I think every writer has a genre or subgenre that they admire, but find baffling. Like a snake charmer watching a trapeze artist. Yeah, yeah, the snakes are poisonous, but you've been handling them for years. But that flip? Those heights? That drop? That's scary.
Well, for me, one of those genres is post-scarcity SF. To my mind it's one of the most difficult to pull off. Scarcity has been a fact of the human condition for more or less ever, and once you remove it you have to figure out what it means to be human aside from that endless parade of want. Before you start chapter one. On top of that, it's damnably hard to fashion a sympathetic protagonist out of someone who has never struggled in the way we struggle in our own lives, to present someone who does not come off as a monster of privilege. My hat is off to those who can manage it, to me it seems a miraculous mid-air twist without a net.
Yet I've been thinking about it constantly, as even this morning the lead news story on the radio are about tens upon tens of thousands of jobs being vanished as a cost-cutting measure for American Airlines, who surely have not lost ten billion dollars in the last ten years due to cargo carrier and flight attendant salaries. As automation, lay offs that land in the job market like shark bites, and industrial obsolescence evaporate whole professions, let alone individual jobs, the idea of a post-work culture seems like something we must address--at least in the first world.
But here's the thing--in most (not all, of course) post-scarcity SF, the fact of post-scarcity is a given. The Culture exists. The question of how we got there might be alluded to or skimmed over in an infodump, but I have so often been left feeling like there's us here, and then SCENE MISSING, SCENE MISSING, transeconomic future humans. Like the opening credits of Enterprise--I see all the steps in the space travel evolution chart, but there's a big gap between the space shuttle and Zefram Cochrane. I am a snake charmer--I can't see how we can get so high, in such spangles, how we can fly with such daring.
I think it's a slightly less murky path in Europe than it is in the US right now. Our powers that be would rather drink cognac on a pile of our bones than even give us health care. The word "socialism" might as well be "Voldemort": it which must not be named. For a whole host of sometimes terrible, sometimes merely stupid, reasons, we are apparently going to argue about abortion, contraception (not actually the same thing!), and gay marriage until we're bartering sex, guns, and stories about how it was before the fall for potatoes and uncontaminated water. It's not even a matter of how might it evolve here, but how might it overcome the tremendous entrenched resistance to the very concept of living comfortably without a wage.
It's not even that there's not enough work for everyone--our infrastructure is falling apart. There's a lot of people in this country who'd be happy to work on a bridge, but nobody wants to pay them for it. There will be no new public works act, and one day most of our bridges and the better part of our electrical system is just going to peace out.
But you know all this.
When Charlie first asked me to post I thought immediately: oooh, I get to ask my question. There is no commentariat more perfect to present it to.
Call it worldbuilding, call it a crystal ball. But what I really want to know is: how do we get there? What's the missing scene? There are a whole mass of possibilities (and I really think most of them are: not developing a post-scarcity culture) and I want to chart some out. Barring aliens landing with manna-dispensing replicators, how do we actually progress, both technologically/economically and as a culture to the point where a job is not the measure of a man? Because the cultural bits are a thorny, thorny business. Pursuing any field without immediately applicable utility seems to be seen as a particularly baroque form of suicide these days, both in the top-level political conversation and online. And all that bootstraps and a hard day's labor will straighten you right out, punk stuff doesn't just evaporate. In a very real sense the truly rich are already living in this world, but that doesn't keep them from telling the rest of us what is and isn't real work (plumbers, I guess. That seems to be a synecdoche for "honest" labor in the current rhetoric) and a real life, doesn't keep them from propping up the idea that yes, in fact, you are your fucking khakis.
I'm a skeptic. The Diamond Age is one of my favorite novels of all time, but I make my living in the folklore mines. That story about the cauldron of plenty that is always full of food or gold or silk or wine and never goes empty? It always ends badly. The cauldron is always a trick, or a trap, or it's real and precious beyond measure and ends up in pieces on some witch's floor.
But I also grew up with Fox Mulder as my moral compass. I want to believe.
So let's play. It's like the opposite of an zombie apocalypse plan. What's your plan for outliving lack?