I'm looking for information on the production power of the Culture. Especially useful would be answers to:

  • How long does it take a ship to produce another ship equivalent to itself (i.e. the doubling time of any fleet)?
  • Does productive power scale linearly with ship size?
  • What are the bottlenecks for exponential growth, or what parts of new ships take most of the industrial effort to create and which require minimal effort (e.g. new Minds, effectors, hyperspace drives, the body of the ship)?
  • Are ships constructed primarily by effectors (so effector power is a limiting factor), or by something else (nanobots?).
  • As a rule of thumb nano-machines are small (very small) and as we currently understand the technology work best when doing small things under the command of larger computer/Minds. If you want to build megastructures, nanomachines are not the best way. Megastructure usually require facilities nearly as large as themselves, even in the advanced technology of the Culture. May 18, 2014 at 19:08
  • @Thaddeus - Or a very long time.
    – Valorum
    May 18, 2014 at 19:33
  • @Thaddeus Makes sense. My reason for thinking nanobots may play a role (directed by minds) is that self-replicating nanobots should have a vastly lower doubling time than the apparent doubling times for larger Culture constructs, so would be able to scale up much faster with abundant materials and a Mind providing instructions+displacer transport. Perhaps they have self-rep nanobot technology, but avoid it at all costs because it's hegeswarmy?
    – plex
    May 19, 2014 at 1:36

1 Answer 1


There are no objective 'in universe' answers to the question you've posed. We can make some educated guesses and on-the-back-of-a-napkin calculations if you'd like:

How long does it take a ship to produce another ship equivalent to itself?

If we assume that the constructed fleet seen at the end of the book "Excession" is roughly equivalent to a "replicating event" then the answer is that the single largest ship-type seen in the Culture fleet (a GSV) can probably be constructed in as little as 20-30 years, assuming adequate materials were to hand. This tallies nicely with the events of the Idiran war, in which we see the Culture create a brand new class of vessel, the GOU and ROU (roughly half the size of a GSV) which then takes approximately 15-20 years to go from design to production.

The largest GSVs seem to agglomerate in size as they age, starting at around 25KM and growing to as much as 200KM at the upper end of their lifecycle.

Does productive power scale linearly with ship size?

Yes, absolutely. The principle, well established in the Contact novels, as well as in Bank's own "Notes on the culture" is that a General Systems Vehicle or a completed Orbital is an holographic representation of the Culture, capable of reproducing any object or structure found elsewhere in the Culture up to and including a viable Culture population

Smaller ships (Offensive Units and the like) seem to be restricted to producing their own drones, munitions and small "lifeboat" style units controlled by AI cores. The production of mind-controlled craft is left to larger System- and Contact- Class vessels as well as Rings.

What are the bottlenecks for exponential growth?

Culturally, the Culture spurns exponential growth. They view this as crass and akin to the actions of an homogenising swarm. Per Banks' own notes;

"why? What is the point? To put it in what we might still regard as frivolous terms but which the Culture would have the wisdom to take perfectly seriously, where is the fun in that?

Interest - the delight in experience, in understanding - comes from the unknown; understanding is a process as well as a state, denoting the shift from the unknown to the known, from the random to the ordered... a universe where everything is already understood perfectly and where uniformity has replaced diversity, would, I'd contend, be anathema to any self-respecting AI."

Which part of a ship is the hardest part to build?

Arguably the most valuable part is the Mind. We see a factory tasked with the production of ships in Consider Phlebas. They prioritise the Mind above all else when the facility is attacked and there is some suggestion that the production of a Mind is considered the highest faculty of Culture technology.

Are ships constructed by nano-machines or effectors?

It is only within the most recent Culture novels that there's been a mention of increasing use of eDust and nano-machines in the Culture's culture. The majority of production in previous novels is either managed by effectoring pieces into their correct configuration or, as we see in Player of Games, allowing humans to have a small (and largely trivial) role in physically manhandling the parts into place.

  • 1
    Useful information, thanks! Re: Culture avoiding exponential growth/doubling times, I'm planning on running a game where an initially tiny Culture Ulterior fleet has a goal of having a large effect on a galaxy in trouble (40k). I'm struggling to square decade+ industrial doubling times with their level of tech, is there any indication that they're massively holding back on growth even during the Iridian war? Maybe self-repair feats would be at least partly relevant? And any hints about how much direct from gridfire production slows them compared to using available matter?
    – plex
    May 18, 2014 at 16:07
  • @ete - At the start of the Idiran war, the aim was pure survival, moving ships and populations out of harm's way as well as fighting holding actions. By year 20(ish) the pendulum had swung towards war production and essentially unlimited growth
    – Valorum
    May 18, 2014 at 16:14
  • @ete - Any ship larger than an LCU should, in principle be able to perform a complete repair on anything up to and including near-total destruction; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Valorum
    May 18, 2014 at 16:16
  • Re: Iridian war, so perhaps fitting with a much higher production power per ship than doubling times in the decades would indicate (maybe low years or months?), but in the early stages all resources were needed on the front lines not production? Re: Repair, anything about how long a near total destruction repair would take? I remember a drone speculating about taking ~a month to self repair from extreme damage, but self-repair is less helpful other than establishing a lower limit for repair speed because the repair tools are also likely damaged.
    – plex
    May 18, 2014 at 16:41
  • @ete - No canon confirmation. It would depend on how damaged you are and how repaired you want to be. The shipyard in Consider Phlebas was able to cobble together a rudimentary spaceship within days out of a "depleted stock of components, even though most of the weapon, power and sensory systems were either faulty, superseded or due for overhaul". The smart move would be to make something capable of getting you to a dockyard, not effecting a total repair.
    – Valorum
    May 18, 2014 at 16:55

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