MIND MELD: Character Stakes in Post-Scarcity Novels (Part Two)
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It’s difficult for writers to get their hands around the idea of the Singularity, be it the Vernor Vinge version or just what happens to society once limitations on scarcity are removed. So the question for the panelists this week is:
Here are their answers…
(Note: This is Part Two of our discussion of our question. Don’t forget to read Part One…)
I don’t think this is an issue confined solely to Post Scarcity or Post Singularity novels. It’s not even confined to SF. There are plenty of unfeasibly rich characters in realist or historical novels, say, just as there are characters who don’t fear death. What motivates them?
The answer to that question speaks to the very meat of our existence, something much more interesting than just following the money.
I pondered this issue (as many writers have) while developing my Geodesica series. It’s set in a deep-space post-human future, one in which humanity has speciated into several quite distinct forms, each of them still regarding themselves as “human”. Given the vast expense of interstellar travel, the highly diffuse nature of interstellar empires and other significant barriers to cultural overlap (and given also that this was intended to be a space opera, with all the splodey goodness that implies) what were my characters going to fight over?
The only thing I could think of was the very idea of being human. None of my characters were so removed from the reader that they felt truly alien, not quite, so it stood to reason that they might regard their common origins as a matter of some importance–that they, specifically, were properly human and therefore best qualified to decide what was best for all humanity.
This ownership of racial identity, warranted or otherwise, seems to me to be the one thing that we might fight over when we (in theory) have everything else at our fingertips. It’s certainly something we’ll fight over in the real world with distressing frequency.
When the characters of Geodesica aren’t squabbling over such lofty stuff, though, they’re worried about interpersonal relationships. Love in other words. Money can’t buy it, and it’s stronger than death (we’re told), so it’s been a prime story generator for about as long as we’ve been telling stories. I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. We’ll know we’re heading into truly post-human territory when we stop worrying about all the other humans, or even just one of them, and what they think of us in return.
That’s the time, I think, when all stories will end.
Vernor Vinge’s science fiction has won five Hugos.
His next novel is a direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, titled
The Children of the Sky. It is due out in October 2011.
I think Life’s reach will probably always exceed Its grasp; there will
be goals to strive for, though they may be vast beyond our present
imagining. Come back and see what science-fiction looks like then!
Assume you have a post-scarcity society in the sense that you can print out or create whatever you need. Infinite stuff only answers the bottom parts of Maslow’s hierarchy – it gets you fed and clothed, perhaps spectacularly. It doesn’t find you self-confidence or self-realization or even good sex. Yes, I know some people romanticize a post-singularity society with no social ills. Given that no technology has created that yet, I’m not holding my breath. A bigger problem with post-singularity stories is that – by definition – the stakes and conflicts may be difficult for readers on the pre-singularity side of the line to understand or care about. Common human lusts, desires, and jealousies will probably all play out in a post-singularity society. We will still have our sense of adventure, our need to be noticed, and our curiosity.
Both are mythic concepts put into a science fiction world. Post Scarcity is Hesiod’s Age of Gold, where the fruit dropped off the trees and people didn’t have to work. They also lived practically forever. Post Singularity is simply apotheosis–angels or gods. Reality would differ from fantasy because these myths also posit that we would lose our imperfections. Nothing about the scientific concepts of Post Scarcity or Post Singularity indicates we would become perfect, but frequently, books like Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X assume they would result in utopia.
Yet, even a Post Scarcity utopia like Joanna Russ’ Whileaway (“When It Changed”, The Female Man), Suzette Haden Elgin’s Ozark (The Ozark Trilogy), or Kim Stanley Robinson’s California in Pacific Edge, will always have warts because people will always be people. To generate conflict and keep the stakes high, remember another golden oldie–the Seven Deadly Sins. Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride…do any of those seem automatically resolvable by eliminating economic scarcity? No. In even the most famous example of a Post Scarcity society, Star Trek, there are still love, war, ambition, and jealousy. In fact, I think the emotional aspect would be heightened because the characters aren’t distracted from their quirks by problems of day-to-day survival.
Post Singularity has even more potential for conflict. SF novels like Colossus, and films like 2001 and The Terminator, warn us against creating computers smarter than us. Cyberpunk sees an internet world, where humans meld with machines, as a dangerous place dominated by corruption and corporate greed. Technological Singularity could be very dangerous because a new machine intelligence would not necessarily have the same goals as humans. We might create our own worst enemy, get lost in the Matrix.
Human Post Singularity is more ambiguous. Samuel R. Delany’s novel, Babel-17, is a decadent space opera ‘verse in which you can insert a pet dragon into your shoulder for a parlor trick or get brainwashed by a virus-like foreign language. Frank Herbert’s The Dosadi Experiment and Dune cast human evolution, fueled by religious fanaticism, in the starkest Darwinian terms. Similarly, human augmentation can promote a militaristic society, as in Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai series, or one of pure exploration (E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Galactic Patrol series).
But films like Serenity and Forbidden Planet are skeptical of our ability to get rid of our darker, “less- evolved” half–or survive without it. And I’m skeptical we’ll ever evolve into beings we wouldn’t recognize. Recent advances in animal psychology indicate that intelligence, tool use and even society are a continuum rather than a clean break between us and other animals. Our technology and biology will change, but our basic nature probably won’t.
Actually, I disagree: there will most definitely be conflicts, but they will be over other resources than are scarce (which brings the hairy question of how to define a post-scarcity society), and there will be exploration in the broadest sense of the word. If there are no interesting conflicts (and conflicts of interest are conflicts, too), then the writer, IMHO, isn’t trying hard enough.
Before I get to the fictional treatment of this, I’d like to state that–in some aspects–we in the (western) world are already living in a post-scarcity society. To wit:
- There is basically no hunger in large parts of the western world (unfortunately, there is in some western countries), and in several countries obesity is a bigger problem than hunger.
- Computational devices (from computers to smartphones and anything in between) and the internet are becoming ubiquitous, with some interesting side effects, such as western gamers paying Asian gamers to reach higher levels in computer games (this was already happening in 2004).
- Life expectancy is still increasing, worldwide.
Which begs the question: what is a post-scarcity society? I strongly suspect that this is majorly defined by the time in which we live. Meaning what is common today (let’s say: clean water) was very scarce in the past, so subsequently what is scarce today might be common in the (near) future. However, there will always be other things that will be scarce, and future conflicts will be over those.
Which things? Well, things are developing quite fast already, meaning we don’t know what will be in demand the next decade: which jobs (and subsequently which education to give), which industries so let alone which products or services -even if we do try to make an (un-)educated guess: Check out Shift Happens: Bringing Education into the 21st Century: to quote:
- …the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004;
- We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist…
- …using technologies that haven’t been invented…
- …in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.
Indeed, this is where the intelligent SF writer tries do her/his extrapolations. Suppose–as mentioned, for the sake of this discussion–that hunger, poverty and material need disappear: what will be the next type of scarce resources?
Here are a few SF story examples (that I’m aware of: this list is far from exhaustive and I greatly welcome any additions):
- “The Green Leopard Plague” by Walter Jon Williams (Asimov’s, October/November 2003): in a society where people photosynthesize food–like plants–hunger and death–people regularly make backups of themselves–are things of the past. Still, things like manual labor will become more valuable than intellectual exercises, since everybody will have time for the latter, but won’t be able to do the former. So the new currency is calories (ironically, the same as in many of Paolo Bacigalupi’s scarcity stories). And investigations: the mermaid Michelle is paid very handsomely to look into a certain mystery. Finally, while death has become non-permanent, people still torture each other;
- Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow; also here death is obsolete, material goods are no longer scarce and everyone’s basic rights are today’s luxuries. Still, there are scarce good like the best housing, a table in a good restaurant, tickets to a popular theme park ride, and more. Since money has become meaningless, the new currency is Whuffie–respect and esteem by your peers–twitter and facebook everyone (the novel is from 2003). yet, there is plenty of conflict: about what is the best way to do a thrill ride: virtual or ‘for real’ (for whatever your value of ‘real’), and how actual achievement will still have a place in such a world;
- Infoquake (+ its sequels Multireal and Geosynchron) by David Louis Edelman: in many ways, the society depicted in this ‘Jump 225′ trilogy would be considered a post-scarcity society today: there is no hunger and hardly any poverty to speak of, and people have augmented their reality through all kinds of software and body extensions.. Yet people are still striving to acquire the next big thing, in this case a thing called Multireal (a technology through which users can see through the myriad of possible paths in the future, and choose the desired one). It is bursting at the seams with conflict: Natch (the protagonist) fights almost everyone else, and even his own team conspires against him;
- Monetized by Jason Stoddard (Interzone #220, February 2009): again, hunger, poverty and the most urgent material needs have disappeared, so what is the next big thing? Actually, pointing towards (anticipating, creating the buzz of) the next big thing is the next big thing: Monetization Effectiveness. Mike’s mother is also the mother of that particluar invention, and Mike wants nothing to do with it (Yes: kids will remain rebels). Eventually, he finds out that hard conflict–transmitted live–can bring in the easy money;
Second: conflicts in a post-singularity society.
When it comes to the (post-) singularity novel, Charlie Stross’s Accelerando is the proverbial elephant in the room: as highly accelerated Artificial Intelligences–and there are layers upon layers of them–are taking over and transforming the solar system, they fiercely fight amongst themselves for domination. A group of uploaded humans (humanity in general is swept aside by the singularity) decides to go on a space trip where they not only have conflicts with the aliens they encounter, but also amongest themselves. Accelerando is chock-a-bloc filled with conflicts.
Some stories even speculate that a full-on technological singularity nips itself in the bud (sort of) when hyper-intelligent equipment accelerates itself into either a state indistinguishable from nirvana or escapes into another place (dimension, Universe) altogether.
More SF story examples:
- Diaspora by Greg Egan: the first chapter–Orphanogenesis which also appeared as a stand-alone story in Interzone #123–tells how a self-aware entity might be raised in a software environment, while the conflict in the first half of the novel is how software people try to convince flesh people to flee Earth for an upcoming gamma-ray burst. The second half tells about the exploration of a group of software people (and one of their discoveries–Wang’s Carpets which also appeared as a stand-alone story in Greg Bear’s New Legends anthology–is one of the most mind-blowing sense of wonder hard SF ideas in the past twenty years);
- Crystal Nights by Greg Egan (Interzone #215): where a ruthless inventor/entrepreneur sets up a culture of self-aware entities in an extremely hostile software environment and then speeds up their time cycles, thereby accelerating their evolution to hyper-intelligence. The central conflict is the question if it is ethical to sacrifice the death of countless software entities for the end result of the hyper-intelligent species (who decide to get out of here, pronto, anyway);
- The Last Reef by Gareth L. Powell (Interzone #202, January/February 2006): interplanetary relay stations sometimes become self-aware and then hyper-accelerate themselves out of existence. Then, there is one such station that hovers on the brink: it’s cordoned off as mega-corporations and governments want to try to harvest its highly advances technologies. In the end, the main protagonist decides to take the huge plunge into the unknown;
- Lighting Out by Ken McLeod (from the anthology disLOCATIONS, Newcon Press, 2007): echoes The Last Reef’s idea of self-extinguishing hyper-accelerated networks in a future where humans are a ‘bland of reality, virtual reality and bio-engineered reality’. Again, conflicts remain, in this case between a daughter and a mother (the last one a partial personlaity running on a card);
Plenty of conflict remaining–some of it because humans remain basically humans–and when humans do rise above themselves–and/or change greatly–then, often what is at stake is exploration, the quest for the unknown.
Finally, would conflicts remain in an idealized technological singularity, where death has been overcome, and the existing hyper-intelligences have discovered all there is to know, and explored everything. Well, I have tried to wrap my thoughts around that concept in my short story Qubit Conflicts. I suppose that solipsism isn’t quite what it’s hyped to be, and that intelligent beings will always enjoy, well, if not conflicts, then at least confrontations and interaction.
I’m fascinated by the idea of postscarcity, postsingularity worlds, I personally don’t believe in them. What you read in the pages of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near and K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation is not a blueprint in designing a world of plenty but a roadmap to Utopia, which can be translated from the Greek as “no place.” It’s a pretty apt description of the postsingular world.
For all of the proselytizing by Kurzweil, Drexler, and Hans Moravec in his books Robot and Mind Children, they don’t mean the same things when they talk about “scarcity,” so even a reasonable debate of the stakes for any character in a postsingularity or postscarcity world has to begin with what it actually means. Think about it this way: oxygen is plentiful on our planet. The idea of an oxygen scarcity become rather silly until you either have a vastly more polluted atmosphere (as in John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up) or travel to environs where oxygen is in short supply (remember that the Peerssa AI in Larry Niven’s A World Out of Time threatens to shut off Jerome Branch Corbell’s oxygen unless Corbell turns his ship around and returns to earth). Unfortunately, even in some of the better postsingularity novels, authors impose artificial scarcities. Think of Charles Stross’s Glasshouse, a fine novel on many levels, but in order to create a compelling mystery, his characters must revert to a simulacrum of the twentieth century.
So what would be the stakes for a postscarcity, postsingularity character? It depends on what scarcity occurs as a consequence of postscarcity economics or postsingularity society. In Greg Egan’s Permutation City, the characters have to fight against the limitations of the computing power of the Autoverse and the Lambertians’s instantiation of the Autoverse when they discover a better computing model. That seems to be the running narrative for most postsingularity works: a loss of information, and the very nature of identity itself. The protagonist of John Varley’s “The Phantom of Kansas” must restore memories lost as a result of his previous iteration’s clone. In Pat Cadigan’s Fools, the protagonist finds herself lost in a maze of identities, one of which might or might or might not be a police detective investigating (or not investigating) a crime. In such works, the nature of the characters’ idios koimos is at stake.
In Bruce Sterling’s “Kiosk,” postscarcity not only radically transforms the economy of a small European town but also becomes a haven for revolutionary activity when radicals use fabricators to program and print weapons. In Cory Doctorow’s “After the Siege,” postscarcity goods, prints of clothing specifically, become black market items for war refugees. The characters must confront survival, but also what they knew of their world before. In a sense, what is at stake is a sense of cultural identity, of shared reality. It’s the ability to find stability in an unstable world.
And then there’s the radical vision of Rudy Rucker’s Postsingular and Hylozoic, in which the characters must have to contend with the emergent sentience of all material things. It’s probably far more in line with Vernor Vinge’s singularity paper, which says that once you’ve developed an intelligence greater than your own, what exactly the future will look like, to say nothing of the stakes for the denizens of the postsingularity world, are almost impossible to determine.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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 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.
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.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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