Friday, May 18, 2018

Prompts for economic SF

I'll hopefully add to this list as time goes by. Feel free to suggest some of your own. For most of these prompts, you'll probably want to ask two questions: (a) why are things like this? (b) What are the implications?
  • Think of an economic system to which you are politically opposed. Imagine, in as much detail as possible, a working version of this system. Make it a bit like utopia. Take all your objections seriously, but devise science fictional solutions to them. Use this as a setting to tell any kind of story you like.
  • It's an intimately surveilled (or sousveilled) society. If an analysis of your behaviour suggests that you want something, you automatically buy it (even if that puts you into debt).
  • Write a thriller, a love story, a murder mystery, a coming-of-age-fable, and/or a comedy of manners. Set it in the near future, during the transition to a Universal Basic Income system. Make sure there are lots of kinks in the process.
  • Imagine an economy without economies of scale. Why don't they exist? What are the implications?
  • Imagine an economy in which all prices and wages have a random element. (Maybe things are priced in this format: something like $3d6 means the cost will be $3-18, but with a higher chance of it being $9 than $3 or $18. Something like $1d20 means the cost will be $1-20, with every price equally likely). Why? What are the implications?
  • Imagine an alternative timeline in which the 1973 Chilean coup failed or never happened in the first place. What next for Stafford Beer and Cybersyn? (You may want to read Eden Medina's Cybernetic Revolutionaries first).
  • Invent a few new cognitive biases, or exaggerate some existing cognitive biases, and extrapolate how they will reshape the economy. 
  • Imagine an alternative timeline in which the Soviet Union pursued computational command economy in a big way. (You may want to read Francis Spufford's Red Plenty first).
  • A tweet-based currency.
  • An economy that has been designed with institutions specifically to disincentivize all kinds of rational egoist, homo economicus behaviour.
  • Imagine a world in which all "markets" are actually networked barter systems. There is no money as such. Goods and services are "priced" in credits, but there's no such thing as owning credits by themselves. What you can do is request goods or services, and list your own goods and services in exchange. The system gets around the coincidence of wants problem by some kind of multilateral matching algorithm, and clears all requests as quickly as feasible. Think through the details of the system, and imagine how it reshapes the economy and people's everyday lives.
  • What we usually call "ownership" is actually a bundle of rights, for instance the right to use something (in certain ways), the right to earn income from it, the right to transfer it, the right to exclude others from using it, the right to dispose of it, etc. Think of different ways of dividing up "ownership." Imagine a society in which these rights are not typically bundled together. 
  • Similar to the last one: imagine a world in which it is easy to place complex conditions on how something will be used when it is sold. What kinds of conditions do people place? Why? What are the second- and third-order effects?
  • Imagine a universe without Nash equilibria.
  • Imagine a universe without Pareto optimality.
  • Imagine all the people, living life in peace, yoo hoo ooh-ooh-ooh.
  • All economic transactions are done through some kind of a Vickrey auction.
  • A world of great abundance -- perhaps kind of post-scarcity -- in which anything that is paid for is paid for with on-the-spot by micro-labour (never more than ten minutes).
  • There are already many LETS communities all over the world. Imagine one system growing until it fundamentally alters the nature of capitalism, or perhaps in some sense replaces it.
  • Imagine an economy in which some or all goods aren't characterized by diminishing marginal utility, but by more complex curves that go up and down at different amounts. How? Why? So what?
  • Imagine an economy where each quantum of cash bears a record of all the historical transactions it has been involved in. (So a bit like a blockchain, but imagine that the data is a bit more rich than what amounts were transferred).
  • Create a magic system based on the stock exchange.
  • Build an economy in which every good or service has a different price depending on who's buying it. Among other things, think about how such an economy handles its complex arbitrage problems.
  • Imagine a world in which certain categories of goods periodically "rotate," e.g. all instances of commodity a turn into commodity b, all commodity b into commodity c, c into d, d into e, and e into a. Why? And how do people adjust to this phenomenon?
  • Imagine a society in which the division of labour is done in some radically different way.
  • Imagine a functioning economy and financial system in which there is no interest (and also probably no arrangements like buy-to-lease which in some ways functionally approximate interest bearing loans).
  • Imagine a world in which all transaction costs are zero. Or, imagine a world in which all or key transaction costs are exotic in some way, perhaps fluctuating predictably according to some irresistible external impulse.
  • Imagine a society without what David Graeber calls "bullshit jobs." Or imagine the difficult transition to such a society.
  • Imagine a science fictional reason for an unambiguous positive correlation between inflation and unemployment.
  • A world in which something called "smart inflation" exists. What is it, and how does it work? How does it reshape the economy and society?
  • Some kind of biopunk world in which affect (feelings) can be transferred, commodified, bought and sold. 
  • Cash and markets come to an extremely advanced, complex alien society that has never had such things in all their history.
  • Research (or find somebody who knows about) an extremely intricate, dull, and complicated episode of economic history. For instance, research rail fares in the UK 1970-2020. In what ways have they changed? Why? What choices were made? What lessons have been learned? What models are in operation? What challenges are now being faced? Now try to tell the most exciting science fictional story you can, preserving the underlying economic logic. You may want to change the subject matter entirely, but try to preserve (in particular) any insights into the design of policies, institutions and incentives, and/or the counter-intuitive, emergent behaviour of systems whose wholes are greater than the sum of their parts.
  • Imagine the transition to full communism from the perspective of someone working in a particular role in a particular organisation (whether it's a business, a non-profit, something else). Try to include the detailed, mundane challenges in your story -- the kind of stuff the protagonist thinks would be too complicated to explain to anybody who didn't do the job they do.
  • The world is a computer simulation, and everyone knows it. It's also a democracy, and elections aren't just about choosing government officials, they're about choosing new realities. Between elections, the main form of currency is backed by story prompts for economic science fiction, and the economic science fiction based on those prompts.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Quick thought on economic SF

There is 'Economic Science Fiction & Fantasy' on the tab there of course, and today on Twitter I came across this interesting recommendations thread ...

... and this Econ SF Wiki.

Clearly there is a great deal of speculative fiction out there in which economics plays a prominent role, and some in which economic ideas are transformed and estranged and taken weird places through the inimitable powers of speculative fiction. Economics itself has some quite universalizing pretensions -- it tries to be about everything -- so unsurprisingly, with a little imagination, you can also use economics as a lens on practically any speculative fiction.

But I think economic speculative fiction usually doesn't give us what we want. It doesn't give us truly strange economic worlds.

In the Twitter thread above, Alberto Cottica is not just asking for science fiction with economic themes: he's specifically asking for portrayals of different economic systems. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there is actually a dearth of this kind of speculative fiction. Let's say that speculative fiction doesn't really depict different economic systems. Or at least, it depicts different legal systems, different cultural systems, different social systems, different technological systems, different ecological systems, in far greater abundance, detail, and shades of variation than it does economic systems.

Maybe the question, then, isn't "Why isn't speculative fiction doing this?" but rather "Why do some of us want it to do this now?"

A pessimistic answer: it's just another example of the dominance of the neoliberal imaginary. When we try to imagine diverse institutional forms -- governments, universities, social enterprises, NGOs -- all we can come up with are variations on the firm. When we try to imagine all the possibilities of the self, all we can come up with is the self as an entrepreneur who pitches innovative new versions of who they are, perhaps building a strong personal brand along the way. And when we try to imagine utopia, all we can come up with are variations on the economy. Maybe it's a good thing that speculative fiction so often says no.

Or! An optimistic answer: in the past decade since the financial crisis, the idea of "economics" has become something much more plural, provisional, dynamic, volatile and fruitful than what it was, and is starting to be seen more and more widely as a credible source of new realities. At the same time, existing economic practices which go against the grain of neoliberal capitalism have gained more prominence. Now is just the right time to turn to speculative fiction for the really bold ideas and strange hypotheses, extrapolated to second order and third order effects, woven together as vibrant, immersive worlds, just to see what happens when those ideas get worked out with a different kind of rigor.

Yet there is little of this kind of writing ... yet. I do have a hunch that this is about to change.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018



I wanted to start
but instead I dug a small pit
around my tongue, that’s
which I tripped down.

Where I wanted to say was, you lay
by the hedgerow I had dug a hole
and moved it closer
with the tip of your lane.

What if it rains, or chills out? Then
I’d want to be of some good, I’ll just
hold on for you your contact lenses,
just not with my butterfingerslips,

tips - oh not that that matters chaps - but
with a compromise spectacle quarried uh
from crystalline contradiction you beheld
behind the lips of your arse & your irises.

Chips is fine, do they do
going back and being a good person.
Everywhere we go there are
railway stations, could we do you think

be trains or oopses or suicidal ideation?
What I should have said to you that night
was sublation. "Sublation spectacle." Be
warned I think there

might be an insect whose
interests intersect with those
of this pub although. Give bird by
the hedgerow

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Infinity War

I haven't actually seen it yet but here's my prediction for the one after: everyone who was alive at the end of Infinity War will be dead by the end of it, and everyone who died in Infinity War will be alive.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Names in SFF interlude: laughter

Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment:

"If laughter up to now has been a sign of violence, an outbreak of blind, obdurate nature, it nevertheless contains the opposite element, in that through laughter blind nature becomes aware of itself as such and thus abjures its destructive violence. This ambiguity of laughter is closely related to that of the name; perhaps names are nothing but petrified laughter, as nicknames still are -- the only ones in which the original act of name-giving still persists. Laughter is in league with the guilt of subjectivity, but in the suspension of law which it announces it also points beyond that complicity. It promises a passage to the homeland. It is a yearning for the homeland which sets in motion the adventures by which subjectivity, the prehistory of which is narrated in the Odyssey, escapes the primeval world. The fact that despite the fascist lies to the contrary -- the concept of homeland is opposed to myth constitutes the innermost paradox of epic."

SFF names #18: Scott Lynch interlude
SFF names #17: Boaty McBoatface interlude
SFF names #16: Alice interlude
SFF names #15: eggs interlude
SFF names #14: YA interlude
SFF names #13: Benedict Cumberbatch
SFF names #12: Luke Skywalker interlude
SFF names #11: Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver
SFF names #10: Bobby Shaftoe
SFF names #9: Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen
SFF names #8: Ged
SFF names #7: Shevek
SFF names #6: Buhle
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

Thursday, February 1, 2018


Major spoilers ahead. A (less spoilerish) version of this review first appeared in Interzone 262. A spiritual sequel to Planetfall is After Atlas (2016).

There was a lot to like in Emma Newman’s first novel, Between Two Thorns (Angry Robot Books 2013), first of her Split Worlds urban fantasy series. But it did sometimes carry the atmosphere of an awkward workplace induction day. Dear reader, your new fairy colleagues can’t quite figure out what they know that you need to know. The folk in Mortal Resources, bless them, don’t even know that they don’t know what you need to know. Your questions somehow all go astray, and besides – let’s be honest – although everyone’s being very kind, they’re obviously a bit busy? So your best bet is to stick around, and you’re bound to muddle through eventually.

Planetfall is a different beast altogether. This classy and absorbing science fiction novel – about a human colony hunkered below an ominous, shlurpy complex known as ‘God’s city,’ on an unnamed, presumably mind-bogglingly distant, Earthlike planet – totally nails in media res. The worldbuilding is just as intricate as in Between Two Thorns, but information arrives in waves of tantalizing mysteries mingled with satisfying answers, all shrewdly judged so that there’s always something you’ve just found out, plus something you really want to know next. You know what my Swype predictive text thinks “worldbuilding” should be? “Spellbinding.” For once, Swype predictive text, you and I agree.

This does, however, make Planetfall a bit tricky to review. The novel is built out of fun-sized revelations. Even just remarking on the voice, personality, and development of its protagonist, the 3-D printer engineer Ren, feels spoiler-ish. It’s definitely safe to say that, just like the sustainability-adept colonists themselves, Planetfall makes smart choices about things it doesn’t need. For instance, the colony structures are described in detail – nodules, moss, glows, valves, pings, dimples, fish-filled windows, star-filled ceilings – but the surrounding alien verdure is suggestively vague. Likewise, we only really need the outlines of the colony’s culture and religion. They have zeal aplenty, but minimalist doctrine and ritual, intriguingly fused with a strongly rationalist, scientific outlook. As for getting to this God-forsaken (or is it?) planet, our imaginations are already pretty well-prepped to portray a perilous voyage in a star-ark with sacred-spec hyperdrive-tech under the hood. So Planetfall can skip that stuff, making space for goodbyes to mum and dad.

This thriftiness allows Planetfall to be the perfect size for what it is. If it had been longer, the withholding of certain secrets might feel contrived. It’s possible that the expediences could be a bit alienating for less genre-savvy readers, particularly toward the end of the novel. Then again, if you’re that unfamiliar with the basic alien tropes you probably don’t even mind being alienated. Those expediences could also alienate one or two genre-savvy readers who have boxes to check and inflexible expectations. If you like your author to signal that she knows that you know that E = 1/2 * (mv2), make up some reason why it doesn’t matter, then feed you a weird plant and a bughunt as a cookie, perhaps Planetfall isn’t for you. It’s not that kind of book.

The story is set in motion when a mysterious newcomer stumbling into the colony. He is a refugee – or so he says – from a natural disaster. Is this refugee . . . human? Y-es: Sung-Soo’s a bit weird; the new big-man-on-campus has a big map on his hippocampus; plus he lacks the ubiquitous neural chip; and even if he is basically a sound bloke, he has brought his dodgy xenomorphic pal nestled in his digestive tract.

Sung-Soo’s humanity is not taken for granted. It’s uncanny, an object of controversy and contest. He is filtered through the colonists’ perspective: Sung-Soo is a nebulous threat, he’s an innocent, he’s a primitive, he’s uncomfortably close to nature, his cultural upbringing is a cluster of question marks, he’s sweet and charming. He’s a tad messianic, sorting the sheep from the goats by bringing out the best or the worst in people. And he’s liable to put his foot in it, and stir up all the colony’s latent conflicts.

Sung-Soo is an asylum seeker, who gets the reception that asylum seekers deserve. The colonists feel suspicious, justly guilty, and afraid. But they suck it up, get turnt and print Sung-Soo a house. The way houses work in Planetfall is really interesting. There’s no suggestion of burdening Sung-soo with some kind of space mortgage to keep him in line. Having your own house is not an imperiled privilege of the middle to upper-middle classes, it is a bare minimum for belonging to the community. Houses are vessels of an almost utopian self-expression, as they might be for children playing House. A house is something ... natural, something fruitful, perhaps with fish-filled windows and ceilings that stars can glimmer through. So Sung-Soo’s house can articulate the colonists’ open-hearted solidarity, their accomplished philosophy of sustainability, as well as Sung-Soo’s own childlike playfulness and hopefulness.

His reception, and all that follows, asks to be read in the context of the current European reception of war refugees. There’s no tabloid newspaper branding Sung-soo a terrorist, a scrounger or a health tourist. There’s an assumption that Sung-Soo will contribute labour to the colony eventually, but there’s no big rush. They even hook him up with a space version of a John Lewis wedding-list.

In case it’s not obvious, I like Planetfall a lot. I also think it’s extremely problematic. Maybe that’s not quite the right word. It’s difficult not to be either coy or spoilerish here, so I’ll go for spoilerish.

Sung-soo does have ulterior motives. The colony was ‘too trusting’, and pays the price. Here’s the memorable revelation:
But there’s someone standing behind him, holding his hair in a fist, drawing a blade across Mack’s throat. Sung-Soo.
The blood falling from the wound in a torrent paralyzes me. Sung-Soo is looking at me as he cuts, ending the act wiht a wide arc that flicks the blood away from the blade.
“I waited so long to do that.”
The unavoidable implication here is that Sung-Soo would not be cutting people’s throats if he were locked up in Yarl’s Wood, or sent back to where he came from. I’d go so far as to say that this moment's iconography specifically recalls Islamist terror incidents in 2013 and 2014, including the killing of Lee Rigby and the many captives, including James Foley, beheaded by ISIS. Either way, this is a novel that ultimately chooses to be – whatever else it is – a fable about the justified fear of the other.

It is other things as well. If Planetfall relies on some intertextuality with sf giants such as Lem, Herbert, Clarke, and Butler, it’s also bang-up-to-date in its treatment of social media, mental health, and the meeting of the two. Digital technologies often tend to usurp tropes and degrade subgenres – “you could never have Romeo and Juliet with Phones,” and so on – so it’s really intriguing to see social media used to create new, concrete, rationales for long-established pieces of storytelling artifice. Plot points can be diegetically warped to wherever and whenever the narrative needs them: for instance, the contents of Ren’s blinking inbox can do the work of a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” cut-scene. Or an “immersive recording” tech can let Ren vividly re-experience her own backstory.

I think something peculiar happens when mental health themes get inscribed on the grand scale of interstellar science fiction. The ‘order’ from which mental ‘disorders’ deviate starts to look oddly arbitrary. Somehow, it’s harder to see (just for instance) washing your hands raw – or mutely fleeing from a cute-meet, or cramming your house with junk, or endlessly looping home to turn off a tap that you kind of know is already off – as a pathology, when it occurs in orbit around a distant star.

That’s not to say that Planetfall presents some kind of radical antipsychiatry stance. Mental illness is portrayed as real, debilitating, distressing, antagonistic, and tragic. And of course, the novel’s scale isn’t just sweeping, it’s also a single village, with nowhere else to go. Although progressive (non )perceptions of race and sexuality are normal for the villagers of Planetfall, they’re still not quite past the stage of shaking pitchforks at neurodiversity. Digitally networked communitarianism makes the village vigilance all the more suffocating. Nevertheless, distinctions between sane and insane, between lucidity and confabulation, although entirely real, do feel strangely sentimental – like keepsakes brought from what was once home.

In short, Planetfall is a hugely confident and accomplished foray into science fiction for Newman, and a novel which all proffers the pleasures of escapism, but woven with the uncertainties, pain, glitches and contradictions of the real world.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

British Science Fiction Association Awards

So, if you're a member of the BSFA, you have one day left to nominate the best SF of 2017 for the BSFA Awards.

If you're not a member yet, consider joining? It's 29 pounds in the UK, and it includes the voting rights, a subscription to Vector, the magazine I'm now co-editing, and lots of other stuff. Oh, and you definitely don't need to live in the UK to join (although it is more dear if you don't).

(Personally, I haven't read much recent SF this year, so, idk. If you need reminding, there is a list of suggestions here that you can scan (and add to). I'll probably nominate Erin Horáková's 'The Bacchae' (on par with Euripedes' version) and Tim Maughan's 'Last Christmas' (almost as good as Wham!'s version) for short fiction. I don't really know if the Shadow Clarke Awards would be collectively eligible as a non-fiction entry ... maybe?

UPDATE: Confirmed, yes, eligible!

You know how I feel about awards).