Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon (1999). A sprawling hysterical-realist adventure techno-thriller that made me a bit sad, in a what-a-waste-of-enormous-talent kind of way. Although it did make me laugh a bit too. Perhaps the kindest thing you can say about its politics is that they dated rapidly? Bro? Anyway, the novel partly concerns the establishment of a kind of cryptocurrency, although it never gets the careful infodump treatment Stephenson gives to some other subjects. In general the presiding political economy of the book has a belligerent libertarian goldbug feel to it, though Stephenson wisely never quite commits himself. Trust goes a long way in establishing a currency, but eventually you're going to need something with intrinsic value, like shiny heavy yellow metal. (I'm exaggerating). Some of the bits that I enjoyed, from an economics perspective, include the long description of how it is possible to have some gold and yet not really have it (it's in the jungle, through miles and miles of geopolitics), and the final lines of the novel, in which a enormous cache of gold is literally dynamited into liquidity.


Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Primer

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Primer (1995). This seminal work of postcyberpunk and of steampunk is also a seminal work of gamification SF. All the ingredients of a utopian vision of a comprehensively gamified society are present in the story, but connected and motivated in messy, subtle and unexpected ways.

For instance, we've got these "ractors" (actors in interactive media entertainment), who receive work via a kind of ThespRabbit. An individual employment may go on for years, or be as brief as a few seconds. Crucially, the human inputs are mapped onto avatars: if you were to take over from Jennifer Lawrence for a bit in the portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, the media system would autocorrect your voice and perhaps your walrus mustache. (Apologies to the community who are Jennifer Lawrence, who must feel confused and left out by this example). Why is this so important? The general point is that what workers feel that they are doing, and what they are objectively doing in terms of the production chain, can be interfered with at an intimate grain. The necessary unity of any task can be interrogated: is there another way to tease this task apart, to give a bit more of it (or perhaps, a bit less of it) to the machines?

There's plenty more in the book related to gamification: Nell's Night Friends -- Dinosaur, Duck, Peter and Purple -- have an aura of a small primitive social media site; the ecstatic Drummers are a kind of grotesque example of "flow," of loss of ego through immersion in action; there's that stuff about the street vs. the telephone switchboard.

But. The altar piece is clearly the Primer itself -- a majestic technological tome, with shades of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and a splendid illustration of Arthur C. Clarke's celebrated maxim that "Any sufficiently magical magic is indistinguishable from magic" -- which somehow floats into the hands of a poor and vulnerable four-year-old girl called Nell. The Primer mediates Nell's world for her, spinning her an epic interactive fairytale (starring "Princess Nell") which allegorises her various violent, abusive and increasingly philosophical predicaments, whilst teaching her all she needs to survive and existentially flourish (martial arts, decorum, hacking, obviously). As The Diamond Age progresses, Nell's book begins to feel more and more like a computer game (clearly influenced by 90s point-and-click adventure games). The convention of using a different font to represent the Primer's text becomes more scarce.

Like most good allegories, the Primer's allegory is a slippery one. The Primer's Queen of the Dark Castle is clearly a correlate of Nell's mother, but the Queen does plenty of significant stuff which doesn't seem inspired by Nell's mother, and vice-versa. Nell's brother Harv appears in the Primer as just Harv, but also seems to have a connection with Peter Rabbit (they disappear around the same time, for instance). There's not a one-to-one cipher: correlations come and go. You get the impression that the allegory might work a bit like the racting: 'let's see what's available at the moment.'

Likewise, Nell doesn't simply unlock achievements in her Primer or advance to the next story by demonstrating she has mastered some real world skill. Nor does the Primer elide its fairytale with her surroundings so that winning the game is indistinguishable from winning life. The Primer informs and incentivises, it provokes action, but it also comforts, cares, offers the solaces of shrouds and distortions, and immersive escapism. The relations between game and extra-game world can be just as slippery and mercurial as the relations of allegory.


Swanwick, Michael. 'From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled...'

Michael Swanwick, "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled..." (2008). Features a civilization, the millies, who use trust as currency. It is a maddenly subtle choice of buck. On the one hand, this could be a cosmetic alteration to our own economic system. Money is, after all, typically without intrinsic use value, and only functions as money insofar as it is trusted as a medium of exchange, store of value and unit of account. So perhaps these "millie-on-airs" unmask and demystify what goes on around us every day. On the other hand, trust is so deeply and intricately implicated in what money is, that it's not clear it could fulfill the role of money (at least, not in the ways we're used to). You can put your trust in shells or brass rods, but can you put your trust in trust itself? Story online at Clarkesworld.

Tomaras, Joseph. The Libidinal Economy of the Suburbs

Joseph Tomaras, "The Libidinal Economy of the Suburbs" (2016). Very tenuously about economics and not really speculative fiction. A brief exchange in a cafe is minutely explicated, except, of course, that it becomes more ambiguous rather than less. Is that really what "I'm just trying to drive my kids crazy" meant? Story online at Flapperhouse.

The phrase "fuck your brains out" is kind of intriguing in the context of the theme of the libidinal economy. Compare "fuck the shit out of me." Also compare Lyotard maybe:
"Now, here comes the question of symbolic exchange: this fear [of impotence, of things going nowhere, of nothing happening] is not, as we have thought, the fear of no longer being able to give. The category of the gift is a theatrical idea, it belongs to semiology, it presupposes a subject, a limit of his proper body and his property, and the generous transgression of this property. When Lacan says: to love is to give what one has not, he means: to forget that one is castrated. It should mean: one never has anything, there is no subject, and so there is nothing but love; not only is there never anything to give because one has nothing, but there is no-one to give, or to receive. It is in the theory of signs that donatory exchange (or the gift as the primitive form of exchange) may be represented as the attribution of devolution of an object charged with affects to someone who at the beginning of the cycle didn't have it: for the sign is just something which replaces something else, hides and manifests something else, for someone, for the addressee (and also for the sender). This problematic, coming from Jakobson to Lacan, that is to say the theory of communication, carries with it the entire philosophy of the subject, the philosophy of a body haunted by self-appropriation and property since the theory of communication is obviously just as much a piece of economic theory. Mauss must not be read as the discovery of a 'precapitalist', or at least a mercantilist, economy, but as the invention and the perfecting, in the heart of this economy, of its indespensable complement of anteriority-exteriority. Replace the gift with symbolic exchange and you remain in the same sphere, for exchange also takes place amongst unitary bodies or those destined to be unitary, even if they are prevented for ever (by the 'bar of the signifier') from bringing this unity about, and even if they are always driven by their splitting in two, by the Entzweiung, as Hegel used to say, to exchange something, even if only pieces of themselves; the exchangists remain perforated, like poles or ideas of (mercantilist) reason rather than as existants, it remains that exchange requires this polarization, this encephalization, and an in-and-out movement, a cycle of flows, the circle of a market and its central balance. Whether or not one exchanges affects does not modify this configuration, it simply dramatizes it. [...] Exchange is no less 'humanist' than production [...] Circulation is no less suspect than production, it is only, as Marx well knew, a particular case of production taken it the broad sense. Let's rather place oursilves in the sense of this production in the broad sense, which is the general metamorphosis of everything which takes place on bodies and inscribes itself into the social body, haunted by the idea of a ceaseless general metamorphosis, or of a general production without inscription, which is nothing other than the great skin; we wonder instead what are the characteristics of the figure which makes the passage from this latter to inscribed production, the characteristics of the dispostif of inscription which constitutes social voluminosity." 
He goes on to talk about a urinal.


Van Zant, Loren. Mutiny on the Mohawk

Loren Van Zant, Mutiny on the Mohawk (2016). Space opera with wampum currency. "Sinister crouched down into a cocorinha, a squatting escape maneuver, and the holographic Yoruba god curled back upon himself in a spiraling whir. There was another surging roar and this time Sinister could distinguish individual bets being shouted out in wampum denominations." (loc. 740-743).


Vance, Jack. The Moon Moth

Jack Vance, "The Moon Moth" (1961). Online. I'm not as convinced that strakh is as currency-like as people sometimes say. That sentence about medium-of-exchange is taken a bit too literally, perhaps. (Strakh also appears, by the way, to be Niven's Kzin's word for an honor, which also ambiguously takes the place of currency).


Walton, Jo Lindsay. Marta and the Demons

Marta and the Demons by me. Big time. Smashwords. Also "The Internet of Things Your Mother Never Told You" in Twelve Tomorrows 2016. As well as Pokemoney, there's something buried in that weird bit at the end which isn't totally dissimilar to Wilkins's conceit. Also the forthcoming (maybe) "The Reduced Racine Yakuza Co." and also "Zippety Doo Da, Zippety Data."


Weinersmith, Zach. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Zach Weinersmith's SMBC web comic frequently goes into a kind of speculative mode, sometimes with a hell-for-leather extrapolative velocity, enabled by his keen ear for rational-sounding sophistry. He also sometimes touches on economics. And just occasionally, both at once.

Wilkins, Patrick. 'Money is the Root of All Good'

Patrick Wilkins, "Money is the Root of All Good" (1954). This is really interesting, although pretty straightforward pulpy in its execution. It's interesting as well to remember that finance and stock markets in 1954 were not what they are today (the professionalization of stock analysis and the scientization of finance as an academic discipline pretty much took place in the 1960s and 70s). PDF in Here's an extended quotation:
"This sect maintained that an individual should not be paid on the basis of the work he did, but for the good deeds, or good thoughts he had. A small stipend was paid for actual work or production, to establish a workable basic economy and trade. This stipend was enough to cover all the basic wants of the individual. To procure luxuries, a citizen had to use the money he received for his good deeds or thoughts. Every time a man helped an old lady across the street, or came up with a bit of philosophical wisdom, he could record it with a central office and receive his luxury pay from the government. The purpose of the system was to make people emphasize virtue and quality in their lives. Instead of concentrating on profit for profit's sake, they would have to consider the inherent rightness and beauty of what they were doing.

"In such a system," Roald asked, "how could such a thing as a stock market possibly develop?"  
"Very simple, sir. This luxury pay, issued in a different currency than the commodity pay, could be used in any way a person saw fit. Some people naturally developed the idea of investing stock in a particularly virtuous or intelligent person. Every time that person did a good deed, the stockholders received a dividend from his luxury pay. All of the scientists and philosophers, therefore, became corporations in themselves, with as many as five thousand people holding stock in one man."  
"Sorry, Kim, but I don't get it. How could these incorporated individuals get any luxury pay for themselves if they had to hand it out to their stockholders?" 
"The administration would allow for that. A person received luxury pay in proportion to the number of stockholders that he claimed. The government had to do this since they indirectly were investing in these corporation men -- but I'll explain that later. The corporation-man lived off the original investments of stockholders, with some of the stock solvent for sales. In this way, the individual would profit from 'good doing' by receiving many new investments."  
"What is the social makeup of this Lyranc? It seems to me it would be a lunatic fringe de luxe, with every hack writer, thaumaturgist, or evangelist climbing aboard the gravy train."

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: