Economic Science Fiction
July 1, 2018 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Someone once said that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. "But really, once you start looking, economics is everywhere in science fiction": an extensive interview with the editor of SF magazine Vector all about money, markets, crypto, Le Guin, Doctorow, scarcity and postscarcity, supply and demand, AI economic planning, digital platforms and national deficits, and what the hell economics actually even is.
posted by scissorfish (28 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
[Edited in what I'm guessing was the intended URL for the "extensive interview" link, which got mucked up in the posting process. Let me know if that's not the right one.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:58 AM on July 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks cortex!
posted by scissorfish at 9:59 AM on July 1, 2018

I am mildly flabbergasted that he mentions Neal Stephenson only in passing, and Snow Crash not at all. Stephenson's short story, "The Great Simoleon Caper" [PDF] dates from 1995.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:10 AM on July 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

Interesting interview, and I'd like to add Mack Reynolds, who frequently wrote about postcapitalist societies (one common motif was a universal basic income, which he called "Negative Income Tax", or NIT).
posted by Mogur at 10:41 AM on July 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

See also Economic Science Fiction & Fantasy
posted by scissorfish at 12:08 PM on July 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Any writing about SciFi Economics must include that TV institution Star Trek, how it started out with a mostly post-scarcity society with Replicators and such but a need for certain resources like Dilithium Crystals that require a lot of effort to acquire/produce. Then the Next Generation introduced us to the hypercapitalist Ferengi, starting as a threat and evolving into the laughing stock of the Federation, yet that 'Gold-Pressed Latinum' was another resource with high value to all. (Disclaimer: the Enterprise show turned me off from the Trek-verse and I haven't kept up since, so a lot may have changed or been retconned)
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:25 PM on July 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

The Economic Science Fictions volume is really frustrating. On the one hand, it's wonderful to see these issues being given at least some of the attention they deserve — the role of speculative and experimental fiction in stocking our collective imaginary with political-economic strategies that might be leveraged somewhere down the line cannot possibly be overstated, and I'm personally hungry to see much more of this work.

But a few early pieces (on corporations and money and the price function, respectively) kind of set the tone: they scratch the surface, but never the itch. It's just an oddly curated book, and while I'm not unsympathetic to the difficulty that must have been involved in gathering this material, it didn't knock my socks off in the way I was so badly hoping it would.

And so. Back to the standbys (The Dispossessed, of course; Red Plenty; just about anything by KSR). As much as I love them, though, the trouble with these stories is obviously that they predate some recent technical developments that might (or very much might not) prove transformational at the level of political economy. I'd particularly like to see someone with progressive politics and a flair for writing try their hand at imagining a world in which the blockchain somehow throws off its ancap shackles and comes good. Looks like I'll be waiting awhile longer.
posted by adamgreenfield at 1:51 PM on July 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is what I like about MeFi!

A link on an esoteric topic that then leads me through three hours of surfing the Internet, reading about critiques of emergent economies in postapocalyptic fiction (World Made By Hand has some of the more likely scenarios, from my recollection), the relative merits of silver vs. bartered goods as medium of exchange in disrupted markets, the advent of Depression scrip in the US during the bank closures of 1933, the prohibition of using company scrip for employee wages by Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the definition of “legal tender” under the Coinage Act of 1965 (no, a merchant is not legally required to accept US currency when selling goods), and finally, to designing my own legally compliant “credit vouchers” for use in a post-apocalyptic scenario in which I operate a neighborhood Trading Post, and then determining how much it would cost to print them on counterfeit-resistant papers!

Bless y’all, and here I was this morning wondering how I was going to spend my day!
posted by darkstar at 2:06 PM on July 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Red Plenty isn't quite science fiction, but it is the book that made me really feel the essentially arbitrary, socially-constructed nature of money. All the relations in this somewhat fictional Soviet Union are essentially economic relations, yet so few of them can happen with a market mechanism because they live in a society where such things are considered dangerous because being nakedly an accumulator of things is considered illegal.

Thinking about our own world, we can see similarly how we are discouraged from organizing our lives around principles other than personal and household accumulation and consumption. Anyone stepping even somewhat outside the market economy to fill some need (volunteering, joining or organizing cooperatives, unions, or other non-profits, dedicating themselves to religious work) is looked at askance. They need to explain themselves. "Why are you spending your weekend teaching Amateur Radio examination classes? Surely the FCC should pay people to do that?" "Surely if these $religious_minority folks spent less time praying and more time working hard, they would be better off and wouldn't be so poor."

Not to paint a false equivalence, but the "economy" is ultimately about how scarce resources are distributed throughout society, and a capitalistic one can be just as oppressive as a stalinistically planned one. If this isn't Star Trek and there really are shortages, any system for deciding this will be somewhat oppressive. In designing the one we want to live in, we have to make trade-offs. Those trade-offs are moral decisions or, if your like, political ones. There must necessarily be winners and losers, and the rules we put in place will bend under the will of everyone they touch, all of us imperfect apes with unclear and conflicting motivations.

Anyway, read Red Plenty. It's really really good. If anybody in Austin wants to borrow my copy, MeMail me and we can arrange it.
posted by LiteOpera at 2:32 PM on July 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

Good heavens, Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy is all about economics: slavery, importation, another kind of slavery, the sugar trade, Newton's role at the Royal Mint, and probably a bunch of other stuff I'm forgetting. The third book is titled "The System of the World" and its three divisions are titled Solomon's Gold, Currency, and The System of the World (same as the book title).

Oh man, I've never experienced the desire to re-read something before, but I'm experiencing it now.

It's a fabulous bunch of story and historical education.
posted by amtho at 3:45 PM on July 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

[...] a world in which the blockchain somehow throws off its ancap shackles and [be]comes good

That's a really good prompt. A blockchain creates artificial scarcity around entirely virtual objects by making all operations extremely energy intensive (so that trying to beat the encryption is not cost effective). The high cost for distributed consensus means that regulated markets can use more efficient transaction logs, but there is at least an option for unregulated markets*.

I'm sure there are uses for an unregulated market for artificially scarce digital goods, but it strikes me as inherently ancap so the only uses for it will be in those areas where the ancaps are right.

Of course cryptography and the distributed applications it allows are a great source of really promising culture changing stuff. In this space there are a lot of observations that all the ancaps are on the bitcoin/ethereum/ipfs side and all the ancoms are on the dat and secure scuttlebutt side. Because only the ancaps want to add micro-transactions (ie, a blockchain) to everything that starts out free.

*unregulated is not entirely true, since the function of the network itself is completely controlled by a small group of big miners and programmers. If they agree they can arbitrarily alter any transaction at will. Cryptocurrencies are an astounding concentration of regulatory power in practice, despite the marketing.
posted by Infracanophile at 6:26 PM on July 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

If you’d prefer economic fantasy, can I urge you to read The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics by Daniel Abraham
posted by chappell, ambrose at 7:18 PM on July 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

You know thiat Churchill line that "democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried"? How come no one ever says, "Capitalism is the worst form of economic governance that has ever been tried, except for all the others"? I think its because no one wants to admit that capitalism is as much of a political choice as democracy, and that there might systems that are worse, but there might also be systems that are better.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 9:47 PM on July 1, 2018

No mention of Larry Niven, yet?

There was an article in the New York Times, just today, about crypto-currency Ripple potentially giving away their currency, in order to jump start their economy...Basic Income, anybody?
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 10:07 PM on July 1, 2018

I was in a writing group ages ago, and one of the members wrote this beautiful story about family reconciliation and isotope-backed currency. I wish he'd found a home for it so I could point y'all to it.
posted by RakDaddy at 11:01 PM on July 1, 2018

I was hoping there might have been some discussion of Michael Cisco's recent-ish novel Animal Money (one-line synopsis: "A living form of money results in the unraveling of the world"), if only to see what someone with some grounding in economics made of it all.
posted by misteraitch at 2:07 AM on July 2, 2018

It's a fabulous bunch of story and historical education.

...wiiiith compulsive blursts of hard-libertarian rhetoric and cheap ad hominems interspersed, just like all of Stephenson's output. He was once more or less readable, if you bit down real hard, but he descended into self-parody somewhere around The Diamond Age, swapping the subtext for text, and by now there's no editor alive willing to get in the way of his vile musings on race and gender. (Seriously, did you read SevenEves? It's straight-up an attempt to smuggle his racial essentialism and determinism past contemporary sensibilities by dressing them up in evolutionary drag, and it's beyond grotesque.)

Sure, Stephenson's work is all about economics...Austrian-school economics. Fuck that and him sideways and in perpetuity.
posted by adamgreenfield at 3:20 AM on July 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

> about crypto-currency Ripple potentially giving away their currency, in order to jump start their economy

I remember those dotcom companies that gave away shares to jump start their worth.
posted by Leon at 5:01 AM on July 2, 2018

This is really good I think.

But... Bitcoin is explicitly science-fictional; baked into its code is a prediction about the future and how it will make every hodlr riiiich. Whether you see this as wisdom passed down from Satoshi, or a cleverly constructed pyramid scheme, or an incitement to environmental disaster, you're seeing it in some sfnal way. Unless you just see it as stupid.

We stored our bitcoin keys in rocks -- their shapes, their crystaline layouts. Now the mile-wide cyber-beasts slowly devour Califormia, down to the bedrock.
posted by joeyh at 6:00 AM on July 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

For the record (and because it's mentioned in passing in the interview): I picked "Bitcoin" as a term in Neptune's Brood because I was writing back in 2012 and had no idea that BtC the cryptocurrency was going to take off the way it did. If I was rewriting the novel today I'd call it something else: although the principle—a "slow" cryptocurrency where the proof-of-work requires you to travel to an unvisited star system—is just about compatible. And, of course, the interstellar colonization project in that novel turns out to be an ideologically driven pyramid scheme, just like real-world Bitcoin ...
posted by cstross at 6:05 AM on July 2, 2018 [10 favorites]

joeyh: Bitcoin is explicitly science-fictional: see also.
posted by cstross at 6:07 AM on July 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't understand how they can write about post capitalist economics in media without pointing directly to Keynes' "Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren". There's a straight line between that and the post-scarcity of the Jetsons and Star Trek.

(I will apologize for being less familiar with the literature. I was raised on the very misogynistic vein of science fiction. While MetaFilter acted as literary historian to show that wasn't all that's out there, I haven't really jumped backed in. But I did get a degree is political science and economics, and so imagining post-scarcity world orders is totally my jam.)
posted by politikitty at 11:30 AM on July 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, trust me, everyone in fact does go straight back to the Keynes. I couldn’t avoid it, despite being titanically averse to well-trodden ground. (I like to think I made up for it by pairing it in my analysis with Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto.)
posted by adamgreenfield at 12:24 PM on July 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Much of The Traitor Baru Comorant is basically just weaponized economics.
posted by ckape at 8:11 PM on July 2, 2018

Thanks for the background on Ancaps, Infracanophile , some interesting new ideas there.
I'm trying to imagine a world financial system based on pizza coupons.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 1:54 AM on July 3, 2018

I'm trying to imagine a world financial system based on pizza coupons.

Ctrl-F “bottle caps”


posted by darkstar at 11:22 PM on July 3, 2018

...Seriously, did you read SevenEves?

Oh thank god, I'm not alone. I remember a comment on here years ago in which someone hypothesized the existence of the Brain Eater, a monster that feeds on SF writers and turns them into right-wing loons, and added that Stephenson was going to be intolerable when the Brain Eater finally got him. A lot of Stephenson's work was enjoyable enough -- even Anathem and REAMDE -- that you could sort of overlook the increasingly nutty politics, but Seveneves had none of the wit or sparkle of his earlier stuff, and then went full-on phrenologist.

Back in the spirit of recommendations, I was surprised that Max Gladstone's Craft books didn't get mentioned: very well-written fantasy novels in which magic is basically economics and contract law; definitely worth a look for anyone who enjoyed this post as much as I did.
posted by bokane at 10:31 PM on July 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

What are the odds that two people in British SF are both named Jo Walton?
posted by Chrysostom at 8:32 PM on July 29, 2018

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