Econ-SF: a selection of works and authors

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Economic Science Fiction proper

Novels

  • Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow. Depicts an economy entirely based on DIY production, in the book made cheap at an arbitrarily small scale by advanced 3D printing and biotech. Production is organized like a Wikipedia-style project. The book makes the argument that reputation bookkeeping (kudos, karma etc.) invites gaming of the system, and is an inferior way to organize production to a pure gift economy (given some key abundances). It also makes the case for defection from mainstream society (exit in Hirschman’s terms) as a viable strategy when cheap, open tech is available.

  • Distraction, by Bruce Sterling. This novel focuses on politics, but the action happens against a backdrop of economic semi-collapse, where only about a third of people participate into the mainstream economy, and many of them do so by forming parts of the retinues of rich people (“krews”). Many people are nomads, and live on cheap-and-open tech and biotech. Nomad society is organized around “reputation servers” storing reputation as a currency. The book also contains a funny (but chilly) conversation in which one of the character, a car industry executive, explains why radical innovation is bad for business.

  • Makers, by Cory Doctorow. A near-future novel centered on Schumpeterian creative destruction, as enacted by a movement called New Work. New Work is all about very small, networked business units working as independent companies within large corporates (who no longer have a viable business model, but who do have viable plumbing and cash from the good old days). These companies dream up new products, build them on top of cheap, open source components, immediately get imitated and undercut by others, and move on to the next product, surfing the wave of novelty and high margins. The movement gets eventually busted by Wall Street pulling the plug on something it does not understand. Many ideas generated in economics are floating around Makers beside creative destruction: Bertrand competition, building-blocks technical innovation, Arrow’s paradox and others. @alberto wrote a complete review from the point of view of an economist.

  • Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. It’s a far future, earth-bound scenario with advanced biotech, under a corporate rulership primarily powered by extreme intellectural property rights. She goes deep in the debate between master-servant relationships, as the world features both classic human indebted servitude and autonomous artifically intelligent robots as well as into piracy, open knowledge, addiction and freedom.

  • Freedom TM, by Daniel Suarez. Suarez imagines a market economy based on “darknet credits”. It looks like prices of different things as denominated in darknet credits are determined by market mechanisms, but it’s hard to say. The darknet economy emerges in two steps: first, a complicated scheme enacted by a weak (but very effective) AI extracts money off large financial corporations, funding the transition to the new economy (a pretty bloody one, that entails eliminating some plutocrats and violently wiping out drug cartels). Second, the fledgling economy turns out to be very efficient, because it wastes much less energy in corporate bullshit and does not care about IPRs. The critique of the inefficiencies of late capitalism is sharp enough, but there is no real explanation for why the agents of the darknet economy do not become extractive and bullshitting like those of the mainstream economy.

  • Webs of Varok (Cary Neeper, 2012). In the book a woman from Earth is adopted into an alien family on a world which has a green, steady-state economy. (Mild spoiler) The villain of the book is somebody who doesn’t want to abide by the economic restrictions. Dr. Neeper (PhD in Microbiology, not Economics) uses the book to envisage what a steady state economy might be like unencumbered with Earth’s political history. She posts about her sources for the economics on her website at http://ArchivesOfVarok.com. The book interesting, but questions remain about how productivity growth (the economy of Varok devotes a large portion of is research to science) would effect the steady state economy.

  • Memoirs of a Spacewoman, by Naomi Mitchinson

  • The Final Circle of Paradise, by Strugatski Brothers

  • Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner

  • The Year 200, by Augustin de Roja

  • Michaelmas, by Algis Budrys

  • The Syndic, by C.M.Kornbluth

  • The Space Merchants, by Pohl and Kornbluth

  • Down and Out in the Magic Kindgom, by Cory Doctorow. Explores the idea of a reputation-based economy.

  • Neptunes Brood, by Charles Stross (loose sequel to Saturn’s Children and inspired by Debt: The First Five Thousand Years). “Neptune’s Brood invents an economic framework for space colonization, complete with fast, medium and slow cryptocurrencies. Because colonizing a star system is an insanely large investment that takes an insanely long time. Stross discusses his economic thinking on his blog.”

  • Subspace Explorers, by E. E. Smith (“The Principle of Enlightened Self Interest” as the basis of an economy)

  • Ring of Fire, by Eric Flint (Unions as the basis of commonwealth)

  • Centenal Cycle series, by Malka Olders (more political than economic but placing here for high relevance)
    Book 1: Infomocracy
    Book 2: Null States
    Book 3: State Tectonics

  • New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (The Villain: Soul-devouring stage-5 capitalism/ The Heroes: You and me/ Their Weapons: Pitchforks and mortgages/ The Dramatic Twist: An oligarch’s change of heart/ The Princess: Post-capitalist utopia)

  • Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford

  • Numbercaste, by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. A near-future novel where a Silicon Valley corporation replaces credit scoring with a quantification of their influence, scraped from social media. Sold with a bottom-up microservices model, the company integrates the use of this system into every customer-facing aspect of life - from restaurants to banks to nightclubs. Also examines a similar system being constructed in China but pushed using top-down methods. A key theme is how this quantification of social influence eventually cripples upward mobility (except in those who can game the system), due to children inheriting the social networks of their parents. A late-stage concept is how this ‘stick’ in turned into a ‘carrot’ - by means of an app that will now tell people who to talk to, who to mingle with, who to know based on the likelihood of it increasing their Number.

Short stories

  • The Unplugged, by Vinay Gupta. Short story, written in 2006 and speculating about 2030. Vinay (@hexayurt on Edgeryders) imagines a different form of saving (“three months of salary”) as a switch towards a different “Ricardian” economy, underwritten by natural capital + labour. Quite some economics there, in a sense anticipating Walkaway without the conflict. Read it here.

  • Green Days in Brunei, by Bruce Sterling. Features post-oil economic problems & politics. In here.

  • Cost of Living, by Robert Sheckley. You get credit by mortaging your child’s future earnings. e-book.

  • The Subliminal Man, by James Ballard. Hyperconsumerism forced upon people via technology, and planned obsolescence HTML

  • Horatius and Clodia, by Charlie Anders. The M1 money supply of the U.S. is digitized and entrusted to a self-aware AI. More of a moral tale. HTML.

  • The Writing Contest, by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. A future where ML models can easily figure out story structures and replicate entire novels and the whole entertainment market is essentially written by bots (Shakespeare 2.0 et al). The last showcase left for human writers is a writing contest. Writing as a career is no longer viable.

Underlying economics / philosophy

  • Capitalist Sorcery, Phillip Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers
    “This is a relatively short but potent, and highly thought-provoking book which reassesses capitalism as a “system of sorcery” (40). It engages less with the labyrinths of Marxist theory than with the rhetorical attempt to persuade anti-capitalist fellow travellers and (crucially) potential neophytes, that critical and social progress consists in ‘inheriting’ Marx anew…”
    “Stengers and Pignarre launch call to invention, against the spell of the infernal alternatives that bind us to the capitalist ‘realist’ logic of choosing between the lesser of unliveable evils. To counter this capture, they propose a political ‘magic’ capable of creating new possibilities. But do not be misled: the ‘magic’ is all in the technique, and the technique is all in relation. Capitalist Sorcery is a veritable toolbox for an anticapitalist politics of collective empowerment, essential reading for all those interested in movement politics post-Seattle.”
    @anique.yael held a reading group on this as a part of her aforementioned reading group on radical political economics and thinks reading a selection of chapters could offer inspiration for thinking of pragmatic and creative tools within Edgeryders’ as a collective.

  • The Power at the End of the Economy, Brian Massumi
    Rational self-interest is often seen as being at the heart of liberal economic theory. In The Power at the End of the Economy Brian Massumi provides an alternative explanation, arguing that neoliberalism is grounded in complex interactions between the rational and the emotional. Offering a new theory of political economy that refuses the liberal prioritization of individual choice, Massumi emphasizes the means through which an individual’s affective tendencies resonate with those of others on infra-individual and transindividual levels. This nonconscious dimension of social and political events plays out in ways that defy the traditional equation between affect and the irrational. Massumi uses the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement as examples to show how transformative action that exceeds self-interest takes place. Drawing from David Hume, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Niklas Luhmann and the field of nonconsciousness studies, Massumi urges a rethinking of the relationship between rational choice and affect, arguing for a reassessment of the role of sympathy in political and economic affairs.
    @anique.yael worked closely with Brian as a part of my research prior to Edgeryders. While this isn’t science fiction per say it’s a radical speculation and generous provocation around how to reclaim our power in late capitalism.

  • Speculate This! uncertain commons
    Speculate This! is a concise, provocative manifesto advocating practices of “affirmative speculation” over and against contemporary forms of speculation that quantify and contain risk to generate financial profit for a privileged few. This latter mode of speculation is predatory and familiar, its fallout evident in ongoing environmental degradation, in restrictive legal claims on natural resources in distant lands, and in the foreclosures, evictions, and unemployment resulting from the financial collapse of 2007–08. While such exploitive speculation seeks to reduce uncertainty and pin down the future, the affirmative practices championed by the authors of Speculate This! engage uncertainty, contingency, and difference, and they multiply, rather than reduce, possible futures. In these affirmative practices, social relations and the creation of goods and knowledge are not driven by the desire for financial gain or professional status. Whether manifest in open-source software, eco-communes, global activist movements, community credit networks, or experimental art, speculative living affirms our commonality. As a collaborative work coauthored by a group of anonymous scholars, Speculate This! argues for and embodies affirmative speculation.
    @anique.yael read this as a part of a reading group leading up to a seminar with the Economic Space Agency (with whom I continue to collaborate). It’s a dynamic, fun and accessible read that offers entry into the complex world of speculative finance and our options beyond it.

  • Cybernetic Revolutionaries, by Eden Medina

  • Economic Science Fictions, Edited by William Davies

Not specifically economic necessarily, but relevant sci-fi worth considering

  • The Dispossessed, by Ursula Leguin
    “Set in the Hainish Cycle, but without a chronological relation to the other novels, The Dispossessed, takes to a conclusion the grand themes Le Guin writes about: gender politics, economics, alternative forms of social organization, socialization of knowledge, novel types of hierarchies, authority and of wielding power.”
    Set between the two planets (or planet and moon) of Urras and Anarres. Urras is a planet on the edge of collapse under an unwieldy late-capitalism; Anarres is an anarcho-syndicalist state on a barren inhospitable moon. The story tells of a scientist from Anarres who has to travel back to the homeworld of Urras, and in the process ends up feeling isolated and disconnected from both worlds. Link here to interesting essay that looks at the novel from a purely economic angle

  • Foundation series, by Isaac Asimov
    Book 1- Prelude to Foundation
    Book 2: Forward the Foundation
    Book 3: Foundation
    Book 4: Foundation and Empire
    Book 5: Second Foundation
    Book 6: Foundation’s Edge
    Book 7: Foundation and Earth

  • Terra Ignota series, by Ada Palmer
    Book 1: Too Like the Lightning
    Book 2: Seven Surrenders
    Book 3: The Will to Battle

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein

  • Dune, by Frank Herbert

  • Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging, Ernest Callenbach

  • The Culture Series, by Iain Banks

  • The Fifth Season (Part of the Broken Earth Series), by N.K Jemisin

Has Likes

@alex_levene, The Dispossessed rings a bell, but right now I cannot recall what it is about, or even if I read it or not…

The Dispossessed is a famous sci-fi book by Ursula Le Guin that to my knowledge has also been pivotal in gender studies/ feminist science fiction.

Has Likes

So I’ve shared three works as a starting point here and just wanted to acknowledge that while they are inclined towards the philosophical I think selected excerpts from them could provide inspiring and thought provocative territories for us to think together with. I would be willing to consider which excerpts can be accessible and relevant pending what they would be read alongside.

I also happens to be a damn good book!

I’ve been trying to decide if Robert Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a strange land’ would fit into this. Probably not as it doesn’t deal with economics specifically. But it definitely has a focus on alternative living.

I would definitely not include Stranger. But you make a good point, @alex_levene, because in there lurks utopianism. Authors who tried to imagine a different economy were generally trying to underpin some kind of utopian society. _Dys_topians generally get by by imagining some kind of capitalism on steroids, like William Gibson in The Peripheral.

I have been toying with the idea to include something from Iain Banks’s Culture series, exactly because of that: it is perhaps the most convincing (non-creepy) positive utopia I have ever read. There is, I think, the spectre of Keynes lurking behind it, specifically his much-loved 1930 essay Economic possibilities for our grandchildren (full text). In it, Keynes foresees a society of abundance (“we already have the technology!”), where the problem would have been how to keep people busy when there is no need for working. But no: the economy of the Culture in Banks is completely waved through. Nothing to learn there.

So we’re looking very specifically for fictional work that sets out a clear economic system (preferably Utopian, preferably living authors)
That does narrow the focus quite considerably

No, that’s too narrow a set. We try to do that for the seminar itself. But in the reading list we can afford to be more open. Still, Stranger does not strike to me as having any interest whatsoever in economics.

Okay thats good to know.
I quick Google search has brought up the following links that may have ideas/authors worth exploring. I will look further into some of the suggested books:
https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/economic-science-fictions
http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/science-fiction-for-economists.html

It’s also worth noting that the Foundation Series by Asimov pops up here as being full of economics theories that make no sense and the danger of seeing psychohistory as a science. So perhaps it deserves an honourable mention for being so wrong. Also, if we’re encouraging people to read classic Sci Fi, you can’t go wrong with these books. They turned me on to Science Fiction as a genre.

Alex! Great finds, though I disagree with about 30% of the post. Let me look into the book. Stand by…

I have just ordered a copy of the Economic Science Fictions book, which will arrive before i leave for the Retreat. So i will bring it with me for you to digest

Also a runner-up: Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. Substantial world building, not sure about the economics part. Has anyone read it?

There are many more suggestions on Economic Science Fiction & Fantasy.

Indeed, @jolwalton! Great find. It will take me some time to sort through it. Welcome, by the way!

Has Likes

Naomi Mitchinson Memoirs of a Spacewoman.
Strugatski Brothers The Final Circle of Paradise.
John Brunner Shockwave Rider.
Augustin de Roja The Year 200.
Algis Budrys Michaelmas.
C.M.Kornbluth The Syndic.
Pohl and Kornbluth The Space Merchants

all titles which address political economy…

Has Likes

The Disposessed compares two worlds: A capitalist one, and a a pure communist (very similar to Marx) of true equality, no government – only syndicates – and unfortunately abject poverty. It makes a good pairing with the Iain Banks “Culture” novels, to see that poverty-communism and “fully automated luxury communism” are both possible, which leaves us to wonder whether it’s do-able in a world where there is a modest amount of luxury, but not enough to give it to everyone.

Has Likes

A couple others:

  • Down and Out in the Magic Kindgom, Cory Doctorow. Explores the idea of a reputation-based economy.
  • Neptunes Brood, Charles Stross (loose sequel to Saturn’s Children). Inspired by “Debt, the First 5000 Years” it explores economics in a slower-than-light starfaring civilzation
Has Likes

Maybe not Stranger, but definitely The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Pure Milton Friedman. TANSTAAFL!