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MIND MELD: Character Stakes in Post-Scarcity Novels (Part One)

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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:

Q: 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?

Here are their answers…

Fabio Fernandes
Fabio Fernandes is a writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. Also a journalist and translator, he is responsible for the Brazilian translations of several prominent SF novels including Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and A Clockwork Orange. His short stories have been published in Brazil, Portugal, Romania, England, and USA, and in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. There’s another story coming up in The Apex Book of World SF, Vol. II, ed. by Lavie Tidhar, later this year.

For me, science fiction was always, in one way or other, a literature of immortality. Since Frankenstein, SF authors seem to be concerned with life extension and/or recreation (cloning is ok, since you you able to download your mind to a younger version of yourself and thus extend your lifetime). Of course not all SF masterworks have this theme as its main focal point (but take Dune, for instance, and the war for the *geriatric* spice – in an universe running scarce of many resources, people are more than willing to kill each other for a drug that grants longevity to its users).

In a Post-Scarcity and a Post-Singularity scenario, the search for immortality is the next step. If humankind didn’t attain it yet, it surely will, and it’s doing all it can to reach eternal life or the next best thing. Accelerando, by Charles Stross, is one of the best examples of this century.

What can you give to a man/woman/transgender who has everything? More lifetime so that he/she/everyone can do more of whatever they want to do.

Paul McAuley
Paul McAuley has been earning his living writing novels, short stories and occasional pieces of journalism since 1996. Paul has written many science fiction stories, most of them hard science fiction, including The Confluence Trilogy.

There are already two models for fiction set in post-scarcity worlds. The first model is perhaps best exemplified in some of the short stories and novels of Greg Egan, in which some kind of post-scarcity civilisation is implied but knowledge is as yet unevenly distributed, and characters are motivated by curiosity and the need to unravel cosmic mysteries or explore the implications of physical manifestations of outliers of physics or mathematics. A very pure form of science fiction in which the search for knowledge is not disguised as a treasure hunt or sullied by material greed. The second model is found in the Culture novels of Iain Banks and in Star Trek (which if not post-scarcity in the strict sense – lack of dilithium crystals often being a plot-driver, for instance – is at least an example of a fictional world in which resources are evenly distributed). In both cases, it’s assumed that there are plenty of unincorporated worlds and civilisations outside the boundaries of the Culture or the Federation which represent either a threat or a chance for examination, adventure, or some kind of attempt at uplift or enlightenment. It could be argued that this displacement of story from the centre to the edge and beyond is a kind of cop-out, since they aren’t actually stories about the post-scarcity civilisation or the ordinary lives of its citizens. But the barbarian, hostile or post-collapse worlds are at the least useful mirrors or alternatives to the values of those civilisations, and in the best of this kind of story (more often in the Culture novels than Star Trek) the nature and fate of the outsiders are not only shown to change or have value to the internal politics of the post-scarcity civilisation, but also to affect and change the lives of the adventurers who encounter and interact with them.

There are, of course, many other kinds of post-scarcity stories. After all, while post-scarcity civilisations may no longer support tales of lost inheritances or the construction of financial empires, they may still contain just as much human foolishness and caprice as any of ours. See, for example, Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the Edge of Time series. Universal lack of want does not preclude romantic rivalries and misunderstandings, or schisms and discord over religion, philosophy, or whether clam chowder is better with cream or tomatoes. If post-scarcity worlds are utopias, they are dynamic utopias. Their inhabitants are not yet perfect. Hearts may still be broken; so might heads.

Mari Ness
Mari Ness lives in central Florida, and likes to watch space shuttles and rockets leap into the sky. Her work has previously appeared in numerous print and online venues, including Fantasy Magazine, Hub Fiction and Farrago’s Wainscot. She’s still hoping to spend time in a space station some day.

The framing of this question someone seems to suggest that greed or fear is the main factor motivating characters. And that fighting over and hunting down resources is one of the main driving forces behind human behavior.

And I’d disagree. Even extremely wealthy humans — Bill Gates, for instance — don’t suddenly roll over and stop doing things just because they have more money than they can possibly spend in one lifetime. The Sultan of Brunei has had, by all accounts, a colorful, passionate and dramatic private life despite having one of the world’s greatest personal fortunes. (Perhaps because he has one of the world’s greatest personal fortunes.)

But even if we’re claiming that we’ve invented everything that can possibly be invented, fulfilled every possible human want or need, we’ll still be interacting with each other, still falling in and out of love, still needing comfort and entertainment.

Still needing adventure.

And finally, being able to seek out that adventure without any limitations or hesitations.

There’s a wonderful bit in Glinda of Oz, where the characters in that marvelous utopian fairyland can take off at a moment’s notice because they had no pressing affairs to attend to. So they do. In the Star Trek universe (of at least the first two series), now that money, hunger and thirst have been eliminated, humans can seek out new worlds and new civilizations. Even the happy characters in the Dancers at the End of Time, able to construct whatever fancies they wished, had to combat boredom – and so some of them decide to do a bit of time travelling.

When we no longer have to worry about death, destruction, food, water — that’s when things can really start to happen.

This is a universe with, at a conservative estimate, a trillion trillion trillion stars. I think our future characters will want to go take a look at them. And see what future marvels await. And oh, yes, they’ll still be dealing with the other things — love, laughter, jokes, family, pets, good and terrible entertainment. We may not have to worry about danger or greed. But that doesn’t mean our stories will end.

Madeline Ashby
Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, and anime fan. Her first novel, vN, will be available next summer from Angry Robot Books. Her other work has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Escape Pod and elsewhere. She also writes for Tor.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

This question nails exactly why I tend to avoid post-Singularity novels. After the Singularity, characters can usually do magic with technology. But there’s a risk of using that technology as a Get Out of Jail Free card, and shortchanging character development in the process. Stories about people who can have, do, or be anything are a bit boring unless their choices have consequences. Without the possibility of making a mistake, choices have no meaning.

“But Madeline,” you’re saying, “science fiction is the literature of ideas.”

I’ve heard that excuse, before. Usually I hear it right after I’ve critiqued somebody’s novel for having shallow, weakly-developed characters who can’t really be told apart and whose choices make no sense on an emotional level. I belong to a genre writing workshop that’s lasted for over twenty years, and its collective wisdom is that the “literature of ideas” excuse is just that — an excuse. Listening to a cavalcade of cool ideas without context or implication is about as entertaining and informative as listening to a sugared-up six-year-old describe his first day at camp. (“And then! And then! And then!”) Your characters are the vehicles for your ideas. If they’re not roaring off the page, it’s because you’re not working hard enough.

In a post-Singularity or post-scarcity context, though, the challenge of creating memorable, interesting characters takes on a new dimension. Your characters will have less access to the basic experiences that unite us as a species across divisions of race, gender, class or location. Hunger. Sweat. Arousal. Pain. Even mundane details like clogged drains or mud puddles have less meaning to uplifted humans, or humans who have never known lack. Without those experiences to draw on, here’s what you’re left with:

  • Try, Fail; Try, Succeed: This is the most basic piece of advice I can ever give. Your characters need to try something (anything, from kissing a boy to uplifting a jellyfish), and screw it up. Then they need to try again. And again, and again, and again, until they can do it. Done right, this cycle can give you an epic series of novels. Just ask Tite Kubo — Bleach would not work without this cycle in place, and it’s about a guy who has the powers of a god. But your characters must fail. They must fail early, often, and despite their best efforts. And not because they got cheated, or because their arch-rivals rigged the game, or what have you. They must fail because they just aren’t good enough, yet.
  • Actions Have Consequences: Again, this is so basic that it’s easily forgotten, but it’s central to good plotting and character development. The worst thing you can do for your characters is spoil them. If your character never makes a mistake for which she suffers, she can’t grow, and the result of her mistakes can’t illuminate the systems at work within the world you’ve built. Did your protagonist try a magnet halo for the first time after acing her Atemporal History exam? Did she see demons and attack them? If so, she should probably spend the night in the drunk tank, so we can see what her world and the people in it look like with the AR layers stripped away and the prostheses turned off.
  • More, More, More: Usually, people who have achieved the heights of greatness in one field want to achieve it in another. This is why guys like Forbes and Trump and Perot run for President — they already know what total power over a corporation feels like, so naturally they want nukes. It’s just in our nature to want more, and your readers will understand that. It won’t be enough for your sexy phosphorescent-skinned goth protagonist to splice on some adorable kitten ears with DNA developed by a sentient nekomimi AI. Those kitten ears need to hear ghosts.
  • Social Enforcement: Even characters who are fantastically wealthy usually crave acceptance or approval from someone — parents, peers, paparazzi. “Reality” television preys upon this need. But even further back, stories like The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina or Liaisons Dangereuses hinged on social capital. And after the Singularity, the need for social capital won’t change one bit. In fact, it will be worse. When you’ve uploaded your consciousness and the only way you can have an orgasm is if someone gives you a +1, you’ll want to be liked. Really, really liked.
  • Malaise: Characters who have everything can still be interesting, mostly because they have the most to lose. And when success or abundance is unearned, fictional characters feel uneasy about it and usually do something to bring about the demise of their meaningless status. Novels like American Psycho and Fight Club are all about this, and I think the template could fit on the post-Singularity/scarcity model pretty easily.
Wil McCarthy
Wil McCarthy is the author of several novels, including the Nebula nominee To Crush the Moon, fourth in his The Queendom of Sol sequence. He is also the author of the related nonfiction book Hacking Matter.

I really don’t think there is such a thing as post-scarcity. I mean, 100 years ago, the largest single expense for a typical American family was food. Now there is virtually no hunger in America, and people spend their time worrying about things that are still scarce, like quality housing, education, child care, and medical care. There are only so many penthouses to go around, and only so many tables at that restaurant everyone’s talking about. And of course there are matters of the heart, where wanting something we can’t have is common to the point of cliche’. There will always be unique things to covet and strive for, and there will always be commodities like water and energy and minerals that are unequally distributed or in short supply, or both. Thus, we’ll always need a system for determining who gets what, and ultimately, whatever you call it and whatever form it takes, it’s still money, and people will still grub for it and flash it around for status. There’s no escaping human nature.

I’m not even sure immortality would make all that much difference. Most of the time, people worry about what’s happening next next in their lives, not whether they’re going to die today. Of course some day we all will, but for the most part we walk around like we’re immortal anyway, wrapped up in our private concerns. And yet, the stakes do not feel small, nor should they; this is real life actually happening to us. Interesting conflicts? Pfah. They’re everywhere.

Kay Kenyon
Kay Kenyon is the author of ten SF novels. Her latest work is a sci-fantasy quartet. Book One, Bright of the Sky, was one of Publishers Weekly’s top books of 2007. It is free on Kindle. Other novels include The Braided World, a John W. Campbell finalist, and Maximum Ice, a Philip K. Dick Award finalist. She blogs on fiction writing at www.kaykenyon.com.

In a post scarcity world, an author has to work a bit harder, but if determined, one might cook up something sufficiently evil. Even with unlimited abundance, humans will still act upon impulses of numinous, religious, or emotional origin. For example, we may have competing needs to live in Palestine; a precious historical artifact may be stolen, freedom may be denied by fanatical religion or prejudice. Secondly, doomsday scenarios inspired by accident, madness or alien conflict are still possible. Finally, stakes can be found in the very situation of contentment. Would abundance make us passive and fearful of change, a culture of Eloi? Now the character’s goal is to either escape the deadening culture or to transform it, perhaps, ironically, by introducing scarcity. As for the singularity, if beneficial to humans, then we have a post scarcity world with all the plot delights of the above. If the singularity is inimical to humans, then we must fight or flee this infinitely superior force. The fight scenario looks like a tragic ending. The flee plot line may be a cop out. It just takes us to a stage where there is no singularity, so I am failing to find a plot here. Damn.

Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds is a science fiction writer and former scientist. He lives in Wales. His latest novel is the far-future Terminal World. Coming up is Blue Remembered Earth, book 1 of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy.

The notion of absolute post-scarcity has always struck me as more fantasy than fiction: unless one is dealing with a simulated environment, there will always be limits to how much matter and energy you can move around in a given interval, or squeeze into a finite volume of space. Our characters may have access to all the food, amenities and personal goods they might want, but they’re not going to be able to conjure entire planets into existence at the drop of a hat. So there will always be some things that are out of reach, or can’t be supplied on a whim.

But even if we take it as a given that technology is capable of giving us everything we could reasonably want or need, in any abundance, and that our characters are both indestructible and immortal, that still leaves plenty of scope for fiction. People will still care about prestige, about reputation, about friendships and rivalries. If you can’t assassinate your worst enemy, how about a sustained program of character assassination, lasting centuries? Not everyone can be famous – or infamous. Not everyone can be a celebrity, or be friends with a celebrity. Not everyone gets to live on *that* stretch of coastline, with *that* perfect view. Not everyone gets to marry *that* supermodel (and if we clone the supermodel, we’ll just transfer our obsessions onto another “unique” object of desire).

From the perspective of someone living in the 10th century, ours (the west) would surely seem like a post-scarcity society. Do we still have wants and needs? Absolutely – it’s just that they wouldn’t necessarily be comprehensible to someone who never had the luxury of not being hungry, not being free of cold, disease, and so on. By the same token, I’m sure that the wants and needs of someone living in a post-scarcity 30th century would be just as remote from our own concerns. One function of science fiction, of course, is to try and bridge that conceptual gap.

Stay Tuned…

The discussion continuess in Part Two, posting later today…

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!
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