A novel set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Body Politic

One of the many things about the Galaxy which appears to be statistically unbalanced was the number of larger rocky planets orbiting stars in the zone which would make them habitable to natives similar to the forebears of the species which made up the Culture. There were just nowhere near as many as would have been expected, given the well-understood mechanisms by which planets had been formed - and indeed continued to be formed. This led to some Minds and the more curious members of numerous other civilizations to wonder if, in the distant past, some force or intelligence had actively destroyed this class of planet, although there was no evidence - despite some very detailed investigations - to support such a view: no unexpected asteroid fields or dust clouds; no anomalous composition or unexpected mass of nearby stars; no expanding cluster of wandering planetoids in interstellar space with a suspiciously common point of origin.

There were plenty of other kinds of planets: huge gas-giants with metallic hydrogen cores, for example; there were a vast number of these, often spectacularly ringed by debris left over from when the planet coalesced out of circling clouds of dust and gas, and usually accompanied by dozens, even hundreds of moons. There were billions of smaller, colder, gas giants, and plenty of small rocky planets and dwarf planets, often on the innermost or outermost fringes of a stellar system, but very few potentially habitable places for humanoids or any of dozens of other species-types which preferred similar living conditions.

Careful studies and detailed observations of planetary systems still being formed suggested a close alignment between the theoretical number and composition of potentially inhabitable planets, and the actual proto-planets forming from gas clouds and fragments. The absence of fully-formed medium-sized rocky planets was a mystery as yet unanswered – which was the kind of mystery which tended to give Culture Minds general conniptions.

The prevailing Culture view was that a planet was a huge waste of matter; it required so much material to produce such tiny usable areas of land and sea. To give its citizens plenty of living space - open spaces for play and adventure and amusement - without treading on the metaphorical toes of other residents in the galaxy, the Culture preferred to build Orbitals. Culture Orbitals were huge things, of course, but tended to be approximately the same size; they were set up for a standard day/night cycle and one standard gravity, generally narrow compared with their circumference, constructed largely from superdense materials and held together almost entirely by forcefields.

The absence of good planets to live on was another, much less frequently discussed reason why the Culture preferred Orbitals - or other very large-scale habitats - which could be constructed from the otherwise-useless detritus that almost all stellar systems had in abundance. This avoided even the slightest desire to take over existing planets, potentially displacing the natives - which would have been moral anathema anyway - or waste huge amounts of material making new ones.

*

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.179]
  xGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Friends, I'm sure we all have had time to study the reports and analyses which have been circulating.
Any further thoughts? Candidate courses of action? Weaknesses and limitations of Castophrenic Widowhood society or technology?


[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.179+]
  xMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
I believe there is some virtue in examining the social structures of the Widowhood in more detail. And their internal politics.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.179+]
  xLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oGSV Obambulatist
Hah. The Widowhood's internal politics are universally energetic, corrupt, merciless and bloody. Individuals who emerge from this maelstrom as leaders are inevitably the most ruthless, cunning and bloodthirsty. They're also likely to be the physically biggest and strongest, since part of their success is measured by the amount and quality of the food they can access. And the number of males they can mate with and/or eat.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.179+]
  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Obambulatist
I think we can be sure that it is the very strongest females who are in charge. Individual Widows are extremely bright, by bio standards, although I don't think we have a reliable way of estimating the differences in intelligence. They certainly don't care to be guided by AIs of any kind - mere machines - huh! - and expect synthetic intelligences to be passive and subjugated slaves, at best.
They don't like being challenged, by anybody or anything they perceive as weaker than themselves; that provokes an immediate physical assault. Conversely, they will instinctively cover away from those who are understood to be stronger, more powerful, which is just as well from their point of view, otherwise they would all have ripped themselves to shreds ages ago. A great deal of their individual intellects are taken up with estimates of the relative puissance of those around them, their current position in the hierarchy of influence, and identifying opportunities for advancement.
The bloody battles for succession occur when two individuals convince themselves that the other is weaker than them. We don't have much direct recorded evidence for such conflicts, but it is probably fairly unpleasant.


[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.179+]
  xGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
A useful viewpoint.
So, if we extrapolate their social behaviour to the society as a whole, which will in any case be under the control of a very small number of very powerful individuals, then we can conclude that they have been covering away from us, the Culture, for millennia since we were perceived as being the more powerful. And now, they have concluded that they, the Castophrenic Widowhood, are the stronger and are therefore expecting us to cower and retreat in turn.


  xGSV Obambulatist
Which we won't be doing. We have firmly rejected their ultimatum. They have no concept of a tactical retreat and regroup, which is pretty much the default Culture approach to large-scale external threats. And they don't have a social model which permits a notion of a collaboration of equals; again, one of our strength, I believe.
I just wish we could get some kind of handle on the technologies which make them so elusive. We are at great risk of enormous losses unless we can improve our abilities in reliable detection.


  xGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
I'm sure we're all investigating very closely the Castophrenic Widowhood's technical capabilities, including the detailed data streams captured by the Extended Adolescence during its imaginatively creative, or perhaps just extremely lucky escape. No progress yet on my part, though.

  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
Me neither.
But we still don't know what was the trigger, the step-change which convinced the Castophrenic Widowhood, or at least the Widows in charge, that they now have the upper hand.
They’re not stupid, and they are very experienced in estimating the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. They would not have taken such a dangerous and irreversible step unless they had very good reasons to do so.


  xMSV Amphisbaena
Perhaps it’s just that they believe they now have more ships than we do.
After all, we make no secret of the number of ships that we have, and of their capabilities, and their locations, for the most part.


  xLSV Road Less Travelled
Most of our ships, sure. We do have some, shall we say, less well publicised assets secreted around the galaxy.

  xMSV Amphisbaena
True, but it is a relatively small fraction - of the number, at least.
And, besides, given the Widowhood's still unknown capabilities, these might not still be secret.


  xGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
A worrying possibility.
But I still can't help thinking that there is something else, something we're missing. I’ve been racking my brains, if you will forgive such a crude metaphor, trying to work out what advantage they have, that they have suddenly acquired.
And where does their inexplicable interest in the Delphic Chaosarium come from?


  xLSV Road Less Travelled
I for one have no clue.
Apart from a rapid build-up of military assets in the vicinity, mostly manufactured from first principles by my good self, there appears to be nothing going on.


  xGSV Obambulatist
And no update on this supposed plot to destabilise the artifact?

  xLSV Road Less Travelled
Nothing at all. Still completely in the dark.

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