A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Adams, Douglas. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980). How easy is it to distinguish socially useful labour from activities which are pointless, parasitic, counterproductive, or downright violent?

Douglas Adams has a tale for us. Long ago, on a distant planet, it became generally recognized that there were quite a lot of bullshit jobs around. The planet's inhabitants devised a plan to get rid of these pointless jobs ... as well as the people who performed them.

Oddly enough, the plan involved a poet, who told a tale of the coming apocalypse. The people with the pointless jobs -- mostly management types, although also some telephone-sanitizers etc. -- were packed off to colonize a backwater planet. "We'll be right behind you," everybody else shouted into space, and of course they weren't. Ha ha ha! There was no apocalypse coming after all! ... or was there?

Anyway, can you guess which planet was colonized? That's right, prehistoric Earth. And yes, we humans are the descendants of the pointless jobs people. This is demonstrated not so much by shared genetics, so much as by shared attitudes and agendas. Witness our wise and noble ancestors, in the weeks after planetfall:
"[...] 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, by the way, see Kendrick LamarNalo Hopkinson, Clifford D. Simak, and Adam Roberts. The leaf currency is not the only (supposedly) impractical currency in Adams's novel:
"[...] 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. [...]"
However, a credit theory of money might say there's nothing wrong with the Ningi/Pu system. Owning a Ningi wouldn't have to involve re-locating a physical object: a record in a ledger of who owns what should be enough. That way, I don't need to actually carry it around with me; in the words of A.A. Milne, "Wherever I am, there's always Pu / There's always Pu and me." Compare the famous stone money of Yap.

But back to those bullshit jobs. As a postscript, it's worth pointing out that the civilization which rids itself of its superfluous workers ends up perishing from an infectious disease contracted from an unsanitized telephone. The point of Adams's satire might be a slightly Burkeian one: OK, there is certainly a lot of labour which is superfluous or a hindrance to human happiness and flourishing ... but figuring out exactly what labour that is is a difficult and risky business. (Perhaps the Bullshit Work Inspector can help?)

Talking points:
  • How does the proposal to get rid of bullshit jobs differ from the kind of ruthless, supposedly efficiency-driven restructuring that is sometimes proposed by management consultants?
  • How might pointless jobs be defined, identified, and removed?
  • Is David Graeber's way of understanding bullshit jobs (see below) the best way?
  • Why might getting rid of the people feel easier than getting rid of the roles?
  • Is there a slightly genocidal edge to jokes about getting rid of an economically parasitic stratum of society?
  • How does a job alter the way you think and act in a non-professional context? How do "jobs" relate to "social types"?
  • How should we consider Adams's fable from the perspectives of various post-work theorists and activists?
  • Writing prompt: "Augeas's Stability." Someone is tasked with removing all the pointless work from an economy. Somehow they are allowed several goes -- time travel, a simulation, or just a number of planets to try it out on. At first they run into a lot of problems. What kinds? Does it all work out in the end?
  • Do you have a pointless job? (BBC)
In Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018), David Graeber develops a quite particular category of "bullshit jobs." This is heavily based on whether the person doing the job believes it has any social value. Graeber acknowledges that the approach has limitations -- for instance, sometimes tasks are broken up and distributed in ways which disguise what they are really about -- but it's probably good enough, since they are in the best position of anyone to know, and nobody has really worked out a way to measure the social value of work (as opposed to the mere market value).

It also doesn't really capture another tier you might want to send to another planet, the upper echelons surrounded by flunkies and yesmen, who may well convince themselves that their jobs are not pointless. This sort of works quite well in Graeber's theory, though, since it is mainly the upper echelons who generate the structural opportunities for bullshit jobs. Graeber suggests five broad categories of bullshit jobs: flunkies (who do little except increase the status of their bosses), goons (who convince people to buy things they don't want), duct tapers (who fix the mistakes of senior people who could have just done the things themselves), box tickers (who allow organisations to claim they're doing something that they aren't really), and taskmasters (who create and supervise bullshit tasks and bullshit work). Graeber's book includes a fairly detailed discussion of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. He takes issue in particular with Adams's choice of hairdresser as a pointless occupation. Here's an extract:
Now, it’s obvious why this story might seem relevant to those who first hear of bullshit jobs, but the list is actually quite odd. For one thing, professional telephone sanitizers don’t really exist [...] and while advertising executives and used-car salesmen do—and are indeed professions society could arguably be better off without—for some reason, when Douglas Adams aficionados recall the story, it’s always the hairdressers they remember.

I will be honest here. I have no particular bone to pick with Douglas Adams; in fact, I have a fondness for all manifestations of humorous British seventies sci-fi; but nonetheless, I find this particular fantasy alarmingly condescending. First of all, the list is not really a list of useless professions at all. It’s a list of the sort of people a middle-class bohemian living in Islington around that time would find mildly annoying. Does that mean that they deserve to die?30 Myself, I fantasize about eliminating the jobs, not the people who have to do them. To justify extermination, Adams seems to have intentionally selected people that he thought were not only useless but also could be thought of as embracing or identifying with what they did.

[...] Before moving on, then, let us reflect on the status of hairdressers. Why is a hairdresser not a bullshit job? Well, the most obvious reason is precisely because most hairdressers do not believe it to be one. To cut and style hair makes a demonstrable difference in the world, and the notion that it is unnecessary vanity is purely subjective: Who is to say whose judgment of the intrinsic value of hairstyling is correct? Adams’s first novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which became something of a cultural phenomenon, was published in 1979. I well remember, as a teenager in New York in that year, observing how small crowds would often gather outside the barbershop on Astor Place to watch punk rockers get elaborate purple mohawks. Was Douglas Adams suggesting those giving them the mohawks also deserved to die, or just those hairdressers whose style sense he did not appreciate? In working-class communities, hair parlors often serve as gathering places; women of a certain age and background are known to spend hours at the neighborhood hair parlor, which becomes a place to swap local news and gossip. [...] It’s hard to escape the impression, though, that in the minds of those who invoke hairdressers as a prime example of a useless job, this is precisely the problem. They seem to be imagining a gaggle of middle-aged women idly gossiping under their metallic helmets while others fuss about making some marginal attempts at beautification on a person who (it is suggested), being too fat, too old, and too working class, will never be attractive no matter what is done to her. It’s basically just snobbery, with a dose of gratuitous sexism thrown in. 

 Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (pp. 20-21). Penguin Books Ltd.

(JLW)

Alcott, Louisa May. 'Transcendental Wild Oats'.

Louisa May Alcott, 'Transcendental Wild Oats: A Chapter from an Unwritten Romance' (1873).

Alcott's satire about a bungling 1840s Transcendental utopian community, and its extremely poor incentive design. It is inspired by the short-lived Fruitlands commune.
Transcendental wild oats were sown broadcast that year, and the fame thereof has not yet ceased in the land; for, futile as this crop seemed to outsiders, it bore an invisible harvest, worth much to those who planted in earnest. As none of the members of this particular community have ever recounted their experiences before, a few of them may not be amiss, since the interest in these attempts has never died out and Fruitlands was the most ideal of all these castles in Spain.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale

Here's a short review of Atwood's classic over at The Guardian (by Charlotte Newman), plus Margaret Atwood's entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia.

And here's a snippet:
"Sorry, he said. This number's not valid.
  That's ridiculous, I said. it must be, I've got thousands in my account. I just got the statement two days ago. Try it again.
  It's not valid, he repeated obstinately. See that red light? Means it's not valid.
  You must have made a mistake, I said. Try it again.
  He shrugged and gave me a fed-up smile, but he did try the number again. This time I watched his fingers, on each number, and checked the numbers that came up in the window. It was my number all right, but there was the red light again."
And:
She got up and went to the kitchen and poured us a couple of Scotches, and came back and sat down and I tried to tell her what had happened to me. When I'd finished, she said, Tried getting anything on your Compucard today?
  Yes, I said. I told her about that too.
  They've frozen them, she said. Mine too. The collective's too. Any account with an F on it instead of an M. All they needed to do is push a few buttons. We're cut off. 
Compare Brett Scott, "The War on Cash." Here's a snippet from that:
The proclaimed Death of Cash is thus an episode in the broader drama that is the Death of Privacy, the death of breathing room, and the death of informal, non-measured, unaccounted-for behaviour. Every action you take must forever be attached to your digital persona, dragging with it a data trail extending back to the day you were born. We face creating an entire generation of people who do not know what it feels like to not be monitored.
Atwood's novel is remarkable for many reasons. From the perspective of economics, it's perhaps also worth recognising that although this dystopia is primarily a satire against patriarchy -- and perhaps against separatist feminism -- it is also a sex positive satire, and a liberal satire against theocracy and totalitarianism.

It also has an elusive and awkward relationship with socialism and communism.

At one point June [Offred] thinks of the slogan, "From each according to her abilities, to each according to his needs," which she believes might be from the Bible. Actually it's a corruption of Marx (where the pronouns are "he" and "his": in the gender neutral sense, to include everybody, but then again, maybe not really). There is another moment in the novel with a similarly curious relationship to leftist politics and economics. It alludes to Berlin's two types of freedom, negative and positive:
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
Classical liberals like Constant and perhaps Mill tend to be more interested in safeguarding negative freedom, "freedom from," whereas thinkers like Rousseau and Marx have a lot more time for positive freedom, "freedom to" (cf. Rousseau's infamous "forced to be free"). But Atwood does it the other way round: quite plausibly and gracefully, she has a spokesperson from this totalitarian society defend it in terms of "freedom from."

(JLW)

Atwood, Margaret. MadAddam Trilogy

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.
(JLW) 

Atwood, Margaret. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008)

Non-fiction. Each of the book's five chapters was delivered as a one-hour lecture in a different Canadian city between October and November 2008. Adapted into a film in 2012:



I found the book entertaining and commendably sprawling but also weirdly elusive. For more on debt see David Graeber and Charles Stross. (Atwood's Debt is one I really must come back to though, perhaps in an actual proper book).

Talking point:
  • Why do we have bankruptcy law? In what ways might bankruptcy law ameliorate and/or exacerbate economic injustice? (Also discuss limited liability).
(JLW)

Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (2009).

Biopunk SF set in the 23rd century. It is a world in which everyone is very attuned to the calorific significance of everything that is going on around them, although the calorie hasn't quite taken over money's unit of account function.

Here is a snippet:
Chaiyanuchit remembered the beginning of the plagues. Not many could claim that. And when Jaidee was just a young draftee, he was lucky enough to work in the man’s office, bringing dispatches.
          Chaiyanuchit understood what was at stake, and what had to be done. When the borders needed closing, when ministries needed isolating, when Phuket and Chiang Mai needed razing, he did not hesitate. When jungle blooms exploded in the north, he burned and burned and burned, and when he took to the sky in His Majesty the King’s dirigible, Jaidee was blessed to ride with him.
         By then, they were only mopping up. AgriGen and PurCal and the rest were shipping their plague-resistant seeds and demanding exorbitant profits, and patriotic generippers were already working to crack the code of the calorie companies’ products, fighting to keep the Kingdom fed as Burma and the Vietnamese and the Khmers all fell. AgriGen and its ilk were threatening embargo over intellectual property infringement, but the Thai Kingdom was still alive. Against all odds, they were alive. As others were crushed under the calorie companies’ heels, the Kingdom stood strong.
Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl (p. 120).

(JLW)

Banks, Iain M. The Culture series

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).
I wrote about this a little bit in the reflective part of my PhD. I said:
"This episode suggests a technologically privileged and sexually liberal version of commodity theory, with the same progression from inconvenient, illiquid, spot-trade barters to more conveniently liquid transactions. The tenacity of money in the Culture series, flourishing inside its homines economici like gut microbiomes [...] suggests a failure to fully erase money."
(JLW)

Banks, Iain M. The Algebraist

Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist (2005). A non-Culture novel (although barely, I reckon). In terms of economics, it's notable for its reputation currency kudos (used by the Dwellers). Here's a snippet:
Bribing creatures who found the concept of money merely amusing tended to tax even the most enterprising and talented arbitrageur. The Dwellers clove to a system in which power was distributed, well, more or less randomly, it sometimes seemed, and authority and influence depended almost entirely on one's age; little leverage there.  
Alternatively, every now and again a species would attempt to take by force of arms what those involved in Dweller Studies attempted to wrest from the Dwellers by polite but dogged inquiry. Force, it had been discovered - independently, amazingly often - did not really work with Dwellers. They felt no pain, held their own continued survival (and that of others, given the slightest provocation) to be of relatively little consequence and seemed to embody, apparently at the cellular level, the belief that all that really mattered, ever, was a value unique to themselves which they defined as a particular kind of kudos, one of whose guiding principles appeared to be that if any outside influence attempted to mess with them they had to resist it to the last breath in the bodies of all concerned, regardless.
And another:
The problem was that to the Dwellers all professions were in effect hobbies, all posts and positions sinecures. This tailor that Y'sul and the City Administrator were babbling on about would have had no real need to be a tailor, he was just somebody who'd found he possessed an aptitude for the pastime (or, more likely, for the gossiping and fussing generally associated with it). He would take on clients to increase his kudos, the level of which would increase proportionally the more powerful were the people he tailored for, so that somebody in a position of civil power would constitute a favoured client, even if that position of power had come about through a lottery, some arcanely complicated rota system or plain old coercive voting - jobs like that of City Administrator were subject to all those regimes and more, depending on the band or zone concerned, or just which city was involved. The City Administrator, in return, would be able to drop casually into just the right conversations the fact she had such a well-known, high-kudos tailor. Obviously Y'sul had had sufficient kudos of his own to be able to engage the services of this alpha-outfitter too. People further down the pecking order would have employed less well-connected tailors, or just got their clothes from Common, which was Dweller for, in this particular case, off-the-peg, and in general just meant mass-produced, kudos-free, available-as-a-matter-of-right-just-because you're-a-Dweller . . . well, pretty much anything, up to and including spaceships.
Kudos makes for some interesting comparisons with Cory Doctorow's Whuffie, Karen Lord's social credit, and the trust "currency" of Michael Swanwick's millies.

Also see Abigail Nussbaum's review.

(JLW)

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000-1887

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). 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. The individual spends their credit to claim their share of the national product. The rations are so generous, however, that individuals often find they have credits left over at the end of the year; these are then spent on public goods (such as making everywhere look beautiful).

Although everybody's "wages" are fixed at the same level by a ferocious egalitarian principle, there is something which sounds rather a lot like market mechanisms -- or at least, like a command economy simulating market mechanisms -- mediatized not by money, but by leisure time. You could look at it like this: workers are (in a way) paid different hourly rates, but hours that they work are carefully regulated to ensure that all total incomes are equal:
"The supply of volunteers is always expected to fully equal the demand," replied Dr. Leete. "It is the business of the administration to see that this is the case. The rate of volunteering for each trade is closely watched. If there be a noticeably greater excess of volunteers over men needed in any trade, it is inferred that the trade offers greater attractions than others. On the other hand, if the number of volunteers for a trade tends to drop below the demand, it is inferred that it is thought more arduous. It is the business of the administration to seek constantly to equalize the attractions of the trades, so far as the conditions of labor in them are concerned, so that all trades shall be equally attractive to persons having natural tastes for them. This is done by making the hours of labor in different trades to differ according to their arduousness. The lighter trades, prosecuted under the most agreeable circumstances, have in this way the longest hours, while an arduous trade, such as mining, has very short hours. There is no theory, no a priori rule, by which the respective attractiveness of industries is determined. The administration, in taking burdens off one class of workers and adding them to other classes, simply follows the fluctuations of opinion among the workers themselves as indicated by the rate of volunteering [...]"
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 while Bellamy is classifiable as a feminist, 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.
(JLW)

Beukes, Lauren. Moxyland

Lauren Beukes, Moxyland (2008). Review originally appeared on Aargh and doesn't just focus on the economic aspects.

If you are going to write an archetypically bursting-at-the-seams first novel, then cyberpunk is an excellent genre in which (and bursting slightly out of which) to write it.

We get four narrators: Kendra, a Z-list schleb photographer, interested in the aesthetics of both obsolete and prototype technologies; Toby, a vile trustafarian with a magic vlogcaster suit; Tendeka, a slightly naïve community organizer and political activist; and Lerato, an AIDS orphan done good as a hacker with a snazzy corporate day-job. They roll around, exemplifying themselves and their world, occasionally explicitly brushing against each other, occasionally suggesting some more obscure, behind-the-scenes connections, until a horrific police crack-down on a rather intricate scene of civil disorder draws their four narratives together for the final act.

One of them melts.

I saw a review somewhere which suggested that Beukes has written a globalized, homogenized cyberpunk dystopia, in which corporate totalitarianism usurps any strong sense of place. I have to disagree – at least inasmuch as Beukes doesn’t hold back on the South Africanisms, both vocabulary and speech rhythms. In fact, I wonder about the extent to which Moxyland is two novels, depending on a reader’s familiarity with South African English: there’s something quite gleefully trolling about asking some of your readership to dip into stockpiles of negative capability earmarked for alien civilizations, just to cope with how some people are really talking today. Swak is not drek but it could feel that way. (I think the brand names – “it’s going to be toyota” etc. – are Beukes’s own near future neologisms, but I’m not sure).

One drawback for the relatively non-South African reader (South Africanness is all relative hey) is that they may hear less of the differentiating nuance of the four voices. With its multiple viewpoints, and its headlong worldbuilding, the first half of the novel could almost be a disaster. But there’s plenty to pull you through. There are some sharp science fiction conceits. That bio-sig pen, for instance, which mixes a little of your DNA into the drying ink of your signature, and the delivery of a bouquet surrounded by GM butterflies programmed never to stray too far from your office desk: both had me hopped up to my eyeballs with readerly trust. Beukes also has a gift for what I’ll lazily and imprecisely call “set-pieces.” She knows how to layer and pace volatile situations where snap decisions matter. And there are nuggets of beauteous prose prosody: “. . . yield a juicy maggot, let alone mielies. It’s all cliché, a communal sepia-toned memory that all us Aidsbabies have in common . . .” or “It’s a mural, giant-scale and kif skilful, of a Nguni cow in profile.”

(Not that I dislike disasters, necessarily).

Given the black humour which pervades the book, it’s possible Beukes did miss a trick by making Toby quite so unlikable – I think most readers will be able to feel comfortably superior to Toby, whereas Beukes was clearly capable of making his voice theoretically abhorrent but actually quite charming.

But maybe it’s not a missed trick so much as a deliberate trade-off: it sharpens the allegory. By the end of Moxyland, it is not difficult to interpret the fates of the four characters as characteristic fates (or median fates, or modal fates) of the values they embody. I think perhaps cyberpunk and allegory are both ways of writing that are constitutively invested in representing the systemic (e.g. really showing the workings of capitalism and patriarchy, not just how they present themselves to us. Doxing them, if you will). So it’s pretty damn yaris to discover allegory operating so multifariously and nebulously within a cyberpunk novel.

One small example. If there was a sf-style exposition of how phones work in Beukes’s world, I missed it. It doesn’t matter: the phones make total sense anyway. The technology seems to involve some degree of bodily integration (police use your own phone to sort of tase you), so the job could have been done – plot-wise – by neural implants, but it was a masterful stroke to go with phones instead. That’s because phones are far more allegorically suggestive. It is very easy to elide the phones with “all the ways in which we are reliant on technology, especially networked technology which opens our lives to inspection and control by state and/or private sector bureaucracy,” at least as a working hypothesis, while we gather clues about the mechanisms involved. Having a phone means being governed in particular ways, but not having one means belonging to an underclass.

In this, perhaps the phone has a logic in common with the animal of Beukes’s next, rather more polished novel, the urban fantasy Zoo City. That is, the (lack of a) phone in Moxyland, like the animal in Zoo City, is a way of symbolizing social stratification, but without absorbing or displacing the kinds of stratification we already know about – economic, racial, gender – instead the phone gets wriggled back inside the interlocking matrix it’s supposed to symbolize, complicating it even further.

I wonder if there are some fruitful connections here between governmentality and gamification, or at least gaming more generally. There is certainly some interesting stuff here about gaming, reality, and various intricate blurrings and nestings of the two. The title puts the spotlight on this aspect. And I'm dying to ruminate on race and Kendra's skin. But I won’t get into any of that now: this was meant to be a short review ^_^ and besides, there have already been some intriguing pixels spilled about this book: not least this brace over at Strange Horizons; Sean Green asking some interesting questions about the portrayal of activism (and pointing out the precise timing of the novel’s publication, post Iraq invasion and subprime mortgage crisis, pre Occupy); Martin Petto on Beukes and Gibson; and Jonathan McCalmont also on the broader context of cyberpunk, positioning Moxyland at the satirical end: deconstructing the myth of the cool outsider by portraying such characters as victims. I think he’s right about the “smiling grimly.”

(JLW)

Borenstein, Greg. @SpeculativeCash

Automatic text generation has been around since c.forever, and so has recombinant artwork. But both these things have turned a corner with the rise of Twitter bots. The critical language and tools for understanding Twitter bots, who are both poets and poems, both cultural producers and cultural products, is still pretty incipient. Nevertheless, if anything deserves entry to a database of economic speculative fiction, it's Greg Borenstein's @speculativecash bot. Borenstein's bot does one thing, constantly: invents new forms of money.
Some of its ideas are a bit gobbledy-gooky, but that's OK. To imagine the implementation and assess the implications of a new currency, you have to get yourself in an active and flexible frame of mind anyway. You need to sort out the puzzle pieces for yourself. Of course it's made up thousands of currencies. Here are just a few of them:
  • Audiocassette Bank: A distributed ledger system implemented using a cassette containing blank or prerecorded audiotape. 
  • Dadge Chips: A new crypto currency employing a dialectal variant of dodge. 
  • Gonadotropic Bucks: An alternative currency acting on or stimulating the gonads: a gonadotropic hormone. [See also: affect-based currency]
  • Hashmark Payments: A form of currency based on an insignia worn on the uniform to indicate years of service. [See also: sartorial currency]
  • Iconicity Notes: A payment scheme built on the state of being iconic (in all meanings) 
  • Integron Checks: A new crypto currency employing a system of gene capture and dissemination [See also: eugenics]
  • Interethnic Bills: A medium of exchange that depends on between ethnic groups, or their members 
  • Internationalise Chips: An alternative currency that encourages users to make something international; to involve multiple nations. 
  • Irreparableness Bills: A medium of exchange that depends on the quality of being irreparable. Misadvise Chips: A digital currency to advise wrongly. 
  • Masquerader Cash: A distributed ledger system implemented using one who masquerades; a person wearing a mask; one disguised. [See also: reputation-based currencysartorial currency]
  • Moanful Wage: A new crypto currency full of moaning; expressing sorrow. [See also: affect-based currency]
  • Memoria Coinage: A payment scheme built on memory. [See also: memory-based currency]
  • Nature-myth Bills: A form of currency based on a myth symbolical of or supposed to be based on natural phenomena. 
  • Orientation Notes: A distributed ledger system implemented using sexual orientation. 
  • Photosynthesize Fund: A distributed ledger system that forces transactions to perform the process of photosynthesis. [See also: organic currencyecological economics]
  • Process Coin: A medium of exchange that depends on progress; passage: the process of time; events now in process. 
  • Roundaboutness Coin: A form of currency based on the quality of being roundabout or circuitous. 
  • Ruelle Coin: A new crypto currency employing the space between the bed and the wall. 
  • Security Bills: A form of currency based on measures adopted to prevent escape: Security in the prison is very tight. 
  • Triangularity Checks: A form of currency based on the state or quality of having the shape of a triangle. [See also: triangulation]
  • Verbivore Specie: A digital currency based on one who has an enjoyment of words and wordplay. 
  • Witchlike Notes: A distributed ledger system for people who are resembling a witch or some aspect of one.
Borenstein has created some other interesting bots, including @punimalfarm and @fantasticvocab. It feels to me like, under the hood, @fantasticvocab and @speculativecash may have one or two parts in common. Even if they don't, the relationship between money and language is fascinating, and ripe for further exploration (by speculative fiction, and in other ways).

In The Social Life of Money, Nigel Dodd writes that,like language, "money is inherently metaphorical [...] Operating as a system of comparison, money connects what would otherwise be unrelated" (Dodd 2014: 35). One influential tradition sees money and language as basically rivals. The idea that money can invade language, and steal language's social functions, is a very old and very influential idea: something like it crops up, for instance, in work by Ferdinand Tönnies, Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi, Hannah Arendt, and Jürgen Habermas (some associated key phrases include "alienation," "disembedding," "colonization of the lifeworld"). When money does usurp our language, we become like a bee hive whose rich stores have been replaced by the beekeeper's thin sugar gruel. You can see how getting rid of money might feel like a utopian thing to do.

More recent work by Viviana Zelizer and others has challenged this view, claiming that the relationship between money and language is more complicated. Zelizer focuses on the particularity of money: how no two cents are exactly the same, because of the different meanings that people attach to them. It does seem that the world is probably ready for the next step, some kind of synthesis of the classic tradition with Zelizer's critiques of it, which is also informed by recent developments around blockchains and digital metric assemblages.

As well as being a piece of writing, and a writer, @speculativebot is also writing tool. It is a self-replenishing seed bank of story ideas, and of fantastical worldbuilding colors (indigo, orange, jale, ulfire). The site you are on features many marvelous moneys. Furthermore, there are indications that, despite all the efforts of mainstream economics to rigidly limit the ways in which its core ideas are used, speculative fiction writers are beginning to quite seriously mess around with economics. (Perhaps the capitalist imaginary is getting crumbly around the edges after all!) At the same time, overall, in the 20th and early 21st centuries, speculative fiction authors do seem to have given relatively little attention to economics compared to other aspects of worldbuilding.

While many high fantasy novels, for instance, contain maps laying out speculative geographies, or appendices laying out speculative alphabets and languages, few include diagrams explaining a speculative monetary system (if you know of them, please submit!). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says of money that “[p]recisely because it is so basic […] speculative thought has rarely focused on it” (Stableford and Langford 2015). Many works, of course, portray worlds from which money is entirely eliminated (or at least, apparently so) to suggest a primordial heroic past or a sophisticated future (utopian, dystopian, ambiguous, miscellaneous) which has in some way outgrown the need for it.  Others mention money in an offhand and fleeting way, as if it functioned in the imaginary world just as it does in the real world. Where money is concerned, speculative fiction’s rules of thumb to take nothing for granted, and to expect the unexpected, seem not to apply. In yet other works, money is not mentioned at all, leaving readers – those who are interested in such things – perplexed as to whether money is part of the world of the work or not.

@speculativecash is helping to rapidly make up for lost time.

Background reading on the relationship between money and language:
(JLW)

Brunner, John. Total Eclipse

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

Here's the relevant bit (big spoiler alert):
“But that’s absurd,” Lucas said after a pause. “Going bankrupt— well, it could bring down a civilisation, but it couldn’t wipe out an entire species.”
“It could!” Ian insisted. “Look, it occurred to us to wonder whether the Draconians traded among themselves, and we decided yes, they must have, but it never occurred to any of us to ask what kind of currency they employed.”
Cathy jumped to her feet. “The printed crystals!” she burst out. “Those can’t have been money!”
Karen shouted. “You’d find money all over everywhere, not concentrated in great big storehouses—”
[like, an hour later] 
“Am I being obtuse?” Karen said. “Or have you not yet explained how going bankrupt killed them off?”
“I was just coming to the details of that. I think I already said— excuse me, but my head is buzzing insanely with all the implications— I think I said I started asking what an individual could accumulate by way of reward, or payment.”
There was a brief hush. Nadine ventured, “Promises that when he became she, there would be outstanding genetic lines reserved to— uh— to her?”
“That’s it. That’s what killed them.” Igor leapt to his feet and started pacing back and forth, thumping fist into palm. “I’ve almost got it,” he said. “You mean that without realising what they were doing, they restricted their genetic pool until it became dangerous, and then it was too late. Like fortunes being concentrated in the hands of a few ultra-powerful families? A sort of genetic capitalism?”


(JLW)

Butler, Octavia. The Parable of the Sower.

Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (1993)

Entry at the ISFDB.

Cavendish, Margaret. The Blazing World.

Margaret Cavendish. The Description of a New World, called The Blazing-World (1668).
None was allowed to use or wear Gold but those of the Imperial Race, which were the onely Nobles of the State; nor durst any one wear Jewels but the Emperor, the Empress and their Eldest Son; notwithstanding that they had an infinite quantity both of Gold and precious Stones in that World; for they had larger extents of Gold, then our Arabian Sands; their precious Stones were Rocks, and their Diamonds of several Colours; they used no Coyn, but all their Traffick was by exchange of several Commodities.
Full text.