Monday, August 19, 2013

Economic science fiction and fantasy

UPDATE: This post has pretty much migrated now to a separate site, Economic SFF. Feel free to submit.

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More SFF & economics resources . . .

Sarah Shoker on Economics in Fantasy Literature, or, Why Nerds Really Like Stuff at The Hooded Utilitarian.

Jared's "business in SF/fantasy" thread at Pornokitsch.

Noahpinion's list of Science Fiction Novels for Economists. Paul Krugman: More Science fiction for Economists.

Tim Worstall: Science Fiction and Fantasy to Learn Economics from.

In Clarkesworld, Jeremy L. C. Jones interviews six speculative fiction authors (Elizabeth Bear, N. K. Jemisin, Dani Kollin, Brian Francis Slattery, Charlie Stross, and John C. Wright) about economics.

Robin Hanson's The Economics of Science Fiction, a collection of articles.

A great big long discussion of worldbuilding and economics.

Manu Saadia, Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek (2016).

At io9, Abhimanyu Das and Charlie Jane Anders, Post-Scarcity Societies (That Still Have Scarcity). (And my comment copy-pasted: Thanks for this great list! One common definition of “scarce” within economics is not “limited” or “finite” exactly, but rather either “less than everybody needs” or “less than everybody wants.” So economics invokes a concept of scarcity which bound up with who we are, and what we desire, and how our desires are created, expressed and legitimated. (It invokes a concept of scarcity which, frankly, I don’t think economics has the tools to handle adequately). Of course that’s not the only way of thinking about “scarcity,” but I do find it useful to remember whenever someone says, “Post-scarcity is impossible, because there will always be a shortage of such-and-such,” or “Such-and-such is not really a post-scarcity setting, because they don’t have infinite such-and-such.” In one sense that setting may not be post-scarcity. But in another, the criterion to fulfill [to count as a post-scarcity society] could instead be: do they have as much such-and-such as they want?) (Or to put it briefly: post-scarcity shouldn't be about having more, it should be about wanting less).

At io9, Charlie Jane Anders: A Handy Currency Converter for Alien Money.

Zachary Feinstein: "we measure the level of systemic risk that may have been generated by the death of Emperor Palpatine andthe destruction of the second Death Star. We conclude by finding the economic resources the Rebel Alliance would need to have in reserve in order to prevent a financial crisis from gripping the galaxy through an optimally allocated banking bailout."

Diane Coyle at FT.com, on the gig economy, with a little bit of hobbit stuff.

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Recommended to me & currently or recently on my TBR kang:

Kim Stanley Robinson, rest of The Mars Trilogy
Patrick Wilkins, "Money is the Root of All Good"
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle.
Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring.
G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen.
Ursula le Guin, The Telling.
Clifford D. Simak, "The Fence" (see this snippet)
Jack Vance, Demon Princes series (SVU)
Sarah Zettel, Fool's War.
Charles Stross, Accelerando & others.
Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
John Varley's Eight Worlds
Bruce Sterling, Holy Fire
Robert Heinlein, For Us The Living
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
Neal Asher, The Skinner (spline)
Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Original Trilogy (coinshots, Atium)
Gene Wolfe's Book of the Short Sun (circuit board currency)
Gordon R. Dickson's Childe Cycle (exchange of expertise)
Henry Kuttner, "The Iron Standard"
Scott Westerfield's Uglies Trilogy (Smoke's food pack currencies)
Frank O'Rourke's "Instant Gold"
Geoff Ryman, Air.
Will Garth, "Men of Honor"
Neal Stephenson's Baroque cycle and Reamde
Cory Doctorow's For the Win
The rest of Margaret Atwood's Maddadam trilogy
Richard Morgan, Market Forces.
John Chu, "A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barrier."
Eric Frank Russell's "And Then There Were None"
Sergey Lukyanenko's Seekers of the Sky
Greg Costikyan, First Contract.
Hayford Peirce, Chap Foey Rider: Capitalist to the Stars.
Lester del Rey & Frederik Pohl, Preferred Risk
Weis & Hickman's Deathgate cycle (barls currency)
Henry Richardson Chamberlain, 6000 Tonnes of Gold

Guess what? I'd be particularly interested in recommendations of economic science fiction and fantasy by women!


Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980). Long ago, some distant planet realizes it has quite a lot of what David Graeber might call bullshit jobs. A poet spins some apocalyptic yarns, and the people in those jobs -- mostly management types, although some telephone-sanitizers etc. -- are packed off to colonize a planet which, it turns out, is the prehistoric Earth. And yes, we are their descendants, as demonstrated not so much by shared DNA, but by shared agendas:
"[...] Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich."
      Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
     "But we have also," continued the management consultant, "run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability [...] we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and ... er, burn down all the forests. I think you'll all agree that's a sensible move under the circumstances."
For other money trees, see Nalo Hopkinson, Clifford D. Simak, and Adam Roberts.

There's another interesting bit earlier in the book, about another supposedly impractical currency:
"[...] Its exchange rate of eight Ningis to one Pu is simple enough, but since a Ningi is a triangular rubber coin six thousand eight hundred miles long each side, no one has ever collected enough to own one Pu. Ningis are not negotiable currency, because the Galactibanks refuse to deal in fiddling small change. [...]"
A credit theory of money might say there's nothing wrong with the Ningi/Pu system, since owning a Ningi wouldn't have to involve re-locating a physical object: a record in a ledger should be enough. Compare the famous stone money of Yap.

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.
Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Non-fiction. Five linked lectures on debt. I found it entertaining and commendably sprawling but also weirdly elusive.

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).
Iain M. Banks, The AlgebraistA non-Culture novel (although barely, I reckon). In particular, it's on this list for its reputation currency kudos, which makes for some interesting comparisons with Cory Doctorow's Whuffie, Karen Lord's social credit, and the trust "currency" of Michael Swanwick's millies.

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887. 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. Bellamy may fudge many of the trickiest questions by tacit appeals to the presumed improved efficiency of more centralized and scientific production, the benign and wise judgments of authority, and to some extent (a lesser extent than William Morris) the sweet tempers and fraternal fellow-feeling of those raised under his system. But we should give him credit for raising those questions in the first place. "Fraternal fellow-feeling" is probably the right phrase: women are the formal equals of men, but women's emancipation has a strangely afterthought-ish feel to it; there's also a dose of "equal but separate" here, and the tedious loveliness, tenderness and trembling of Edith, the only utopian woman Bellamy gives us in any detail, is cause enough to withhold his Ally Pic-Nic Biscuit (7d a pound). (The way she conflates herself with a previous Edith deserves separate discussion). One interesting question about the economy of Looking Backward is whether it can truly be said to be post-money: it asserts that it is up front, and as it fills in more institutional detail, the assertion is eroded by special cases (literary and artistic production, foreign travel, inheritance, local government) where the value embodied by credit might become transferable, in a funny kind of way, and therefore start to look a bit more like money. At any rate, the final bulwark is the assumption that general prosperity will put an end to the kind of arbitraging and usurious behaviors without which money is not really money. Bellamy's criticisms of the waste of market competition still have some bite. One especially intriguing example is how his principles play out in education and professional training: no ignominy attaches to dropping out of a course, because people need to try things to find out if they're any good at them, and how could you possibly find out what you're really good at unless you can drop out of something you're not without cost? The real waste would be done by people sticking to careers they're no good at (and don't enjoy). Any serious understanding of the novel has to come to terms in some ways with its enormous popularity in its day. Was it a page-turner? It's worth comparing with William Morris's slightly less economics-focused utopia, which came out around the same time. If I had to live in one of them, I'd go for Morris's any time. But I do appreciate Bellamy's sense that unpleasant necessary work is sort of real. Morris wrote a review of it:
The only safe way of reading a utopia is to consider it as the expression of the temperament of its author. So looked at, Mr. Bellamy's utopia must be still called very interesting, as it is constructed with due economical knowledge, and with much adroitness; and of course his temperament is that of many thousands of people. This temperament may be called the unmixed modern one, unhistoric and unartistic; it makes its owner (if a Socialist) perfectly satisfied with modern civilisation, if only the injustice, misery, and waste of class society could be got rid of; which half-change seems possible to him.
Lauren Beukes, Moxyland. Hmm. Maybe not that obvious a choice, except in a kind of all-cyberpunky-stuff-is-a-bit-economoxy kind of way. But here, my review explains.

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

Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003). 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). For another Doctorow entry, see under Paul Graham Raven below. For other trust-type media, see entries for Iain M. Banks, Karen Lord, and Michael Swanwick.

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).


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). (See also note 2).

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." 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).

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.

Sam Kriss, "Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space." 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 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. 

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.

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. (See Note 3). For other exotic trust currencies, see entries for Cory Doctorow, Iain M. Banks, and Michael Swanwick.

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. Other publications listed here.

Tim Maughan, "Zero Hours" (2013) and "Four Days of Christmas" (2014). Two short, sharp shocks about the interface of emerging technologies and low skilled labour. 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, 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 and "Four Days of Christmas" at Motherboard.

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.

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. Also see Nagata's Vast. 

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. 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 instructive, 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.

Fredrik 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).


Adam Roberts, Stone (2002). The protagonist of Stone, on a visit to the world Rain, discovers a currency of leaves. The unspoken joke is that on Rain, money does grow on trees! Trees and their leaves are also abundant: a local explains that because of this shrewd choice of currency, everyone on Rain is rich! But the Rain-dwellers do take their currency very seriously: when the protagonist finds themself curiously leaf-bereft, they really cannot buy anything. The episode has a satirical, proto-sf "traveler's tale" type feel to it. But at the same time, it feels possible to reconstruct a kind of economic system that makes almost perfect sense.

Rain is part of a broadly post-scarcity and utopian civilization. In this civilization, the puzzles of resource allocation are probably not the big ones we're used to nowadays -- posers like, "healthcare or nuclear deterrents?" -- but rather, masses and masses of infinitesimal puzzles. They are infinitesimal puzzles about the most efficient and fair way to enjoy peace and luxury together which, a bit like Stone's ubiquitous swarming nanotech, might accumulate into something fairly formidable. On a world where there's always enough to go around, should it go around clockwise or what?

Gathering leaves introduces a modicum of inconvenience, and you might plan your activities between bouts of leaf-gathering. Leaf currency, we may imagine, allows the Rain-dwellers to sustain a smidge of the quantifying and calculative rationality of homo economicus. Thrift is comprehensible to them. In the rainy climate, leaves probably turn to soggy sludge pretty quickly, so there's also a kind of Gesellian Freigeld aspect to their leaf currency -- a dampening of liquidity preference, if you will -- so nobody would bother hoarding leaves. And nobody bothers trying to lend leaves at interest, or allows themselves to be exploited to get some leaves. They just go get some leaves.  Nobody's opinions are given more weight just because they have a lot of leaves. Leaf-getting does not lend itself to Sisyphean graft nor entrepreneurial genius. If somebody has a lot of leaves, they're just somebody who has gone and got lots of leaves.

For other money trees, see Nalo Hopkinson, Clifford D. Simak, and Douglas Adams. Adams's proto-humans are strict quantity theorists with a match and a mission to control the money supply. That's what's clever about Rain, you see. It's always raining.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (1993). Worthy, solid, hard sf-ish epic which speaks very directly to speculative fiction's utopian tradition. Reasonably good at avoiding the worst pitfalls of hard sf by making time for social science and political theory, and by creating dialogues and controversies that aren't decisively settled one way or the other. It edges on cringe-worthy ethnic caricature, though at least it has an inclusive and cosmopolitan instinct. One particularly interesting section, as regards economics, is Arkady's conversation with Boon in Part 5, Chapter 8: "So far we have not been living in a money economy, that’s the way scientific stations are. It’s like winning a prize that frees you from the economic wheel." Arkady imagines the colonists as "scientist primitives" who have carved out an island utopia which appears free from the workings of global (stellar) capitalism, but is not really. Another is Marina and Vlad's eco-economics in Part 5, Chapter 6: "Everyone should make their living, so to speak, based on a calculation of their real contribution to the human ecology." As an attempt to rationalize economic value, Marina and Vlad's calorie-based proposals could probably stand to learn from historical experiments with time-based currencies (e.g. LETS), as well as the late 19Cth subjectivist critique (Menger et al.) of labor theories of value and cost-of-production theories of value. Marina and Vlad also propose a version of the Bullshit Jobs thesis (cf. e.g. Adams, Bellamy, Morris), that "there are whole categories of parasitical jobs that add nothing to the system by an ecologic accounting." But it is probably a good rule of thumb to think of economics as a "deformed offshoot" of ecology that is "like astrology." Marina and Vlad's eco-economics is soon compared with -- though it surely very different from -- the Sufis' aspiration for a "reverent economics" inspired by gift exchange. "We have studied the old cultures, before your global market netted everything, and in those ages there existed many different forms of exchange. Some of them were based on the giving of gifts." Mars's awkward and often ambiguous status at the edge of the Terran economy may offer some interesting comparisons, perhaps, with Charles Stross's Neptune's Brood. I am interested to see what happens in the next two books, and suspect the economics of longevity treatment may play a bit of a role?

Red Mars, by the way, is another of those books that actually does many of the things science fiction is assumed as a matter of critical cliche to do: it imagines the future, it reasons extrapolatively, it respects science but also wiggles it a bit, it inspires, it cautions, it tries to invoke sensawunda. It does these things in a way which feels fairly straightforward, almost prosaically literal, if you have been spending your time trying to read, oh I don't know, Dune or Trouble on Triton or Neuromancer or Children of Men or The Hunger Games or Jack Glass or something through that lens. You can kind of make it work, and actually using slightly the wrong tool turns out to be pretty damn fruitful once you give it some oomph ... but then when you turn to Red Mars and the critical apparatus and the text slot together so neatly, you feel a bit nonplussed.

Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. What's really fascinating about the economics of Star Trek is the inconsistency. The official line is that the Federation is post-money, and there are hints (replicators etc.) that it is more-or-less post-scarcity too.


Nevertheless, we also get references to rents, remittances, stakes, compensation and even the compulsory face of future finance, the credit. (See also note 1 below). I think the post-scarcity of Star Trek is worth comparing to that of Iain M. Banks's Culture, with which it has similarities.

There has been a fair bit written about Star Trek economics, most notably Manu Saadia's Trekonomics:

Trekonomics from Inkshares on Vimeo.


Paul Graham Raven, "Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico (The Pirates of the Plastic Sea)" and Cory Doctorow, "Petard: A Tale of Just Desserts." Collected in Twelve Tomorrows (2014), ed. Bruce Sterling. 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."

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."

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

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: copmare 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.

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.

Charles Stross, "Lobsters." (Later expanded into a novel). 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).

Charles Stross, Neptune's BroodIn 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. See also entry for David Graeber.

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.

Michael Swanwick, "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled..." (2008). Features a civilization, the millies, who use trust as currency. It is a maddenly subtle choice of buck. On the one hand, this could be a cosmetic alteration to our own economic system. Money is, after all, typically without intrinsic use value, and only functions as money insofar as it is trusted as a medium of exchange, store of value and unit of account. So perhaps these "millie-on-airs" unmask and demystify what goes on around us every day. On the other hand, trust is so deeply and intricately implicated in what money is, that it's not clear it could fulfill the role of money (at least, not in the ways we're used to). You can put your trust in shells or brass rods, but can you put your trust in trust itself? Story online at Clarkesworld.

Joseph Tomaras, "The Libidinal Economy of the Suburbs" (2016). Very tenuously about economics and not really speculative fiction. A brief exchange in a cafe is minutely explicated, except, of course, that it becomes more ambiguous rather than less. Is that really what "I'm just trying to drive my kids crazy" meant? Story online at Flapperhouse.

The phrase "fuck your brains out" is kind of intriguing in the context of the theme of the libidinal economy. Compare "fuck the shit out of me." Also compare Lyotard maybe:
"Now, here comes the question of symbolic exchange: this fear [of impotence, of things going nowhere, of nothing happening] is not, as we have thought, the fear of no longer being able to give. The category of the gift is a theatrical idea, it belongs to semiology, it presupposes a subject, a limit of his proper body and his property, and the generous transgression of this property. When Lacan says: to love is to give what one has not, he means: to forget that one is castrated. It should mean: one never has anything, there is no subject, and so there is nothing but love; not only is there never anything to give because one has nothing, but there is no-one to give, or to receive. It is in the theory of signs that donatory exchange (or the gift as the primitive form of exchange) may be represented as the attribution of devolution of an object charged with affects to someone who at the beginning of the cycle didn't have it: for the sign is just something which replaces something else, hides and manifests something else, for someone, for the addressee (and also for the sender). This problematic, coming from Jakobson to Lacan, that is to say the theory of communication, carries with it the entire philosophy of the subject, the philosophy of a body haunted by self-appropriation and property since the theory of communication is obviously just as much a piece of economic theory. Mauss must not be read as the discovery of a 'precapitalist', or at least a mercantilist, economy, but as the invention and the perfecting, in the heart of this economy, of its indespensable complement of anteriority-exteriority. Replace the gift with symbolic exchange and you remain in the same sphere, for exchange also takes place amongst unitary bodies or those destined to be unitary, even if they are prevented for ever (by the 'bar of the signifier') from bringing this unity about, and even if they are always driven by their splitting in two, by the Entzweiung, as Hegel used to say, to exchange something, even if only pieces of themselves; the exchangists remain perforated, like poles or ideas of (mercantilist) reason rather than as existants, it remains that exchange requires this polarization, this encephalization, and an in-and-out movement, a cycle of flows, the circle of a market and its central balance. Whether or not one exchanges affects does not modify this configuration, it simply dramatizes it. [...] Exchange is no less 'humanist' than production [...] Circulation is no less suspect than production, it is only, as Marx well knew, a particular case of production taken it the broad sense. Let's rather place oursilves in the sense of this production in the broad sense, which is the general metamorphosis of everything which takes place on bodies and inscribes itself into the social body, haunted by the idea of a ceaseless general metamorphosis, or of a general production without inscription, which is nothing other than the great skin; we wonder instead what are the characteristics of the figure which makes the passage from this latter to inscribed production, the characteristics of the dispostif of inscription which constitutes social voluminosity." 
He goes on to talk about a urinal.

Jack Vance, "The Moon Moth" (1961). Online. I'm not as convinced that strakh is as currency-like as people sometimes say. That sentence about medium-of-exchange is taken a bit too literally, perhaps. (Strakh also appears, by the way, to be Niven's Kzin's word for an honor, which also ambiguously takes the place of currency).

"Marta and the Demons" by me. Big time. Smashwords. Also "The Internet of Things Your Mother Never Told You" in Twelve Tomorrows 2016. As well as Pokemoney, there's something buried in that weird bit at the end which isn't totally dissimilar to Wilkins's conceit (see below). Also the forthcoming (maybe) "The Reduced Racine Yakuza Co." and also "Alice in the Sky with Demons," which is not quite finished yet.

Patrick Wilkins, "Money is the Root of All Good" (1954). This is really interesting, although pretty straightforward pulpy in its execution. It's interesting as well to remember that finance and stock markets in 1954 were not what they are today (the professionalization of stock analysis and the scientization of finance as an academic discipline pretty much took place in the 1960s and 70s). PDF in Archive.org. Here's an extended quotation:
"This sect maintained that an individual should not be paid on the basis of the work he did, but for the good deeds, or good thoughts he had. A small stipend was paid for actual work or production, to establish a workable basic economy and trade. This stipend was enough to cover all the basic wants of the individual. To procure luxuries, a citizen had to use the money he received for his good deeds or thoughts. Every time a man helped an old lady across the street, or came up with a bit of philosophical wisdom, he could record it with a central office and receive his luxury pay from the government. The purpose of the system was to make people emphasize virtue and quality in their lives. Instead of concentrating on profit for profit's sake, they would have to consider the inherent rightness and beauty of what they were doing.

"In such a system," Roald asked, "how could such a thing as a stock market possibly develop?"  
"Very simple, sir. This luxury pay, issued in a different currency than the commodity pay, could be used in any way a person saw fit. Some people naturally developed the idea of investing stock in a particularly virtuous or intelligent person. Every time that person did a good deed, the stockholders received a dividend from his luxury pay. All of the scientists and philosophers, therefore, became corporations in themselves, with as many as five thousand people holding stock in one man."  
"Sorry, Kim, but I don't get it. How could these incorporated individuals get any luxury pay for themselves if they had to hand it out to their stockholders?" 
"The administration would allow for that. A person received luxury pay in proportion to the number of stockholders that he claimed. The government had to do this since they indirectly were investing in these corporation men -- but I'll explain that later. The corporation-man lived off the original investments of stockholders, with some of the stock solvent for sales. In this way, the individual would profit from 'good doing' by receiving many new investments."  
"What is the social makeup of this Lyranc? It seems to me it would be a lunatic fringe de luxe, with every hack writer, thaumaturgist, or evangelist climbing aboard the gravy train."

§

Note 1: The equivocation is neatly captured in TOS Episode "The Apple," when Kirk snaps at Spock (and not for the first time I bet), "Do you know how much Starfleet has invested in you?" Spock responds something like, "Twenty-two thousand, two hun--" and is rather tellingly interrupted before he can finish, "--dred and forty three clams and eighty seven point one four pence, Captain. Why, what's up?" It's a discrepancy can be reconciled in various ways, which I hope to look at in some detail elsewhere.

Note 2: 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.

Note 3:

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.

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