Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake

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.

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)

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.

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)