Post-Scarcity as a science fiction setting

Continuing the discussion from Celebrate Star Trek’s 50th anniversary by revisiting Deep Space Nine:

Part of the TOS setting was about this, the idea that things got boring on Good Old Earth, so the Star Fleet is all about curiosity as a motivator, exploring strange new worlds and so on. The premise was that most of the ship’s crew would be motivated not by pay or amenities, but the desire to explore. Miners and colonists were out there not to get rich, but for the thrill of being on the frontier. The TOS script writers were warned not to mention Earth culture, except with a throwaway line like “on Earth, we used to have similar problems” or “like your historical stock exchanges” with a quip about how primitive and inefficient it was.

This is why it was referred to as “Wagon Train in space”, because the protagonists of that western series the crew of the Enterprise was not supposed to have backup help. The idea of being out there on their own.


Post-scarcity only covers the bottom two tiers of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs (Physiological and Safety). There are plenty of stories that could come from the higher tiers absence or presence.


While I understand the reasoning, I don’t think it really held up in practice.

Two examples that come to mind:

In This Side of Paradise, happiness without the need to work for a living is excoriated as a hollow life without purpose, not worth living. And it wasn’t just that the colonists were incurious, it was that they got to enjoy life without having to put in hard work or be responsible. Had they been living a tough life as the farmers they were now only pretending to be, all would have been well. Evil alien spores had killed their Protestant work ethic and met their basic needs. No scarcity, no motivation, no purpose.

In Mudd’s Women, the miners live on a hellhole planet that they all hate, and they hate their filthy work. They’re clearly motivated by profit (which is just a word for using scarcity for leverage) in their dealings with outsiders.

I’m sure there are many more examples…


Player of Games comes to mind, though the empire is not a post-scarcity society and this is shown in a few places (mostly the story line on the home planet).


Oh, of course. The society was not supposed to be perfect, or even free from scarcity on the Frontier. The conceit was supposed to be “if you want a comfortable life, stay on Earth. If you want fame, thrills, to actually matter, then join a colony or if you’re really good, the Star Fleet.”

As @the_borderer points out, there are other needs, and the need that TOS Star Trek showed the colonies having was not a need for meeting basic needs, but a need called curiosity. The moral of that tale was that Purpose was more important to being sentient than having other needs fulfilled.

As for the worlds on the frontier, the new colonies, well, I feel they were supposed to be imperfect, otherwise they wouldn’t need the assistance of the only Federation star ship within that sector of space.


That is a very good book, and was my introduction to the Culture. I sometimes feel the Culture is what the Federation should have evolved into, and that story is the perfect example of a protagonist who has everything, but since everyone has everything he lacks purpose until Special Circumstances convinces him to participate in a mission. See also the Culture humans in Surface Detail, how they also do what they do out of a desire to matter, to not just be the hedonists the Culture would let them be if they wished.


Surface Detail is an even better example as it only covers societies with near-endless resources - forgot about this one and should urgently reread it.


I’ve shared my crazy fan theory before, but I’ll do it again.

Star Trek TOS isn’t post-scarcity. The Federation is just post-money.

I won’t go too far into it, but on TOS, they still had farmers on colonies for food. They need crystals to run the ships’ engines. And so on. People are still doing menial labor to keep the Federation fed and powered up. While miners and farmers talk about profit, it seems like ships like the Enterprise show up for security and the cargo ships seem to be of Starfleet design as well.

My theory is that within the civilian population of the Federation, they use crypto currency as a means of exchange, while Starfleet personnel get virtually unlimited access to things like the food synthesizers as part of their service.

I realize this flies in the face of all the people who say that there’s no money in the 23rd and 24th centuries , but for the sake of argument I assume they’re using hyperbole and/or speaking from a position of privilege. After all, if you could eat whether you were an artist or a miner, why would you be a miner?


Like I said, life on the frontier is different from on the home worlds. Take the miners: if we assume that they could have lived safe but slightly dull lives at home, why go somewhere that means they might endure hardship? My guess would be the lure of fame, of wanting to be known as the sort of rough and tumble person who could wrangle an automated dilithium factory. That doesn’t mean that some don’t regret the decision, but a contract is a contract, and no one wants to be known as a quitter.

That said, the TOS writers all had different ideas, and didn’t always stick to the programme. We forgive them for it because the stories were good, but we did see uneven treatment of mining, from the Devil in the Dark to the uninhabited mining facility in Where No Man Has Gone Before.

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In the Star Trek universe, they use sentient holograms for their mining needs.

Author | Memory Alpha | Fandom,Author(episode)#Act_Five

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I don’t think that’s crazy at all. The only flaw I see is that the Federation did have currency, called the credit. It wasn’t often mentioned, but it did come up a few times including TOS.


I think that’s a stretch. I haven’t watched Mudd’s Women lately (nor the other mining story that comes to mind, The Devil in the Dark) but the miners in Mudd’s Women as I remember were essentially caricatures of 19th/20th century coal miners. Rough men doing a shitty job in a lousy, very lonely place, no fame or glory in it, and arguably a good deal of oppression in it. The miners we meet in The Devil in the Dark seem more like Starfleet types, just doing their jobs as members of the service… but they have to be there in order to extract something scarce.

There are also still thieves in this universe, and thieves make no sense without scarcity.

I do however buy the point about This Side of Paradise (and it would apply to quite a few other episodes) that the important thing is to have purpose, curiosity and desire, not just freedom from want. That idea allows us to make sense of several episodes in which Kirk and co. violate the Prime Directive in order to liberate infantilized peoples from velvet-gloved oppressors (like Landru or Vaal). The people have all they need and they live in eternal peace, but their lives are sterile and purposeless and their benevolent but all-controlling overlord is to blame.

The whole thing makes much more sense to me when framed in those terms, because scarcity of one kind or another drives so many of these stories (as it does many other stories in any genre you can name). I think it’s a good thing most of the writers didn’t make any serious attempt to stick to the notion of post-scarcity.

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Oh, nice; I forgot about the credits. I’m still sticking with my crypto-currency theory, though, because we never see anyone actually using credits. Maybe Worf had to use credits when he ordered a crystal swan for the O’Briens’ wedding.


I remember the credits, but I wasn’t sure how much was canon and how much was what we fans added in the 1970s and 1980s. It was considered a purely electronic currency, as I recall. It was always avoided being mentioned directly, but it does fit in with The Trouble With Tribbles, how Cyrano Jones made a point of giving Uhuru the first Tribble free.

Our problem is that script writers are rarely economists, though there were several big guns among the TOS writers.

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I’m just going to leave two things here to chew on:

One: we know of credits, yet we also know that no one in the Starfleet bothered with money. Oh, credits were known, as Uhuru asked about the price of the tribble in a nonspecific way, but we are explicitly told that bankers and brokers no longer exist within the Federation. My though is this: what if Federation credits are more akin to Corey Doctorow’s whuffies, a measure of goodwill extended?

Two: perhaps post-scarcity is a risk in itself? An experimenter with mice came up with a similar theory:

I suspect that from the perspective of the vast bulk of human history, we currently live in a post-scarcity, science fiction world.

And yet we don’t view it that way ourselves, and we have all sorts of other terrible problems.


this sent me down a long and steep rabbit hole - currently partly read: Player of Games (couch), Hydrogen Sonata (bed) and Surface Detail (backpack for the commute). not sure if I should thank you or not

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Thank me. I’m in the middle of The State of the Art right now.


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