Probably one of the coolest races in science fiction--well, not really a race, it's more of a civilisation--is The Culture.
The Culture represents humankind at a stage of post-scarcity and post-singularity in society. Smarter than light travel has been achieved and truly intelligent A.I. have their own rights as living beings. But that's typical SF.
What makes The Culture special is that it is an "...almost totally egalitarian, stable society without the use of any form of force or compulsion, except where necessary to protect others", to take a quote from Wikipedia.
Last month I read my first Iain M. Banks book, and so had my introduction to The Culture. It was Consider Phlebas, Mr. Banks's first ever Culture novel and I was fortunate enough to have been browsing the sf section of the now gone-and-sorely-missed outlet of Payless in Summit USJ where I found it.
The book concerns a shape-shifting humanoid and his mission as a spy in the Idiran-Culture War, a war that spans so vast an area of space, many planets within the warzone hardly have anything to do with it.
Just read the first chapter of Consider Phlebas, and you'll be blown away. Mr. Banks is definitely one of the most original sf writers out there and proves it by having Consider Phlebas start with a sentient spaceship as the first true character you encounter. The action has already started when we dive in, as the spaceship factory (also sentient, of course) finishes building its last spaceship and launches it before blowing itself up to prevent oncoming Idiran forces invading it and learning the secrets of its sentient supercomputer mind.
If that doesn't intrigue you, maybe the second chapter might? In this chapter, we are introduced to the protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul, the Idiran-siding shapeshifter. The whole sequence which this chapter presents is one of the most creative, yet most disgusting, and yet again! one of the funniest moments in sf-dom. I won't spoil it for you--it truly deserves a reading--but suffice to say, Guantanamo's waterboarding doesn't even come close, and even that isn't funny.
One of the interesting things I keep reading about Consider Phlebas on the interwebs is that people who don't read this book first, but read Mr. Banks other Culture novels are surprised that The Culture is cast in a bad light, and the protagonist is actually on the side of the Idirans who totally don't agree with The Culture's bad influence and harmful egalitarian ways.
As somebody who came into The Culture with Consider Phlebas however, I think it's an excellent primer on what The Culture actually is. Reading Consider Phlebas will enable you to discover The Culture from an "outsider's" point of view, and from here on, if you read his other Culture books, you'll be able to appreciate them, since you will have a more balanced perspective on the society portrayed in the books.
I look forward to reading more Culture books by Iain M. Banks, especially Player of Games, because that one comes with a recommendation by China Mieville. Heck, I might even check out the latest Culture book, Matter, just out early this month.