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The Sublimed

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The Sublimed are alien civilizations in the Culture series of science fiction works by Iain M. Banks who have left the known dimensions of space time behind ("subliming") to take up residence in several higher dimensions. These higher dimensions seem to lack many of the constraints on the development of complexity found in our four dimensions.[1]

Individuals and Minds are capable of subliming, and this is described as an ever-present temptation for beings that are bored with or tired of the limited space and time as we know it.[2]


Subliming is a process that allows a civilization to transfer the consciousness of its individual members (biological and/or artificial) from the material universe that we experience to another plane of existence. From the novels, it is not entirely clear where this alternative plane is, but it would appear to be "outside" the universe in which The Culture novels are set. In an article entitled "A Few Notes on the Culture", Banks refers to the physical cosmology of The Culture universe (what Culture people call "the Reality") as involving a very large set of closed, 4-dimensional hyperspherical universes, each with different physical properties, laws, and histories, nested within a 7-torus, all of which is embedded in an undisclosed form of "meta-space", which may be the destination of Sublimed sentiences.[3] When civilizations sublime, they usually do so quickly (in a matter of days) and completely (or almost completely). It is not clear why this pattern should happen, but it probably involves factors such as the ennui of a civilization before sublimation, the (unknown) benefits of sublimation, or possibly just being broadly seen as the thing to do.

Subliming is one of the possible end points of a civilization, others being extinction or a collapse into barbarism.[4] It is however only an end point insofar as it tends to remove that civilization, its influence and its interests from the material universe - it is implied that they might still get up to interesting things, but in an altogether different way. Furthermore, it is clear that the Sublimed do still occasionally interact with the corporeal races, most notably in the case of the Chelgrians (see below). In these interactions, the sublimed species seem to utilise immense power over the material universe, to the point where sublimed species can be thought of as close to godlike. These powers include matter manipulation, omniscience and notably, the ability to tap into gridfire.

Civilizational End Games in The Culture Series
# End Game Actor Result CTL Dimension/s K-scale Hallmark/s
1. Extinction Uninvolved Species dies out completely, ending its conventional existence.
  • Species loses sentience as well as its civilization.
  • Physical death is also a related result.

to 5

1 to 4 K-0 to 2 Cultural complexity, tool use, environmental harnessing, pre-FTL travel, etc.
2. Barbarism Involved Species retrogresses into societal collapse.
  • Species loses involved status retrogressing back to uninvolved status.

to 9

5 to 7 K-2 to 4 Galactic travel, FTL travel, artificial intelligence, anti-gravity, advanced energy harnessing, limited matter manipulation, artificial worlds, nanotechnology, etc.
3. Sublimation Sublimed Species transcends conventional existence into a sort of afterlife.
  • Species ascends into an incorporeal existence.

to 11

8 to 11 K-4 to 5 "Galactic maturity", mastery of matter manipulation, omniscience, post-FTL travel, vast artificial worlds, gridfire energy, space-time mastery, etc.

The Culture's relationship with sublimation is one of mutual suspicion, not least of all because the spontaneous nature of most sublimation suggests coercion (Look to Windward).[4] Perhaps more importantly, though, because sublimation usually results in an end to relations with the material universe and consequently with those less advanced civilisations still struggling to make their way within it, the Culture view it as somewhat decadent and/or lacking in proper public spirit. What little contact has been had with the Sublimed races suggests that they consider the Culture to be somewhat irresponsible and immature for having existed so long in such an advanced state of development without subliming.

The Hydrogen Sonata gives more information on subliming, as well as answering questions on it from previous books:

  • The seeming coercion of an entire civilisation is not actually possible, because it must be done voluntarily by biologicals saying 'I sublime, I sublime, I sublime' in the presence of an object called a Presence (AIs and Minds can sublime themselves), and these Presences only appear once a civilisation really wants to sublime - for example the Gzilt choosing to do so in a referendum.
  • All of a civilisation - the biological parts anyway - must sublime within the same hour, else those that sublime first will be too 'far gone' from those who sublime last, explaining the quickness with which civilisations sublime.
  • While highly complex AIs and Minds can sublime on their own without any civilisation-wide sublime event, and retain their conscious self within the Sublime realm, intellectually smaller entities such as individual biologicals attempting to sublime on their own simply 'evaporate' into the realm of the Sublime, losing their individual existence but not actually being dead. A certain critical mass of self-referential contextual networks (ie: a culture or society) and/or total-intellectual-complexity seems to be required to maintain a cohesive unit and not 'evaporate' within the sublime. These requirements are sufficiently met by singular powerful AI minds, or an entire civilization of biological beings.
  • Individuals can choose to remain behind. Some of these become a Remnant in touch with those who have Sublimed.
  • The realm of the sublime exists within dimensions 8-11 of the 11-dimensional space of The Culture novels.
  • There is apparently no limit to how far advanced a subliming species may become, as there is always room to grow within the Sublime realm.
  • No sentient can 'copy' themselves and then sublime, as a 'cleanup' of sorts seems to be required where the sublimee comes back and 'collects' their other selves.
  • A sublimed being coming back to the 'mundane' realm seems to have most of their sublime self 'cut off' such that they cannot articulate what happens there - though if they re-sublime the discarded sublime part is reunited.
  • What little evidence of the Sublime realm exists in the mundane realm suggests that it is so wonderful that people going there simply lose interest in the mundane realm, no matter how involved they were in it prior to sublimation, or what promises they gave to come back and say what they saw. "... no one ever came back saying, shit, it's horrible; don't go."[5]

Civilizations and sublimation[edit]

Several civilizations experiencing various levels of sublimation are featured in the novels:


In the novel Look To Windward, the civilisation known as the Chel occupy a unique position in relation to sublimation. When they attained the technological know-how for this step, only part of their civilisation sublimed and, when they did, they created a "heaven". Based somewhat on the existing Chelgrian religion, this (technological) "heaven" was somewhere to which individual Chel could sublime after death (via a device known as a SoulKeeper). Furthermore, unlike (most) other sublimed civilisations, the sublimed Chel continued contact with non-sublimed Chel in the material universe, and would occasionally interact with them (for example, in the righting of wrongs or attendance at sporting events). Chelgrian-Puen (the 'gone before') are the gatekeepers of this "heaven". The cause of this strong bond between the sublimed and non-sublimed Chel is believed to lie with the caste system at the heart of their culture.


In Consider Phlebas the Dra'Azon, a Sublimed civilisation, play a role. Like some other of the Sublimed, the Dra'Azon show strange obsessions in their dealings with the physical universe. Specifically, the Dra'Azon maintain a number of so-called "Planets of the Dead"; worlds which, because the civilisations that originally inhabited these planets have destroyed themselves in episodes of mutually assured destruction, are considered to be testaments to the bleakness and futility of life. Around such planets a Quiet Barrier is maintained, preventing communication in or out. Small numbers of inhabitants, usually of relatively stable, mature galactic civilisations (the Changers, in the case of Schar's World in the novel) are allowed on the surface of such planets as stewards, and have routine though infrequent contact with the rest of galactic civilisation. The off-limits status of such planets and the evident disobliging and temperamental nature of the Dra'Azon figure largely in the backdrop to the novel.

See also[edit]

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  1. Westfahl, Gary (2005). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. 3. p. 850. To uplift beyond the constraints of matter is, in Vinge, to Transcend; in Iain M. Banks's Culture universe (see Consider Phlebas) the equivalent verb is to sublime. Search this book on
  2. Wolff, Karl. "On Being Human: The Culture novels by Iain Banks". CCLaP: Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Humans also have the option of being Sublimed, a similar status to the cold storage but with the resemblance of an afterlife. Some alien species have been Sublimed, leaving their advanced technology for humanity to puzzle out.
  3. Iain Banks - A Few Notes on the Culture
  4. 4.0 4.1 Lippens, Ronnie (2002). "Imachinations of Peace: Scientifictions of Peace in Iain M. Banks's The Player of Games". Utopian Studies. 13 (1). [...] they could have chosen to be 'Sublimed' [...] The Culture, however, chose not to Sublime [...]
  5. The Hydrogen Sonata, chapter 5.

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