Wealth and Status in the Terragen Sphere

Image from P. Bourne (copyright; used with permission)

For evolutionary reasons, high social status is desirable to nearly every sentient biont life-form, including xenobionts. It is also sought by many vecs, alifes, neogens, and AIs, since their ancestral programming was created by bionts.

In most civilized polities, the citizens have lived for many generations in material abundance, and needn't worry day to day about starving, freezing, roasting, running out of power, or suffocating. This has had profound effects on the society. Social status does not relate to mere accumulation of goods, as was common in nearly every Old Earth society. In fact in some places excess and clutter is considered a sign of low class and poor judgement.

In many cultures an appearance of rustic simplicity in one's dwelling is valued, and there is an aesthetic comparable to Japanese and Chinese classical gardens, or to the European and North American vacation cottages of Old Earth. Whatever the sophistication "behind the scenes", charming simplicity is commonly the effect for which an owner aims. A rough stone bridge, a path which has been swept but still has a few stray leaves, flowers skillfully allowed to spread just past their allotted areas or age just past their prime;these are the marks of the true master. Maintaining these structures and gardens oneself, or at the least maintaining the systems which support them, is in some places considered an additional cause for praise. So is knowing, and somehow paying for, the labour of another sapient being. Details of aesthetic sense vary sharply, of course, from clade to clade. A human nearbaseline, a cat provolve, and a vacuum-adapted vec would have very different standards, (the vec might have a small garden of solar collectors in the latest Stanislaw-inspired designs, with the local regolith of eir asteroid carefully intact beneath them). In all cases, though, simplicity, and the unique and authentic are signs of high status and influence.

Meals, for clades which ingest food, are matters primarily of presentation, style, and authenticity: taste and quality are givens, and quantity is not at issue. As with homes or gardens, preparing the meal oneself, or having the ability to gain the aid of a competent chef, is de rigueur in many societies. Again, either the skills themselves or the social pull required to induce a great master to use them may be highly regarded.

Most equipment reached its most advanced technological form centuries or millennia ago, and its appearance could, if desired, be changed at the flick of a switch; one cannot expect to impress friends or rivals with mere technological wizardry. Craftsmanship, a certain lineage, and a styling either true to a historical period or else simply unique are the most highly valued aspects of a piece of equipment.

Other indications of wealth and status in the Terragen Sphere vary tremendously from clade to clade and from culture to culture, but there are some constants. These include:

1) Desirable real estate: land on a natural Garden World, especially in some environment attractive to members of one's clade; a dwelling in a habitat of unique cultural or historical importance; proximity (or very great distance from) termini of the Wormhole Nexus, very broad (or nonexistent) access to the Known Net.

2) Unique accomplishments, especially if achieved the "old fashioned" way, by simply taking instruction and using a limited array of tech. This could be artwork, performances, gardens, difficult languages, creating and driving an antique vehicle, writing poetry, collecting, treks across certain dangerous or difficult areas, scientific work, combat skill, or almost anything that is difficult.

3) Ownership of some of the products produced by those with unique accomplishments. Naturally there are authentification processes to prevent cheap nanofac knockoffs from being passed off as the originals.

4) An actual, important, occupation (not necessarily a job; pay will be irrelevant in some polities). The rarer the occupation, and the greater its significance for one's community or polity, the greater the status attained.

5) Social connections.

6) Reproduction rights. This comes somewhat under the realm of unique accomplishments in most settled regions, because of population growth restrictions. In many places the standard required to acquire the right to engender and/or bear and/or raise offspring is quite high and very difficult to attain. Sometimes high social status brings reproduction rights. In other cases the causality is reversed and earned reproduction rights bring high status. In many cases it is the mere right to reproduce, whether exercised or not, that is a status symbol. In other cases those who choose to exercise an earned reproductive option acquire yet greater status if their offspring also prove to be accomplished individuals.

7) Ownership of some xenosapient artifact, particularly a rare one.

8) Materials which are difficult or impossible to produce with conventional nanotech.

9) Materials constructed from elements which are in genuinely low cosmic abundance (iridium, for instance).

10) Travel. Interstellar travel even within the wormhole network requires a great deal of personal time and very large inputs of energy, not to mention permission to use the wormholes themselves. Interstellar travel using the Beamrider networks is yet more expensive. The ultimate, of course, is relativistic travel to and from other stars outside these networks. Travel by these modes for some reason other than business is a mark of great resources and high status.

11) Ownership of a minor clarketech artifact. As for major clarketech items, they are rarely retained for long by individuals before they are taken into custody by a higher SI level being, or by the local polity.

Always, as throughout pre-human and human history on Old Earth, it is rarity which brings status. Though by the standards of Old Earth nearly every member of civilized society is incredibly wealthy, poverty is relative. There are many who live in great opulence, but are bitterly disappointed with their lot and regard themselves as poor because they live in an out of the way system, have no social connections or accomplishments, and own no unique items.

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Text by Stephen Inniss
Initially published on 07 October 2004.