"We have no government and no laws, if by law is meant a stereotyped convention supported by force, and not to be altered without the aid of cumbersome machinery. Yet, though our society is in this sense an anarchy, it lives by means of a very intricate system of customs, some of which are so ancient as to have become spontaneous taboos, rather than deliberate conventions. It is the business of those among us who correspond to your lawyers and politicians to study these customs and suggest improvements. Those suggestions are submitted to no representative body, but to the whole world-population in "telepathic" conference. Ours is thus in a sense the most democratic of all societies."
-Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men
Interlude: The Hydrogen Sonata
When Harry was ten Gaiane took him on a trip aboard the Living For Your Obituary (General Systems Craft, System Class).
The Living For Your Obituary was an intensely human place. The streets were paved, not with meta-materials that would take a million years to decay, or with something silly and impractical like solid gold, or with some slick conveyor system that would whisk people to and fro, but with cobblestones. The buildings were made of brick, adobe, stone, and wood, and you could see the little imperfections that meant they'd been built by human hands, or at least by machines pretending to be human. The ship ceiling was claustrophobicly close, and many of the taller buildings literally scraped the artificial sky. And every inch of this urban landscape was full of people.
Laughing, talking, calling out, inviting passerbys into their shops, milling about, playing simple games, swimming in the sparkling clear water of a canal, soaring in flocks above the crowds with artificial wings and anti-grav packs, singing with voices like angels and performing tricks and stunts that weren't just death-defying but would sometimes actually kill them (but that was fine, they were backed up), so that when Harry and Gaiane went out in search of something to eat they were caught up and borne down the river, Harry perched on Gaiane's shoulders and calling out directions, not that he knew where they were going, not that she cared where they ended up.
The city was purpose-built for idle exploration and serendipitous discovery, for holding and cherishing secrets. The streets here were a three-dimensional maze where maps were banned and giving directions was a joke the locals played on visitors, where knowing all the best places to eat made you part of a secret and exclusive club of the like-minded.
The five basic flavors were sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (or savory), but at least a quarter of the shops advertised the use of additional flavors that could only be consumed using upgraded tongues or other, even stranger organs. Harry's tongue was of the basic, standard design, so these were out.
In other places meals were accompanied by scented implements that you'd stick in your nose as you ate, with the disparate smells and tastes combining in a polyphony of the senses.
There was a large, busy counter giving out packets of tapeworm eggs. Once full grown into their adult forms the worms would develop exacting and discriminatory preferences for fine dining. They would then attempt to train their host by releasing opiates when fed well and causing unpleasant bowl movements otherwise. It was unclear how the worms developed their preferences, but either way it was a fun way to prank friends with poor taste.
One shop offered food that was administrated rectally and was eventually vomited into your mouth, where it would purportedly allow you to experience for a second time everything you'd eaten in the past couple days. A surgical shop offered to implant additional tastebuds in your mouth, or anywhere else in or on your body. Harry and Gaiane had gone in to talk with the proprietor, and learned that the two most popular major operations were installing tastebuds going from mouth to ass, and being able to taste your sexual partners with your genitalia. Other places offered taste-based synesthesia, so that you could taste the color red or the blue of the sky, and through the open doors Harry could see legendary works of art and brilliant, strobing neon lights. Even more bizarre and strange things were hinted at in small signs and behind recessed doors.
Then there was the Cannibal Cuisine Counter sitting right in the center of the road, where you submitted a sample of DNA belonging to yourself or another, and came back a week later to feast on a fully-cloned body-part guarantied free of prions and other such poisons. Both Harry and Gaiane had giggled at that one, and then spent the next few minutes making terrible, unfunny jokes about dick-eating.
But eventually they made it past all the ridiculous tourist traps, fit mostly for gawking at and daring your friends to try, and found where the locals ate.
Harry and Gaiane ate at an ice-cream shop that sold normal ice-cream made from normal cream and not human breast-milk or something equally bizarre, which was a relief after all the strange sights they'd seen, and paid in Kudos, the local social currency.
"Part of the reason we're here is so you can learn about money," Gaiane told him. "Kudos aren't the same as money, but they are similar, so this is a good place to learn." Then she handed him a brochure from the tourist information center.
The Culture may have been post-scarcity, to the extent that you could walk into any hanger bay in the Living For Your Obituary and fly off with the biggest spaceship there, and no one would care in the slightest, but sometimes people would reinvent money anyway just for fun. Kudos was a social reputation economy, and it was extraordinarily complicated; intentionally so, since its purpose was to give purpose and meaning to the majority of the sixteen billion people aboard the Living For Your Obituary for the whole five-hundred year span of their life. The Kudos system had been carefully and meticulously calibrated such that it took roughly four-hundred and fifty years to master, so that Kudos-masters could enjoy a well-earned fifty years of lording their skill over everyone else before boredom and ennui set in.
But the real purpose of Kudos was for the decennial party. At the end of each decade, the Living For Your Obituary held a giant, month-long, ship-wide party aboard a special pleasure-craft constructed for the occasion. The party ship had thirty-one levels, with each level being roughly half the size of the previous, and the number of Kudos you held at the end of the decade determined the highest floor to which you could ascend. Each level was more extraordinary than the last, and the higher you went the more the normal restrictions on pleasure-inducing chemicals and the like were relaxed.
(Naturally you could simply leave the ship and go somewhere else where the coveted but highly addictive delights of the second-highest floor came pre-installed in every house, but that was missing the point entirely.)
The third highest floor held a thousand people. The second held just a hundred, and each person wore a badge with their rank. And finally there was the highest floor, where a single person would receive some mysterious prize directly from the Living For Your Obituary.
No one knew what first prize was. Prize winners would inevitably deflect when asked, and attempt to imply that the pleasures and secrets bestowed on the winner were not fit for lesser ears. Gaiane was of the opinion that the winner spent the month sitting in an empty room, chatting with the ship's avatar and killing time. The real prize was knowing something no one else knew and being able to lord it over sixteen billion people. Her theory would certainly explain why prize-winners never seemed interested in winning first place a second time.
Then the party would end, everyone's Kudos would be destroyed, the Kudos system would be altered in a variety of small but significant ways in order to keep things interesting, and the whole thing would begin again.
The Kudos theme this decade was 'Crime', and as such Kudos had been altered such that they could be counterfeited, hacked, stolen, and other various things that would have been illegal had Kudos been anything other than monopoly-money. They'd only been playing a month and already thousands of competing police and criminal organizations had been established.
"Hey mom, what happens if we take something without paying?"
"Let's try it and find out."
Several exciting chases later Gaiane and Harry found themselves in prison, their Kudos stolen and immediately redistributed amongst the corrupt police officers.
"Can't we just ask them to let us out? Coercion isn't allowed in the Culture."
"We can, but then we'll be deported and banned from ever coming back here."
Harry shrugged. "So?"
"It's also very rude. Those policemen put in a lot of effort to catch us. The game would be no fun for them if we just deported ourselves."
"So what happens next?"
She smiled. "Nothing. Nothing at all."
It was a truism that in the Culture, people lived however they wanted.
Harry had spent the earliest parts of his childhood aboard the Lost in Translation (Medium Systems Craft, Steppe Class), where he'd lived with his mother in a luxurious mansion, with a sprawling garden where his mother idled her days away trying to breed the perfect strain of marijuana. He'd spent his days playing with the other children, wandering the quiet, spacious streets and being horribly spoiled by just about every adult they encountered.
Later, when they lived on the Ring, he'd had even more space. All it took was a short flight away from the village and he had a small continent of land all to himself, to play in and shape however he pleased. He'd built cities and castles and towers that touched the sky, raised islands and populated them with all his favorite animals, and been a benevolent, playful god to the vast, untamed wilderness that had been given to him.
Now he was in prison, and his personal space was limited to a single bunk bed in a room packed full of them.
"Let's just leave," Harry complained for the millionth time. "I can't spend a whole week just doing nothing!"
Gaiane sat opposite him, smoking a blunt of her home-grown marijuana that she'd managed to smuggle in. A couple other prisoners were there as well, and she'd been passing the blunt between them for a while now. "Sure you can," she said. "You're learning a valuable lesson right now."
"What lesson?" He scowled.
"Every society has rules, even ours. Learn what those rules are before breaking them. If you'd just read the brochure…"
"Okay, I've learned my lesson, done. Can we go now? There's too many people here."
She passed him the blunt instead. Harry took a hit, and his Body Manager sent him an alert that it was upping his neurotrophic growth factors to compensate, was upping the amount of mucus in his lungs to deal with the smoke, and also releasing a habit formation inhibitor. Mom was the one who'd turned on all those settings; she was always worrying about things.
"You are human, and nothing which is human should be alien to you. That includes boredom." She exhaled, watching, a touch cross-eyed, with fascination as the smoke rose up past her face. "And there is nothing wrong with crowds, or lots of people. Being human is a community effort, you know. We are the things we do and the things we love, and both these things happen past the borders of your skin. Your body is the least important part of you, just the thing that ties together the constellation of all the loves that makes you you."
"Stars in constellations are millions of light years apart. They can't smell each other's farts, and they don't wake up in the middle of the night because the star above them is snoring."
She laughed, like he'd just told her the funniest joke she'd ever heard. "Yes, and see how lonely they are!"
"Stars don't get lonely. They're just a bunch of burning gas."
"And yet we tie them together and give them life all the same, don't we? We look at the night sky, at pure chaos and randomness, and with our names we carve order and meaning into the very sky."
"Stars aren't alive," Harry said stubbornly. "It's just hydrogen, helium, and a little bit of other stuff."
"And what do you think you are, Harry? Just a bit of water and carbon, and maybe some magic sprinkled in. Don't you think it's a bit bigoted, telling stars they can't be alive? Maybe they sing the long, slow song of the cosmos, and we just came in during an intermission. Or maybe they've been singing all along, and we just weren't on the right drugs to listen"
He took another puff, and after a bit felt himself coming around to her way of thinking.
"If all the stars are singing, then what are the black holes saying?"
"The binary star systems sing in tandem, each voice supporting and enhancing the other. The quasars are like trumpets, great thunderous shouts full of glory and life. Nebulas are slow and quiet, but if you listen closely you can hear echoes of the star they once where, and hear whispers of new stars being born. Black holes sing the final chorus, when entropy conquers all and their voice alone remains in the dark. And then there are stranger things, like the Castor system, where three sets of binary stars all orbit each other."
"When people die, we Displace them into stars," Harry said, who was feeling very warm and relaxed. "So they can be apart of the music."
"But why can't we hear them now?"
"Maybe us clever little apes just aren't meant to hear the music of the spheres."
"Well we'll just have to make better ears then. And build our own stars, so we can sing along with them."