The most capable SVs were classified as General Systems Vehicles (GSV). The size range for GSVs was considerable. The Ocean-class was a GSV from at least the 14th century CE - despite much larger GSVs existing at the time - to at least the 19th century CE. The Plate-class was classified as a GSV from at least the 14th century CE to at least the 29th century CE, even when the larger System-class had entered service by the 24th century CE.
SVs were self-sufficient socio-cultural-economic units, and were the Culture's pre-eminent ambassadors. SVs regularly constructed and served as bases for smaller craft, including smaller SVs. Each was popularly regarded as containing the Culture in microcosm, and capable of "rebuilding" the Culture in the event of a catastrophe.
The largest GSVs had billions of sapient inhabitants or passengers. They were likened to be the cities of the Culture because of their high population densities. Most of the Culture lived on Orbitals, which offered much greater space per person.
Ships which were accommodation biased had self-sustaining populations that allowed them to crew the ships they constructed. Ship-construction biased - or "throughput" in Contact parlance - ships served as staging areas for off-ship personnel and docked ships.
An atypical SV role was to go into self-imposed communicative and physical isolation as an Oubliettionary. In this role, they were typically uninhabited except for a few drones and attendant ships.
Earlier classes of SV had a central physical hull. The hull was subdivided into different sizes and types of "bays"; these included Mainbays, Limited bays, General bays, Intermediate bays, Medium bays, and Smallbays.
Later the physical hull was surrounded by a multiple-layer field-complex - a force field enclosure. The enclosure greatly increased the ship's effective internal volume and acted as the outer hull.
GSVs constructed during the lead-up to the war were designed for conversion into direct combat spacecraft. They fulfilled this role early in the war when Offensive Units were rare. Combat GSVs were powerful single-units, but lacked the inherent flexibility of a fleet of smaller spacecraft; very large GSVs were regarded as obsolescent for combat purposes. The high-value nature of GSVs meant their deployment into combat was a concern for strategic-planning Minds.
By the 19th century CE, construction of GSV twice the length with eight times the volume of the Deserts was routine within even larger GSVs; by this time Deserts were classified as MSVs.
The System-class, which entered service at least a few centuries before the 24th century CE, were the largest conventional Culture spacecraft of their time. Unlike earlier SVs, these ships did not have a central physical hull; the main structure was provided exclusively by fields, allowing for a length of 200 km.
The Culture had several hundred thousand SVs in the 29th century CE.
- Hydrogen Sonata, chapter 20
- Consider Phlebas, chapter 8
- Excession, chapter 3.4
- Surface Detail, chapter 9
- Surface Detail, chapter 5
- Consider Phlebas, Dramatis personae
- Hydrogen Sonata, chapter 11
- Excession, chapter 5.3
- Hydrogen Sonata, chapter 5
- Consider Phlebas, chapter 7
- The Player of Games, chapter 2
- Surface Detail, chapter 10
- The Player of Games, chapter 1
- Excession, chapter 7.2
- Excession, chapter 10.6
- Excession, chapter 12.6
- Matter, chapter 13
- Hydrogen Sonata, chapter 9
- Look to Windward, chapter 2
- Use of Weapons, chapter 4
- Excession, chapter 2.2
- Look to Windward, chapter 12