Plot Scarcity in Post Scarcity Paradise?

The fine fellows over at SfSignal asked to me join one of their ‘Mind Melds’ and answer a fascinating question. The had many replies, and posted the answers in two parts:

I answered with an essay when they only wanted a paragraph, and so they cut it down to size. For any reader interested in the full essay, I give it here below:


Post Scarcity and Post Singularity novels have a problem of giving interesting conflicts to characters. When scarcity is no longer a concern (or sometimes even death!) what are the stakes for characters?

On one level, the question is easy to answer: think of every story you’ve ever enjoyed where the danger that the protagonist faced was not one which threatened him with poverty, penury or death. Any and all plot conflicts of those tales could be transposed into a post-singularity background with no loss of drama.

The recent movie THE KING’S SPEECH, for example, concerned a sovereign just at the dawn of the era of radio and mass media, and at the dawn of World War, attempting to overcome a speech impediment, and, by artful coincidence, his personal shortcomings. Had the exact same tale been set in a background where the Prince of Wales and his speech therapist and every other denizen of earth been granted the Fountain of Youth and the purse of Fortunatus, endless life and bottomless wealth, no events in the foreground would need be changed, because neither wealth nor deathlessness cure disabilities of speech (just ask Vidur the Silent, Odin’s son.)

On a deeper level, the question is hard to answer, because the concern of any science fiction story that is not mere fantasy is that the unrealistic premise or conceit of the tale be treated realistically.

When Lamont Cranston the Shadow, Sue Storm the Invisible Girl, or Frodo Baggins the Invisible Halfling decide to vanish, for example, clothing and gear conveniently vanish also, whereas Griffin the Invisible Man from the HG Wells novel of the same name must practice nudism to practice his vanishing act. Wells imagined logical details, and that makes it science fiction rather than merely a flight of imagination.

Likewise, the realism of unrealistic SF requires the author to invent the realistic details of a world where the limitations of the human condition have been banished by unimaginably sophisticated and powerful technologies, so that even death itself reduced to a curable medical condition. If the immortals of the Utopia of Tomorrow want for nothing, how can trivial things like speech impediments or personal shortcomings be serious problems to them? To wait a hundred years for a solution, to a deathless being, would be no more troublesome than to wait a million.

The supermen of futurtopia, if pictured realistically, should be incomprehensible characters in an unimaginable landscape: how, then, does an author lure a reader to imagine the unimaginable?

The problem with post-human characters is this: our readers are human (or mostly so) and hence will not be sympathetic to struggles and concerns and dramas afflicting the superhuman characters if those concerns are as incomprehensible to merely human intellect as high finance is to a housecat.

There are at least two ways to craft a solution to this: first, the superhuman can suffer a human problem, as when a our housecat sees her mistress the stockbroker fighting a burglar to save her baby, the cat can comprehend it is like herself fighting a weasel to save her kittens. Second, the story can be told from the point of view of the human Watson merely reporting with awe upon the doings of a posthuman Holmes, whose thoughts he cannot fully fathom.

The real problem with post-scarcity settings is this: The idea of utopia is as inherently unrealistic and unbelievable as the idea of time travel, and as paradoxical, because most readers know that placing men such as we see in our newspapers or in our neighborhoods or in our mirror in a paradise where all their needs were met, would merely produce fat, arrogant, malicious, adulterous, idle and envy-addled mobs thirsty for riots and revolutions, and hungry for the porn and torture-porn of gladiatorial circuses, and seek other such pastimes to entertain their ennui. HG Wells warned us long ago that utopia turned men either into Eloi or into Morlocks. No one can enter utopia who has not utopia in him.

The habit of utopian and semiutopian books which I had hitherto read was merely to assume away human nature, or to say some technique of psychology or education or material abundance had made every man a saint yet somehow required no man be a martyr.

These books also assumed away such inconvenient things as the law of supply and demand, to say nothing of civil and criminal law.

I recall reading one book where it was merely stated that all the children, raised by volunteer nannies and never by their own parents (who never wed, as there was no sacrament of matrimony among the enlightened) in communally-run dormitories, would simply be taught to be unselfish by depriving them of toys or sunlight. Instead of being christened, they were assigned names by random computer lottery, and raised to be unselfish and hence productive citizens of the anarchist commonwealth. When famine strikes, however, nor charismatic leader gathers food and fighting-men to himself to distribute it: the enlightened anarchists merely riot, and trains hauling the diminishing supply of grain run down protestors. This, rather than allowing speculators to provision for the future according to anticipated need as defined by the price structure, or horde grain against future use.

I recall another book where there was no government and no crime, merely a class of volunteer detectives who organized the perfectly sane therefore saintly multitudes of the world to repel extraterrestrial invasion on an impromptu basis, as need arose but not arranging for arms, munitions, training, or any chain of command, such trifles being unneeded for the enlightened.

I recall a third, where in the happy anarchy of future earth, a girl robbed by her drug-addled roommate sought the return of her prize possession from the shop who had bought it, and, being refused by the shop owner, organized a one-woman picket-line aka public nuisance at his door-stoop to beg incoming customers to boycott the shop; and upon being manhandled and tossed aside, she then parked the drug-addict on the door-stoop in his spreading pool of filth and vomit, thus breaking the shopkeeper’s will to resist. Apparently the informal legal arrangements of the time did not honor the common law principle that possessors without good chain of title can maintain their rights against all comer except only the true owner, as well as the common law prohibitions on theft, nuisance, trespass, assault and battery.

(I recall that even reading this as a pre-teen child, thinking the author had not made a slightest attempt to explain why such an anarchy would not involve the subjection of the frail to the strong, or why the crime-tormented multitudes would fail to seek any charismatic leader or respected graybeard who could promise them peace and safety, or why Pinkertons would not hang out shingles advertising protection services or retribution. Was it supposed to be a world where theft and thuggery were legal, but disloyalty to the anarchic customs was not? All men were too scrupulous to form gangs, protection rackets, families and clans and vigilante committees, to say nothing of the Table Round?)

And I read Thomas Moore’s UTOPIA, and I read Robert Heinlein’s Future History to the maturity of man, the one promising that the ideal commonwealth could be achieved through puritanical self discipline, and other promising that the ideal commonwealth could be achieved through the abolition of puritanical self discipline once every man minded his own damned business. Both were slightly satirical, and neither slightly convincing.

With the lack of humility typical of authors, let me speak of my own proposed solution to this problem, which I adopted in my post-human commonwealth of the far future appearing in my trilogy THE GOLDEN AGE.

I just assumed that the laws of cause and effect and the innate propensity for human nature to seek forever its own self-interest could be curbed, but not abolished, by superhuman intellects and supertechnological technology.

In other words, I do not buy the premise that there can be a ‘post-scarcity’ utopia any more than I buy the premise that there can be a ‘post-entropy’ perpetual motion machine. It is not possible even in theory.

No matter how wealthy and powerful a civilization is, no matter how nigh-limitless their resources, someone will dream of uses for those resources whose cost is likewise nigh-limitless. If you have a society where everyone has enough to eat, someone will want a horseless carriages, and if you have a society where everyone has cars, someone will want moon rocket, and if everyone has moonrockets, someone will want to construct a macro-engineering project to alter the evolutionary destiny of the sun by reorganizing in titanic core reactions on a scale unthinkable to men whose most pressing concern is hunting and gathering scarce food.

So instead I assumed immortality would be a product, like any medical good or service, subject to scarcity: and then I had my protagonist  (I would say “my hero” but his stature admits of mild ambiguity) fall or be forced into penury, so that he lost his immortality. I reasoned thus: The medical process had to be done by a certain technology, and technology consists of moving matter, energy, thought, or effort in an organized way, and all such motions, no matter how or by whom organized, has to be prioritized. The only two ways to prioritize limited resources in this or any other realistic universe is by rationing, involuntary prioritization, or by the law of supply and demand, voluntary prioritization.

I assumed human nature being what it was, even if the humans were posthumans or metaposthumans or ultrametaposthumans (I had all four), man must seek his own enlightened self-interest, but his enlightenment can only extend so far as he can anticipate into the future. Any unexpected acts by creatures as enlightened as himself cloud such anticipations, and enlightened self-interest then becomes mere selfishness. Thus when my protagonist wished to embark on a venture whose outcome none could foretell, and which therefore ran the risk of jarring or spoiling the alleged utopia, the antagonists, for reasons which seemed enlightened to themselves, had to stop him: and that is all you need for drama, a boy with a dream and an obstruction who stands in the way.

I also assumed that human nature being what it was, some sort of minimum formal mechanism for preserving the public peace and reconciling otherwise irreconcilable private disputes had to exist: a court or curia of some sort, and an armed force, even if it consisted of only one man as lonely as the soldier with green whiskers of the Emerald City in Oz who keeps flowers in his musket.

I next assumed higher technology, including the technology to rewrite, redact and edit human memories or human nature would create dramatic conflicts unknown to current technology, such as the uncertainty as to one’s identity and the trustworthiness of one’s memory, which now plague only mental patients, then would be pertinent to anyone.

I assumed every solution will father a new problem. I live in nation where famines have never struck, due in part to the sophistication of an industrial society utilizing scientific agronomy as opposed to a hunter-gatherer society. My nation has problem with obesity. Now, obesity certain seems a small enough problem to a man who is starving, and one he would gladly trade for his own difficulties, but that does not make it not a problem. It merely makes the problem spiritual rather than physical: the sin of gluttony rather than the pangs of hunger. Likewise I assumed death was not a problem for immortals, no more than starvation is a problem for gluttons. Their problem, and hence their drama, is in the mind rather than in the body.

Finally, I merely assumed that in a world full of people who were as near to immortal as the reality of entropy allows, and as near to impenury (if I may invent that word) as the reality of economics allows, that even the most peaceful means of solving the investable conflicts would not prevent the conflicts from occurring.

The deliberations of the jury in a film like TWELVE ANGRY MEN are a matter of life and death just as much as the trial by combat in the last scene of the film IVANHOE, even thought the first is done by an exchange of words, and the second by an exchange of blows. Both stories are skillfully told, and I would say neither lacks drama, but the drama of debate is more rarified and intellectual than the drama of duel to the death.

In portraying a posthuman drama, what I attempted was to make the drama as philosophical and rarefied as possible, while still keeping the stakes the same as they would be in any space opera: the protagonist stood to lose his wife, his life, his dream, his sanity, and even the safety of his world stood in the balance. And yet the final resolution in the final scene, after the physical battles were resolved, was a battle taking place in a realm of pure thought, a psychological debate with a mad superintelligence centered on a question of abstract principle: and yet on the outcome all things hung.

Or such was my ambition. Even though I rejoice in that lack of humility typical of authors, I am not bold enough to state whether I was successful or not: that verdict depends on each reader in his own mind.