Michael Miles of the LARB writes about popular science fiction, its optimism and post-scarcity societies that know no hunger nor poverty. He ponders an important question: in these classless sci-fi societies, who exactly takes care of Captain Picard’s bromeliads? Who picks up the service labor slack? Automata? Here’s an excerpt of Miles on Star Trek writer Gene Roddenberry’s potential blind eye toward support labor.
Science fiction embraces a multitude of philosophies reflecting the different time periods and cultures from which it originates. One of these philosophies — liberal humanism — allows authors to envision a rational, empirical, and typically secular future centered on the agency of humans who have matured and achieved a harmonious (if not peaceful) coexistence. As an alternative to dystopian futures that emphasize strife and anarchy, liberal humanist visions eliminate class and ignorance to describe a communal society. Given present day conditions of aggression, resource scarcity, inequality, and religious conflict, these visions of the future are compelling to readers. Asserting that humanity will solve what seem like intractable problems using technology and reason provides a message of hope for the present. However, embracing liberal humanism does not dictate that visions of the future will resemble each other, nor that achieving a harmonious society will occur without consequences. Three popular authors from the late-20th century — Stanislaw Lem, Gene Roddenberry, and Iain M. Banks — have each created imagined societies founded on liberal humanism. Their diverse national origins as inhabitants of Poland, the United States, and Scotland influence their imagined futures. Each of their societies grant individual agency while relying on a rational community. Want has been eliminated, and individuals are free to achieve self-actualization. Beyond these broad characteristics, however, there are profound distinctions in how each author allows his characters to gain knowledge, channel aggression, remain passionate, and engage with society. These distinctions raise the question of whether liberal humanism, in its different flavors, can be effective in providing a future in which individual agency coexists with plenty and achievement.
Although each author has created a considerable catalog of work, I would like to restrict this essay to a few representative examples. Stanislaw Lem’s Return from the Stars describes the repatriation of Hal Bregg, an interstellar astronaut who returns from a mission 130 Earth-years after its launch. Because of the laws of relativity, he has only aged 10 years. Iain Banks wrote at least seven novels about The Culture, a mature galactic civilization that is humanoid and a proxy for our civilization. The examples in this essay originate from his second novel, Player of Games. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise is perhaps the most optimistic vision of humanity. For a variety of reasons, I will focus on the second series, The Next Generation.
Each of the three civilizations under analysis are characterized as post-scarcity economies: Fundamental needs such as food, shelter, and education are provided to everyone as a basic right. Society is classless, and if people engage in labor it is for the purpose of personal enrichment. Captain Picard summarizes Roddenberry’s vision at the end of the first season in the episode “The Neutral Zone.” Talking with a 20th-century human revived after 400 years in cryogenic stasis, he explains: “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things.’ We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.” All that remains is to improve oneself and better humanity.
It may seem like an easy path to take, but adopting the assumption of post-scarcity places a burden on the author, because new economic rules must be created to explain the distribution of goods and services. Capitalism, with its reliance on poverty, is unacceptable. As the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham once stated, “as labour is the source of all wealth, so poverty is of labour. Banish poverty, you banish wealth.” In these post-scarcity societies, labor is more fundamental than wealth, so in order to eliminate poverty, the authors need to find a substitute for labor. In other words, if resources are abundant and easily distributed to members, then the only thing missing is a way to determine who completes the mundane tasks that allow the rest of us to achieve our potential.
Although tracing the intricacies of future economies is not the purpose of this essay, it is useful to highlight certain economic imaginings within each setting. Only Lem and Banks rely upon automata (e.g., drones, robots) to supply labor. The Culture utilizes drones, while Lem’s Earth has created a labor class of robots that remain largely separate from humans. Setting aside moral questions, the use of automata makes sense, allowing for the removal of economic class in human society and the pursuit of self-actualization for individuals. Automata remove the distinctions inherent in employment that support arbitrary hierarchies and prevent individuals from moving freely throughout society.
The standout among the three is Roddenberry’s Star Trek. While watching Picard brood in his quarters during the episode “Lessons,” I pondered the question, “Who tends to Captain Picard’s bromeliads?” The glaring lack of automata in Roddenberry’s Federation demands an examination of how class and hierarchy are eliminated within Star Trek. We don’t have to assert that Roddenberry’s future is any less egalitarian than the others, but this omission exerts pressure to substitute a form of economic specialization. An episode like “Lower Decks” in season 7 not only rests upon the organizational hierarchy of the ship, but also includes a civilian character who waits tables in the lounge. Perhaps Roddenberry’s message is to emphasize the dignity of human labor, or perhaps the show simply did not have the production budget to create robots, but the lack of automata makes clear that support labor is quietly accepted. After all, it is hard to visualize a society where people reach the pinnacle of knowledge and command a starship when they are burdened with tasks like sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms. For this reason, I believe it is fair to criticize Roddenberry for a willful blind eye to the hierarchy of Starfleet and the consequences of economic specialization.
Identifying the motivation to strive in a post-scarcity society is one of the distinct characteristics of Lem, Banks, and Roddenberry. Like the system of labor, self-actualization demands considerable thought from the writer in order to provide plausible balance. While some suspension of belief is to be expected in science fiction, compelling narratives are underpinned by human tensions that we all recognize and internalize. It is acceptable to skip the explanation of faster-than-light travel, but stories become nonsensical when character behavior is inexplicable. That character behavior must perpetuate the future that provides an environment tailored to liberal humanism. As Captain Picard explains to Lily in Star Trek: First Contact, “We work to better ourselves, and the rest of humanity.” The question then becomes, “how and why?”