Special Circumstances is an organisation within the culture that deals with, yes, special circumstances - new alien discoveries, inter species relations etc. Special Circumstances was described in Use of Weapons as ”... the moral equivalent of black holes, where the normal laws - the rules of right and wrong that people imagine apply everywhere else in the universe - break down; beyond those metaphysical event-horizons, there exist... special circumstances.”

We know that Minds, large ship like AIs, control and look after the Culture on large inter stellar ships (GSVs) on which people of the culture live out their lives.

But Minds often have more influence than first perceived, and can even have their own agenda, as demonstrated in Look to Windward where a Mind very subtly influenced people around it to kill it.

My question is, who decides Special Circumstances agenda? Is it the people of the Culture, or is it a Mind, or a perhaps a combination of the two? I’m looking for an in universe answer if possible, if it was ever mentioned in any of the novels.

  • "in Look to Windward where a Mind very subtly influenced people around it to kill it" -- Um, what? Citation needed.
    – ilkkachu
    Dec 28, 2018 at 17:03

2 Answers 2


Theoretically the entire Culture sets the policy of Contact (and its dirty-tricks division, Special Circumstances) but the realpolitik answer is that they (in quorum) set their own goals and aims.

Politics in the Culture consists of referenda on issues whenever they are raised; generally, anyone may propose a ballot on any issue at any time; all citizens have one vote. Where issues concern some sub-division or part of a total habitat, all those - human and machine - who may reasonably claim to be affected by the outcome of a poll may cast a vote. Opinions are expressed and positions on issues outlined mostly via the information network (freely available, naturally), and it is here that an individual may exercise the most personal influence, given that the decisions reached as a result of those votes are usually implemented and monitored through a Hub or other supervisory machine, with humans acting (usually on a rota basis) more as liaison officers than in any sort of decision-making executive capacity; one of the few rules the Culture adheres to with any exactitude at all is that a person's access to power should be in inverse proportion to their desire for it. The sad fact for the aspiring politico in the Culture is that the levers of power are extremely widely distributed, and very short (see entry on megalomaniacs, above). The intellectual-structural cohesion of a starship of course limits the sort of viable votes possible on such vessels, though as a rule even the most arrogant craft at least pretend to listen when their guests suggest - say - making a detour to watch a supernova, or increasing the area of parkland on-board.


Note that most Culture citizens show little interest in what's happening in the wider galaxy, save for what impacts their own insulated lives.

So, yes, these people. They share collective responsibility for the actions of their Minds, including the Minds of Contact and Special Circumstances. That’s the way they’ve set it up, that’s the way they want it to be. There are no ignorants here, Quil, no exploited, no Invisibles or trodden-upon working class condemned forever to do the bidding of their masters. They are all masters, every one. They can all have a say on everything. So by their own precious rules, yes, it was these people who let what happened to Chel happen, even if few actually knew anything about the details at the time.

Look to Windward

As to what (and how) they justify their actions to the wider public, the answer is that they have cold, hard statistics to show that their involvement produces more good than harm.

“We are,” Anaplian assured him. “Constantly. Still, we can prove that it works. The interfering and the dirty-tricking; it works. Salvation is in statistics.”
“I wondered when we’d get to that,” the man said, smiling sourly and nodding. “The unquestioned catechism of Contact, of SC. That old nonsense, that irrelevance.”
“Is not nonsense. Nor . . . It is truth.”
The man got down from his bar stool. He was shaking his head. This made his wild fawn hair go in all directions, floatily. Most distracting. “There’s just nothing we can do,” he said sadly, or maybe angrily, “is there? Nothing that’ll change you. You’ll just keep doing all that shit until it collapses down around you, around us, or until enough of everybody sees the real truth, not fucking statistics. Till then, there’s just nothing we can do.”



To expand on the answer above, a recurring theme in the Culture books is how connections, reputation or even simple proximity can allow certain Minds to dictate Contact and Special Circumstances policy in ways that contravene usual procedures.

The most blatant example of this is in Excession where the Interesting Times Gang gatecrashes and takes over an 'SC Extraordinary Events Core Group' formed to handle the out of context problem:

Well, a normal enough but pretty high-power Mind Incident Group gets together to discuss what's going on, then - allowing for signal travel duration - within real-time seconds it's taken over by probably the most respected not to mention enigmatic group of Minds ever assembled together in the same signal sequence since the end of the Idiran War.

In this case the intervention is by a pre-established group of legendary ships but we also see it achieved on a more individual basis by lone Minds. Beyond the 'Look to Windward' case that you identify in your question, there are numerous cases of intervention in Y'Breq's revenge story in Surface Detail.

Of course, this being Special Circumstances, it can be difficult to tell whether such apparently 'rogue' actions are genuinely so or form part of a deeper and more Machiavellian plan.

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