Economic Science Fiction: a selection of works and authors

Actually the scale of the problem of the Soviet Union with science, is better considered by reading D. Lecourt in his book on Lysenko - Proletarian Science. What the Strugatsky Brothers (and others do) is avoid the issue of the impossibility of Soviet proletarian science. Evolution and Economics are both sciences in this…

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A beautiful book. Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries is nonfiction, but a good one to read alongside it.

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I would say uchronies are valid, but Red Plenty does not propose a system based on shadow pricing + centralized control. I read it as a meditation on why this is a bad combination, impossible to protect from bureaucratic interference and power games.

First time poster, but I wanted to suggest another title for the list.

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. I hope its not too much a spoiler if I mention that 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 I find the book interesting, but I still have questions about how productivity growth (the economy of Varok devotes a large portion of is research to science) would effect the steady state economy.

Full disclosure, Cary Neeper is my aunt. Nevertheless, I think the book fits in the discussion.


Wow, interesting, @ralmond! I was not aware of Neeper. Looking her up now.

Can I ask you to update the wiki? You already have the language, and you now have also access to the wiki.

Hey @sz_duras, these look like very interesting titles. I only read The Space Merchants maybe 40 years ago, and I did not really reflect on its economics.

Can you update the wiki, maybe? I think we are almost ready to start choosing the first title in the reading group @anique.yael has proposed.

Meanwhile, I started reading Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. It’s great, but… no economics so far. I am well into the first book, so I guess it will not make the list.

is Ecotopia of any interest anymore (or not sci-fi enough for this discussion)?? My 15-year-old daughter got into it the same way I did…

I have not personally read Ecotopia, @rachel, so I cannot comment. Do you recommend it?

I don’t think you can be "not SF enough, since we were ever interested about imagining completely different economic systems, whoever does the imagining. Since the beginning of the 20th century economists have been moving away from this work (and so have “non-genre” novelists): we got interested in SF because a very few SH authors seem to have picked up the torch.

of course, I would recommend it!
there were actually two books from the 70s -
Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging…
but, maybe it is more social and environmental, rather than economic, in scope, too… and all here on earth.
Here’s the wikipedia

ciao for now!

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A post was split to a new topic: Econ-SF reading group: let’s choose the first title

Interesting … I think I disagree about Red Plenty!

First, I think he’s careful to withhold judgment about shadow pricing. He’s all about saying “what if?” and then withdrawing (which makes it great for discussion, right?). But also, we are acclimatized to assume that shadow pricing and centralized control would have been a disaster, so I think he does nudge us to try to imagine it working. He invokes this brief window in the 60s when Soviet planners were preparing to set aside their abacuses in favour of these new magic calculating machines filled with mysterious promise; when Khrushchev was in charge and wanted to beat capitalism at the things the capitalists said they were best at (material abundance for ordinary people); and when mathematical economics was flourishing and people like Kantorovich were proposing radical new reforms to how centralized planning worked. But then that window closed: Krushchev was deposed, Kantorovich’s ideas were not really adopted, and … well, lots of stuff happened. The direction changed. I think Stufford is asking us to imagine what might been.

I would love to find out more about shadow pricing, by the way. I don’t think Spufford really explains it – something about calculating the value of commodities (or actually, factors of production) in terms of their opportunity cost, and getting each producer to maximise profit. But I don’t really understand how it works. I know there was also the socialist calculation debate in the West, and market socialists like Oskar Lange proposed something which I think was similar, wasn’t it?

Second, bureaucracy as such is also not Spufford’s major focus, is it? It’s true that, in that excellent chapter describing the material balances method of central planning (the system that haphazardly grew up during the Stalin years), there are thousands of folders and an extremely onerous decision-making process.

But it felt to me like his focus was really on: (a) the artistry and imagination of the planner (who is able to sort a problem out much more quickly than the mathematicians have “proved” would be necessary); (b) the fact that these decisions emerge from the personal power of an official, rather than the impersonal power of his office; (c) the possibility that this process is ripe for some kind of techno-scientific rationalization, and especially …

(d) the vast network of informal decision-making that is neither bureaucratic in the strict sense, nor market-based. Maybe this is really the same point as (b). By “bureaucratic in the strict sense” I mean formal, legalistic, to do with the application of rules (whether those rules are applied well or poorly). Spufford seems way more interested in things that don’t have formal procedures: the negotiation, the bluffing, the tricks, the favours, the threats, the kindnesses, the artistry, and as you say, the power games.

We could call all that “corruption,” but I think we might miss some of the interesting questions if we did that. It might be better to think of it as “embeddedness” (term associated with Karl Polanyi): the way that economic decisions are always shaped by the non-economic context in which they occur. This theme of embeddedness runs throughout the subplot about the vicose factory, first when we see things from the planner’s perspective, and then from the perspective of Chekuskin the fixer or ‘pusher’ (tolkach). Tolkach deal-making, Spufford says, is halfway between a purely commercial black market, and a “thoroughly mystified” gift economy consisting of a “backscratching of many overlapping circles of friends.” For the tolkach, “The money was there, the price of a transaction had to be paid, but the object was to find non-money reasons for the transaction to take place.”

You could question to some extent whether shadow pricing IS entirely “centralized.” Isn’t it an attempt to synthesise a centralized plan with a certain amount of de-centralized decision-making?

BTW, interesting note on bureaucracy:

“They acted as progress-chasers, fixers, censors, seducers”: but not, by design, as bureaucrats, in one very specific sense of the word. The Soviet Union had regular campaigns against ‘bureaucracy’, hard though this is for an outsider to make immediate sense of in a system where every employee was a state employee. ‘Bureaucracy’ as a Soviet pejorative implied coldness, impersonality, slowness, trivial rulefollowing. Apparatchiks were supposed, by contrast, to be quick, ‘conscious’, lively, free to engage in brilliant improvisation to get the job done by any means necessary. See Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism, pp.28–35. And there was some support for this model of power at the receiving end: it was the aim of anyone dealing with an official to try and get themselves treated po-chelovecheski, ‘like a human being’, on the basis of an emotional recognition rather than some cold rule. See Ledeneva, Russia’s Economy of Favours. The result was that Soviet bureaucracy, while pervasive, did not exhibit some of the classic features of bureaucracy elsewhere. It was not predictable and rule-governed; thus, by a neat circle of cause and effect, you had to approach it personally, emotionally, looking for the individual with whom to make a relationship.


There is stuff in there about ridiculous inflexible rules as well … like something about pricing in a certain sector mainly being determined by weight, so the old machinery being actually more expensive than the new more efficient machinery! But the absurd outcomes are not only the function of narrowly conceived regulations followed to the letter by fearful, resentful, unimaginative bureaucrats. There’s much more to it than that :slight_smile:

Very cool post, @jolwalton. I guess my lack of interest for Red Plenty in this context is:

  • Semi-formal networks of people with some kind of privileged access to resources hustling and scratching each other’s backs to get the job done is a vivid, realistic economic system. But it is hardly “completely different from what we have now”. It’s a large part of how the world works.
  • Shadow pricing is at least a somewhat different basis for an economic system. In the early 1990s a movement calling itself “environmental economics” tried to revamp it to hold up environmental and other public goods, for which a market price does not exist. But Red Plenty does not build a world in which this system works. The 1990s real-life version also tanked, because it turned out that, if you ask people to state their willingness to pay for things, the results would be subject to all kinds of cognitive biases. For example, respondents would be willing to pay more to say a single seagull from poisoning after a tanker’s oil spill, than they would to save the entire seagull species (real example).

So, the book is enjoyable, but its pathbreaking potential in economics is, in my view, small.

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Just discovered a very short work by Vinay (here as @hexayurt ) that should qualify as economic scifi. Let me throw it into the mix: “The Unplugged”.

It’s from 2006 and speculates about 2030 … quite interesting as we’re halfway there now. Would be interesting to hear Vinay’s “updated” vision for 2030 :slight_smile:


Great catch! And yes, there is a distinctly economic element here: Vinay imagines a different form of saving (“three months of salary”) as a switch towards this different “Ricardian” economy, underwritten by natural capital + labour. Quite some economics there.

Nice! I’m a big Bukky Fuller fan and have myself reference him in playing with speculative worlds. Look forward to diving in further

I have added The Fifth Season to the list on the suggestion of a science fiction writer i’ve been talking to on twitter.
I’ve asked them to look over our listing as currently stands and suggest if we’ve made any glaring omissions.

The Future of Money Award is filled with excellent design fictions, presented as short films. E.g. Sunnyside is reminiscent of Doctorow’s Whuffie in a lot of ways:


I wrote a small piece of economic future fiction a few months ago. Since economic sci fi is such a small (but strategic!) niche, I thought I’d share it here. It’s basically a history of the 21st Century from the perspective of 2068:

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