The Colour of Drones

(in The Culture universe by Iain M. Banks)

“The drone’s aura blanched briefly with anger, then settled to grey frustration mixed with spots of purple contrition. It quickly rippled into yellow-green, indicating mellowness and friendliness, hatched with bands of red to show it was taking this as a bit of joke.” /Look to Windward, p.317

Are you as curious as I am as to what exacly these drones mean with their weird colours? If you know of any references to them in Iain Banks’ The Culture books that isn’t included below, please write to me ( and tell me about it.

It is my intention to analyze these colours somewhat further (this because I have actually thought of creating a colour-based “body language” myself—this is one of the main reasons for me reading Banks today at all. When I spoke of “my” language with a friend of mine [Thomas Gylfe] he said it reminded him of Iain Banks drones. And I just had to read something. – I started with Use of Weapons and ended up getting caught…)

Red · Orange · Yellow · Green · Blue · Indigo · Violet

Drone colours in approximate spectrum order. Colours values are not formalized, but intended for a rough overview only.
Colour Mood Sources
mirror / silver ostrentatiously uncommunicable, do-not-disturb PoG pp.15, 110
white anger PoG pp.15, 46, 47, 111; Exc pp.102, 106, 285; LtW p.324
grey / grey-white (deep-grey) displeasure, frustration (darker = more frustrated) PoG pp.9, 12, 62, 91; Exc pp.125, 126, 179, 285; LtW p.318, 324
rosy / vaguely rosy humour PoG pp.19, 153; Exc pp.175, 221
red humorous pleasure, pleasure, happiness, laugh PoG pp.10, 46, 47, 77
orange / orange-red well-being PoG pp.13, 95
yellow-green mellow approachability, calm friendliness PoG pp.110, 111, 123; Exc p.103
green friendliness PoG p.45
aquamarine modesty LtW p.24
blue formal PoG pp.9, 13, 91; Exc p.107, 328
purple contrition PoG pp.13, 110; LtW p.21
brown displeasure, ill-humor PoG pp.9, 10, 13, 91; Exc p.285
Uninterpreted References
“frosty blue” / “a frostily blue Churt Lyne” PoG p.15; Exc p.179
“Its gunmetal aura indicated puzzlement.” PoG p.15; LtW p.20
“dully red” PoG p.16
“its fields bright blue and striped yellow” PoG p.31
“grey yellow with resignation” PoG p.114
“gone black-body” PoG p.143
“spot of rainbow light”—tight-beam communication with only one individual PoG p.15
“colored with embarressment” Exc p.115
“a soft blush of magenta” (busy) LtW p.15
“blue-grey” (politely held-in-check frustration) LtW p.17
“a sort of muddy cream colour” (embarressment)
“The drone went muddy cream with embarressment.”
LtW pp.20, 316
“ruddy orange” (?) LtW p.21
“aura rainbowed with brief suprise” LtW p.24
“extending a blue-ping field in an arc towards the Chelgrian’s shoulders” LtW p.127
“It’s aura fields looked very rosy against the cream of the couch it rested on.” LtW p.128–129
“Tersono’s aura field blushed with pleasure […] The drone’s field collapsed back to a frosty blue” LtW p.129
“Kabe caught a hint of a bossoming purple field flattening and disspating in the direction of the girl” LtW p.129
“Tersono had positively glowed with rosy approval” LtW p.133
“Its aura positively shone with ruby light” LtW p.304
“Oh no! Tersono said, aura fields flashing briefly blue.” LtW p.304
“The drone’s aura field suddenly rainbowed with confusion.” LtW p.316
“[…] the machine said, wobbling in the air with what looked like anger, frustration or both. Its aura fields looked confused.” LtW p.316
“It flushed creamily rainbow with surprise and embarressment.” LtW p.380
PoGPlayer of Games
LtWLook to Windward
UoWUse of Weapons
‘Is that what those colours mean?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘That’s just grey, isn’t it?’
‘I think technically it’s gunmetal.’
‘And is that magenta?’
‘More violet […]’
/Look to Windward, p.211

Another Table

I made a little table of the colours occuring above, in the attempt to see if there’s a system to it. Down the middle you’ll find the colours of the rainbow, with darker versions on the left, and brighter versions on the right. I’ve separated the line of “brow / muddy cream / lurid orange” from “orange”, mostly based on the emotions the colour depict, it doesn’t seem to fit very well as-is either.

If anyone could suggest improvements, I would be happy to implement them.

deep-grey / dark
(displeasure / frustation)
muddy cream
lurid orange
(extreme distress)
deep red / dully red
(happiness / laugh)
ruddy orange
grey yellow
(¿relaxed? / ¿calm?)
(mellowness / calm friendliness)
(politely held-in-check frustation)
frosty blue
(contrition / regret)
(humour / approval)
 r   a   i   n   b   o   w 
(surprise / confusion)
 olive   purple 

* The reference to “blue-grey” might not actually refer to one color, but could, as far as I understand, equally well be ment to refer to a pattern with of blue and grey parts.

How colours affect emotion might also be interesting reading.

Is a Better Understanding Possible?

As you might have noticed, humans show emotions too: Somewhat akin to the body langugage of colour which Iain M. Banks’ drones display. I just figured it would be kinda interesting to compare the two phenomena, and maybe see if theres a 1:1 mapping of the two, in some subtle, yet intelligent way. …but… I haven’t gotten around to doing that comparison in full—yet.

As some sort of preliminary though—here is a picture of “The Six Basic Facial Expressions” (proposed by Ekman [1992]) which might work as a sort of map over the cardinals of human emotional expressions.

Six Basic Facial Expressions

Maybe it’s possible to map the colours of drones onto an “emotion wheel” to help understand the drone colour language more in-depth? Here’s an emotion wheel (as described in one of these “Theories of Emotions”) and a simple colour wheel compared:

They are not all that different, are they?

MIT have created a robot (head) called Kismet which displays emotion using facial expressions. However they felt it necessary to add arousal states (either “bored”, “interested”, or “calm”) to the above mix, resulting the following space of possible emotions:

MIT Robot Kismet’s Emotion

The state describing Kismet’s mood consists of one point in this space, and as its mood changes, the face changes expression to reflect this. Just like the colours of a drone, or the expression on your face. Only, it can’t lie, of course (it most notably can’t lie badly, or in any other way display several conflicting emotions at once).


Use of Weapons (1990)

Some Notes: When cleaning up and throwing away old papers, I found some notes from when I was (re-)reading Use of Weapons. I thought I’d better add the stuff to this page. /zrajm [2007-01-23]

“the mixture of purple regret and gunmetal puzzlement looked distinctly unconvincing.” /Use of Weapons, p.19

“going dark with sorrow” /Use of Weapons, p.19

“The drone flashed rainbow in surprise” /Use of Weapons, p.19

“The blade broke cleanly on a bump of red coloured field just above the machine’s casing…” /Use of Weapons, p.40

“Both field components where shaded deep red, the colour of drone pleasure.” /Use of Weapons, p.40

“ME NEITHER it printed on it’s aura field, in letters of grey on a rosy background.” /Use of Weapons, p.54

“[…] glancing at the drone, which was keeping a standard pattern of formal blue on its aura field, apart from one large red dot on its side that probably only she could see; it was pulsating rapidly. When she noticed it she almost started laughing herself.” /Use of Weapons, p.54

“Sma was aware of Skaffen-Amitskaw glowing red just behind her.” /Use of Weapons, p.55

“[…] its aura field flashing the lurid orange that was used to signal Sick Drone in Extreme Distress.” /Use of Weapons, p.56

“Its red glowing field looked at least partially as a comment” /Use of Weapons, p.77–78

“field set a weird mixture of olive and purple, which she seemed to remember indicated Awe.” /Use of Weapons, p.79

“Skaffen-Amitskaw flashed a delicate shade of purple, imitating contrition” /Use of Weapons, p.85

“[…] as Skaffen-Amtiskaw’s fields went frosty.” /Use of Weapons, p.101

“Skaffen-Amtiskaw’s fields glowed pink with amusement.” /Use of Weapons, p.122

“‘Hmm?’ the machine said, its aura field flashing the pink he was beginning to identify as drone amusement.” /Use of Weapons, p.256

Surface Detail (2010)

The following quotes has not (yet) been added to the charts above.

“It was surrounded by a vague, misty halo that appeared to be various mixtures of yellow, green and blue according to the angle. This would be its aura field – the drone equivalent of facial expression and body language, there to convey emotions.” /Surface Detail, p.229

“[…] I would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t remain where I might be of most immediate protective use, especially while you’re asleep. It might be best for Us both to get used to that arrangement, don’t you think?’ ‘No,’ she said. ‘I prefer my privacy.’ ‘I see.’ The machine bobbed in the air, its aura field going grey-blue.” /Surface Detail, p.234

“The little drone’s aura field glowed an agreeable pink.” /Surface Detail, p.241

“[…] as the little cream-coloured drone’s field flashed a bright grey.” /Surface Detail, p.241

“Kallier-Falpise’s fields went frosty grey again. ‘You did not ask me if I consent to being Displaced when a far more intrinsically safe method of transferring us between ships exists to hand.’” /Surface Detail, p.214

Matter (2008)

The following quotes has not (yet) been added to the charts above.

“The drone’s aura fields, invisible until now, flowed rosily for a moment or two. ‘This,’ it said, ‘should be fun.’” /Matter, p.5

“Its fields flashed a frosty blue.” /Matter, p.78

The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)

The following quotes has not (yet) been added to the charts above.

“The little drone suddenly developed an aura field, turning a crisp blue-grey.” /Hydrogen Sonata, p.244

“The ship drone’s aura flashed amused red then disappeared.” /Hydrogen Sonata, p.245  

          Written by zrajm, Uppsala, 1998–2014