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)
Here we encounter a connection, which crops up pretty frequently when fantastic literature thinks about economics: that is, a connection between capital and living, disaggregated bodies:
“The monster in the vat. Some skin, some meat. Tubes. Pinches of skin clamped between clear hard plastic squares, bathed in some kind of diagnostic light [...] Eyes everywhere else. [...] I looked away, couldn’t make contact with them, found I was looking at something wet. Liver. I think.” (p.548). 
Compare that with the many wriggly legs of Terry Pratchett's Luggage (a diabolic avatar of Echo-Gnomics) in the Discworld novels, or the mashed-up flesh which Marx points out is the real substance of which all commodities are made (“human labour in the abstract . . . mere congellations, semisolid, tremulous comestible mass, Gallarte, of homogeneous human labour” (Sutherland 2008)), or, of course, Adam Smith's monstrous Invisible Hand.

These immortal quadrillionaires are capital personified, referred to as monsters, gods, and at one point, “the fortunes in the vats” (p.533).

The equivocation in first of the above-quoted passages over sovereignty – “in many cases” (q.v.) – is also worth noting. “The last two decades of the twentieth century saw the shift from state power to market power” (Susan Strange, Mad Money, p.183). Somewhat distinct from the questions of how market power operates, and the ways in which they do or could serve human needs, there is controversy over the extent to which market power remains embedded in and limited by state power. The historical and ontological relationships between states and money is also complex and controversial: very briefly and broadly, chartalist accounts of money tend to emphasize money's unit of account function, and see the relationship between money and state as crucial, whereas the metallist accounts emphasize money’s function as a medium of exchange, and argue that money can emerge and operate independently of state action. These issues are complicated by the fact that the ingredients of sovereignty vary state-by-state: China, Greece, ISIS, Luxembourg, Somalia, and the United States of America, to pick a few, are not all states in the same way.

‘Chicken Little’ offers us a glimpse of Mammon, of the monetary sublime, of capital purified and personified, and so it confronts this difficult question: is what we see still mingled with state power? Is capital power by its very nature entangled with state power? Or does capital in its fiery, purest form finally shrug off the state altogether?

Finally, an answer!

Or . . .

One sharp approach is to allegorize all the ambivalence, equivocation, frustration and controversy itself -- which is what Doctorow goes ahead and does. 'Chicken Little' tells us that in many cases, the people in vats are "technically sovereign states" -- but not in all cases, and the assertion is in the same breath as an allusion to corporate personhood, something we all know to be at least a bit unsavory, and probably completely ludicrous.

There's also another reference to a person in a vat as a country unto himself, but it has a kind of metaphorical, "no man is an island, wait, this man is a big scary quadrillionaire island" vibe to it.

But the novelette's most interesting move in this respect involves a bit of wordplay, centred on the one way in which the people in vats (they're most frequently referred to in that way, "the people in vats," "the quadrillionaire in the vat," "the old thing in the vat") still somehow come across as vulnerable. Buhle, the one person in a vat whom we meet, is essentially on life support. Despite his no doubt endless state-of-the-art fail-safes and back-ups, he feels unpluggable. He may be pure money, but he's nothing without his vat.

Personified capital's continued reliance on the state is thus inscribed, punningly, into its very name -- PERSON IN A VAT -- through an allusion to one of the state's more subtle and pervasive forms of extrusion, which makes itself felt in every "pure" market dyad, if only by its conspicuous absence. VAT: Value Added Tax. Money is not really money without the support of the state's taxonomization and taxation of our material existence.

There is some thematic movement in the second part of the novelette. But Doctorow isn’t abandoning one set of themes for another, so much as rapidly orbiting to a new vantage point.

See also: on the name "Buhle."