Review of Economic Science Fictions

Review of Economic Science Fictions

Bruce Lindsley Rockwood

William Davies, editor, Economic Science Fictions. Goldsmiths Press, 2018. Goldsmith Press PERC Series. Hardback. 400 pg. $29.95. ISBN 9781906897680.

Economic Science Fictions is a diverse collection of essays and stories aimed at using science fiction tropes and examples to bridge the gap between conventional economic thinking and the unreliable nature of contemporary economic reality through a mixture of critical theory and unexpected, stimulating short fiction.

After a thoughtful introduction by William Davies, the book has 17 chapters by a variety of contributors divided into four Sections: (I) The Science and Fictions of the Economy; (II) Capitalist Dystopias; (III) Design for a Different Future; and (IV) Fumbling for Utopia. The goal of the collection, in the words of Mark Fisher, is to come up with “a multiplicity of alternative perspectives” for a post-capitalist society “each potentially opening up a crack into another world” (xiii).

William Davies’s introduction rehearses the history of market economics, the challenges of planned economies and socialism, the rise of neoliberalism in the late 20th century, and the impact of big data on 21st century economies and societies. He asks how we can visualize viable alternatives to money, markets, and potential ways of simply living and valuing ourselves and our communities (1-11). He is troubled by “the various innovations in the monitoring of emotion and affect that have taken off since the 1990s. These include neuroscientific representations and techniques of ‘affective computing,’ which [. . .] allow computers to detect emotion via [. . .] machine learning, monitoring of bodily movement and data capture from online communication” (11-12). He contrasts the “avant-garde modernists of Mises’ time” who believed the “future is to be imagined, invented, designed and planned” with von Mises and  his followers who thought the market and the price system should suffice to mediate between “evolving visions, ideas and tastes”(14). The problem becomes the impossibility of “wholesale transformation of society” if all of your options for the future have to be channeled into a market, governed by “consumerism plus the mathematical rationality of risk” (14). Ideas can be as constricting as institutions, and this collection of essays seeks to release some of those constraints.

Davies cites Fredric Jameson’s critique of the post-modern (16) and argues that science fiction “enables us to imagine ourselves looking back upon the present, with a critical eye. It is thereby a political resource [. . .] to see the present as amenable to conscious transformation” (16). One concern with this essay is its failure to explicitly reference examples of science fiction which could support his argument – Philip K. Dick in his reference to Prozac, powerlessness and depression (16) for example, or Kim Stanley Robinson in reference to the role of SF in addressing a “need in the face of some lack” such as that posed by climate risk (18). Davies may be setting up the theoretical interdisciplinary context for the rest of the text to explore, making oblique references to phrases (“cool hunting” or “collapse of history” and “No past other than that which has been captured as data,” all at 20).  He argues that “economics deals in all manner of things that do not exist outside the economics profession” (24) and makes the same claim for lawyers who “see their role in terms of interpreting existing rules, but far less commonly in terms of inventing new ones,” an assertion belied by the role of story in law making as well as in what he calls “partly imaginary” economic institutions (24). In short, engaging with this introduction requires a close reading but sparks many responses.

What follows in Section I is an overview of “Economics, Science Fiction, History and Comparative Studies” by Professor Ha-Joon Chang, who argues that much of neoclassical economics is already a kind of SF in two senses: it claims that economics is a pure science free of moral constraints, and that it can solve all problems if you give people the right incentives (31-32). He shows why both claims are false, first arguing that SF writers would be more effective if they had a sounder understanding of economics (34). For example, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953) has the  “implausible premise” that the South could have won the American Civil War, when it could not have done so given the shift in economic development to industrial development in the North (34-35). On the other hand, economists would benefit from knowing more about SF because its portrayal of alternative realities and dystopias can enable economists to “rethink the assumptions” they usually take for granted (35).

Laura Horn’s “Future Incorporated?” explores the portrayal of corporations as displacing, or merging with, nations as portrayed in SF, and their lessons for thinking about whether the future must indeed be dominated by corporate structures, citing Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1952), and films or television shows such as  Blade Runner (1982) and Mr. Robot (2015-2019).  She argues that by “mobilizing utopias [. . .] of worker cooperatives” we can conceive of a “future that does not necessarily have to be incorporated” (42). These may be “post-scarcity Star Trek fashion,” “non-capitalist utopian visions” such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), or the “co-operative economic organization” in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (49-54).

In “Currencies of Social Organization: The Future of Money,” Sherryl Vint explores the varieties of currencies deployed in SF, such as poscreds  in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969), gold-pressed latinum valued by the Ferengi on Star Trek, or the “reputation-based currency of the whuffie in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003)” (59). The world uses money, but no one is exactly sure what it is, how it works, or how tokens of value are supported. Vint argues that “as a genre that defamiliarises the present by exaggerating it into an imagined future, science fiction can serve a vital role in reminding us that money is a social technology, not a thing,” citing Andrew Niccol’s film In Time (2009) as an example, where “the unit of account is simply time” (63). Time becomes “capital” that the rich accumulate and the poor cannot acquire, showing the “fundamental injustice” of the economic system (64-65). She draws a parallel to the impact of austerity imposed by the IMF on the debt burdened world, calling for a cancellation of debt like the “Biblical Law of the Jubilee” (68-72).  

The fourth essay is a close reading by Brian Williams of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), “Automating Economic Revolution” (73-92). Utopian ideas of an automated, workless future with a guaranteed basic income in a decarbonized world are both “tropes of science fiction as potential signposts for a future economics” and unlikely to be realized if the future is seen as on “lockdown” with all options “subsumed by neoliberal strategies” (74). Citing Fredric Jameson’s comment that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” (75), Williams explores how economic change could be “automated” and “create utopia in the midst of [. . .] depression” (76) and argues that Heinlein’s novel demonstrates how this can be accomplished, relying on the centralized computer AI personality of Mike, who creates the blueprint for revolution that the prison colonists on the Moon are able to implement with Mike’s help (77-92). The “revolutionary cell group” with Mike as its center (almost like a god) is one version of how automated revolution could occur (80). Williams shows parallels in Heinlein’s novel to Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics similar to the concept of “performative economics” seen in the Black-Scholes-Merton model of options trading’s impact on the economy (81), and explores the role of computers in enabling high frequency trading (HFT), the rise of derivatives, options and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) (87-92), all of which had unfortunate consequences for humanity in the financial crisis of 2007-2010.

Section II (“Capitalist Dystopias”) includes Carina Brand’s exploration in “Feeding Like a Parasite” of the “dystopian, expansionary drive of capitalism” through the concept of “extraction,” including the harvesting of our digital data to “extract value from us during the full 24-hour day” (103). Next are two fictional pieces, one by the artists’ collective AUDINT called “Pain Camp Economics” which hypothesizes a world in which corporations and nations are merged to address scarcity of resources by creating a currency based on human pain, followed by Khairani Barokka’s story “AT392-Red” (139-146) in which a case study of an arson investigation explores how an inhuman scheme of “Biodiversity Credits” to ration and allocate disability benefits might be implemented and the resistance it would provoke. Davies suggests that this is a satire of the UK’s “punitive welfare reforms brought in under austerity” (94), but it could equally apply to attempts to restrict social security disability in the Trump administration, or the abuse of carbon offset credits to excuse continued carbon pollution by industrial nations. Nora O Murchú’s “The New Black” shows the depressing impact of “post-Fordist work” (94) where there are no boundaries between life and work, the passage of time is seized by management, and life is consumed by overtime and compliance with the system.

Dan G. Brady and James Pockson, writing as PostRational, conclude this section with a faux consultancy report: “Fatberg and the Sinkholes: A Report on the Findings of a Journey into the United Regions of England.” Fatberg represents London, from which the rest of England has seceded to form the United Regions (URE), and the essay compares the concentration of wealth in London, where things “are going well. [. ..] Productivity and the economy are booming. Disrupt, capitalize, optimise, repeat” (167) with the more diffuse, cooperative and low-tech style of life that has evolved in the regions under the rubric of “absorbism.” The premise is that the URE were exhausted and exploited by diversion of wealth to London, and developed an “interest in resilience, not growth” (176). Looking at infrastructure, architecture, and personal relations, the essay highlights the contrast between the individualism implicit in capitalism with the cooperative decision-making of absorbism: “Absorbism means withstanding shock, a person is a member who forms relationships” (198).

Section III, “Design for a Different Future,” begins with an illustrated historical piece by Owen Hatherley, “Prefabricating Communism: Mass Production and the Soviet City” (207-235). Next is Mark R. Johnson’s essay “Megastructures, Superweapons and Global Architecture in SF Computer Games” with examples from games Halo, Half-Life, Killzone and Mass Effect. Johnson argues that “in game constructions [. . .] are serving as the site for experimenting with possible techno-economic futures [. . .]” (238). The games all posit megastructures left behind by a long departed super race, and they appear to rely largely on assumed techno-science solutions, abundance of resources in post-scarcity societies, or slave labor, none of which provides a plausible setting for actual possible futures. Focusing on games, the essay overlooks the classic example of Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and its sequels in the Known Space universe, though it does acknowledge the appearance of megastructures in the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises (252). The games create “entire worlds to be experienced by viewers and players” (255), and are both time-sinks and a source of fun. But it is implausible to think that they can provide insight into actual solutions for the here and now on Earth. Indeed, the proliferation of data miners and gold farming on-line in China and other developing countries to raise real-world cash, the tricks of some to curtail this by inserting “Free Taiwan” into data streams, and the political reaction to some game content on streaming sites shows that the impact of gaming may simply be to reinforce the existing system.

The two remaining essays in this Section focus on using design methods for thinking about “alternative economic paradigms” (Bastien Kerspem) and using speculative design to reimagine “economic life and realization of utopian plans” (Tobias Revell (206). The latter cites the history of SF exploring diverse economic conditions, from Star Trek’s “post-scarcity” to Margaret Atwood’s free market in Oryx and Crake (2003) or the “calorie economics” of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) (281). It reviews a variety of projects aimed at challenging the underlying assumptions in designed objects, and suggests “changes in social, economic or cultural conditions” that can then be reflected in newly “designed material objects” and “challenge and disrupt” the assumed “techno-utopia” in objects as they exist today (282-283).

Section IV concludes with four distinct approaches for considering how to work towards utopias. Tim Jackson’s very personal essay, “Shooting the Bridge: Liminality and the End of Capitalism,” explores the question of transformation from older more physically demanding modes of transport and exploration to the faster, more technological present by narrating a sailing trip with his children where it is imperative to drop sail and lower the mast at just the right point of tide to be able to get through the low arch of a Medieval bridge and cross the threshold to what lies beyond. His journey  explores the concept of the liminal as a “fertile one in understanding [. . .] transitions of a social as well as a personal nature.[ . . .] [W]hat happens as one social order begins to break down and before another is established” (301). 

Anthropologist Judy Thorne creates a narrative based on interviews with students “struggling with day-to-day” realities who express both their concerns and their hopes for a better world (311). Miriam A. Cherry presents an alternative history of England’s Luddite movement during the early 19th century and proposes how it might have led to a more cooperative, non-violent and creative future leading us to an earlier expansion into space.  

Jo Walton concludes the volume with the story “Public Money and Democracy,” which portrays a world where fake news is a given despite passage of the “I said, I’M SORRY” law (342); a free-lance journalist named Laing covers monetary policy reform with a commitment to evidence, and the government is seeking to control the money supply for its militaristic purposes. Preferable policy options are demonized and government gets the policy (and news coverage) it wants. An alternative more democratic monetary policy is designed as a hobby by Laing’s friend Abiodun (an eternal intern) that supports a more hopeful future, through the design of “indie markets” he puts “up on KickMarket” as he “designs whole regional economies […] [and] makes up churning cities where everyone can be welcome and fed and safe, and wise and healthy and happy and free”(348). Walton concludes with a pitch for “Positive Money,” including the idea that when the Bank of England (or any central bank) creates new money, rather than channeling it through the usual banking institutions, it simply deposit it in individuals’ accounts to use as they please, or give to charity. The only rule is it must be spent or given away within a certain time, to bolster the economy (357), but creating currency this way would be more democratic and socially beneficial. The various ways nations are responding to the COVID-19 virus economic downturn reflect competing choices of this sort.

The book ends without a summing up or concluding essay by the editor. There is an index, and sources are well documented in footnotes, but there is no bibliography. The mixture of serious scholarship and unusual, intriguing and sometimes whimsical fiction and design theory makes for a pastiche or bricolage effect on the reader who will bear with the dense theoretical introductory material. It is aimed in part at getting economists to think about using science fiction to broaden their minds, and getting SF fans and authors to be more thoughtful as they design plausible and livable future worlds for their stories. I recommend this for library collections, editors and scholars, and in light of the current crisis, perhaps even for the general reader of SF.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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