One of my favorite series on the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog is Abigail Nussbaum’s Political History of the Future, in which she analyzes the politics of science fiction settings. This bit from her essay on Iain M. Banks’s The Culture series is a wonderful introduction to something like Star Trek’s Federation, but simultaneously weirder and more realistic:
The Culture wants for nothing, and yet it is defined by a profound need for meaning. The Culture is the most radically, anarchically free society imaginable, and yet it is governed by AIs (known as “Minds”) who make decisions at a speed and complexity that human citizens could never hope to match. The Culture is constitutionally peaceful, and yet it constructs ships and weapons platforms capable of dealing out death and destruction on a galactic scale.
What’s more, the Culture’s covert operations wing, Special Circumstances, routinely interferes in the affairs of other societies, sometimes nudging them gently towards more equal, more benevolent forms of government, and sometimes orchestrating coups and civil wars in the hopes that these will lead to better results down the line. It can be hard to tell whether we’re meant to approve of the Culture or be horrified by it. Beyond that, it can be hard to tell whether the Culture is a utopian vision of the future, or a dystopian parody of the present.
Nussbaum’s personal blog has a decade-long series of reviews of the individual books in The Culture series, if you’re already familiar with the setting.
Either way, don’t skip the link to the list of names which The Culture’s Minds give their spaceships. Whether or not superintelligent AIs are going to destroy humanity, I hope they have the decency to be as irreverent as the Minds are.