Reader Request Week 2017 #3: Utopias

Ken Baker asks:

If you don’t mind a question about another writer’s work: The Culture in Iain M. Banks’ series of novels is depicted as a Utopia. There is no need for money or laws, virtually any material thing anyone wants is available for the asking, everyone is beautiful and lives a long, happy life (except sometimes for people who are actively involved in other cultures and civilizations).

That all sounds nice. But, assuming the necessary technology eventually exists, human nature being what it is, is this a realistic future? And would a life free from all challenge be a satisfying life?

I’ll answer with specific regard to Banks, and then assay the general concept of utopias and humans.

First, with regard to The Culture, I don’t think it’s a universe free from all challenges; there are plenty of challenges and adventures that people in The Culture may choose to take. Indeed, in The Hydrogen Sonata, our main character has spent her life — and modified her body — to attempt the performance of the musical piece that gives the book its title, and is notoriously difficult for anyone with fewer than four arms to attempt. Now, maybe you might argue that this isn’t a true challenge, but I don’t know; most people don’t specifically radically change their physiognomy to do a specific thing if they don’t consider it a central challenge to their life.

The difference between the challenges of The Culture and the challenges of, say, current life on this planet is that the ground level of the challenges of The Culture are elevated from basic needs. Here in the US, the ground level challenge is to achieve the economic means to stay alive and comfortable — get a job that gets you money so you can pay for food, shelter, education, medical needs, and so on. Failing this ground level challenge means going hungry and/or lacking a home and/or dying early from otherwise avoidable heath issues and/or being trapped in a cycle of poverty, along with your children, who inherit your ground level challenges.

The Culture gets rid of those particular ground level challenges, so the question now becomes: What are your challenges when you don’t worry about, say, starving or dying early? It’s not that there are no challenges. It’s just that the challenges don’t end with you dead in an alleyway because you can’t afford to eat.

Indeed (and to now generalize) this is what utopias for humans essentially are: The removal of physical want and need to allow the multiplicity of operative choice. Choices can be challenges and many humans desire challenges — things which offer (or at the very least, appear to offer) meaning and achievement to one’s life. So even in a utopia there should be challenges galore. Otherwise one may meaningfully argue that the society isn’t a utopia at all. Utopias, in my opinion, minimize want, not choice and opportunity for achievement.

One may even argue that utopias should offer more opportunities for personally meaningful challenges because baseline needs are sorted, and that these additional challenges might seem frivolous to someone who is just surviving, but for the citizens of the utopia might have actual meaning. If you don’t think that’s possible, ask yourself why the Super Bowl and the Oscars draw in millions of viewers every single year, when the “achievement” those participating in it gain is based fundamentally on entertaining others. They both have meaning because of their context in a society that allows for enough wealth and leisure time to allow exceptional entertainment skills to become an achievement. Your ancestors on the savanna would would look at on Oscar as a useless shiny thing, and in their context, they’d be entirely correct. In our context, it’s still shiny, but not useless. And in a utopia, maybe an award for, say, origami is one of the highest achievements one could aspire to, because why not? In a utopia, that sort of cleverness and dexterity could be (literally) prized.

(Before anyone notes it: There are already awards for origami. They just aren’t widely known outside their specific community, he said, looking at his own shelf of community-specific awards.)

Here’s an important thing to note about utopias, which I think is often overlooked (although not by Banks, as he wrote up The Culture): Utopias still have humans in them, which means that not everyone in them is going to be happy all the time. If you eliminate certain needs and wants, the part of the brain that focuses on achieving those needs and wants (or alternately desiring them) will focus on some other subject, and will be happy or unhappy about that. People will still have doubts and longing and desire and unhappiness to the same extent they do now. They just won’t worry they’ll, you know, starve.

How am I confident about this? Because some people already live in a utopia: In our world, they’re called “rich people.” Rich people (usually) have their baselines sorted don’t have to worry about food and shelter and health care and such things; they lead enviable lives with lots of opportunity for leisure. But in my experience they’re not always happy, and their lives are not always problem-free. They have exchanged one set of problems for another, and while their problems are ones many people wish they had, they still weigh on the mind. In a utopia, where the baseline standard of living is the same as that of, say, a tech firm VP living in Irvine, California, people will still have problems. Maybe better problems. But still problems.

And I suspect that’s why, when people actually live in a culture that seems utopian to us, here in the early 21st Century, they won’t recognize or appreciate it as utopian, any more than we recognize that the average life of a 21st century American citizen is utopian to, as an example, a European serf in the 11th century (“You can leave the estate? What? There are no estates? And you have all your teeth and don’t have tumors on your face? And everyone can read? And what is this ‘cell phone’ thing you have? MY GOD MUSIC AND PICTURES ARE COMING FROM IT IS IT POSSESSED”). For the people of a utopia, it will just be… life. And they will wonder what it will be like for the people who finally get to live in a utopia, centuries away from their own experience.

(There is still time to ask a question for Reader Request Week. Go here for all the details, and to ask your question.)

47 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2017 #3: Utopias

  1. “The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink.” – Tom Wolfe, describing life in the year 2000

  2. In Banks’ Culture even all energy needs are fulfilled, drawn from the basic structure of the universe. There is no concept of scarcity at all. Trading genders is common. Modifying one’s own disposition and biochemistry is no more than a mental gesture.

    But even The Culture has SC (Special Circumstances), the MI 5 and 6 analogue.

    And “human nature” is irrelevant as Terran humans were just initially probed by SC in the 1970s.

    We’ve a ways to go before becoming part of the vast array of species that comprise The Culture.

    This is not just Star Trek’s Federation with its replicators and the collapse of a market economy.

  3. In fact, Banks’ second Culture novel, The Player Of Games, is a good illustration of John’s argument that people still seek challenge. Gurgeh, the player referred to in the title, is the Culture’s best human player of games. Any game. But at about a century he’s bored and unsure of his purpose. He finds no challenge in most games anymore. The story is set in motion when he is challenged and then makes a mistake in how he handles that challenge, which ends up with him being challenged on a much larger scale.

    Elsewhere in the series we learn that the Minds construct amazing alternate realities in which they play… but even those do not let the Minds escape from base Reality. And never forget that a background event in the series is a war which is brought about by a fundamental challenge to the underlying rationale of the Culture.

  4. So essentially, a utopian novel translates to a work of fiction focused on the upper levels in Maslow’s hierarchy.

  5. A key thing from the Culture, and one Banks himself tried to raise public awareness of, is that you can define achievement in more than just scientific or economic terms. If someone, in the Culture, wanted to challenge themselves in peak hedonism that was fine and still and achievement. Today we dismiss dedicating our lives to pure enjoyment as being frivolous and unworthy, because we only ever define success in those two terms. Just think of all the jokes about people who get liberal arts degrees and how often those are described as wasteful or useless. Those degrees help us to understand ourselves and help us to increase appreciation of art and philosophy often just for pleasure. Those should not be seen as wasteful goals, and in the Culture are not, we should make it a goal to do the same in real life (and that means not repeating them or chortling dutifully along). Life must be more than it is.

  6. As I recall, Banks makes a lot of this explicit: the reason Contact and especially Special Circumstances exist, and are so well regarded even while they are arguably violating some of the Culture’s ethical tenets, is so that people in the Culture don’t get completely bored or apathetic. Some people can devote themselves to mastering origami, or a given piece of music, or styles of games, but as a society, the Culture needs to know it matters somehow. Hence, it stretches itself out and meddles.

  7. Okay, so I thought I was thinking of Hydrogen Sonata, but maybe I’m thinking of a different sci-fi story:

    Protagonist does deep dives into a gas giant, greatly slowing down his perception to communicate with large, ancient, advanced aliens who fly around the gas giant. What story am I thinking of – help! :)

  8. I remember Delany’s Triton as the first place I noticed this – An Ambiguous Heterotopia. Our hero gets anything they want, including sex changes when they get tired of their gender. But nothing satisfies or gives life meaning.

    Of course, the real reason to read this is Delany’s insane imagination. Philosophy aside, the world building is amazing!

  9. Yeah, but… the Culture is run by the Minds and the fleshies are mostly pets. I do think it is a Utopia, and I do think that people will still look for challenges. It’s just the Minds could trammel the challenges in a non-destructive direction, either by gentle persuasion or mental adjustment. So your goal couldn’t be kill all your enemies, drive the men away, etc etc. And the Minds could stop anyone who tried that anyway – on the ships it was a ubiquitous surveillance environment. Also, SC was a release valve for people with that bent (and also, drama, because novels need it). If not for that, the Minds would have to use a different approach on the SC people.
    Not sure what the Utopia would look like without the Minds as benign-ish dictators. Or maybe they could be viewed as perfect libertarian overlords – do what you want so long as it doesn’t impact other people.

  10. My old friend Jim Sakoda wrote several popular books on origami. He was a professor of sociology at Brown. There was always a scrum to sit next to him at meetings, because at the end of the meeting the table in front of him was littered with wonderful little bits of folded paper. Fun fact: when we started rounding up Japanese-Americans to put in camps at the beginning of WWII, Jim was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. While he was imprisoned, he was both an internee and an underground sociologist, doing various studies for his department.

  11. The village in which I live came to be at least partially due to an intent to create an utopia: (http://www.yshistory.org/?p=4720), and the question has never really been answered as to whether the failure of the utopian society was due to the ujnworkable stated ideals or the failure of execution due to the flaws of its adherents..

  12. Another awesome utopian story is Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. People have their needs so fulfilled that there’s a huge community devoted to maintaining Walt Disney World. Of course, people being people, they have arguments, disagreements, and even violence. It also answers the intriguing question, “How do you do a murder mystery in a society where you can’t die?”

  13. Chris,
    I believe you are thinking of The Algebraist (not a Culture novel, but the protagonist is the son of a noble house with his own how-do-I-find-meaning-amidst-all-my-good-fortune issues).

  14. I think that as of 2017 it is pretty clear that the only reason we arent living in a post scarcity world is because of a lack of imagination.

    There are too many people who are so wedded to their scarcity-based idea of how the world works that they cant even see that at this point, we have the technology, its just a question of whether people will embrace it.

    We live in a world where there is food enough to feed everyone, yet people starve. And throwbacks to a century past still insist that there can be no such thing as a free lunch, and are not only insulted that you suggest otherwise, but get up in arms to stop those who from eating food they dont ‘deserve’.

    When the first Star Trek level replicator is created, it will probably spark massive regulations to keep the scarcity world view in place and try to limit the effect it can have on people.

    We seem to be hardwired to believe there is not enough.

    And because of that, unfortunately, it seems there never will be.

  15. Chris:
    “Protagonist does deep dives into a gas giant, greatly slowing down his perception to communicate with large, ancient, advanced aliens who fly around the gas giant. What story am I thinking of – help! :)”

    The aliens are the Dwellers, from The Algebraist, a Banks space opera, but not a Culture novel. It’s great, some of my favorite Banks.

  16. @greg, I agree. We should be living in something close to a post-scarcity world. But we aren’t. And that has more to do with human nature than technology. It’s interesting you mention the replicator. When I was a kid in the 70s, I picked up a reprint of a sci-fi novel originally published in 1959, “A For Anything” by Damon Knight. It opens with people receiving a package containing a “gismo”, a device that will produce a copy of anything, including another gismo. The world unleashed in the novel is anything but utopian. It develops and enforces another form of “scarcity” instead, much as we have actually done in our modern society, though absent the “replicator” style technology. I haven’t read the Culture books, but an ever more stringent cycle of artificial scarcity seems as likely a path as utopias. But perhaps I’m too cynical.

  17. Scott, yeah, I dont think I’ve read or seen any work of fiction that gets post-scarcity right. I dont know what the post scarcity world will look like, but I can tell when a book about post scarcity was written from a worldview firmly grounded in scarcity.

    Cripes, i just watched Independence Day Resurgence for the first time, and I think my jaw literally dropped open when they said the aliens were here to steal our planets’ molten core? Seriously? In a galaxy of a billion stars and a billion planets, you need OUR molten core? You couldnt find some other planet somewhere? Or maybe use a better energy source like a huge pile of hydrogen so big that it undergoes fusion from its own weight? You know, like a STAR??? there are orders and orders and orders of magnitude more energy in a star, but the aliens had to come steal our molten core, just to create a fake setup for a fight.

    In “Battle Los Angeles”, the aliens were after our water? And in Oblivion, the aliens are taking our oceans. Seriously? Did you and your spaceships just whiz on by Neptune and Uranus? They are both roughly 50 times bigger than Earth and have the name “ice giants” for a reason? In “edge of tomorrow”, the movie never says what the aliens want, but clearly whstever it is, it is a scarcity for them. And the moment someone posits a world where interstellar travel is like getting on a airline today, then one has to deal with the outragous ABUNDANCE in the universe.

    In Watchmen, Dr Manhattan alters Earths history by synthesizing the atomic elements needed to make cheap electric cars. But he had to be written as what is essentially an omniscient sociopath so that he would stop there and not synthesize everything else people needed. Otherwise, it would have created a post scarcity world.

    In all these cases, the people creating these stories wanted to write something inside their scarcity worldview, so even when they introduce sci fi elements that would almost inevitably lead to post scarcity, they have to limit it, or sometimes they arent even aware that they have created a paradox in their own story.

    One of the things I just loved about “Arrival” was it was an attempt to take a peek at something that would ultimately break up a huge chunk of our scarcity worldview. And it does so by having the characters literally change their worldview. Thats most of the problem. We see only through the dark tinted shades of scarcity, so thats what we see everywhere we look.

    I dont know of a specific example, but it would not surprise me if there were a scifi story about aliens who came to earth to steal our coal. The energy tradeoff would be ludicrous, but if you’re stuck in scarcity, it seems perfectly fine.

  18. So, there are certain classes of politicians whose aim in life is to prevent a utopia occurring…?
    Maybe all of them, given that their positions might seem irrelevant at that point?

  19. Cool Bev : “But nothing satisfies or gives life meaning.”

    I may have missed it, but does anything give life meaning today?

    Besides the meaning we create for ourselves, I mean.

  20. As Not the Reddit Chris S said, the Culture is run by Minds and the beings basically live in terrariums. But The Culture isn’t “post scarcity” because there are still tradeoffs that have to be made. There’s a subplot about someone wanting to use a huge expanse of orbital for a network of trams, and other inhabitants objecting. Ultimately the orbital’s Mind decided how to allocate the resource.

    As for our own society, it’s an absolute moral outrage that we still deprive people of primal needs like food and shelter. Free market capitalism isn’t a fucking law of nature — it’s a tool for allocating resources. We choose how to organize our society, and our choices are unbelievably terrible and cruel.

  21. @ Greg
    Cripes, i just watched Independence Day Resurgence for the first time, and I think my jaw literally dropped open when they said the aliens were here to steal our planets’ molten core?
    Plus it wasn’t even original mad, bad, science. The Daleks did it first in 1964. Be original in your mad science, please.

  22. I don’t think a true utopia is really possible, without a radical change in the human psyche. People will always be disatisfied about some aspects of their lives, no matter how utopian.

  23. I’ve thought for a while now that we should take a page from the Culture, and start work on creating Minds to govern our society. Because we selfish, shortsighted humans have proven time and time again that we can’t be trusted to do it ourselves.

  24. Perhaps it is just my outlook but every piece of fiction I have read lead me to one thing. The human animal is not a Utopian animal. There is always a fly in the ointment. Banks had the long time from now humans living in a fishbowl they were told was Utopian. The manufacturing of challenges points out that the human animal is and probably always will be a striving animal. We ain’t never satisfied.

  25. Human beings are not very good at being content. Animals in general seem to be. Life is a continuous struggle for energy, mating opportunities and resources, and the animals who were easily contented got out competed by the animals who took more resources.

    The only way to have a genuine Utopia would be to fundamentally change human nature, and the resulting characters would not be recognizably human.

    Hell, even Human Robots like Charles Stross tends to have are more human than those post human…thingees would be.

    (Which is not a moral judgement. ^_^ I’m not saying that such a Utopia wouldn’t be pleasant, simply that the species involved would no longer be OUR species)

  26. While we may have enough food to meet everyone’s basic calorie requirements, we don’t have enough food to give everyone their preferred diet – with a lot of animal protein in it. So I don’t think that we can say we have a post-scarcity level of food available at the present time.
    A comparison to illustrate – something that is available at post-scarcity levels is breathable air. It would be ridiculous to try to sell it, that’s what post-scarcity looks like. We will get there with other things eventually. (Ironically, breathable air is becoming more scarce and its possible that in a hundred years, food will be free but you’ll have to buy air)

  27. Just craig:”every piece of fiction I have read lead me to one thing. The human animal is not a Utopian animal.”

    Well, the purpose of utopia in fiction is often picked by the writer as a way to demonstrate utopia failing. Its sort of like how any story with the Three Laws of Robotics in it is inevitably results in the three laws failing in some way. Otherwise, why bother spending time mentioning the three laws and not use it. Its like pointing out there is a gun on the mantlepiece, and then never using it.

    I think the three laws of robotics to a modern day AI programmer would occur as silly because you cant hardwire the laws into a bot because the laws require very high level cognitive parsing to apply in any meaningful way. (What does “harm” even mean at the hardwire level?) So its all just a huge jumble of software code. And there are millions of ways it can go wrong, not 3. But as a backdrop for a story, it works. Most often as a cautionary tale of the arrogance of man. 3 laws safe? Hah! Lemme show you!

    Sometimes robot laws are a minor plot point. R2D2 had a “restraining bolt” that forced him to strictly follow the orders of his owner, and when removed, allowed him to disobey him.

    And sometimes robot stories are trying to focus on what does it really mean to be human and who has rights, such as Bicentennial Man.

    But if you base your knowledge of robots on fictional robots, you will probably be a lousy robot engineer, cause stories arent about how reality really worms, but about tension.

  28. bookworm1398: I like how “light” is steadily becoming a post-scarcity resource in a larger part of the world. For most people the cost of having a lit lightbulb indoors is small enough that it can be ignored, and even in places without reliable access to electricity, a blackout no longer means “get diesel and turn on the generator”, it means “just use the LED lights hooked up to a solar cell battery”.

  29. crypticmirror: in regards to your comments on Liberal Arts degrees and how “worthless” they are: my mother and father dropped out of college in their 3rd year so they could go out into the world and just experience things, as they were just done with school. My father was the son of an engineer, who himself was the son of an engineer, and my father had been taking a lot of math and science related courses, which he already had a very solid grounding in. This contributed significantly to his personal decision to leave school behind; he didn’t feel like he was necessarily learning important things, since everything he was learning were things that he already knew how to learn for himself.

    He eventually went back to college in his 30’s and received a BA in language studies instead of pursuing further science and math education, since he’d already taught himself advanced calculus and was keeping up with all of the top science journalism. He wanted to take classes like philosophy and social anthropology and art history and language history, because he felt like those were filling in a hole and rounding him out as a person, not because they would help him in some obscure career fulfilling way. It’s less about scoring points on some global leaderboard, and more about enjoying oneself along the way.

  30. Most of us already live in Paradise.
    Food, shelter, health, entertainment, long lives.
    Even out work is close, Few work in life threatening jobs.
    And we have the choice to change all those things as we wish.

    Compare your life to that homeless person or Syrian refugee.
    We live in Paradise.

  31. It may be worth noting that the Culture is only one civilization among many in Banks’ novels. Often, conflict (and the achievement that accrues to successfully negotiating it) comes from outside the Culture itself.

  32. Most of the Culture novels deal with the Cultures interactions with outside civilizations, Player of Games, Look to Winward, Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Matter, Surface Details, etc. From a story telling point of view, Utopia’s are boring so you have conflict at the edges.

    The Algebraist is not a utopia except for the Dwellers.

  33. @Anthony, @Thad, @C.J., thanks! Yes, The Algebraist. Great story. IIRC, the Dwellers were post-scarcity as well, and they occupied themselves with formal wars that they saw as intramural sports. Maybe that’s where we’ll end up, too. :)

  34. Peter Cibulskis
    “Most of us already live in Paradise.
    Food, shelter, health, entertainment, long lives.”

    and chocolate

  35. “Because some people already live in a utopia: In our world, they’re called “rich people.” Rich people (usually) have their baselines sorted don’t have to worry about food and shelter and health care and such things; they lead enviable lives with lots of opportunity for leisure. But in my experience they’re not always happy, and their lives are not always problem-free.”

    Jane Austen (for one) wrote several books about the sort of thing that people in this enviable position will worry about – mainly individual social status, family status, competitive artistic display and so on.

  36. Scarcity and post-scarcity and enforced scarcity. And utopias. I think one of the main reasons many European leftist parties have long been in trouble is because they’ve become obsessed with “work” and forgotten their roots as, well, Utopian projects. Mary & Bryan Talbot’s historical graphic novel The Red Virgin and The Vision of Utopia illustrates these roots well. Highly recommended & entertaining reading. :)

  37. msobel: “Utopia’s are boring so you have conflict at the edges.”

    A utopia could be the backdrop setting for love story that is squarely in the middle. All your needs of food, shelter, etc are answered. But figuring out love is still personal.

    I think the reason we dont see a lot of utopia stories is that thry are very hard to write. Many of the stock, trope, bog standard sources of story tension have been eliminated. Violence is a lazy go to way for writers to create tension. A utopic world removes most of that.

    A story like game of thrones is set in a severely scarce world. And because of that, most people dont question the story premise that is the competition for power. If Game of thrones were moved to a post scarcity world, the writers would have to explain why all these people are fighting for power, are fighting for suvival, and the story itself would most likely evaporate.

    Utopias arent boring. They’re harder to write, because the reader and audience is hardwired for scarcity. Tell readers that the aliens are attacking because they want to take your planets molten core, and most of them will just go along for the ride. Even though it makes absolutely no sense. If you have the technology to travel all over the galaxy like most alien invaders do, then you dont need to steal earths molten core for energy, you dont need to steal earths oceans for water. If you can travel the galaxy easily, you have a hundred billion stars you can use for energy. Hydrogen and oxygen are some of the most common elements in the universe, so you can make water, you have fuel for fusion. The idea of scarcity when you can easily and cheaply travel many light years in a matter of hours, is absurd. But people just accept it because they are wired for scarcity.

    Tell readers that the story is based in a world where peoples needs are taken care of to the point that money simply doesnt exist, and most readers will bristle at the idea and demand answers to their questions like “how does that work?” and “what about lazy people? Do they get a free ride too? Wont lazy people bankrupt the system?”

    Writing a story in a world of scarcity just plugs into the scarcity wired lizard brain of the reader and they do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. They not only accept it, but they fill in details about it for you.

    In a world of scarcity, a writer can assume people have a will to survive, and then throw some scarcity problem at the characters, spuring them to act to survive, and readers just go along with it. In a post scarcity world, writers are faced with “what does it mean to be human?” type questions, and honestly, most of them dont have answers to that, so how can they possibly write a story that readers will believe? So many of the things that give people “meaning” to their lives are little more than “fill some need created by scarcity”. Scarcity around food might drive someone to struggle to grow potatoes while stranded on mars. Or it may be trying to feed the starving people in africa. But its scarcity. Take away scarcity, and you take away the thing that gives unexamined meaning to a lot of peoples’ lives.

    Which means if you write a story that takes away scarcity, you inadvertantly challenge peoples’ meaning in their lives.

    Utopias arent boring. Theyre just really hard to write for an audience hardwired to organize the meaning of their lives around scarcity.

  38. Great answer, John, a great comments too, all y’all.

    I read the whole Culture series, and yes obviously the characters are facing huge, sometimes fatal, challenges, sometimes within the Utopia and sometimes at the margins or just outside. In some contexts I’m every bit as astute as a houseplant, and this is one of them. While the characters’ motivations in these stories seemed realistic to me, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

    But yeah, in a nutshell the baseline changes.

  39. In Watchmen, Dr Manhattan alters Earths history by synthesizing the atomic elements needed to make cheap electric cars. But he had to be written as what is essentially an omniscient sociopath so that he would stop there and not synthesize everything else people needed. Otherwise, it would have created a post scarcity world.

    Actually, the opposite happens in Watchmen. Doctor Manhattan CREATES scarcity as he damages the world markets; yes, he creates the rarer materials to make electric vehicles much more accessible for 1985…but he does so for the US government, who doesn’t share with the rest of the world. We see several examples of that throughout the comic. His increasing change from Jon Osterman into Doctor Manhattan is a long, slow slide into apotheosis. His very presence is part of the reason that the world is on the brink of nuclear war (and his sudden disappearance doubly so). He’s not a sociopath; for much of the series he rarely uses his powers. As he starts to use them more, he loses more and more the perspective of what it is to be human, until he abandons the pretense altogether.

    In the world of Watchmen, a lack of scarcity wouldn’t create a Utopia; the very presence of an omnipotent god with a political affiliation turns it into a dystopia. Much of the series tension turns on the fact that people are prepared to go to war in fear and are terrified of the Other. It’s even implied that Manhattan is holding mankind’s development back, even while enabling higher technology.

  40. wizardru: “Doctor Manhattan CREATES scarcity ”

    My point is he has the omnipotent power that would allow him to create a post scarcity world, but doesnt. Why he doesnt is given in the story that he is aligned with the United States. But at the meta level, DrM doesnt, for example, build fusion power plants all over the world to generate free electricity because the author wanted to tell a story in the worldview of scarcity.

    Aliens travel countless lightyears, expending an absolutely massive number of KWh’s, to steal our water, which is freely available to anyone with FTL capabilities.

    The overall point is in-story elements that would practically demand a post scarcity world are ignored because the writers want to write about a world of scarcity. Watchmen is a world of severe scarcity. Independence Day is all about scarcity. But both have tech that should create a post scarcity world.

  41. Ah, wait a sec. This is pointing at a thing there is no english language word for.

    “Steampunk” refers to stories that have highly advanced steam power technology in a world without the industrial revolution. If you have giant walking mechanical spiders like “Wild Wild West”, then there is no way you have everyone riding horses to get around. The entire point of steampunk is advanced steampower tech in a world stuck in the pre-industrial Age of Enlightenment, or at most will dance up to but usually not quite into WW1 (The Robert Downey Jr Sherlock movies come to mind).

    There is a genre of fiction that has tech that would most certainly lead to a post-scarcity society, but takes place in a world firmly operating within the rules of scarcity.

    Is there a term for this sort of fiction?

    If not, I christen thee UtopiaPunk.

    Its utopia tech, but everyones still a punk.

    ;)

    Utopia tech, but the world remains scarcity-based.

  42. As the Federation in Star Trek has been described, they are in a Utopia. Their needs are met by the society, they value no wealth, and are able to pursue the career paths that they want to.

    Artists can be artists, scientists can study, explorers can join Starfleet.

    The galaxy has people who crave wealth (Quark), but it seems on Federation worlds the idea of money is foreign to them. I think this is how humans would accept a utopian society. If it valued freedom to follow your interests and passions.

    Hell, I just want to get enough money to be able to follow my interests and not have to keep working for the standard of living my family needs. It’s what I would do if I hit the lottery… now just imagine everyone hit that lottery.

  43. One little nit. While the Culture is a post-scarcity utopian society, and we tend to think of its humanoid occupants as humans, in State of the Art, a GCU visits Earth in secret in 1977. I think the Culture has been around for at least several millennia at the time of the story. The Hydrogen Sonata provides more detail on the origin of the Culture.

    I don’t know if it would actually change in a true post-scarcity society, but it certainly seems to me that there are a lot of people who crave the recognition, respect and adulation of others, and not necessarily in a psychopathic way. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but I think a utopia needs to figure out how to give these people some sort of path to their desires without wrecking it for everyone else.

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