The Culture is a fictional interstellar anarchic, socialist, and utopian society created by the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks which features in a number of science fiction novels and works of short fiction by him.
The Culture is characterized by being a post-scarcity society (meaning that its advanced technologies provide practically limitless material wealth and comforts for everyone for free, having all but abolished the concept of possessions), by having overcome almost all physical constraints on life (including disease and death) and by being an almost totally egalitarian, stable society without the use of any form of force or compulsion, except where necessary to protect others.
Minds, powerful artificial intelligences, have an important role to play in this society. They administer this affluence for the benefit of all.
The novels of the Culture cycle, therefore, mostly deal with people at the fringes of the Culture: diplomats, spies, or mercenaries; those who interact with other civilizations, and who do the Culture's dirty work in moving those societies closer to the Culture ideal, sometimes by force.
In this fictional universe, the Culture exists concurrently with human society on Earth. The time frame for the published Culture stories is from roughly AD 1300 to AD 2100, with Earth being contacted during the end of the time frame, though the Culture had covertly visited the planet in the 1970s in The State of the Art.
The Culture itself is described as having been created when several humanoid species and machine sentiences reached a certain social level, and took not only their physical, but also their civilizational evolution into their own hands. In The Player of Games, the Culture is described as having existed as a space-faring society for eleven thousand years.
Comparisons are often made between the Culture and the twentieth and twenty first century Western civilization(s), particularly their interventions in less-developed societies. These are often confused with regard to the author's assumed politics.
In its foreign policy, The Culture is reminiscent of neoconservative idealism, with a policy of intervening in foreign societies to promote its own cultural values.
Some believe that the Culture is a utopia carrying significantly greater moral legitimacy than the West's, by comparison, proto-democracies. While Culture interventions can seem similar at first to Western interventions, especially when considered with their democratising rhetoric, the argument is that the Culture operates completely without material need, and therefore without the possibility of baser motives. This is not to say that the Culture's motives are purely altruistic; a peaceful, enlightened universe full of good neighbours lacking ethnic, religious, and sexual chauvinisms is in the Culture's interest as well. Furthermore, the Culture's ideals – in many ways similar to those of the liberal perspective today – are to a much larger extent realised internally in comparison to the West.
Many of the practices employed by Special Circumstances would be considered distasteful even in the context of a Western democracy. Examples are the use of mercenaries to perform the work that the Culture doesn't want to get their hands dirty with, and even outright threats of invasion (the Culture has issued ultimatums to other civilizations before). Some commentators have also argued that those SC agents tasked with civilising foreign cultures (and thus potentially also changing them into a blander, more Culture-like state) are also those most likely to regret these changes, with parallels drawn to real-world special forces trained to operate within the cultural mindsets of foreign nations.
The events of Use of Weapons are an example of just how dirty Special Circumstances will play in order to get their way and the conspiracy at the heart of the plot of Excession demonstrates how at least some Minds are prepared to risk killing sentient beings when they conclude that these actions are beneficial for the long term good. Special Circumstances represents a very small fraction of Contact, which itself is only a small fraction of the entire Culture, making it comparable again to size and influence of modern intelligence agencies.