Sunday, January 23, 2011

Difficult Problems in Writing Science Fiction

Ah, the future - so empty, so inviting to fill in with your own ideas.  A blank canvas, waiting for your sketches of people, history and culture to come.

So intimidating.

There are a number of difficult issues that can arise when writing science fiction; many of them have been discussed excellently elsewhere.  Larry Niven's essay about the troubles of mystery science fiction (what point a locked room mystery when you can walk through walls?) is a good example.

What I want to ramble on about is future economics - that is, how can future human (or nonhuman) societies organize their economic affairs?

In a lot of golden age science fiction, the economy looked alot like it did in pre-WWII America.  Corporate capitalism, with a strong individual component.  Even then, however, there were people considering alternatives.  Just look at Frederik Pohl's "Midas Plague" (Galaxy, 1954), which is the first story that I know of to deal with a "post-scarcity" system.

In the Seventies and Eighties, as "New Wave" and cyberpunk ruled the scene, cutthroat capitalism seemed the order of the day.  Even socialism and communism, while theoretical darlings, didn't seem to get much play in Western SF.

Then in 1986 Eric Drexler wrote the Engines of Creation, and shortly afterwards writers started to grapple with the idea of little machines that could copy anything.  Cory Doctorow has made a living on these type of stories!

But what does a society look like when it has no material limits?  How is it organized?  One good example is the Culture, from Iain Banks' series of novels.  A interstellar, non-hierarchical, post-scarcity society that isn't really "organized" at all.  (although I would argue that this is deceptive - the Culture's Minds are organized, and have clearly demarked lines of responsibility - it is the organic members that have no jobs, responsibility or troubles.  They are the leisure class built on AI's that do all the work, not because they have to, but because they want to.)

The other end of the spectrum are stories with NO society at all.  Survivalists huddled in their bunkers, not needing to interact with the outside world because their nanotech "cornucopia" can produce anything they need.  A permanent war of all against all because the only tie people had - trade - has gone away.

Or maybe something in-between.

So many societal and SF tropes just go away in a full nanotech society.  Instellar or interplanetary trading?  Of what?  Anything interested can be scanned and then duplicated where it is needed.

Rugged colonists raising crops on a strange world with hoes?  Not bloody likely.  (Although I never understood how colonists could travel fifty light-years to a planet and then build houses out of native wood hand-chopped by axes; I'm looking at you Peter F. Hamilton!)

Large corporations?  Probably not likely.  They exist today to organize information, people and materials.  Arguably the internet can do the first two better, and the last one is irrelevant in a post-scarcity society.

So what will take their places?  Hmm - stay tuned!

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