Thursday, June 25, 2015

I am the VAT thy God! -- thoughts on sales-fi

Two pieces of short SF about selling stuff.


David D. Levine’s short story ‘Tk’tk’tk’ (which I read in Hartwell and Hayden's big Twenty-First Century Science Fiction) focuses on the tribulations of Walker, an interstellar salesman, as he struggles to understand local market conditions.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Doctorow’s novelette ‘Chicken Little’ appears in the same anthology, and also follows a salesman, Leon, into a difficult market. But here, I think, things manage to be genuinely a little stranger.

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 techincally 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. And that’s something I’ll deal with, probably, in the next blog post.


PS: Compare Jack Vance's 1961 story, 'The Moon Moth' . . .

Thissell came to a breathless halt in front of the hoslter. He reached for his kiv*, then hesitated. Could this be considered a casual personal encounter? The zachinko perhaps? But the statement of his needs hardly seemed to demand the formal approach. Better the kiv after all. He struck a chord, but by error found himself stroking the ganga. Beneath his mask Thissell grinned apologetically; his relationship with this hostler was by no means on an intimate basis. He hoped that the hostler was of sanguine disposition, and in any event the urgency of the occasion allowed no time to select an exactly appropriate instrument. He struck a second chord, and, playing as well as agitation, breathlessness and lack of skill allowed, sang out a request: "Ser Hostler, I have immediate need of a swift mount. Allow me to select from your herd."

 The hostler wore a mask of considerable complexity which Thissell could not identify: a construction of varnished brown cloth, pleated gray leather and, high on the forehead, two large green and scarlet globes, minutely segmented like insect-eyes. He inspected Thissell a long moment, then, rather ostentatiously selecting his stimic,** executed a brilliant progression of trills and rounds, of an import Thissell failed to grasp. The hostler sang, "Ser Moon Moth, I fear that my steeds are unsuitable to a person of your distinction."

 Thissell earnestly twanged at the ganga. "By no means; they all seem adequate. I am in great haste and will gladly accept any of the group."

The hostler played a brittle cascading crescendo. "Ser Moon Moth," he sang, "the steeds are ill and dirty. I am flattered that you consider them adequate to your use. I cannot accept the merit you offer me. And"—here, switching instruments, he struck a cool tinkle from his krodatch† —"somehow I fail to recognize the boon companion and co-craftsman who accosts me so familiarly with his ganga."

 The implication was clear. Thissell would receive no mount. He turned, set off at a run for the landing field. Behind him sounded a clatter of the hostler's hymerkin— whether directed toward the hostler's slaves or toward himself Thissell did not pause to learn.

 * Kiv: five banks of resilient metal strips, fourteen to the bank, played by touching, twisting, twanging.
** Stimic: three flutelike tubes equipped with plungers. Thumb and forefinger squeeze a bag to force air across the mouthpieces; the second, third and fourth little fingers manipulate the slide. The stimic is an instrument well adapted to the sentiments of cool withdrawal, or even disapproval.
† Krodatch: a small square sound-box strung with resined gut. The musician scratches the strings with his fingernail, or strokes them with his fingertips, to produce a variety of quietly formal sounds. The krodatch is also used as an instrument of insult.

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