Recently I experienced a few sightings of information about sci-fi economics work, and I thought I would share them here.
The first sighting was accidental. While I was researching something else, I came across a 2017 book by Giorgos Kallis, called In defence of degrowth. Opinions and minifestos. The book is an interesting object in and of itself: for example, it contains a part of “conversations”, where each chapter consists of responses to Kallis’s The degrowth alternative, and of his own counter-responses. Also, it is published with a Creative Commons license. But I cite it here because it contains a sci-fi econ nugget: chapter 20 is called “A society without growth: The planet of The Dispossessed”, and it references – you guessed it – Ursula K. Le Guin’s celebrated The Dispossessed, which inspired one of the very first entries on our own wiki. That’s a rare opportunity to see a famous non-neoclassical economist muse on work of economically-inclined sci-fi! Unfortunately, Kallis does not get into a deep economic analysis of The Dispossessed. Rather, he describes the society of Anarres as presented by Le Guin; observes that her contribution does not consist to point to a model, but simply to “think the unthinkable”; and concludes:
Many of the ideas Le Guin weaves together — worksharing; reduced work hours; co-housing, transport, and consumption sharing; horizontal and direct forms of decision-making; ecological limits and bioregionalism; open borders; cooperatives of production and consumption; technological preservation rather than advancement; frugality and festival destruction of surplus — feature in degrowth debates. […] Is Anarres an appealing future? For those practicing degrowth in various eco-communes and co-housing initiatives in Europe and the Americas, there must be something strikingly familiar to life on Anarres. Despite what to others would seem to be hardship, they enjoy the way they live, as do the people of Anarres. Ultimately, the beauty of Anarres is in the eye of the beholder. Having gone through the 350 pages of the novel, I side with the protagonist, who at the end prefers to live and fight for change on Anarres rather than on Urras. You should read, think, and decide for yourself.
The second sighting consists of Cory Doctorow publishing on his blog a raving review of a sci-fi novel calle A Half-Grown Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys.
The world of Half-Built is a complicated utopia, one in which a century of incredibly hard, smart work has carried us through the climate emergency, to the point where it’s possible to believe that, over time, we will stabilize our relationship with the only planet in the known universe capable of sustaining our species. This stabilization came about as the result of a radical restructuring of society around networked “watershed” societies, organized around the watersheds of the world’s mighty rivers. These watershed societies are as transnational as their rivers, and each society is a semiautonomous part of a global federation that allocates carbon, shares intelligence, and deliberates among one another.
There’s more, much more to it. I liked particularly the idea that the very large deliberative fora that are the main way the world of Garden governs itself has also non-human entities posting on them. Thanks to sensor networks, forests, bacterial colonies and rivers can also participate in the debate. (Apparently this is an idea that Emrys took from Karl Schroeder’s Stealing Worlds. Schroeder, by the way, is a futurist that uses SF to communicate his vision, and we should probably look into his work. EDIT: Schroeder got in touch and pointed out he thinks of himself as an author first, a designer second, and a futurist third). And the review itself contains interesting thoughts about how to forge an orrery of micro- and macro narrative mechanisms in SF. Anyway, I bought Garden, and hope to be adding it to the wiki soon. EDIT: an entry for “Garden” has now been added to the wiki.
The third sighting consists of Doctorow himself apparently ready to publish his own Ministry for the Future-equivalent book. It’s called The Lost Cause, and scheduled for publication in 2024.
In the book’s backstory, the Green New Deal is kickstarted by a series of (ultimately) fortuitous coincidences: first, a set of late-breaking electoral scandals results in Canada’s NDP winning a large parliamentary majority in a year that they had anticipated losing badly. The new Prime Minister is a Metis woman who had been picked by party grandees as a symbolic candidate in an election she was supposed to lose.
Instead, she finds herself commanding a bulletproof majority just as floods wipe half of Calgary (a city where unregulated developers have built extensively on floodplains) off the map. Rather than continuing the cycle of rebuilding and reflooding, the new PM commands that the city of Calgary will be relocated off the floodplain altogether.
This is the foundation of the “Canadian Miracle,” which leads to the creation of national high-speed rail, national renewable electrification, and, eventually, an international civilian conservation corps that travels around the world, learning from and assisting in comparable projects everywhere.
Lost Cause is a novel filled with wildfires, zoonotic plagues, internal refugee crises and flashfloods. But it’s a utopian novel – because it’s a novel where we got to the point of peak indifference before we crossed the point of no return. It’s a novel about confronting problems, rather than ignoring them.
I am really, really looking forward to that one!