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

"So they decided to do that to themselves?" M'Tozo demanded angrily.

"I'm afraid so. Nearly a hundred generations ago," the ship said, through the drone.

"The organised mutilation and sexual assault of all women?" Engata added sadly, "That's just immoral."


When a Culture Mind starts adding noise words into its interactions with humans, there was either a worryingly huge amount of uncertainty in the answer, or bad news was about to follow.

"It might just be the least worst solution," the drone said gravely.

Both women swivelled to stare at the drone.

"What do you mean?" they shouted in unison.

Gaia Principle societies were a persistent moral problem for the Culture. Such civilizations were almost never even approximately equitable; there was a severe bias towards considerable inequalities in one form or another. There were matriarchal societies, where women controlled the familial lines, owned all the property and determined the future for their daughters; men had strictly supporting roles as servants, peons or just slaves. There were gerontocratic societies, with the old running everything and the young treated as serfs or vassals. There were oligarchies controlled by religious or military groups, or some form of perceived nobility, or plutocracies, similarly. In every case, power and authority and luxury was concentrated in the hands of a very few individuals, and the rest subjected to an imaginative range of indignities, deprivation and, potentially, starvation.

"Look, there are a few hundred of these villages, set up and down this river valley," the ship explained, through the remote drone, "Possibly the most fertile area on the entire planet. There are a handful of similarly populated valleys widely distribued over the continents; there's no communication between them. The population of each village is tightly controlled to the resources available - hence the extreme measures taken to control the fertility of the women. And the men work hard, very hard - they do pretty much all the work: in the fields and foundries, the shambles and the kitchens, the shared dormitories and storerooms."

"But that's no excuse for raping the women every week!" M'Tozo raged.

"Apart from the, ah, ceremony in the temple," the ship answered, sounding extremely apologetic, "The women are well cared for, even pampered. They have food to eat, a warm place to sleep, a great deal of leisure time. Really, their only duties are to bear children and to look after babes-in-arms. Everything else is done for them."

"Is that really an acceptable trade-off?" Engata asked sadly.

"Within the genders, at least, the society is highly equitable," the drone's voice continued, "Nobody had more of anything than any other - a truly socialist society, in that sense. Everybody had a place to sleep, in communal dormitories, and enough food for all from communal kitchens. Different food for women, though. There's no money, to use a technical term, and not very much trade - just a few swaps and bartering where absolutely necessary: wrought iron stock for food, for example, or swapping stud animals with another village, to keep the genes circulating. They also swap pre-pubescent girls, for the same reason."

"But it's highly inequitable across genders," M'Tozo almost shouted at the drone.

"It is," the slaved drone agreed, "But do the females really get the worst part of the deal?"

"What?" the two women exclaimed, again curiously synchronised.

"A truly equitable society - and I agree immediately that this is quite definitely not one," the voice of the Displacement Activity said, "Is really not possible at the level of technological development this society has retained. Chosen to retain, I should say. Without the advanced technological support necessary to allow men and women to be treated equally - including control over fertility and the ability to change sex at will - there will always be a gender imbalance in their society."

"But it's so brutal," Engata breathed, "Surely we can do something to reduce the female suffering?"

"Well, perhaps," the ship demurred, "But there's a different issue to consider."

One problem with the Gaia Principle societies was that, in actuality, it was not really a long-term solution. Just one pandemic, one sudden emergence of a virulent medical condition with a high level of communicability, could wipe out the entire population, or at least enough to make the survivors unsustainable. Or, some cosmic event could lead to catastrophe: an impact from an itinerant asteroid, or a particularly energetic solar flare could make all life on a planet impossible.

The ship-slaved drone patiently explained all this.

"So, these people, all of them, are under a death sentence," the ship's voice went on sadly, "Oh, not tomorrow, not next year or even next century. But, sooner or later, these people will die out, irrevocably and for ever."

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