The aim was to show the pictures and explain my approach to visual design in the Culture Universe. Since then, two years have passed, it has evolved so here is a third part.
I am working on the long promised gigantic structures of the Culture, General System Vehicles and orbitals. Actually, they are far from finished. Thing is, I had to start small before getting bigger and bigger.
A Very Fast Picket (VFP) is “sunbathing” close from a star’s surface.
The Very Fast Picket Emancipated Asset meets the General Contact Unit Abundance Mindset.
The Culture’s canon
To tell the truth, it’s been at least five years since I last read a novel in the Culture cycle, Surface Detail. My vision has probably drifted further and further away from Iain M. Banks’ edifying and mysterious descriptions, which leave much to the imagination.
In most of the books, the Culture is seen from the outside by other civilisations, to whom it offers almost nothing tangible to see. Often all that is known of the General Contact Units is their size, sometimes their general shape, long, silver, oblong, blurred cylinders.
As for the General System Vehicles, they travel so far into interstellar void that they are beyond the reach of newly contacted civilisations. All that can be seen of them are their multiple fields that conceal the hull.
The aesthetic aspect of the culture is therefore quite open. Rather than trying to verify these laconic descriptions, I have deliberately stayed with my reading impressions and memories, trying to be faithful to the spirit rather than the letter.
Scale matters. A long travelling from a GSV, a GCU, a VFP to a bay service drone. I made these pictures to check the scale of the different ships between them. It lack many designs before final pictures. Ultimatly I could start the travelling from an orbital hub, flying over the orbital, to the inside bay of the GSV to end in front of a human scale character. (Not soon!)
Excession is my favorite book of the cycle, because it shows the Culture from the inside, from the point of view of the Minds.
For the first time, artificial intelligences (even if the term is rather disgraceful for Minds) are believable and exciting characters, far from the monolithic entities that populate the imagination of Science Fiction cinema, while being far more advanced and refined. The minutes of the “interesting times gang” are a great moment of conspirators playing at being masters of the galaxy, all in assassinating diplomatic undertones.
Excession is thus, in my opinion, the central book of the cycle, defining both the immensity and dizzying power of the Culture but also its limits. I think it sets a median point in the chronology of the cycle. And also a point of aesthetic reference, which has defined like a cannon in the readers’ imagination: a GSV generally looks like a classy plate like Sleeper Service with an open surface.
For my part, I figure that if the Culture has 10,000 years of history, its ships must have evolved in a radical way over these millennia.
Of course, spaceships that move in space void do not need an aerodynamic shape. Once the mastery of field technology allows a Culture vehicle to hide in a star, matter and all the ordinary physical phenomena are not an issue anymore.
My preference for this tapered design comes from my interpretation of the energies deployed for propulsion, which would be, in a way, a fluid medium. Novels tend to describe them that way, with an upper level and a lower level. It looks a bit like this effect.
Basically, I wanted to show how tractor and pusher fields slide and flow around the vehicle and that it is optimized for this. So for a GCU the general shape consists of a main body housing the mind, docking and storage spaces for the effectors and a tail housing multi-stage engines. Typically the small engines of the ROU and Pickets have multiple stages for super speed. These effects are better rendered on the following project, the orbital’s hub.
Another argument in favor of a rounded and domed design is the optimisation of internal volume in relation to the amount of matter used, a cult-like elegance.
Nature Vs the Culture
As my designs are set in the Excession era, it would be interesting to explore before and after this central, let’s say classical, period.
The former, rougher and in keeping with more classic sci-fi imagery, such as Starwars could be loaded with details that allow the viewer to understand the scale.
The latter, even more streamlined, goes to the point where form and function cease to be linked together. It comes along with a material disappearance which is evoked in the Hydrogen Sonata, a GSV has no longer a physical Hull but fields strucures.
Fields are said to be an intermediate state between waves and matter. Thanks to them, anything can be anything. A GSV can be a space brick (the famous plate class) or a gigantic field flower of 180 km long.
It makes visualization difficult because we strongly link form to function to make sense of all things around us. Whether they are living creatures or artificial creations, the shape says a lot about their nature. But this is the paradigm of nature, not of the Culture.
A Culture’s Orbital Hub. The core hosts the Mind and a few service drones around it. The two poles hosts fields devices and big drones, while the ring acts as a relay for the forces that hold the orbital.
Complex Vs complicated
It is common to represent gigantism by an accumulation of details. This works quite well, the eye catches the abundance of detail to a massive scale effect.
Using a 3D software makes it all the more easy to lean in this direction. It is cheaper to fill spaces with randomized elements than to design everything from top to bottom. Over time this has become a cliché of the sci-fi genre, many futuristic cities and ships are often covered in randomized geometries. But It gives a little fake feeling when seeing it.
I think the reason is this is confusing the complex, which is based on principles, with the complicated, which is a mixture of particular cases. A city is often a balance of both, whereas a ship, a priori of the Culture, is a complex manufactured object.
So I try to render it as something extremely structured while simple in its overall shape. Procedural modeling allows a kind of adequacy between content and form, so I want to dig this way. With the hub, this is the first time I really put this idea into practice.
Yet the obvious functions of the form remain: an orbital must be flat inside because it is simply more efficient. Likewise, the largest volume for the smallest surface is always a sphere. On the other hand, the perfection of pure forms can be quickly boring.
It is this exciting challenge, inventing an aesthetic proper to the Culture, not necessarily new but consistent with what I have stated above, that I am trying to take up here.
Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think in comments. Feedback is always welcome.
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A few notes on the Culture. In this short text, the author explains the original concept of his anarchist and hedonist galactic civilization.