Ryman, Geoff. Air

Geoff Ryman, "Air." (Later expanded into a novel). Mae is a fashion consultant in a small and fairly isolated village, who makes a living (and a life) by trading information. Very beautifully scuffs out the boundaries between the social and the economic. I feel like the whole story is wrapped around a kind of tacit pun on "richness" and/or "impoverished."

(JLW)

Simak, Clifford D. The Money Tree

Clifford D. Simak, 'The Money Tree' (1958).

'Why, Chuck, it's a twenty-dollar bill!'
'Look at that thing on the corner of it.'
She did, with some puzzlement.
'Why, it's a stem,' she cried. 'Just like an apple stem. And it's fastened to the bill.'

Winds up as a kind of cautionary satire about the profit motive / fetishistic miserly greed. For other money trees, see Nalo Hopkinson, Adam Roberts, and Douglas Adams.

Simmel, Georg. The Philosophy of Money

Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money (1900). This was originally a blog post on the main Aargh site.

So I continue to ponder Cory Doctorow's Whuffie, Charles Stross's fast/medium/slow money, and other exotic speculative currency.

But the one I'm thinking about this afternoon isn't from science fiction -- not as far as I know, anyway -- but from Georg Simmel's The Philosophy of Money (1900).

I'm interested in a somewhat adapted, purified and thinned-out version of what Simmel describes as "the system of unequal prices corresponding to the means of the consumer" (p.343). It is a kind of antithesis to the Thomist just price, and you can also hear echoes of a remark of Nietzsche's in Human, All Too Human:
[...] a shilling in the hand of a rich heir, a day-labourer, a shop-keeper, a student are quite different things: according to whether he did almost nothing or a great deal to get it, each ought to receive little or a great deal in exchange for it: in reality it is, of course, the other way round (§25)

Shriver, Lionel. The Mandibles.

Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles (2016).

To its credit, The Mandibles does actually try to imagine in some detail what it would mean for US sovereign debt to reach a crisis level. The plausibility of the account is, of course, food for debate.

Constance Grady reviews The Mandibles on Vox.com:
In the near future of The Mandibles, Keynesian economics is revealed to be nothing more than “dodgy hocus-pocus” that has massively devalued the dollar. America’s national character has been diluted by the enormous political power of Latino immigrants who have, tellingly, changed the automated phone systems so that you have to dial one for Spanish and two for English.

You can’t trust anyone in power. University economics departments are filled with socialists who will tell you that “morally, your money does belong to everybody.” The president who defaults on the national debt was born in Oaxaca, and he only speaks Spanish at press conferences — so really, you can hardly be surprised when he confiscates the personal property of good, hardworking middle-class (and, it’s implied, white) Americans. The government has become a police state, and you can tell this not through its monopoly on sanctioned violence, but through its monopoly on gold.
Full review here.

See also my review at Goodreads, Ken Kalfus review at The Washington Post, and a blog post by Foz Meadows.

JLW

Squirrel, William. They Built New Jerusalem on the Ruins of the Old

William Squirrel, 'They Built New Jerusalem on the Ruins of the Old' (2108).

Online at The Future Fire. A haunting, wealthweary tale about (among other things) how patterns of classed and racialised oppression could continue despite Universal Basic Income. Snippet:
“You’re very clever, Mo, so very clever. What’s such a clever girl as you doing working in a place like this?”

“Paying the bills.”

“What bills? I watch the news. You DPs [Displaced Persons] get your Universal Basic Income just like everyone else.”

“Not just like everyone else. Homeland Security need their cut, and the immigration lawyers, plus resident aliens pay an extra fee to the borough for the pleasure of living in a building with bad water and intermittent electricity, our insurance fees are not subsidized, nor my college tuition. The banks charge extra processing fees to clients who are not citizens and lend only at exorbitant rates. And every month we transfer funds to my brother in Tangiers, cousins in the Italian Camps, an aunt in Miami. Without that money they might not eat.”

Stapledon, Olaf. Starmaker

Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker (1937).

An extract:
In this world, as in our own, nearly all the chief means of production, nearly all the land, mines, factories, railways, ships, were controlled for private profit by a small minority of the population. These privileged individuals were able to force the masses to work for them on pain of starvation. The tragic farce inherent in such a system was already approaching. The owners directed the energy of the workers increasingly toward the production of more means of production rather than to the fulfilment of the needs of individual life. For machinery might bring profit to the owners; bread would not. With the increasing competition of machine with machine, profits declined, and therefore wages, and therefore effective demand for goods. Marketless products were destroyed, though bellies were unfed and backs unclad. Unemployment, disorder, and stern repression increased as the economic system disintegrated. A familiar story! 
As conditions deteriorated, and the movements of charity and state-charity became less and less able to cope with the increasing mass of unemployment and destitution, the new pariah-race became more and more psychologically useful to the hate-needs of the scared, but still powerful, prosperous. The theory was spread that these wretched beings were the result of secret systematic race-pollution by riff-raff immigrants, and that they deserved no consideration whatever. They were therefore allowed only the basest forms of employment and the harshest conditions of work. When unemployment had become a serious social problem, practically the whole pariah stock was workless and destitute. It was of course easily believed that unemployment, far from being due to the decline of capitalism, was due to the worthlessness of the pariahs.

Smith, George O. Pandora's Millions

George O. Smith, 'Pandora's Millions' (1945). Entry in ISFDB. Smith's entry in SFE.


Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing

Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing (1994).

A snippet:
"Our credits function like money, but they’re not backed by gold or silver. They’re backed by energy, human and other sorts, and our basic unit of value is the calorie. So a product is valued by how much energy goes into its production, in terms of labor and fuel and materials that themselves require energy to produce. And part of that accounting is how much energy it takes to to replace a resource that is used. Something that works with solar or wind power becomes very cheap. Anything requiring irreplaceable fossil fuels is generally too expensive to think about [...]"
See more here.

Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Primer

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Primer (1995). This seminal work of postcyberpunk and of steampunk is also a seminal work of gamification SF. All the ingredients of a utopian vision of a comprehensively gamified society are present in the story, but connected and motivated in messy, subtle and unexpected ways.

For instance, we've got these "ractors" (actors in interactive media entertainment), who receive work via a kind of ThespRabbit. An individual employment may go on for years, or be as brief as a few seconds. Crucially, the human inputs are mapped onto avatars: if you were to take over from Jennifer Lawrence for a bit in the portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, the media system would autocorrect your voice and perhaps your walrus mustache. (Apologies to the community who are Jennifer Lawrence, who must feel confused and left out by this example). Why is this so important? The general point is that what workers feel that they are doing, and what they are objectively doing in terms of the production chain, can be interfered with at an intimate grain. The necessary unity of any task can be interrogated: is there another way to tease this task apart, to give a bit more of it (or perhaps, a bit less of it) to the machines?

There's plenty more in the book related to gamification: Nell's Night Friends -- Dinosaur, Duck, Peter and Purple -- have an aura of a small primitive social media site; the ecstatic Drummers are a kind of grotesque example of "flow," of loss of ego through immersion in action; there's that stuff about the street vs. the telephone switchboard.

But. The altar piece is clearly the Primer itself -- a majestic technological tome, with shades of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and a splendid illustration of Arthur C. Clarke's celebrated maxim that "Any sufficiently magical magic is indistinguishable from magic" -- which somehow floats into the hands of a poor and vulnerable four-year-old girl called Nell. The Primer mediates Nell's world for her, spinning her an epic interactive fairytale (starring "Princess Nell") which allegorises her various violent, abusive and increasingly philosophical predicaments, whilst teaching her all she needs to survive and existentially flourish (martial arts, decorum, hacking, obviously). As The Diamond Age progresses, Nell's book begins to feel more and more like a computer game (clearly influenced by 90s point-and-click adventure games). The convention of using a different font to represent the Primer's text becomes more scarce.

Like most good allegories, the Primer's allegory is a slippery one. The Primer's Queen of the Dark Castle is clearly a correlate of Nell's mother, but the Queen does plenty of significant stuff which doesn't seem inspired by Nell's mother, and vice-versa. Nell's brother Harv appears in the Primer as just Harv, but also seems to have a connection with Peter Rabbit (they disappear around the same time, for instance). There's not a one-to-one cipher: correlations come and go. You get the impression that the allegory might work a bit like the racting: 'let's see what's available at the moment.'

Likewise, Nell doesn't simply unlock achievements in her Primer or advance to the next story by demonstrating she has mastered some real world skill. Nor does the Primer elide its fairytale with her surroundings so that winning the game is indistinguishable from winning life. The Primer informs and incentivises, it provokes action, but it also comforts, cares, offers the solaces of shrouds and distortions, and immersive escapism. The relations between game and extra-game world can be just as slippery and mercurial as the relations of allegory.

(JLW)

Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon (1999). A sprawling hysterical-realist adventure techno-thriller that made me a bit sad, in a what-a-waste-of-enormous-talent kind of way. Although it did make me laugh a bit too. Perhaps the kindest thing you can say about its politics is that they dated rapidly? Bro? Anyway, the novel partly concerns the establishment of a kind of cryptocurrency, although it never gets the careful infodump treatment Stephenson gives to some other subjects. In general the presiding political economy of the book has a belligerent libertarian goldbug feel to it, though Stephenson wisely never quite commits himself. Trust goes a long way in establishing a currency, but eventually you're going to need something with intrinsic value, like shiny heavy yellow metal. (I'm exaggerating). Some of the bits that I enjoyed, from an economics perspective, include the long description of how it is possible to have some gold and yet not really have it (it's in the jungle, through miles and miles of geopolitics), and the final lines of the novel, in which a enormous cache of gold is literally dynamited into liquidity.

(JLW)

Stephenson, Neal. 'The Great Simolean Caper'

Neal Stephenson, 'The Great Simolean Caper' (1995).

Bitcoin appeared around 2008, although there had been plenty of 'centralised' e-money systems (such as DigiCash and e-Gold) since the early 1990s. This short story published in TIME in 1995 concerns a digital cash start-up (Simoleon Corp.) that attracts some unwanted attention from higher up:
“Why should the government care?”
“They care big-time,” Codex says. “They’re going to destroy Simoleons. And they’re going to step all over your family in the process.”
“Why?”
“Because if they don’t destroy E-money,” Codex says, “E-money will destroy them.”
With a little help from magic cyberlibertarians, they outfox the Big Bad Government's dirty tricks, and transition to a safer form of digital currency ... CryptoCredits.
“The First Distributed Republic,” says the big panarchist. “It’s a virtual nationstate. I’m the Minister of Data Security. Our official currency is CryptoCredits.”
[...]
 “Wait a sec,” he says, and puts his hands to his temples. “You can rig it so that people who use E-money don’t have to pay taxes to any government? Ever?”
CryptoCredits is encrypted, but it's not blockchain. Nevertheless, there is a sense here of a distributed ledger. With their suspicion of centralising authority, how else would the FDR deal with the banking of CryptoCredits? It's very tricky to interpret this story except through the lens of the subsequent appearance of blockchain and BitCoin.

Questions:

  • Consider different ways in which a currency can be both centralised and decentralised. Critically evaluate the claim of most Bitcoin proponents that the currency is decentralised.
  • Is Bitcoin really 'trust-free'?
  • Can we imagine non-blockchain implementations of CryptoCredits in the First Distributed Republic? 

Further reading:




Sterling, Bruce. Holy Fire

Bruce Sterling, Holy Fire (1996). Notable for its two tier currency and stipulated "basic necessities" sphere of exchange. I think this is a trope that crops up in a few different incarnations: compare e.g. Karen Lord's Galaxy Game ('"Economic credit is mere financial engineering," sneered his Academe guide. "Social credit is art"'), or the basic necessity makers in Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom or Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age.

Sterling, Bruce. Islands in the Net

Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1988). Compare Bob Black's essay, "The Abolition of Work."

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Island Nights' Entertainment

Robert Louis Stevenson, Island Nights' Entertainment (1893).

See in particular 'The Bottle Imp' and 'The Isle of Voices.'

Also see this article by Robbie Goh in Gothic Studies (behind a paywall).

Strobl, Karl Hans. The Triumph of Mechanics.

Karl Hans Strobl, “The Triumph of Mechanics” (1907).

Translated into English in The Big Book of Science Fiction.

Stross, Charles. Accelerando

Charles Stross, Accelerando (2005). Entry in ISFDBStross's entry in the SFE.

Review by Paul Kincaid at Vector.

Stross, Charles. 'Life's a Game'

Charles Stross, "Life's a Game" (2015) in Twelve Tomorrows 2016. Minor spoilers ahead. "See, gamification is good!" It's somewhat expositional, but I think Stross is on form here: there is polymath erudition and cleversticks wit, and the kind of brio and drive that lets you hurtle over the speed-bumps without necessarily getting every reference or fully unpacking every dense little thesis. "Life's a Game" is full of zingers. "Tribalism is the ground state of identity politics in the network age."  "What if Napoleon's, like, following from in front?" "Keep Britain British, for noncommunist values of British." "Hitler was the Boss Nazi in the Cross of Iron game. They don't teach history in British schools, we have real problems now, terrorists, class warfare. Nobody learns history and lands some expert job in history development. There's no business model for that." "You'll realize you'll lose all your guild followers if we do that?" (OK that one needs the context). The narrator is also a satirical portrait of the UK's answer to Red Piller gamer bro types, although I felt like Stross soft-pedals that aspect a bit.

As the story opens, we learn about Peelers, a monetized, massively multiplayer AR game (with integrated social currency) for snitching and vigilantism. Points for detaining shoplifters, points for helping drunk women home, points for persecuting the profane worshippers of Termagant ... you know, the kind of thing which would turn a racist kidnapper like the Farminator into the leader of the biggest guild in under a week.

But Peelers is just laying the groundwork for Stross's real thought experiment, the Movement, a universal gamification model. (The Movement supposedly implements Kant's categorical imperative, which something I would like to write about properly one day. Maybe once I've read Adam Roberts's new Kantfic too). The Movement mines your data footprint and assigns you clan membership and class features. (Or it lurks in wait next to the space where you should appear -- "If you didn't have a Facebook account, Facebook still knew about you from the hole in their network"). Then it starts to procedurally generate missions and scenarios, built out of the kinds of things you'd be doing anyway. Or perhaps, the kind of things you want to be doing or should be doing -- in fact the point of this gamification is to craftily blur together want to and should in all aspects of life, and ramp up the belligerence of that blurred motive. So your missions could involve anything from green activism to trade unionism to financial speculation to bringing back hanging one way or another.

I now almost feel like I could do with some more stories set in this same future history -- one of the most intriguing threads is all about how the Movement decides who you are in the first place. ("We went deep tribal on the players' media bubbles. We mined their search history to find out what pushed their outrage buttons. Then we went long on principal component analysis to model their micro-class identity.") If these identities really were built bottom-up from data, how closely would they coincide with the kind of taxonomies we already use? And could there be micro-classes with different kinds of reflexivity built into them, i.e. what motivates them is learning and changing per se? And/or an anti-tribalism tribe? And what would it be like if you were one of those people (almost everybody to some extent, right?) feeling like you haven't been perfectly modeled, that the essence which the Movement has inveigled from your digital footprint isn't the real you, and that the conditions you are being thrust into are uncannily awry, like a gargantuan circumambient targeted ad?

(JLW)

Stross, Charles. 'Lobsters'

Charles Stross, "Lobsters" (2003). (Later expanded into Accelerando). A sort of "bursting with ideas" piece of comic economic science fiction, partly to do with the legal rights of AIs (who are also sort of lobsters). Also, it's about consent and contract. (One quibble: I'm pretty sure in Europe Manfred wouldn't need to patent his ideas and give them away: it would be sufficient to publicize them so they form part of the prior art. By being a science fiction writer and a blogger, for instance. In the US, the approach is a bit closer to "let's all just patent the shit out of everything and let lawyers sort it out." I think. Sounds a bit like a stereotype).

Stross, Charles. Neptune's Brood

Charles Stross, Neptune's Brood (2013). In part inspired by Graeber's Debt. On his blog, Stross discusses fast, medium and slow money in Neptune's Brood.

But Stross is definitely not translating Graeber into fiction -- in fact, he thinks his ending kind of sucks, because he couldn't figure out an ending which "repudiated the entire framework of inherited debt without simultaneously getting all preachy on a soapbox."

On the other hand, Neptune's Brood does contain the rudiments of a very interesting critique of the notion of liquidity. Liquidity is the ease with which something can be converted into purchasing power. Cash is generally accepted so it is highly liquid, buyers for treasury bonds are usually plentiful so treasury bonds are pretty damn liquid, a pile of gold in a geopolitically unstable jungle might be somewhat less liquid (compare Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon), a stolen artwork might be even less liquid, etc.

But really, the "ease" with which something can be converted into something else isn't just a function of what the thing is: it's a function of who owns it, and in what ways, and what they want to convert it into, and what they want to convert that into, and many other factors. The problem with the notion of liquidity is that it collapses all these innumerable factors into a single scale.

In Neptune's Brood there are three kinds of money: fast, medium, and slow. There is a sense in which fast money is highly liquid, medium money is somewhat liquid, and slow money is scarcely liquid at all. Slow, in fact, sort of means illiquid. But what is striking about thinking through these currencies is the qualitative shifts involved. Slow money is essentially implicated with a different kind of activity. An economic anthropologist might say that it constitutes its own sphere of exchange or its own transactional order. That is, slow money is "the currency of world-builders," used for financing star ships and colonies.
It takes power and expert labor to run an interstellar communications laser beacon – lots of both. Nobody will point a laser at a new colony and beam libraries of design templates and cohorts of expert soul dumps at them without an expectation of getting something in return. All colonies must of necessity go deep into debt in the decades after their foundation: It costs a lot of slow money to acquire the vital new technologies and skills it needs to plug unforeseen gaps. Only once its population has increased enough to support a local education, research, and development infrastructure – which can take centuries – can it aspire to a trade surplus. 
Stross plays on the relative causal isolation which exists on the vast interstellar scale to pose interesting questions about the nature and limits of liquidity. Is a currency zone encompassing worlds so far apart even an intelligible notion? Is slow money really money? Does it circulate? Does it have purchasing power? Is it really slow: that is, can its illiquidity really be meaningfully related to the system of light-speed-constrained, third-party-notarization banking which Stross imagines, which is what makes slow money transactions take so long? And does the "slowness" of slow money intuitively connote "stability" because we now strongly associate instability and speculation, including lightning fast automated High Frequency Trading? I suspect that, like many of science fiction's most useful extrapolative thought experiments, the value of Stross's model is in how interestingly it disintegrates when closely considered.

Here's a friendly critique of Neptune's Brood from Robin Hanson. I also grapple with slow money here and especially here. See also entry for David Graeber.

Stross, Charles. Singularity Sky

Charles Stross, Singularity Sky (2003). Entry in ISFDB. Stross's entry in SFE.