Header image by Alex Jay Brady
In my last piece, I mentioned how I have recently become enamored with the concept of the ‘quest’, a type of online interactive fiction I came across on the Sufficient Velocity web forum. Given my continuing belief in the potential of this role-playing and worldbuilding format, it was perhaps inevitable that I would try my hand at running such a quest. I am thus proud to announce that for the past few weeks, I have been writing and quest-mastering Uncommon Wealth: A Post-Post-Scarcity Space Opera. If you’ll allow me the indulgence, I would like to pitch my work to you all, in the hopes that you might find it interesting enough to read—or even participate in!
As with most of my work, Uncommon Wealth gets its inspiration from a wide variety of sources. One of my prime points of reference is the long course of Chinese history, and the way it seems to oscillate between periods of unity and division. In particular, I continue to be fascinated by the Century of Humiliation, the rough period from 1850 to 1950 when China was forced to reinvent its entire society in order to ward off global imperialism. At the nadir of this era, a time of warlords and compradors, a thousand different movements claimed to be the salvation of China, and the ultimate victor proved a relative wild card. Anyone with even the slightest interest in modern history would do well to look into this period.
Another major point of inspiration is the Culture series of books by Scottish author Iain M. Banks. This anarchistic space opera focuses on the titular Culture, a pangalactic polity which has to secure its stateless existence from threats both within and without. While much of it revolves around the ambiguous statecraft this need for security results in, it also has enough time to delve into the exotic luxuries of a post-scarcity spacefaring society. Its excess of imagination is something I would like to emulate in my own work.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I am inspired by all the wonderful online works which have preceded my own. By creating a ‘quest’ type narrative itself, I am already placing myself within a specific creative space, one that has been cultivated by many cool and creative people. To be a little more precise about my influences, though, there are two works which cannot go unmentioned. First, there is Not Quite Good Enough, a post-communist science fiction story by the estimable M.W. Turner. Its basic setting, of an interstellar communist society cut down by a cosmic accident, has helped me consider the ways that a post-scarcity society might come to break down. On the other end, the quest known as For The Tyrants Fear Your Might has shown me an awesome example of the ascent into post-scarcity, along with a generally sublime narrative of interactive interstellar revolution. If it’s not clear yet, both of these works are well worth reading.
With all these various inspirations resolved, what kind of world have they resulted in? Well, as the subtitle of my quest suggests, this is another far-flung science fiction setting, a grand space opera which knows its own laws and histories. While humanity itself plays a role in this narrative, it is a decidedly ancillary role, being just one among millions of distinct cultures within the galactic ‘Commonwealth’. This incredible diversity is a key pillar of my narrative, representing my core conviction that Anarchy must be a world of many worlds. It also allows me to bring in a host of divergent political and religious philosophies, many of which have a real-life counterpart. In general, it’s a way of delving into the strange syntheses, historical twists, and institutional which such a galactic panoply would compel.
Another core aspect of my setting is the notion of post-scarcity. What does it mean to be free of scarcity? The ambiguity of this concept is one I intend to exploit to the full. While a sphere of ‘basic necessities’ may be easy to guarantee universally, what do we make of more ephemeral needs like culture, kinship, or renown? It is in these areas that this society will experience its greatest contradictions, at least until its breakdown begins to affect the elemental parts of the galactic economy.
Speaking of which, economic exploitation is also a central part of the narrative. While it is initially absent within the Commonwealth, it makes its sordid return upon the arrival of the mysterious trans-dimensional entities known as the Sublime. This inverse diversity of exploiters stands in for the immense power of foreign imperialism, cultivating an internal comprador class as they demand various kinds of tribute. While their threat to the Commonwealth is technically external, their depredations also expose the internal fault lines of this imperfect society. Hence why its anti-imperialist revolution must also be a social one.
Taken together, the universe I craft will (hopefully) be one of real social insight within a fantastical guise. As a good friend of mine has already noted, its main ‘characters’ are the social institutions of this world, constantly evolving under the pressures of history. Since so much of its development is being left up to its players, even I cannot tell what the Commonwealth will ultimately become. If you want to be a part of this heady period in galactic history, then you are more than welcome to join our game. See you on the barricades!