Systems Vehicle (LSV)
General Contact Vehicle (GCV)
General Contact Unit (GCU)
Limited Contact Unit (LCU)
After a long hiatus, the Culture only restarted specialist warship production during its only full-scale war against the Idirans?. After that war it continued producing increasingly advanced Offensive Units but at a much slower rate. In Excession, a single Rapid Offensive Unit of the latest type successfully engages in combat against a fleet of Offensive Units left over from the Idiran-Culture war and survives the encounter.
Culture military doctrine has changed over the centuries. At one point, the Culture relied on several secret bases each housing hundreds and thousands of stored, inactive OUs ready to be called into battle once again. The Culture later transitioned to a force of immensely powerful craft, with their designations obscuring their true power, and scattered them throughout the galaxy.
Offensive Units' Minds are usually pugnacious and macho (particularly by the Culture's normal standards), and most non-combat ships regard Offensive Units with a mixture of respect and unease verging on mild contempt. Though OUs live for the thrill of battle, they also possess extreme intelligence befitting a Mind and are capable of advanced tactics, as opposed to using just brute force.
OUs frequently store a copy of their Mind state with another ship before going into action, and these backups are frequently installed in new ships if the OU does not survive. This is in part a reward for the self-sacrifice of the ships, and a motivation for bravery in combat. It is also a tacit admission by the Culture that it prefers peace over war–the number of warships required is small, and the creation of new warship Minds is also undesirable over the birth of peace-loving Minds.
General Offensive Unit (GOU)
Rapid Offensive Unit (ROU)
Limited Offensive Unit (LOU)
Other ship types
Very Fast Picket / Fast Picket (VFP /FP)