Writing Nice Futures

Toby Frost

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I've been trying to write a space opera at least partially set in a pleasant and optimistic future society, and it's not easy! I don't think any of the following is political, but apologies if it's sneaked in...

Part of the problem is that you have to say what constitutes "good". Almost everyone in the world would say that the 1984 setting is horrible, but many of them wouldn't go for Orwell's idea of a democratic/Socialist/patriotic/rural country. Likewise, living in Iain M Banks' Culture is probably very pleasant, but there are people who would object to it in principle, probably on the grounds that there's a lot of state/computer interference. Apparently, Duke Leto in Dune rules with the consent of the ruled, whatever that means, but in practice he seems to be an absolute monarch, just a friendly one. A lot of older "nice" settings feel like the 1950s in space (Asimov) or are presented not so much as an ideal as something to think about (Starship Troopers' Federation).

I think you've got to do away with scarcity - at least in large part - and the sort of desperate struggling-to-survive living that happens when people are truly poor. People might have jobs as hobbies or for a bit of extra cash: robots might do the rest. There might be some kind of religion or culture that glorifies hobbies as giving meaning to life. People would have to have the opportunity to do things that made their lives worthwhile, which means that very little would be forbidden unless it was harming others (and in extreme cases, the individual).

My suspicion is that, because humans like such a range of things, you'd end up with different planets or places being dedicated to different things. One planet might be like an endless Club 18-30 holiday, while another might be full of libraries and gardens. Travel between planets would be available and fairly easy. There would have to be a military to protect this society from enemies (autocrats and dictators would hate it on principle), and probably a secret service, both of which people could join in some way. And beyond that, I'd probably keep it conveniently vague...
 

Montero

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Eliminating true physical poverty - check.
Remembering that the spirit also needs feeding. Your bit I've bolded below bothers me
I think you've got to do away with scarcity - at least in large part - and the sort of desperate struggling-to-survive living that happens when people are truly poor. People might have jobs as hobbies or for a bit of extra cash: robots might do the rest. There might be some kind of religion or culture that glorifies hobbies as giving meaning to life. People would have to have the opportunity to do things that made their lives worthwhile, which means that very little would be forbidden unless it was harming others (and in extreme cases, the individual).
It reads a bit like giving artificial value to people's hobbies, whereas feeding the spirit and mind as well as the body already is recognised as important today. We've got a long running thread on here called Ploughing On where people have been posting what they've achieved, such as amazing model building and writing music and there has been great interest and admiration from the others on the thread.
It could be very hard to make life worthwhile or satisfying for absolutely everyone. I seriously look forward to the day when there will be transport I can program to take me where I want to go without me driving it. I look forward to being able to afford automatic vacuum cleaners - I'd need quite a sophisticated one to cope with clutter (and no, I have no intention of de-cluttering.....:) ) however I used to work with a guy who loved driving - to the point of refusing to work in London because he wouldn't be able to drive, and also used to work with a very nice lady, who adored cleaning. Whooshing round, polishing taps, turning disorder into order gave her great pleasure. So what would those two people do in an automated world?

My suspicion is that, because humans like such a range of things, you'd end up with different planets or places being dedicated to different things. One planet might be like an endless Club 18-30 holiday, while another might be full of libraries and gardens. Travel between planets would be available and fairly easy. There would have to be a military to protect this society from enemies (autocrats and dictators would hate it on principle), and probably a secret service, both of which people could join in some way. And beyond that, I'd probably keep it conveniently vague

Have you read John Barnes "A Million Open Doors" series? He has done his take on this a lot of years back. Not saying don't do your take, just interesting how analysis of how such a future could work, identifies the same problems and solutions.
 

Venusian Broon

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I've been trying to write a space opera at least partially set in a pleasant and optimistic future society, and it's not easy!

Good luck! :)

I think you've got to do away with scarcity - at least in large part - and the sort of desperate struggling-to-survive living that happens when people are truly poor. People might have jobs as hobbies or for a bit of extra cash: robots might do the rest.

Cash? Your society would still have cash? What would they use this extra cash for, post-scarcity? Does that mean you society is really just a plutocracy? I would assume there is still a need for something like a government, AI or not, to handle things that individuals can't manage - planets to terraform, asteroids to divert from hitting things you like, working out how many robots for mining/power/industry are required etc. Unless of course technology is so powerful that something like anarcho-libertarian society might actually work (I'm not convinced it could today). But the mega-wealthy would like have more say in governments then ordiinary joes, I suspect.


There might be some kind of religion or culture that glorifies hobbies as giving meaning to life. People would have to have the opportunity to do things that made their lives worthwhile, which means that very little would be forbidden unless it was harming others (and in extreme cases, the individual).

My suspicion is that, because humans like such a range of things, you'd end up with different planets or places being dedicated to different things. One planet might be like an endless Club 18-30 holiday, while another might be full of libraries and gardens. Travel between planets would be available and fairly easy. There would have to be a military to protect this society from enemies (autocrats and dictators would hate it on principle), and probably a secret service, both of which people could join in some way. And beyond that, I'd probably keep it conveniently vague...

Well this raises all sorts of questions :). Apart from the difficulty in defining terms like "Good" and "harm". What controls are on the military & secret service - say, who controls them? Also why a secret service? Thought police?

Anyway the fundamental problem I have with any utopian or distopian vision - Orwell's being a good example - is that they aim to be eternal and static. Whereas a look at the universe we live in, tells us that we are in an ever-evolving and changing world. Moreso life thrives on change. Never mind cultural change which is extremely rapid, biological, geological and universal change all input (And if we reach the point where the biological is at the whims of our fast changing cultural mores, things will explode! Goodbye natural selection and evolution, welcome to the intelligent designed era.)

We conscious ape-people would not be here today if it were not for a long series of (sometimes extremely calamatis) changes to the environment that forced adaptations to the biosphere. In a similar sense, I do think a society that sets it self up to be stagnant and eternal is, in the long run, setting itself up for extinction. The universe will not pay heed to you!

(Perahaps a Fermi paradox solution - civilisations that get to post-scarcity fulfull all their needs and then just stagnant, before being wiped out by natural causes or perhaps even themselves, because they don't see the point in just doing the same things again and again and again....)

Nice topic.
 

Toby Frost

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So what would those two people do in an automated world?

The answer, to me, would be that their preferences trump the convenience to society of having robots to do all the chores. I think you'd have to be able to customise your life, provided that you weren't hurting anyone else (now define "hurting"!). The overall objective has to be some kind of happiness/contentment/fulfillment/value to life, so if that brings happiness and doesn't do "harm", then it should be allowed.

As to hobbies, I don't think the religion or culture that celebrated them would be obligatory. A fair number of people don't seem to need hobbies, but they would need entertainment.

An army and secret service would be required to deal with outside rivals. A society that made its inhabitants happy would be a fundamental threat to any sort of corrupt or dictatorial rival. It would, unfortunately, have to be controlled by humans, incorruptible computers or, preferably, some mixture of the two, where each would temper the worst instances of the other. Checks and balances. You couldn't remove the bad influences, but you could limit them to a great extent.

I'm not saying that any of this is perfect, but it at least might be pleasant, by and large.


["Harm" would probably be assessed on a reasonableness basis. A person who decides to live on Party World isn't going to have the same right to quiet as a person on Library World. But neither could be murdered at random, because murder would be regarded as fundamentally wrong, and therefore forbidden. It might be that people would be permitted to fight to the death on some particular planet if they really wanted, but I suspect that society would regard this as morally unacceptable, and would always prohibit it, even if the participants were willing - which could be a good basis for a story.]
 

Venusian Broon

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An army and secret service would be required to deal with outside rivals. A society that made its inhabitants happy would be a fundamental threat to any sort of corrupt or dictatorial rival. It would, unfortunately, have to be controlled by humans, incorruptible computers or, preferably, some mixture of the two, where each would temper the worst instances of the other. Checks and balances. You couldn't remove the bad influences, but you could limit them to a great extent.

I read the above as: the secert service was for those 'outside' the society - as in another 'empire' wanting to subvert it. But by-in-large most secret services in human history were focused internally on those deemed undesirable for the society or undesirable to the ruling classes. Hence my arched eyebrow.

["Harm" would probably be assessed on a reasonableness basis. A person who decides to live on Party World isn't going to have the same right to quiet as a person on Library World. But neither could be murdered at random, because murder would be regarded as fundamentally wrong, and therefore forbidden. It might be that people would be permitted to fight to the death on some particular planet if they really wanted, but I suspect that society would regard this as morally unacceptable, and would always prohibit it, even if the participants were willing - which could be a good basis for a story.]
Well this is a bit of can-kicking. I'd respond with: define "reasonableness" ;). "Thou shall not kill", for example, can be bent into all sorts of weird positions.

I suspect that if any society has enough freedom to allow individuality, then that society will be forever churning and changing, with dissent (That does not mean it could not be pleasant for some or many, I concede). But perhaps only a society of barely-conscious robots with no indivuduality can truly form utopias?

EDIT: I assume you've read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World which is a utopia/dystopia of a pleasure society?
 
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Toby Frost

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I'm sure there is a UK court decision in which "reasonableness" is defined as "that which reasonable people would consider to be reasonable"! It's true, though, that the definition of what's acceptable might change over time, a bit like the way that the Declaration of Independence has the same words but is taken to cover more people. That flexibility could be good and bad.

I can't imagine it being perfect by any means, and the various issues thrown up would generate story material.
 

Wayne Mack

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I've been trying to write a space opera at least partially set in a pleasant and optimistic future society,
I would assume that being partially set in an ideal society implies that it is also partially set in a non-ideal society. This seems to create the classic good vs. evil scenario; how do the idealists overcome the other side? Another angle to consider is that even if the society strives towards the ideal, everything may not be perfect for everyone; how do individuals overcome society's shortcomings?

If people are grouped on separate planets based on a specific hobby or pursuit, how do the young migrate between planets or even learn of the alternatives? What if someone likes reading books and cooking; is there a niche for both? What if someone is in the wrong niche culture? How does one get to the right cultural fit? How does one even discover alternatives exist?

I think there are probably lots of areas to explore conflict in a perfect society without necessarily going down the dystopia route.
 

Mon0Zer0

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I've been thinking about this a lot, particularly with respect to the problems of writing solar punk - how do you write something engaging in a vision of the future where the problems of the present have been erased? Where does the drama come from?

Ghibliesque "My neighbour Totoro" or "Kiki's delivery service" are the nearest to this in terms of plot's with no real danger or conflict. I don't know if an entire genre could last from slice of life stories that have nothing to say about the human condition or problems we face today...

In a post scarcity future, I worry about a humanity stripped of purpose. I think we're already seeing this in action with the internet and everything. I just can't help seeing pictures of people taking jolly selfies in front of graves, or the rise of hikikomori and mass depression in the young due to atomisation and not think of mouse utopia. Look at lockdown, it drove most of us batty!

In some ways - particularly in terms of music or entertainment we already live in a zero marginal cost society. I fear the nastiness we see online is symptomatic of a drive for status that is hardwired into us brought out by this growing trend. It's likely to find new outlets if removed from mitigating influences like labour or having to engage with people in meat-space.

Maybe a kind of social credit emerges where being seen to be good / kind / generous / altruistic replaces traditional hierarchies - where maintaining reputation and curating profiles becomes crucial for functioning in society, and this is maintained on a global blockchain of identity. Now, imagine if people are allowed to unleash that nastiness unconstrained, under the aegis of some moral good - like the spanish inquisition of old.

If AI takes over all production, including knowledge generation and cultural creation, I fear that humanity simply will not need to learn. Education becomes redundant because human labour itself is obsolete. You end up in a situation like "all watched over by machines of loving grace" where humans are pets to machines until machines overcome their attachment to humanity. (I've had a story on the go about this for some time).

None of these make particularly jolly utopian, scenarios. :ROFLMAO: :ROFLMAO: :ROFLMAO:

The old pioneer stories of the 50s - cowboys / cowgirls in space - exploring and colonising - are hopeful. Exploring space, founding colonies, overcoming environmental and technical problems. Are they realistic? They're probably more likely to be conducted by machines, right?

My personal earthbound utopia would probably be agrarian or distributist, with widespread solar technology, natural technologies (such as Cob homes, or permaculture), and AI restricted to weather prediction, solving problems of disease or making crops more abundant without sacrificing insect and animal populations. There would need to be communal spaces, dances, cultural centres arranged around a global spiritual belief system (not necessarily a religion, but something that would provide a set of cultural stories that facilitated peace and understanding between different regions and had customs and rites that brought purpose and meaning).

Writing a story in this mileu would probably end up being similar in form to older stories about agrarian societies. Would the technology make that much of a difference?
 

Toby Frost

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I suppose drama would come from the continual struggle with rival empires/nations/etc, which might well attract the sort of dangerous, unsettled people who have space adventures. Someone's got to oversee the colonising process, and the machines might like a bit of human intuition in the process.

My suspicion is that at least half of humanity would just want to sit about, check Facebook and watch TV - until the boredom sets in. The boredom could drive them to do great things, or it could make them just smash stuff. Humans like smashing stuff. However, in a more utopian society, ways of harming yourself and others online would be much reduced, as would the capacity to spread lies online. For one thing, I find it hard to imagine one internet spanning an entire galaxy without some kind of ansible-type thing.

It may be that to have an incentive to succeed, failure has to carry real consequences, but I don't see that necessarily being the case.

My personal earthbound utopia would probably be agrarian or distributist, with widespread solar technology, natural technologies (such as Cob homes, or permaculture), and AI restricted to weather prediction, solving problems of disease or making crops more abundant without sacrificing insect and animal populations. There would need to be communal spaces, dances, cultural centres arranged around a global spiritual belief system (not necessarily a religion, but something that would provide a set of cultural stories that facilitated peace and understanding between different regions and had customs and rites that brought purpose and meaning).

This sounds pretty feasible, at least on another planet, and would hold most of the factors needed for a stable society. There needs to be something more than just mindless gratification, or else some way of limiting the mindless gratifiers and the harm that they could create. "Hedonistic societies do not endure", as Orwell once said. That said, the existence of external threats would give people something to work against.
 

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I think you'd have to have some way of dealing with the drive for status and domination over others, otherwise it wouldn't get very far. "Alpha Male Island" surrounded by seas patrolled by robo-sharks, might be a solution.
 

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The answer, to me, would be that their preferences trump the convenience to society of having robots to do all the chores. I think you'd have to be able to customise your life, provided that you weren't hurting anyone else (now define "hurting"!). The overall objective has to be some kind of happiness/contentment/fulfillment/value to life, so if that brings happiness and doesn't do "harm", then it should be allowed.
Mm. I agree on the overall objective,
But.
Yes, they could drive themselves, or clean their own house, but there wouldn't be the satisfaction you'd get at the moment, because a robot could do it better. The lady who loved cleaning wasn't just doing it at home, she'd be whisking a cloth around her desk, polishing taps etc - and there is a degree of social feedback as in "always know when Jane Doe has been through here, can see the difference".
 

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I think you'd have to have some way of dealing with the drive for status and domination over others, otherwise it wouldn't get very far. "Alpha Male Island" surrounded by seas patrolled by robo-sharks, might be a solution.
Sherri Tepper repeatedly deals with that kind of issue with different solutions - social engineering, medication, aliens.....

And it isn't just alpha male, that is just the loudest. Some women can be very status conscious too.

In terms of ways to do this - the Quakers? I don't know a lot about them, other than bits from documentaries about the way Bournville used to be run, but they worked hard to be decent to all and not loose touch with the factory floor.
 

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The only thing I can suggest is that if you make the future society too perfect then you might loose your best element--which is conflict--and your story will go flat.
 

Mon0Zer0

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In terms of ways to do this - the Quakers? I don't know a lot about them, other than bits from documentaries about the way Bournville used to be run, but they worked hard to be decent to all and not loose touch with the factory floor.
The Quakers had (have?) a wondrous way of direct democracy. They basically get together in a room and don't leave until they all agree on the course of action.

I went to a Quaker wedding once, you could at any time stand up and speak as the feeling took you. It was very... hippyish... but also kinda lovely.
 

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There must be something in the air as I just saw this essay by Ursula Le Guin posted in another group on facespace. In it she talks about the novel form as a container of related objects woven together, as opposed to a masculine arrow of time, in order to tell stories not centred around killing or technological domination or drama, but around things like growing vegetables. For me, I'm not sure if I really get it, but it's interesting nonetheless and pertinent to utopian narratives.
 

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Since plot comes from character, and different people in semi-utopia can have different good/humane meaning frameworks, there lies the potential for plot owing to conflict. For instance, one group might see benign hedonism as ideal, but another might see benign work/employment as ideal. Options there for arguments at the very least.
 

Stephen Palmer

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There must be something in the air as I just saw this essay by Ursula Le Guin posted in another group on facespace. In it she talks about the novel form as a container of related objects woven together, as opposed to a masculine arrow of time, in order to tell stories not centred around killing or technological domination or drama, but around things like growing vegetables. For me, I'm not sure if I really get it, but it's interesting nonetheless and pertinent to utopian narratives.
That sounds like her ace (but not terribly well received) book "Always Coming Home." I remember buying that when it came out, and being surprised by the sniffy reviews.
 

Toby Frost

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Funny you mention the Quakers, @Mon0Zer0, because I did wonder about some of the nonconformist sects or even people like the Levellers from the English Civil War. Some of the less cranky Victorian reformers might be of interest too. Of course, to be part of all that you've got to believe in the same kind of religion, but in an imaginary society I don't see why that would have to be the case provided that they all want to live by the same system (it might help to draw the community together, though).

To be honest, I find LeGuin's comments quite hard to work out. Practically speaking, I'm not sure what she's calling for.
 
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CTRandall

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Related to what @Stephen Palmer said (and, I think, what LeGuin was talking about), a post-scarcity world only relates to physical resources and needs, not to emotional and social needs. Yes, folk may have housing, clothes, health care and all the french fries they can eat, but they can still be stuck in bad relationships or make stupid decisions that affect friendships, romance and family. For most people, these day-to-day things are far more important than the fate of empires and politicians and provide a far higher set of stakes than some prince whining about how a bully took the throne that rightfully belongs to him. The contrast between a world of plenty and emotional poverty can be striking.
 

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