Adams, Douglas. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980). How easy is it to distinguish socially useful labour from activities which are pointless, parasitic, counterproductive, or downright violent?

Douglas Adams has a tale for us. Long ago, on a distant planet, it became generally recognized that there were quite a lot of bullshit jobs around. The planet's inhabitants devised a plan to get rid of these pointless jobs ... as well as the people who performed them.

Oddly enough, the plan involved a poet, who told a tale of the coming apocalypse. The people with the pointless jobs -- mostly management types, although also some telephone-sanitizers etc. -- were packed off to colonize a backwater planet. "We'll be right behind you," everybody else shouted into space, and of course they weren't. Ha ha ha! There was no apocalypse coming after all! ... or was there?

Anyway, can you guess which planet was colonized? That's right, prehistoric Earth. And yes, we humans are the descendants of the pointless jobs people. This is demonstrated not so much by shared genetics, so much as by shared attitudes and agendas.

Alcott, Louisa May. Transcendental Wild Oats

Louisa May Alcott, 'Transcendental Wild Oats: A Chapter from an Unwritten Romance' (1873).

Alcott's satire about a bungling 1840s Transcendental utopian community, and its extremely poor incentive design. It is inspired by the short-lived Fruitlands commune.
Transcendental wild oats were sown broadcast that year, and the fame thereof has not yet ceased in the land; for, futile as this crop seemed to outsiders, it bore an invisible harvest, worth much to those who planted in earnest. As none of the members of this particular community have ever recounted their experiences before, a few of them may not be amiss, since the interest in these attempts has never died out and Fruitlands was the most ideal of all these castles in Spain.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale

Here's a short review of Atwood's classic over at The Guardian (by Charlotte Newman), plus Margaret Atwood's entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia.

And here's a snippet:
"Sorry, he said. This number's not valid.
  That's ridiculous, I said. it must be, I've got thousands in my account. I just got the statement two days ago. Try it again.
  It's not valid, he repeated obstinately. See that red light? Means it's not valid.
  You must have made a mistake, I said. Try it again.
  He shrugged and gave me a fed-up smile, but he did try the number again. This time I watched his fingers, on each number, and checked the numbers that came up in the window. It was my number all right, but there was the red light again."
And:
She got up and went to the kitchen and poured us a couple of Scotches, and came back and sat down and I tried to tell her what had happened to me. When I'd finished, she said, Tried getting anything on your Compucard today?
  Yes, I said. I told her about that too.
  They've frozen them, she said. Mine too. The collective's too. Any account with an F on it instead of an M. All they needed to do is push a few buttons. We're cut off. 

Atwood, Margaret. MadAddam Trilogy

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003). A novel which doggedly accumulates clever choices, and touches quite a lot on the reduction of humans to economic values. That there is a lot to nitpick over and call out is, in this case, a sign of what an excellent novel it is. Two clever choices pertinent to economics are: (a) the choice of an overdetermined apocalypse -- brought about through individual agency and economic crisis and ecological crisis and technological crisis, and if it hadn't been this particular apocalypse, it probably would have been a different apocalypse; (b) the decision to largely float the whole "reduction of humans to economic values" thing as a mansplainer (who has consumed his share of child pornography, sort-of-ironically of course) explaining to a woman the tragedy of her objectification. She is not convinced:
Of course (said Oryx), having a money value was no substitute for love. Every child should have love, every person should have it. [...] but love was undependable, it came and then it went, so it was good to have a money value, because then at least those who wanted to make a profit from you would make sure you were fed enough and not damaged too much. Also there were many who had neither love nor a money value, and having one of these things was better than having nothing.
(JLW) 

Atwood, Margaret. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008)

Non-fiction. Each of the book's five chapters was delivered as a one-hour lecture in a different Canadian city between October and November 2008. Adapted into a film in 2012:



I found the book entertaining and commendably sprawling but also weirdly elusive. For more on debt see David Graeber and Charles Stross. (Atwood's Debt is one I really must come back to though, perhaps in an actual proper book).

Talking point:
  • Why do we have bankruptcy law? In what ways might bankruptcy law ameliorate and/or exacerbate economic injustice? (Also discuss limited liability).
(JLW)

Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (2009).

Biopunk SF set in the 23rd century. It is a world in which everyone is very attuned to the calorific significance of everything that is going on around them, although the calorie hasn't quite taken over money's unit of account function.

Here is a snippet:
Chaiyanuchit remembered the beginning of the plagues. Not many could claim that. And when Jaidee was just a young draftee, he was lucky enough to work in the man’s office, bringing dispatches.
          Chaiyanuchit understood what was at stake, and what had to be done. When the borders needed closing, when ministries needed isolating, when Phuket and Chiang Mai needed razing, he did not hesitate. When jungle blooms exploded in the north, he burned and burned and burned, and when he took to the sky in His Majesty the King’s dirigible, Jaidee was blessed to ride with him.
         By then, they were only mopping up. AgriGen and PurCal and the rest were shipping their plague-resistant seeds and demanding exorbitant profits, and patriotic generippers were already working to crack the code of the calorie companies’ products, fighting to keep the Kingdom fed as Burma and the Vietnamese and the Khmers all fell. AgriGen and its ilk were threatening embargo over intellectual property infringement, but the Thai Kingdom was still alive. Against all odds, they were alive. As others were crushed under the calorie companies’ heels, the Kingdom stood strong.
Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl (p. 120).

(JLW)

Banks, Iain M. The Culture series

Iain M. Banks's Culture series. Notable for its post-scarcity civilisation: anyone can have pretty much any good or service they want. Nobody has to work unless they want to. Work has more to do with self-expression, self-fulfillment and relaxation than with toil, coercion, duty and necessity. Banks outlines the Culture's democratically planned economy in "A Few Notes on the Culture" (1994). See also Gene Roddenberry.

Here's one interesting snippet: in Banks's Look to Windward (2000), a highly desirable ticketed music event leads to a "partial" reinvention of "money."
“Well, for tickets to Ziller’s concert [...] People who can’t stand other people are inviting them to dinner, booking deep-space cruises together — good grief — even agreeing to go camping with them. Camping! [...] People have traded sexual favors, they’ve agreed to pregnancies, they’ve altered their appearance to accommodate a partner’s desires, they’ve begun to change gender to please lovers; all just to get tickets [...] And they have indeed [...] come to agreements that go beyond barter to a form of liquidity regarding future considerations that sounds remarkably like money” (p.276).
I wrote about this a little bit in the reflective part of my PhD. I said:
"This episode suggests a technologically privileged and sexually liberal version of commodity theory, with the same progression from inconvenient, illiquid, spot-trade barters to more conveniently liquid transactions. The tenacity of money in the Culture series, flourishing inside its homines economici like gut microbiomes [...] suggests a failure to fully erase money."
(JLW)

Banks, Iain M. The Algebraist

Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist (2005). Not part of Banks's Culture sequence, although it's a space opera which overlaps in various ways with the Culture universe. In terms of economics, it's notable for its reputation currency kudos (used by the Dwellers). Here's a snippet:
Bribing creatures who found the concept of money merely amusing tended to tax even the most enterprising and talented arbitrageur. The Dwellers clove to a system in which power was distributed, well, more or less randomly, it sometimes seemed, and authority and influence depended almost entirely on one's age; little leverage there.  
Alternatively, every now and again a species would attempt to take by force of arms what those involved in Dweller Studies attempted to wrest from the Dwellers by polite but dogged inquiry. Force, it had been discovered - independently, amazingly often - did not really work with Dwellers. They felt no pain, held their own continued survival (and that of others, given the slightest provocation) to be of relatively little consequence and seemed to embody, apparently at the cellular level, the belief that all that really mattered, ever, was a value unique to themselves which they defined as a particular kind of kudos, one of whose guiding principles appeared to be that if any outside influence attempted to mess with them they had to resist it to the last breath in the bodies of all concerned, regardless.
And another:
The problem was that to the Dwellers all professions were in effect hobbies, all posts and positions sinecures. This tailor that Y'sul and the City Administrator were babbling on about would have had no real need to be a tailor, he was just somebody who'd found he possessed an aptitude for the pastime (or, more likely, for the gossiping and fussing generally associated with it). He would take on clients to increase his kudos, the level of which would increase proportionally the more powerful were the people he tailored for, so that somebody in a position of civil power would constitute a favoured client, even if that position of power had come about through a lottery, some arcanely complicated rota system or plain old coercive voting - jobs like that of City Administrator were subject to all those regimes and more, depending on the band or zone concerned, or just which city was involved. The City Administrator, in return, would be able to drop casually into just the right conversations the fact she had such a well-known, high-kudos tailor. Obviously Y'sul had had sufficient kudos of his own to be able to engage the services of this alpha-outfitter too. People further down the pecking order would have employed less well-connected tailors, or just got their clothes from Common, which was Dweller for, in this particular case, off-the-peg, and in general just meant mass-produced, kudos-free, available-as-a-matter-of-right-just-because you're-a-Dweller . . . well, pretty much anything, up to and including spaceships.
Kudos makes for some interesting comparisons with Cory Doctorow's Whuffie, Karen Lord's social credit, and the trust "currency" of Michael Swanwick's millies.

Also see Abigail Nussbaum's review.

(JLW)

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000-1887

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). Bellamy's utopian novel-- it's the old-fashioned kind you might charitably call "heavy on worldbuilding" -- deals extensively with economics. Bellamy advocates an egalitarian command economy, with everyone taking an equal share of non-transferable credit. The individual spends their credit to claim their share of the national product. The rations are so generous, however, that individuals often find they have credits left over at the end of the year; these are then spent on public goods (such as making everywhere look beautiful).

Although everybody's "wages" are fixed at the same level by a ferocious egalitarian principle, there is something which sounds rather a lot like market mechanisms -- or at least, like a command economy simulating market mechanisms -- mediatized not by money, but by leisure time. You could look at it like this: workers are (in a way) paid different hourly rates, but hours that they work are carefully regulated to ensure that all total incomes are equal:
"The supply of volunteers is always expected to fully equal the demand," replied Dr. Leete. "It is the business of the administration to see that this is the case. The rate of volunteering for each trade is closely watched. If there be a noticeably greater excess of volunteers over men needed in any trade, it is inferred that the trade offers greater attractions than others. On the other hand, if the number of volunteers for a trade tends to drop below the demand, it is inferred that it is thought more arduous. It is the business of the administration to seek constantly to equalize the attractions of the trades, so far as the conditions of labor in them are concerned, so that all trades shall be equally attractive to persons having natural tastes for them. This is done by making the hours of labor in different trades to differ according to their arduousness. The lighter trades, prosecuted under the most agreeable circumstances, have in this way the longest hours, while an arduous trade, such as mining, has very short hours. There is no theory, no a priori rule, by which the respective attractiveness of industries is determined. The administration, in taking burdens off one class of workers and adding them to other classes, simply follows the fluctuations of opinion among the workers themselves as indicated by the rate of volunteering [...]"

Beukes, Lauren. Moxyland

Lauren Beukes, Moxyland (2008). Review originally appeared on Aargh and doesn't just focus on the economic aspects.

If you are going to write an archetypically bursting-at-the-seams first novel, then cyberpunk is an excellent genre in which (and bursting slightly out of which) to write it.

We get four narrators: Kendra, a Z-list schleb photographer, interested in the aesthetics of both obsolete and prototype technologies; Toby, a vile trustafarian with a magic vlogcaster suit; Tendeka, a slightly naïve community organizer and political activist; and Lerato, an AIDS orphan done good as a hacker with a snazzy corporate day-job. They roll around, exemplifying themselves and their world, occasionally explicitly brushing against each other, occasionally suggesting some more obscure, behind-the-scenes connections, until a horrific police crack-down on a rather intricate scene of civil disorder draws their four narratives together for the final act.

One of them melts.

Borenstein, Greg. @SpeculativeCash

Automatic text generation has been around since c.forever, and so has recombinant artwork. But both these things have turned a corner with the rise of Twitter bots. The critical language and tools for understanding Twitter bots, who are both poets and poems, both cultural producers and cultural products, is still pretty incipient. Nevertheless, if anything deserves entry to a database of economic speculative fiction, it's Greg Borenstein's @speculativecash bot. Borenstein's bot does one thing, constantly: invents new forms of money.

Brunner, John. Total Eclipse

John Brunner, Total Eclipse (1974). Mess with eugenics and capitalism-like structures merged into one institution, y'all might wind up dead.

Here's the relevant bit (big spoiler alert):
“But that’s absurd,” Lucas said after a pause. “Going bankrupt— well, it could bring down a civilisation, but it couldn’t wipe out an entire species.”
“It could!” Ian insisted. “Look, it occurred to us to wonder whether the Draconians traded among themselves, and we decided yes, they must have, but it never occurred to any of us to ask what kind of currency they employed.”
Cathy jumped to her feet. “The printed crystals!” she burst out. “Those can’t have been money!”
Karen shouted. “You’d find money all over everywhere, not concentrated in great big storehouses—”
[like, an hour later] 
“Am I being obtuse?” Karen said. “Or have you not yet explained how going bankrupt killed them off?”
“I was just coming to the details of that. I think I already said— excuse me, but my head is buzzing insanely with all the implications— I think I said I started asking what an individual could accumulate by way of reward, or payment.”
There was a brief hush. Nadine ventured, “Promises that when he became she, there would be outstanding genetic lines reserved to— uh— to her?”
“That’s it. That’s what killed them.” Igor leapt to his feet and started pacing back and forth, thumping fist into palm. “I’ve almost got it,” he said. “You mean that without realising what they were doing, they restricted their genetic pool until it became dangerous, and then it was too late. Like fortunes being concentrated in the hands of a few ultra-powerful families? A sort of genetic capitalism?”


(JLW)

Butler, Octavia. The Parable of the Sower.

Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (1993)

Entry at the ISFDB.

Cavendish, Margaret. The Blazing World.

Margaret Cavendish. The Description of a New World, called The Blazing-World (1668).
None was allowed to use or wear Gold but those of the Imperial Race, which were the onely Nobles of the State; nor durst any one wear Jewels but the Emperor, the Empress and their Eldest Son; notwithstanding that they had an infinite quantity both of Gold and precious Stones in that World; for they had larger extents of Gold, then our Arabian Sands; their precious Stones were Rocks, and their Diamonds of several Colours; they used no Coyn, but all their Traffick was by exchange of several Commodities.
Full text.

Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014). A gentle, fluent, very cozy space opera with an ensemble cast of chirpy quasi-millennial misfits, with shades of Firefly, Star Trek, Mass Effect, Redshirts, Karen Lord, Ursula le Guin, Naomi Mitchison,

Here's a snippet about shopping:
“I’ll take it.” Kizzy handed the Harmagian the soap. He took hold of it with two of his smaller tentacles, each covered in a sheath-like glove to protect his delicate skin. He zipped behind the counter and busied himself with foil and ribbon.
   “There you go, dear guest,” said the Harmagian, handing her the attractively wrapped bundle. “Just chip off a little piece of it at a time, it’ll last longer that way.”
Kizzy stuck her nose to the wrapper again. “Mmph, that smells good. Check it out, Rosemary.”
    Rosemary couldn’t help but inhale as Kizzy shoved the block of soap into her face. The scent was thickly sweet and sugary, like a cake. She imagined using it would be like bathing in a meringue.
    “That’s eight hundred sixty credits, if you please, thank you,” the Harmagian said. Kizzy stuck out her hand to Rosemary.
    “Can I have the chip?”
    Rosemary blinked, not sure if she had understood. “You want the company chip?”
    “Yeah, it’s soap,” Kizzy said. “Soap is cool, right?”
    Rosemary cleared her throat and looked down at her scrib. No, soap wasn’t cool, not fancy soap, but how could she tell Kizzy that? She had come onto Kizzy’s ship, been welcomed by Kizzy with open arms, let Kizzy buy her too many drinks, had vastly less experience than Kizzy in things like tunneling and shopping in neutral ports. But even so —
    “I’m sorry, Kizzy, but, um, we can only use the chip for common-use soap. If you want special soap, you have to get it yourself.” She felt the words come out of her mouth, and she hated them. She sounded like a killjoy.
    “But —” Kizzy started. Without a word, Sissix grabbed Kizzy’s wrist and pressed it to the merchant’s scanner. There was a corresponding chirp, indicating her account had been accepted.
    “Hey!” Kizzy said.
    “You can afford it,” Sissix said.
And here's one about getting space-mugged by pirates:
Captain Big tapped xyr chin within xyr mech suit. “If we take ten barrels, will you have enough to reach your next destination?”
    Rosemary asked Corbin the question. He nodded sullenly. “Yes, ten barrels will not be a problem,” she said.
    The conversation had gone from frightening to bizarre. The inflections that Captain Big was using didn’t have a parallel in Klip, but in Hanto, they were downright polite. She would expect to hear this kind of talk in a shop or a restaurant, not while standing at gunpoint. It was as if the Akaraks thought of her as a merchant, with the threat of violence serving as currency.
    “We will require technical supplies as well,” Captain Big said. “Our engines are in need of repair.”
(JLW)

Chamisso, Adelbert von. Peter Schlemihl

Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso (1814). Peter Schlemihl exchanges his shadow for the purse of Fortunatus, which produces everlasting riches. But he finds himself shunned by society and unable to marry the woman he loves. The Devil offers to return him his shadow in exchange for his soul but Schlemihl chooses to go shadowless.

Some snippets (trans. Leopold von Lowenstein-Wertheim):
"I only crave for your permission to lift up your noble shadow right here and to put it into my pocket; how I do it is my own affair. In return, and as a token of my profound gratitude to the gentleman, I will leave him to make his choice among all the treasures which I carry in my pocket. The genuine mandrake root, magic pennies, robber's ducat, the magic napkin of Roland's Knights, the gallows mandrake; but all this may not be of sufficient interest to you. I have something much better: Fortunatus' wishing cap restored as new and also a lucky purse exactly like the one he possessed."
And:
As soon as I found myself alone in the cab, I burst into tears. It was already beginning to dawn on me that even as gold on this earth is more highly esteemed than merit and virtue, so the shadow might be more highly esteemed than gold; and that as I had previously held my conscience higher than wealth, I had now given up my shadow for the sake of gold [...]
And:
I dismissed the driver with gold, selected the best front room and shut myself up in it immediately.
     And what do you think I did? Oh, my dear Chamisso, it makes me blush to confess it even to you. I pulled out the cursed purse from underneath my coat and in a kind of frenzy, which burned me up like a conflagration, I extracted gold from it; more and more gold, which I scattered over the floor. I trampled on it, making it tinkle and feasting my senses on its glitter and sound; I piled gold upon gold till I sank exhausted onto my luxurious bed, wallowing in a yellow flood. Thus the day went by and the evening. I did not open my door, and when night finally came, I fell asleep embedded in gold.
And:
"It seems to me rather a weighty matter to give my soul in exchange for my shadow."
"Weighty!" he repeated after me and burst out laughing. "And what, may I ask, do you imagine your soul is? Have you ever seen it? And what do you intend doing with it once you are dead? Thank you stars that you have found a collector sufficiently interested to wish to buy, even during your lifetime, the reversion of this quantity X, this galvanic force, this polarized potential, or whatever we may like to call this illusive something.; and to be willing to pay for it with something really tangible -- your very own shadow, which will give you the hand of your sweetheart and the fulfilment of everything you want. Or would you rather hand over the innocent young girl to that despicable schemer, Mr Rascal? [...]"
And:
"[...] But enough of this -- you possess me while you possess my gold. [...]"
And:
Remember, my friend, while you live in the world to treasure first your shadow and then your money.
(JLW) 

Chapman, Stepan. How Alex Became a Machine

Stepan Chapman, "How Alex Became a Machine" (1996?).

Here's a brief mention by Tobias Carroll.

Cisco, Michael. Animal Money.

Michael Cisco, Animal Money (2016).

Animal Money at the ISFDB.
Reviewed by Tobias Carroll.

De Abaitua, Matthew. If Then

Matthew De Abaitua, If Then (2015).

An algorithm called The Process makes all economic decisions (although this also means that there is no well-defined "economic" realm). It does so supposedly in pursuit of "fairness." Here is a short snippet from early in the book.
He walked the orderly line of repairmen with individual placards detailing skills offered and services required. This was residual behaviour, rendered unnecessary by the Process. Their skills and availability would be sorted algorithmically and bartered accordingly with other townspeople and their labour; that was how the Process generated the core work schedule for the town, and gave meaning to labour that had become meaningless. But the market had a role to play that was more than trade. It was a social occasion, a chance to get out, to see and be seen. The metrics of happiness required old rituals, old ways of doing things, and so time was set aside within the work schedule for the townspeople to make their own trades.

Dick, Philip K. Ubik

Philip K. Dick, Ubik (1969)

A snippet:
The door refused to open. It said, "Five cents, please." 
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. 
"I'll pay you tomorrow," he told the door. Again it remained locked tight. "What I pay you," he informed it, "is in the nature of a gratuity; I don't have to pay you." 
"I think otherwise," the door said. "Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt." 
...he found the contract. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip. 
"You discover I'm right," the door said. It sounded smug.

Doctorow, Cory. Chicken Little

Cory Doctorow, 'Chicken Little' (2010). A novella originally appearing in Gateways, ed. Elizabeth Anne Hull, an anthology inspired by Frederik Pohl, and now pretty widely available.

Leon works for Ate, a corporation whose opulent fortunes are entirely based on one previous sale, and are now looking to make their second. Nobody at Ate knows what they sold last time. It's a well-kept secret. Better than well-kept: deliberately lost, forever. They do have a general idea of the type of customer they sold it to:
The normal megarich got offered experiences [...] The people in the vat had done plenty of those things before they’d ended up in the vats. Now they were metastatic, these hyperrich, lumps of curdling meat in the pickling solution of a hundred vast machines that laboriously kept them alive amid their cancer blooms and myriad failures. Somewhere in that tangle of hoses and wires was something that was technically a person, and also technically a corporation, and, in many cases, technically a sovereign state. (p.535)

Doctorow, Cory. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003).

If you're doing an economics and science fiction reading list, this should be pretty near the top.

I talked a bit about this book and its quasi-magical reputation currency, Whuffie, in my review of Doctorow's Pirate Cinema.

The TL;DR version is: maybe it's interesting to compare Whuffie and DRM (or at least, the things DRM would imagine itself doing in the best of all possible worlds). Why quasi-magical? Nowadays it's difficult not to see Whuffie through the lens of algorithmic governmentality, Uber, platform capitalism, Peeple, etc. But it may also be worth drilling down to the conceit that underlies Whuffie: a  system that can evaluate feelings and work out exactly what they're about and the ways in which they're good or bad (hence 'reality'-based currency).

Also see this interview at the Adjacent Possible, toward the end. Also see under Paul Graham Raven below. For other exotic currencies that are perhaps made out of trust or reputation, see entries for Iain M. Banks, Karen Lord, and Michael Swanwick.

(JLW)

Doctorow, Cory. Makers

Cory Doctorow, Makers (2009).

Anil Menon writes in a review of Makers for Strange Horizons:

[...] His fragments on how litigation venture funding works, on how the iced-coffee cans Sammy likes to chug contain embedded CO2 canisters, on the structure of "New Work," on what the ride is about, on how roomware will change how people live together, on whether great groups are hard to put together because flaws are multiplicative while virtues are additive, etc. etc. constitute the book's brilliant mind. These fragments are not infodumps because their purpose is not to reveal essential, tedious information. They are futuristic riffs in the best tradition of speculative thinking. I think the fragments are the real reason why Doctorow wrote the book. His ability to think up these fragments is the reason people love his blog articles, the reason why Boing Boing is such a major watering hole and the reason why this book will be read, despite its literary shortcomings.  
It is unfair to criticize a book for what it does not try to be. In this case however, I will, because it points to the possibility of a new kind of writing. I think Makers would have worked better as speculative non-fiction. Ideally, speculation in a SF novel should be a means to an end, but when it becomes the end itself, then it is time to jettison the novel format. We've begun to see some early signs of such ejections. Emerging disciplines like "speculative economics" and "speculative biology" encourage speculative ideas to be worked out carefully, even elegantly, without having to invoke the clumsy paraphernalia of fiction. Is Schrödinger's "What Is Life" any less literary because it doesn't have family drama and existential angst? If an economist wants to discuss how interstellar trade would work, does she really need a space opera? If a finance theorist wishes to explore whether the theory of interest rates rules out time travel does he need to bring in a Romantic Love Interest to spoon feed us the speculation? No. Modern readers have no need of such semantic sugar. Aldous Huxley called for a fictional form that would be "a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay, a novel in which one can put all one's ideas, a novel like a hold-all." Perhaps it's possible. Speculation is independent of fiction though, and this work illustrates both positively and negatively why it's an independence worth encouraging. Sometimes the best representation of a pipe is the pipe itself.

Full review here.

Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway.

Cory Doctorow, Walkaway (2017).

Doctorow's Walkaway is a book centrally concerned with political economy. It deserves places on pretty much any reading list of economic SF, and many a list of utopian/dystopian SF, alongside classics such as Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Juliet E. McKenna offers an excellent summary in Interzone #270:
In this near-future, the rich have got much, much richer while those further down the social order desperately cling to exploitative jobs, fearful of becoming a surplus labour unit. Elites ensure this default state of affairs for the blinkered majority by controlling the only meaningful careers left: financial engineering, and politics.  
[...] 
When computer access is ubiquitous, survival knowledge is free for the taking. Ultimately, people can simply walk away from a society they’re no longer invested in. So Hubert, Seth and Natalie head north into the Canadian wilderness where Limpopo and like-minded folk have set up a community where everyone can have what they want or need without even having to contribute from their own means. Limpopo isn’t the leader because there’s no such role. There is no obligation to even work for the common good unless one chooses to. 
[...] 
Some are always determined to keep score. Some demand a pecking order. What happens when they turn up and try to remake this community to suit themselves? Walking away from conventional society means walking away from its protections, in a world where anyone can arm themselves with an AK-3DP gun. Conflict is the essence of drama, right? Not so much, as it turns out, when Limpopo and the others simply walk away again. 
[...] 
Walkaway philosophy says the only way to win is not to play. But what if the other side insists? Well, then it’s time to change the rules of the game, more than once if you need to, and always trying to stay one move ahead.

Falk, Lee. Time Is Money

Lee Falk, 'Time Is Money' (1975). Fairly short and to the point, and online. A potential inspiration (idk) for Stephen Tolkin's The Price of Life (1987), which could very well have been an inspiration for Andrew Niccol's In Time (2011).


Compare Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘2 B R 0 2 B’ (1962): not a currency exactly, but an exchange relation. Also compare the Days currency in Terry Pratchett's Strata (1975), and the Oubliette's currency in Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief (2011). Also compare real-life LETS currencies and the Economy of Hours, which can in principle use demurrage (naturally dwindling value) to encourage circulation. None of them have yet adopted the idea of killing you if you run out.

(JLW)

Gladstone, Max. The Craft Sequence

Series notable in particular for its soulstuff economy. Some excerpts from a Reddit AMA on Tor.com.

Excerpt from the excerpts:
Mundanername: Most of the wealth we see in the novels comes from complex investment schemes. If creative action grows the soul does that mean some occupations in the world do not just pay the workers a salary but the very act of performing the job generates wealth for the workers? 
MG: Depends—most employment contracts are structured so that added value goes to the Concern. It’d be a very special (and possibly doomed) Concern that didn’t work this way.  
Mundanername: Do people actually spend themselves to death in this world? 
MG: Yep. Though “death” is a bit of a misnomer—most of the time what happens is people spend themselves into zombiehood, and end up shambling about at the mercy of their creditors (depending on the structure of the debt). If they accumulate enough soulstuff by the terms of their contract they can come back to life, but apperception’s broken, and the psychological damage lasts a long time. Crafty folk are “better” at expending their soul—they can straight up spend themselves to dust if they’re not careful.
See also a post by Max Gladstone about writing Last First Snow.

Goder, Beth. 'How to Identify an Alien Shark'

Beth Goder, 'How to Identify an Alien Shark' (2018)

A short, shark shock. Read it at Fireside Fiction. In the background there appears to be a satire of the use of structural adjustment programmes, and neoliberal economics in general, as an instrument of imperialism and colonialism.

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years

David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). Not strictly speculative fiction, but a representative of all that "the truth is stranger (albeit less rigorously extrapolated) than fiction" anthropology out there.

Jo Walton remarks in her review ("The Best Science Fiction Ideas in Any Non-Fiction Ever: David Graeber's Debt: The First Five Thousand Years") that a problem with writing SF and fantasy "is creating truly different societies. We tend to change things but keep other things at societal defaults. It’s really easy to see this in older SF, where we have moved on from those societal defaults and can thus laugh at seeing people in the future behaving like people in the fifties. But it’s very difficult to create genuinely innovative societies, and in genuinely different directions." Cory Doctorow says he found it thought-provoking but frustrating, and names it in the acknowledgements to Walkaway. Charles Stross draws the epigraph of Neptune's Brood from it.

Graeber's book is also a great reminder that many well-known facts (such as the fact that  money was invented as an improvement over barter, solving the double coincidence of wants problem) are liable to reveal themselves as rather wild and far-fetched speculative fiction. You can also check out Graeber's 2009 article for Mute which condenses a few of his book's major arguments. And also see Graeber's On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, which talks about something that several speculative fiction writers have noticed (Douglas Adams is one of them).

Still the best book about money I've read.

(JLW)

Heinlein, Robert A. Farnham's Freehold

Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold (1964). This somewhat-relevant post originally appeared on the main Aargh blog.
"Every once in a while you find yourself in a lifeboat where a single stupid move can kill everyone. But a science fiction writer whose story’s boundary extends to the boat’s gunwales, and no further – not to the poleconomy that convinced a nation to build backyard bunkers rather than rising up en masse against Mutually Assured Destruction, say – is a science fiction writer who has considered the car and the movie and invented the drive-in without ever thinking about the sexual revolution or the database-nation [...] Every time someone tells you that the environment is important, sure, but we can’t afford to take a bite out of the economy to mitigate global warming, ask yourself what’s out of the frame on this cold equation. [...] Every time someone tells you that the environment is important, sure, but we can’t afford to take a bite out of the economy to mitigate global warming, ask yourself what’s out of the frame on this cold equation."
Cory Doctorow at Locus Online on Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold and Tom Godwin and John W. Campbell's classic of hard science fiction, "The Cold Equations."
"Ender's Game is effectively a series of literary thought experiments designed to generate a particular moral outcome: each act plunges Ender into a savage new environment that can only be mastered with a clear mind and a cold heart."
Jonathan McCalmont at VideoVista on "The Cold Equations" and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. (And a note on his blog).

Two great articles, which also feed my sense that hard science fiction can still be a useful normative idea, not just a sort of historical and descriptive one -- but that it would need a little updating. And perhaps that update would have to do with the rigor with which you select what is and isn't in your narrative, not just the rigor with which you work with whatever is in your story?

Instead of Ender's Game, watch Starship Troopers:



Also see this bit from my review of Doctorow's Pirate Cinema:
I’ve also grumbled a bit about realism too. But literary realism always has twin obligations – (a) correspondence and (b) contradiction. It’s not enough to reflect reality. Realism needs also to be able to fight whatever is suppressing the self-evidence of that reality. It has to energetically contradict falsehood -- that could mean false representation, seductive cliche, distraction, and even the “intrinsically” wearisome or finnicky or bathetic nature of some topic or other. On these counts, Pirate Cinema scores highly. 
Or to put it crudely: you may lose a couple of Realism Points if you plump for a streamlined, fabulist London replete with intuitively laid-out resource nodes for the merry runaway. "What fun." #quote But you will gain many hatfuls of Realism Points when you give weight in your writing to what has weight in the world. When ynou give mimesis priority over imitatio, you could say. By my somewhat eccentric standard of realism, Pirate Cinema is an unusually realistic book.
PS:  Just found a great essay by Farah Mendlesohn which also talks about "The Cold Equations," & about Iain M. Banks, singularities, etc.; coins full science fiction, and feels like it has a far more supple conceptual vocabulary for what often gets construed as axioms (the "one tooth fairy" of even hard SF), and extrapolative worldbuilding, not least because it (a) brings in a sense of the interdisciplinary but not totalising knowledge which underpin the legitimacy of SF extrapolation; and (b) doesn't kind of hypostasise extrapolative worldbuilding as something which happens prior to and/or separate from worldtelling -- i.e., the start of the story.

I also like the note to the editor. A peek behind the scenes!
Yet the question-narrative of the sf tale can be enormously powerful. The basic question of the sf narrative is “What if….?” It can be about engineering: what if you need to build a railway on a planet which has miniature volcanoes erupting every couple of hundred yards? It can be philosophical: what happens if you introduce Christianity to a culture with no belief in original sin? Or introduce Christianity to three species who already share a trinitarian symbiosis and in which the death of one member of the trinity is supposed to lead to the suicide of the other two? Or wonder how five intelligent species stranded on a single planet might get on? Or it can question the impact of new physics on social relations, “What happens if a quantum event opens up a new universe on your doorstep, and the things coming through are doing strange things to your society and your body?” In each case, there is an assumption, not that human beings can fix anything, but that the relationship between humanity and the universe is that between engineer and environment. It is a fierce, dialectical relationship and it is conducted through a four-note strategy that I have (impertinently) called Full Sf.  
This strategy can be summed up as: Dissonance, Rupture, Resolution, Consequence. (this is an indented statement so it is set apart. Centre it please?)
PPS: What would fantasies egregiously loaded to demonstrate the rightness of dogmatic versions of other co-ordinates on the political compass look like? (Don't say West Wing).

Hopkinson, Nalo. Brown Girl in the Ring.

Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring (1998). Entry at ISFDB. Nalo Hopkinson's entry at SFE.

Review by Dan Hartland at Strange Horizons.

Hopkinson, Nalo. Money Tree

Nalo Hopkinson, "Money Tree" (1997), collected in Skin Folk (2002).  "In Jamaica it was the other way around; the costly refined sugar was for guests, and the everyday brown sugar was cheap. Mummy would have been horrified at how expensive Demerara sugar was in Toronto." An unsettling, layered little allegory about value, liquidity, inheritance and family resemblance. There is the relievingly straightforward nugget of allegory if you want it: some people love money more than anything, even life. But though that's definitely there, I think it might have been plopped there for the sake of the twisting, Ovidian ripples it radiates, filled with glimpsables. For other money trees, see Douglas Adams, Adam Roberts, and Clifford D. Simak.

(JLW)

Jemisin, N.K. The Fifth Season.

There is some economics woven into Jemisin's worldbuilding, but perhaps what's more interesting is the allegorical exploration of cycles and stability, social, economic, and ecological.

Review at Strange Horizons. A few scattered notes at Argh.

(JLW)

Kriss, Sam. Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space

Sam Kriss, "Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space" (2015). I first came across this via the recommendation of Ethan Robinson, who's always worth perking your ears to. Maybe it was raised expectations, but I came away a little disappointed: it felt like it participated in a tradition of dialectic, perhaps aporetic, analysis and polemic, but instead of taking me to several unlikely and contradictory places, it ended up just reiterating (albeit forcefully and hilariously) a well-rehearsed argument about Space Exploration, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

But that's okay. And there are good bits! One of its more intriguing moves is creating a vision of paradoxical life-in-death not via a zoom-in to concrete particulars (as you might expect from work in this tradition), but via a zoom-out to a grand scale on which all human experience slips below the threshold of materiality, in the audit and accountancy sense of materiality, and simply gets rounded down to zero. The core proposal is obviously worth serious consideration. I am fairly certain that calls to abolish gravity are around a century old now (although admittedly I am unable to locate the quotation I am thinking of), why haven't such ideas got off the ground? Maybe a properly dialectical approach would be to twin abolition with projection; in which case, what should we replace space with? Another possibility is not to abolish outer space but to take revenge on it. Story online at The New Inquiry. 

Elsewhere: Kriss is an excellent essayist. Some of his other writing.

(JLW)

Le Guin, Ursula. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)Le Guin's fairly brilliant imagining of a well-established revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist society. Demonstrates why it makes sense to save your hardest criticisms for your own prescriptions. Books like these are really carrying the whole SFF team.

There has been a huge amount written about it, and because of it. And for now at least I won't try to add anything to that.

(JLW)

Levine, David D. Tk'tk'tk

David D. Levine, Tk'tk'tk (2005).

David D. Levine’s Hugo-winning short story ‘Tk’tk’tk’ focuses on the tribulations of Walker, an interstellar salesman, as he struggles to understand local market conditions.

Walker trips up over a variety of linguistic and cultural caltrops. He does not realise that the deepest and darkest room in the hotel is the most desirable and expensive (duh). He falls for the extrastellar equivalent of downing a local liquor he really can’t handle (more literally, his shoulders are sprinkled with strange green rings, but the principle is the same, and even the chanting “Rings, dance! Rings, dance!” (p. 170) faintly echoes a frattish ‘Drink! Drink! Drink!’). He has difficulty distinguishing high and low denomination currency boluses, since figures are written in fragrances (p.162). Numbers have qualitative associations he is frequently forgets: one buyer is mortified at the idea of paying seventy for an item, but will happily pay seventy-three (p.162). Potential customers profess themselves, with elaborate humility, to be unworthy to take ownership of Walker’s exalted merchandise, calling it “beyond price” (p.161). They do hint at the possibility of compensating him for an “indefinite loan” (p.173, cf. p. 161), but seem to prefer endless, aimless, chinwagging (“did you come through Pthshksthpt or by way of Sthktpth” (p.163)) to talking turkey.

Detail by detail, Levine conjures an amusing and convincingly exotic setting, and only a heartless reader would blame Walker for his bewilderment. Nonetheless, at bottom, Walker’s experiences are just exaggerated versions of what a naive and insensitive late C20th North American (or "Westerner," maybe) might encounter, trying to hock their merch in Asia and East Asia, and perhaps particularly, in Japan.

That is: compared to Walker, the aliens belong to what the anthropologist Edward T. Hall influentially described as a “high-context culture” (Beyond Culture, 1976), in which comparatively greater emphasis is placed on implicature, supported by shared context and experience. Walker’s frustration with meandering chit-chat – what he at best justify as “building rapport” (p.163) – recalls the reactions of some North Americans to a more informal style of decision-making common in Japanese organisations. That is, a style which exhibits a more flexible understanding of what might constitute ‘on-topic’ and ‘off-topic’ conversation, and which closely links the legitimacy of decisions to the social intimacy which has led up to them (cf. e.g. Haru Yamada Snr., Different Games, Different Rules, pp.55-59).

We must be wary of stereotyping, of course -- I'm pretty sure that golfing and drinking is part of work for London City bankers, every bit as much as it is for Tokyo salarymen -- but the broad distinctions are there, at least in the Business Studies and Linguistics literature. And in light of these connections, Walker’s eventual spiritual transformation, which sees him reforming his earlier striving attitudes, is not particularly difficult to understand – he is simply one more tourist-turned-Western Buddhist. Which is still good.

Is the story colonialist, orientalist? When I first wrote this post, I pussyfooted around the question a bit, because I like the story -- and also because I also think I need to try to take an author seriously when they tell me that somebody is a giant alien insect, or an orc, or whatever: and not simply unscramble the story in some way which suits me, and then critique the cleartext as if the ciphertext had never existed. But. The use of insect and swarm imagery, in the depiction of an inscrutable, indirect and exotic people? A people whose ways are a little more collectivist than our narrator's, and who offer him a mystical path to self-transcendence? This is definitely horrible territory.

Should no more pussyfooting. Levine should have used squidbears. And/or France.

This was originally part of a blog post that was also about Cory Doctorow's 'Chicken Little.' The two stories are both about making sales, and they both appear in Hartwell and Hayden's 21st Century Science Fiction anthology.

(JLW)

Lord, Karen. Galaxy Game

Karen Lord, Galaxy Game (2015). A sequel to The Best of All Possible Worlds. Features a world, Punartam, where resources are allocated by the interplay of two formal media, called "social credit" and "financial credit." There is a kind of mapping between divisions such as market and gift economy, or between money and social capital, onto the division between basic needs and wants/luxuries -- all suitably science fictionally estranged and disheveled, of course. Here are the relevant snippets:
Haviranthiya told him very soberly that it appeared Academe Maenevastraya had registered a prior claim on his acquaintance and he could no longer provide Rafi with an Academe Surinastraya recommendation as a starting nexus for future Punartam interactions.
[...]
   "And your essentials," Ntenman continued.
   "There's nothing wrong with them. You should approve of that."
   Essentials were harder to understand, but after Lian dumped a message and a quantity of voice-access credit into his channel, things became clearer. The credit was "a loan, not a gift", and the fact that Lian had extended it made Lian one of his primary essentials. "Stay neutral," Lian's message warned. "Do not accept credit from non-Cygnians."
[...]
   "Your keys are your peers," Lian's message explained further. "I've introduced you to a couple of mine and I'll introduce you to more in time. I know your family and I shared food and drink with you in public, so I'm one of your first-tier keys. Keys you meet through me will be your second-tier keys. You will have to acquire more keys by your own efforts."
[...]
   He quickly discovered that for every variant of the credit system, there were several academic interpretations and models on how they should work. "Economic credit is mere financial engineering," sneered his Academe guide. "Social credit is art."
[...]
   "Yes, that's survival. But social credit determines what you will eat, and where, and with whom."
   "And I get my financial credit from my essentials but social credit from my keys."
   "More or less. That depends on where your nexus is located and the allegiance of your keys. Sometimes it's worthwhile to have a broad representation, but sometimes a nexus will refuse to acknowledge certain keys or networks, or will itself be shunned by other networks." Ntenman exhaled sharply, already frustrated. "It's a complex formula. The size, density and degree of overlap of your networks is measured, your net worth is calculated with reference to recommendations from your keys, and only a fully qualified Credit Assessor can work out the result."
   "But good social credit makes my financial credit more valuable, is that right?"
   "More or less. You're in a higher consumer bracket for some things."
   "So this is good! I have a nexus and I'm making a start on my social credit. I'll be able to pay you back."
   "Don't be rude," said Ntenman, only half-joking, and Rafi belatedly remembered that on Punartam, it was bad manners for anyone, be they creditor, debtor or completely uninvolved, to harp on an unpaid debt.    "So, financial credit is what gets me food and shelter?" Rafi asked. He had discovered that teaching him the basics appeared to put Ntenman in a better mood, as if doing so re-established the correct order of things.
For other exotic trust currencies, see entries for Cory Doctorow, Iain M. Banks, Michael Swanwick, and Jack Vance.

(JLW)

Maughan, Tim. Limited Edition

Tim Maughan, "Limited Edition" (2012). Features the gamification of robbery. You log onto Smash/Grab, a sort of gambling / gaming / social media thing, and get points for smashing stuff and nicking stuff In Real Life. In other words, what counts as a breakdown of the legitimate circulation of values within one sphere is a completely legitimate phase in the circulation of values within another sphere. There's a faint suggestion that somewhere in the shadows these spheres are reconciled: perhaps powerful corporate interests don't exactly run the Smash/Grab servers, but they may be in no hurry to see them shut down. Story online at Arcfinity.

(JLW)

Maughan, Tim. Special Economic Zone

Tim Maughan, "Special Economic Zone" (2015). Not strictly science fiction. Not strictly not. About working in quality assurance for GPS tracking and vehicle monitoring units for retrofitting buses for smart cities. There is something stylistically clever about this story, something which becomes obvious early on in the story, as do the reasons for it. That leads to a choice, for the reader, about how they should read, and if they should read at all. However, part of its cleverness is that it resists being admired as clever, and part of what makes the choice difficult is that it's impossible to think of it as important. On Medium.com.

(JLW)

Maughan, Tim. 'Zero Hours'

Tim Maughan, "Zero Hours" (2013). A short, sharp shock about the interface of emerging technologies and low skilled labour (or supposedly low skilled labour, perhaps).

Compare John Maynard Keynes's prediction: "for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well."

Instead, hello gig economy, hello extreme precarity, and hello cognitive capitalism, which "no longer consists, as in the Fordist time, of investment in constant and variable capital (wage), but rather of investment in apparatuses of producing and capturing value produced outside directly productive processes" (Marazzi 2010: p.55). "Zero Hours" is online at Medium.com.

Also see "Four Days of Christmas" at Motherboard.

(JLW)

Mitchison, Naomi. Not By Bread Alone

Naomi Mitchison, Not By Bread Alone (1983). Mitchison's entry in SFE. Review by Kate Macdonald.

Moon, Elizabeth. Once A Hero

Elizabeth Moon, Once A Hero (1997). Entry in ISFDB. Elizabeth Moon's entry in SFE.

Review by Kate Macdonald.

McDuck, Scrooge.

Duck Tales. Gazillionaire Scrooge McDuck is a nexus of proverbs: not only a faintly racist caricature -- the miserly Scot who cannot bear to part with the tiniest fraction of his wealth -- he also takes to the practice of accumulative brutality like a duck to water, literally paddling around in his gold, which he keeps in an enormous vault resembling a water tower. The hard coins which by rights should brain Scrooge instead flow from his feathers like water off a duck's back. So there's a utopianism here: money is stripped of its exchange function (he wouldnae spend it), and reduced to use value of a peculiarly sensuous and primal sort, a pool of instinctive pleasure which perhaps existed even in the womb (though Scrooge, of course, hatched). Scrooge McDuck negates money by wanting it only as itself, yet crucially, preserving its essential character as that which flows; whereas when nemesis Flintheart Glomgold finally (and temporarily, thanks to the gang) gets his greedy wings on Scrooge's riches, he fails to replicate Scooge's customary high-dive. The hoard, as if knowing its master, acts as a solid and rejects the interloper duck.


In connection with flow it's also worth thinking about proto-Smithian images of economic concordia discors, in particular the notion that misers and their characteristically profligate sons inadvertently collaborate to irrigate even the most out-of-the-way nooks and crannies (the burst-out effect, rather than today's more modest trickle-down effect).

There is far too much to really unpack here: even the name Scrooge McDuck inevitably recalls both the political economies of Smith and Hume, and Charles Dickens' passive aggressive sparring with Malthusianism; there is the connection with dragons' heaps of gold (the word drake can mean both dragon and duck); plus there are links among (a) the homogenising "duckface" we in the West characteristically adopt in any photograph, (b) the head of the sovereign stamped on coinage, (c) the role of slavery and virtual death in the primal origins of money, in particular the transition of what David Graeber calls "human economies" into commercial economies, which establishes humans as quantifiable, calculable and commensurable vectors, and (d) Scrooge's beak as the myth of the inexpressive "wedge" visage capable of supernatural entry into a submerged realm of merged exchange and use values. We can leave it for now but not forever.

Nagata, Linda. The Red: First Light

Linda Nagata, The Red: First Light (2013). Military sf. The Red itself is interestingly placed: in some ways it's an allegory for capital (and the cunning of capital), and in some ways it is an extrapolation of specific recent developments in capital's activities (algorithmic marketing, basically). Nagata's Vast is also notable from an economic perspective, though in an indirect way, in its representation of several interacting self-organizing systems, which entangle and qualitatively transform in interesting ways.

(JLW)

Neeper, Cary. The Archives of Varok

Cary Neeper, The Archives of Varok series (1975-)

From Neeper's website:
Varok has maintained a no-growth economy, a steady state, in dynamic equilibrium over the ages since the Mutilation by following four basic rules:
  1. Give top priority to keeping the planet's ecology healthy,
  2. Use all renewable resources at or below the rate at which they can regenerate,
  3. Use all non-renewable resources, like precious metals, at a rate equal to their recovery rate or replacement by renewable resources, and
  4. In all eco-regions, create wastes at a rate no greater than the rate of their natural assimilation.
Varok defines the steady-state as that level of population and resource stocks that provide a good life and an equitable, sustainable standard of living over a long period of time. Throughput of matter and energy is maintained at the lowest possible rate to allow future generations the same quality of life enjoyed by the present generation. Birth and death rates are equalized and kept at the lowest possible levels, but those rates, as well as depletion rates of any resource, are subject to revision by popular vote.
More.

Newitz, Annalee. Autonomous

A smart, rich, immersive cyberpunk thriller, which manages to make some quite fantastical and potentially space operatic worldbuilding feel plausible, grounded, and perhaps not even that far off. The novel is faintly pervaded by economic themes, in particular:

  • Intellectual Property law, especially pharmaceutical patents, and especially as it pertains to corporate power;
  • the blurred and ductile line between state power and the power of large multinationals (a perennial cyberpunk theme);
  • the work ethic, the experience of work, and the ways in which work can shape and degrade the worker's body and soul; and
  • slavery -- a key premise in the novel is that the rise of artificial sapient nonhumans (bots) has, along with other factors, led to a degradation of the legal status of the human, so that both bots and humans are vulnerable to legalised indenture.


Newman, Peter. The Vagrant

Peter Newman's dark science fantasy The Vagrant (2015) takes place in a sort of war-torn, post-apocalyptic dystopia. A development economist might say: there is no banking infrastructure, governance structures are weak, and life is corrupted by demon magic.

So it is the kind of setting where you would not be surprised to find the typical crapsack economics of scavenging and primitive accumulation, and a "reversion to barter" (about this phrase, and about some common misconceptions around barter, see David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years).

That is more-or-less what we get, but there is some intriguing nuance. First, bodies (and selves) are fairly permeable and porous in the world of The Vagrant, so there is a sense that words like "scavenging / looting" and "recycling / reusing / repurposing / upcycling" don't quite capture the micro, macro, and necroeconomics of it all:
Stick-like people and bloated flies gather in the twilight, both drawn to the still warm corpse of the Dogspawn. By morning they have picked the bones clean. By afternoon half of the people have died, their stomachs unable to accept the rich meat. By evening their skeletons are bartered over by Necrotraders. 
In New Horizon nothing is wasted.
Second there is apparently, on a literal level, a coin money economy functioning alongside ad hoc spot trades and what-have-you. The representation of this money is quite intriguing. People always seem at least a little amazed, and maybe even a bit mesmerized, when the Vagrant brandishes his coinage. Psychologically speaking, perhaps that's just because: what's this ragtag hobo doing flashing that kind of cash?

But it's also a little more numinous than that. The coins have the depth of Tolkienian artefacts, fragments from a lost epoch. It is almost as if, instead of the passage of time sapping the coins of their purchasing power as we'd expect -- you try paying for your Wispa in Nisa with a Roman antoninianus coin, it is hard -- the longevity of this medium-of-exchange is testament to the cunning and wisdom of their artificers.

Ancient forces stir, ancient presences awake. It is almost as if each coin emanates a little enchanted bubble of civil society and a liberal social order, sustaining itself against reason within the brutal Hobbesian state of nature:
The Hammer leans over him. ‘More?’
He nods.
The coin dances three times, then stops.
The Hammer’s small eyes narrow. ‘More?’
He beckons her closer. She comes.
He points to her coin. Puzzled, she lifts her hand to him, open, disc shining on her outstretched fingers. He nods and taps his own coin against it.
Reunited, the silver sisters sing. The duet haunts the ears, stirring regrets and things lost.
When it ends the Vagrant puts his coin into her other hand.
Her eyes glisten, water growing at their edges. ‘Mine?’
The Vagrant nods.
Perhaps it's also worth briefly noting the most distinctive thing about The Vagrant: it doesn't really give us a lone badass and his entourage, or a party of badasses, so much as a badass nuclear family. Of course the hard military power and the economic power are concentrated in the Vagrant himself, but the baby and the goat -- and Harm and (mild spoiler!) the Hammer -- exercise significant agency whenever they're present.

And just because I mentioned Tolkien: might it be interesting to think about the relationship of the baby figure and the figure of Bilbo Baggins? Bilbo is in part a surrogate for a young reader of The Hobbit, rosy-cheeked and beardless among the oppressively bearded endeavours of the adult world. Bilbo is also someone who is rather unaccountably allowed to participate in a dangerous and crucial and highly technical project, and discovers to their delight that they're more than able to prove their worth. There is usually a smug elusiveness about what makes hobbits so important, which reminds me more than a little of the smug elusiveness about the value added by the "enterprise" factor of production, a value which is significant enough that a top CEO totally deserves 200 times the salary of a machinist. We could think of Bilbo, perhaps, as the young nephew of Gandalf the CEO -- or, more subtly, as someone who is pliable to the interests of capital, whatever the specifics of their sociological class background -- whom the dwarves have to be nice to ("yes yes, you're uh, the Ringbearer ... no we totally can't see you at all, sir ... I mean Bilbo. Sir") because he'll be their boss one day.

And of course, he'll get to write the history of it. (I can just see There And Back Again on the rack in the airport next to The 10% Adventurer: How to Fulfill the Ancient Legends WITHOUT Quitting Your Day Job! or The Seven Dwarves of Highly Effective People or the latest in NLP from Ed Wormtongue or whatever).

Of course, that's probably putting it a bit strongly. But it is nice for a change to see a kid in a tale of high adventure who is just pretty much in practical terms a hassle and a risk.

One more snippet:
The Vagrant stares at the coins in his hand, each with the power to buy and sell life. Only five remain now. They have been spent on necessities such as food and medicine as well as indulgences, acts of charity that do little to pay off the debt of conscience. 
The last few coins have bought a boy’s freedom, a goat and a modicum of privacy for the journey. Of the three, only the goat can be classed as a necessity.

Novik, Naomi. Uprooted

Naomi Novik, Uprooted (2015).

A fiercely elegant high fantasy. Faintly economic themes include magic as a precious commodity, and benign and malign modes of being disheveled, disarrayed, compromised or corrupt. A snippet:
One of the soldiers was a boy my own age, industriously sharpening pike-heads one by one with a stone, skillfully: six strokes for each one and done as quick as the two men putting them along the wall could come back for them. He must have put himself to it, to learn how to do it so well. He didn’t look sullen or unhappy. He’d chosen to go for a soldier. Maybe he had a story that began that way: a poor widowed mother at home and three young sisters to feed, and a girl from down the lane who smiled at him over the fence as she drove her father’s herd out into the meadows every morning. So he’d given his mother his signing-money and gone to make his fortune. He worked hard; he meant to be a corporal soon, and after that a sergeant: he’d go home then in his fine uniform, and put silver in his mother’s hands, and ask the smiling girl to marry him.
     Or maybe he’d lose a leg, and go home sorrowful and bitter to find her married to a man who could farm; or maybe he’d take to drink to forget that he’d killed men in trying to make himself rich. That was a story, too; they all had stories. They had mothers or fathers, sisters or lovers. They weren’t alone in the world, mattering to no one but themselves. It seemed utterly wrong to treat them like pennies in a purse. I wanted to go and speak to that boy, to ask him his name, to find out what his story really was. But that would have been dishonest, a sop to my own feelings. I felt the soldiers understood perfectly well that we were making sums out of them—this many safe to spend, this number too high, as if each one wasn’t a whole man.
     Sarkan snorted. “What good would it do them for you to roam around asking them questions, so you know that one’s from Debna, and this one’s father is a tailor, and the other one has three children at home? They’re better served by your building walls to keep Marek’s soldiers from killing them in the morning.”
     “They’d be better served by Marek not trying in the first place,” I said, impatient with him for refusing to understand. The only way we could make Marek bargain was to make the walls too costly to breach, so he wouldn’t want to pay. But it still made me angry, at him, at the baron, at Sarkan, at myself.
     “Have you got any family left?” I asked him abruptly.
(JLW) 

Older, Malka. The Centenal Cycle

Malka Older, The Centenal Cycle (2016-).

Centenal Cycle at ISFDB.

From Esko Suoranta's 'Surveillance Capitalism and the Data/Flesh Worker in Malka Older’s Infomocracy' (Vector 288):
[...] Older conjures a world of somewhat curtailed surveillance capitalism, speculative democratic institutions, and continued worker precarity. Her protagonists navigate this world as information workers whose skill in gathering, managing, and understanding data makes them effective professionals in a variety of contexts. [...] Infomocracy emerges as a thought-experiment for the transition from Big Brother to Big Other and describes key tensions caused by the rise of surveillance capitalism. Nation states have relinquished their monopoly on surveillance and corporations have displaced them as legislators and democratic subjects, but both become subsumed in the near-hegemonic Information. In Older’s interpretation, it is possible to deflect the dystopian future that surveillance capitalism seems to be leading to, but that optimistic project appears to hinge on the abolition of nationalist politics and of surveillance capitalist monopolies like Google and Facebook.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four.

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is set in a dystopian totalitarian society: roughly totalitarian, although at one point an Inner Party member draws a distinction: "The command of the totalitarians was 'Thou shalt'. Our command is 'Thou art'".

As a grim satire, it is aimed at Stalinism (and perhaps also British Labour, whom Orwell detected authoritarian-totalitarian pre-crime). The novel's attack is partly manifest in the material conditions in which its characters live: grimy, squalid, hairy (there's a shortage of razorblades), munching paltry chocolate rations that don't taste right. It is implicitly a planned economy, and one thing it produces in abundance is lies about how much it is producing.

Mark Harrison, examining the Soviet economy in the 40s and 50s, writes:
Soviet managers worked from day to day within a target-driven culture. The Politburo set overarching priorities. From these, planners set ministerial and regional production quotas or “plans.” Ministries and local authorities distributed the plans to factories, farms, and offices. In industry, construction, and transport, quotas were usually in rubles at “fixed” plan prices. Procurement quotas for foodstuffs and timber were in units of weight or volume. The ratio of performance to plan formed the rewards and reputations of most officials and managers. [...] Did managers hide plan failure? That this was commonplace is suggested by the emergence of a specialized Soviet-era jargon. Everyone understood the verb pripisyvat’, literally “to add on” fictional goods to the report of plan fulfillment. The noun pripiska (plural pripiski) was the value of “add-ons,” the fictional goods included in the plan report [...]
Orwell reviewed F.A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom in 1944, and found much to like in it. He seems to approve of Hayek's thesis that by bringing "the whole of life under the control of the State, Socialism necessarily gives power to an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake." But, Orwell adds, Hayek refuses to admit "that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them."

The traditional nursery rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons' is scattered throughout the novel in scraps and strains. The lyrics almost seem to soak up the novels themes and yet fail to articulate them; obfuscating and mystifying, instead of clarifying.

The malleability of human life in Nineteen Eighty-Four sets it within a tradition of posthumanist literature. The posthumanist connotations of 'last man' in the last line -- at one point Orwell's protagonist Winston is mockingly addressed as the 'last man' -- is perhaps one reason for its strange weightiness. Either way, the nursery rhyme threads the themes of money, debt, and religion right through the novel like a seam of gold:
Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement's. 
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin's. 
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey. 
When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch. 
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney. 
I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow. 
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
Chip chop chip chop, the last man is dead.
And there's one other bit of another ditty that is perhaps worth mentioning:
Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me

Palmer, Ada. Terra Ignota

Ada Palmer, Terra Ignota series (2016-2018).

Set in a future where the nation-state formation has disappeared, to be replaced by Hives and a limited form of global government.

Terra Ignota at the ISFDB.

Pratchett, Terry. Making Money

Terry Pratchett, Making Money (2007). 2007, you'll notice. Not 2009. Pratchett has really done his research, and in the course of a bristling, highly readable comic fantasy, he does a pretty good job of lampooning the commodity theory of money, especially in its more goldbuggish incarnations.

In part, Making Money is inspired by the founding of the Bank of England (though the differences are instructive). It's a bit unfortunate that Pratchett so cozily aligns the interests of state and the commoners against the interests of the parasitic aristos. That means that his rival understanding of what money is -- not a commodity, but a network of credit, backed by state power -- isn't really tested as thoroughly as it should be. But the bulk of the novel is amusing and educational, and by the end, things get more weird in a magical kind of way, until finally there's a really interesting thought experiment about value as it relates to banks, money, automation, "intrinsically" precious materials and (especially) labour. I've written a fair bit about this book, which will see light of day eventually.

(JLW)

Pratchett, Terry. Thud!

Terry Pratchett, Thud! (2005)

Notable in particular for its brief satirical treatment of derivatives markets. The following somewhat-related post originally appeared on Aargh.

One of the things Terry Pratchett's City Watch series does is celebrate the keeping of the peace, and the rule of law. It therefore also finds itself celebrating the police.

1) The keeping of the peace and the rule of law are not to be sniffed at. Getting inside the head of Sam Vimes (Vimes is brave; Vimes is obstinate; Vimes is put-upon; Vimes is grouchy and ill-tempered in a way which is really a kind of grim good humour; posh people make Vimes's skin crawl; Vimes is a hugely reluctant social climber; Vimes struggles with his old-fashioned bigotry and sexism; Vimes doesn't have to be an idealist or a realist because he's just always a bit knurd; on some level Vimes is probably a bit overwrought that he has never quite had to sacrifice his life for the greater good; Vimes is prone to inner conflicts between an id-like "Beast" and a superego-like "Watchman"; Vimes is exactly the person you want with you in a tight corner; Vimes is (sorry) bae) is an excellent way not to sniff at them.

2) Nor should we forget the angle at which Pratchett first came in on the City Watch, imparting a general orientation to everything which followed. In the rhetoric of TV Tropes, these police started out as genre-savvy mooks (or redshirts, perhaps: and cf. e.g. John Scalzi's Redshirts, and the massacred henchmen of Austin Powers).

That is: one of the running themes of Guards! Guards! is the way in which stories treat certain minor characters as disposable, just to show off the swordplay and other heroic antics of the major characters. But here are characters who don't feel "minor" and who refuse to be disposable.

I really like, by the way, guessing at the shifting nuance of these translations of that excellent title. Look especially at the Italian, the Norwegian/Swedish, and at the Spanish:

Стражите! Стражите! (Bulgarian)
Stráže! Stráže! (Czech)
Wacht! Wacht! (Dutch)
Vahid! Vahid! (Estonian)
Vartijat, hoi! (Finnish)
Au Guet ! (French)
Wachen! Wachen! (German)
שומרים! שומרים! (Shomrim! Shomrim!) (Hebrew)
Őrség! Őrség! (Hungarian)
A me le guardie! (Italian)
I lovens navn! (In the name of the law) (Norwegian)
Straż! Straż! (Polish)
Guardas! Guardas! (Portuguese - Brazil)
Gărzi! Gărzi! (Romanian)
Стража! Стража! (Russian)
Straža! Straža! (Serbian)
¡Guardias! ¿Guardias? (Spanish)
I lagens namn (In the name of the law) (Swedish)
來人啊! (繁體中文)

3) Nor should we forget that what is fantastical about the City Watch isn't exactly that it includes dwarves and werewolves and vampires and trolls and so on in its ranks -- Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson, Captain Angua von Überwald, Lance-Constable Salacia "Sally" von Humpeding, Sergeant Detritus, Sergeant Fred Colon, Corporal Nobby Nobbs, Sergeant Cheery Littlebottom, Constable Reginald Shoe, Inspector A. E. Pessimal, Constable Igor et al., hi guys <3 -- which is really less extraordinary than the idea that the Watch is roughly representative, in many different ways (see note), of the population it polices.

The Watch is not an elite fraternity of mostly financially flourishing white men, whose individual kindnesses and cruelties mostly cancel out (as in the expression "oh, it'll all come out in the Watch"), leaving only their Job, and who will, if you try too energetically to advance a Vimesian agenda of peace, order, pragmatism, mild cosmopolitanism and substantive legal equality, come up to you and wound you, because that's their Job. Guard labour! Guard labour! In other words, there is an element of utopianism to the Watch -- or at least of a weirdly inverted satire -- since half the time it is the Watch's virtues, not its vices, that are grotesquely amplified and enlarged compared with Roundworld correlates.


4) But. Although the Watch sequence is interested in exploring the space between the voice that shouts "Guards! Guards!" and the voice that shouts "Police! Police!", it frequently finds that space to be unexpectedly cramped.

I think there is an intermittent discomfort with the whole idea of taking a police perspective in the first place, a restlessness which finds expression in many ways. The novel Night Watch is perhaps one big example, in which a time travel conceit lets Pratchett just park that liberal progress shtick, and stick his copper on top of a barricade in pitched battle against a repressive state.

But I also just noticed a small example in Thud!, which was really all I want to point out here. "Pig" is, of course, a way of referring to a police officer when you don't want to hear any excuses. It's a way of saying, "Because all humans, despite and because of our sublime diversity, are in some fundamental and important sense equal, the only truly inhuman thing anyone can do is a Job which wages endless war on that equality." It's a way of saying, "Become human again." It's a way of saying, "Quit."

It can be a way of saying, "Die," although this can also depend on things like vegetarianism.

In Thud! Vimes is, in two separate ways, associated with not the pig, but with the ambivalent figure of the pig-not-pig. A kind of Schrödinger's Pig.

The first is, of course, the "BLT" sandwiches with which Vimes hopes to evade Lady Sybil's health regime, and which contain either superabundant bacon and negligible garnish, or jungles of lettuce and tomato and next-to-zero bacon.

The second has a direct link with finance. It sees Vimes encircled by a spectres of frozen, temporally inverted pig meat. Vimes visits the Pork Futures Warehouse:
The Pork Futures Warehouse was one of those things, the sort that you get in a city that has lived with magic for too long. The occult reasoning, if such it could be called, was this: pork was an important commodity in the city. Future pork, possibly even pork as yet unborn, was routinely traded by the merchants. Therefore, it had to exist somewhere. And the Pork Futures Warehouse came into existence, icy cold within as the pork drifted backwards in time.
*   *   *

Note: Btw & fwiw: there's a fairly strong sociologically working class vibe in Vimes's Watch. How do their finances stack up? Setting aside the fact that the Discworld hasn't been pedantically worldbuilt in advance, and various mentions of salaries and prices don't always seem to quite fit together: if a Watchman gets $30 a month, then using the 50c-per-day rate for stable hands mentioned in The Truth as an analogue for the UK minimum wage, that would give us a back-of-the-envelope Watchman's salary of around £26,000, very close to the actual starting police officer salary in my part of Roundworld (although not counting overtime bonuses, which can be enormous: ultimately the Job is compensated at more-or-less the same level as dentists, accountants, and civil engineers, and a bit below architects, lawyers, and the lower tiers of finance professionals). 

(JLW)

Pohl, Frederik. The Midas Plague

Frederik Pohl, "The Midas Plague" (1954). Online. A topsy-turvy world satire with a lot of very intriguing material in it. A great story for thinking about the fact that scarce, as a technical term of economics, is not the same as limited. Rather, scarce means limited in relation to demand (or desire), and "The Midas Plague" plays with the idea of of manipulating not only the production of resources, but the demand for them (via those eleven psychologists, and of course the bit at the end). Pohl doesn't r-e-a-l-l-y rationalize the initial conceit very rigorously, but perhaps in 2016, with the benefit of CAP surplus foodscapes, with the New Public Management of the 1980s onward and the attendant financialization (and therefore consumer-ification) of public and civic life, the case might be easier to make. Also see "The Waging of the Peace" (1959).


Mild spoiler: in the future, the rich have the luxury of living modest lifestyles, while the "poor" have to constantly consume.

(JLW)

Raven, Paul Graham. Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico (The Pirates of the Plastic Sea)

Paul Graham Raven, "Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico (The Pirates of the Plastic Sea)"  (2014). Collected in Twelve Tomorrows (2014), ed. Bruce Sterling, it bears comparison with another story in the same volume, Cory Doctorow's "Petard: A Tale of Just Desserts."

Two tales, very different in flavour and mood, but thematically complementary. Both explore the tensions and contradictions between what you could call capitalist ideology and entrepreneurial ideology (or "entrepreneurial-engineering stance," perhaps); both ferociously snuffle at the blurred line between market forces and the forces which shape markets (& here's PGR on infrastructure fiction).

Both stories are also interested in the way dynamics which pop up with an anti-capitalist belligerence, or at a tangent to capitalism, can get recuperated by capital. Including, perhaps, the appropriation of the ideology of "disrupting" itself: the last thing you'd expect of Doctorow's and Raven's arch market-disruptors Sergey and Niceday is any pinko sass.

Doctorow's title invites us to think of his Sergey as an extrapolation of the same logic embodied by his hero Lukasz; petard is a reference to the expression "hoisted on your own petard" (it's from Hamlet: "For tis the sport to haue the enginer / Hoist with his owne petar"), so there's a sense of Lukasz, in many ways a classic Doctorowian activist everyhacker, getting beaten at his own game, or gulping down a taste of his own medicine. (More specifically, the idiom is about being blown up by your own grenade. So perhaps it's a story about knowing just the right moment to let go of something?)

Both Doctorow's and Raven's story also contains more-or-less the same line, as nemesis (Sergey / Cedric) offers protagonist (Luckasz / Hope) the opportunity to join a thrilling and intellectually fulfilling, but morally dubious cutting-edge economic enterprise.

That line is: "I'll think about it."

(JLW)