Money

Tagged: Theme

Love of money, being the root of all evil, has always played a leading part in literature, and sf is no exception: few plots could move without it. Precisely because it is so basic, however, speculative thought has rarely focused on it; it is one of those things that is habitually taken for granted. Money may change its form, and the dollar may be replaced by the Credit, but its centrality in human affairs is inviolable.

The commonest of all wish-fulfilment fantasies is the sudden acquisition of wealth, and sf has often given form to the wish. As with other such fantasies, however, sf writers have characteristically taken a cynical and slightly disapproving view of the issue, implying that no good can come of it. T L Sherred's "Eye for Iniquity" (July 1953 Beyond Fantasy Fiction) is a neat cautionary tale about the problems involved in having a talent for making money out of nothing. The frenzy which can be aroused by the prospect of easy money is exemplified in history by the affair of the South Sea Bubble in 1720, and this prompted one of the earliest speculative fictions about speculation, Samuel Brunt's A Voyage to Cacklogallinia (1727). However, many Utopians had already expressed their distaste for the profit motive and its effects on human affairs. Various romances commenting on the folly of the alchemical quest for Transmutation – of which the most notable is Honoré de Balzac's La recherche de l'absolu (1834; trans under various titles) – took a similar line. The prospect of science making at least the physical part of the alchemist's quest a reality did little to alter this disparaging attitude. Edgar Allan Poe's "Von Kempelen and His Discovery" (14 April 1849 The Flag of Our Union) suggests that the discovery of a way of making gold would simply rob a practically valueless metal of its ridiculous price, and that the world would press on regardless. Arthur Conan Doyle's successful gold-maker in The Doings of Raffles Haw (1891) is quickly disillusioned with philanthropy and reverts his hoard to the dust whence it came. Henry Richardson Chamberlain's eponymous 6000 Tons of Gold (1894) nearly precipitates worldwide catastrophe. Only John Taine's hero in Quayle's Invention (1927) gets much joy out of his instant wealth, and he finds it far from easy.

Much more beneficial to humanity, in the eyes of its author, is the wealth-destroying machine in George Allan England's The Golden Blight (18 May-22 June Cavalier; 1916), which frees mankind from the present generation of capitalists. The folly of retaining the gold standard in an era of technological ingenuity is exposed in Frank O'Rourke's Satire Instant Gold (1964); it is hardly surprising that the main change in the money system consistently made by sf writers was the replacement of the gold standard by a purely theoretical credit system. Garrett P Serviss's The Moon Metal (1900) offers a variant on the gold-making theme, while George O Smith's "Pandora's Millions" (June 1945 Astounding) concerns the desperate race to find a new symbolic medium of exchange following the invention of the Matter Duplicator (a problem solved by the unduplicatable synthetic Element identium), and the title of "The Iron Standard" (December 1943 Astounding) by Henry Kuttner largely speaks for itself.

Exotic media of exchange are occasionally featured in sf, notably the virtue-based credit system of Patrick Wilkins's "Money is the Root of All Good" (October 1954 If) and the alien exchange-system whereby depression leads to extinction in John Brunner's Total Eclipse (1975). The economy in Philip K Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) is based on truffle skins, supposedly the one substance which cannot be counterfeited; petrol equates to wealth in Mad Max 2 (1981; vt The Road Warrior); the currency of the titular planet in Neal Asher's Spatterjay sequence – beginning with The Skinner (2002) – is backed by reserves of a unique poison providing the only easy surcease for weary victims of Immortality. Jack Vance has been particularly ingenious in the invention of various monetary systems appropriately or ironically adapted to different cultures; in his "The Moon Moth" (August 1961 Galaxy), the only currency is one's personal strakh – "Prestige, face, mana, repute, glory" – which acts as a kind of credit rating: those of high standing receive the finest goods and services; lesser strakh entitles one to lesser value; the almost strakh-free visitor from Earth is rudely rebuffed. Further intangible currencies include the "ob" or obligation which has replaced coinage in Eric Frank Russell's "... And Then There Were None" (June 1951 Astounding; in The Great Explosion, fixup 1962), and Whuffie, again reflecting one's reputation or social standing (though not in an old-fashioned class sense) in Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003). Quite the reverse of intangible is the Absurdist SF galactic coinage described in Douglas Adams's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980):

Its exchange rate of eight Ningis to one Pu is simple enough, but since a Ningi is a triangular rubber coin six thousand eight hundred miles long each side, no one has ever collected enough to own one Pu. Ningis are not negotiable currency, because the Galactibanks refuse to deal in fiddling small change.

One subtheme of note is developed in stories celebrating the wonders of compound interest. Simple mathematics shows that money invested for 1000 years grows quite magnificently even at relatively low interest rates – an observation first made in Eugene Sue's The Wandering Jew (1845). Sleepers Awake from periods of Suspended Animation to find themselves rich in Edmond About's The Man with the Broken Ear (1861; trans 1867), H G Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899; rev as The Sleeper Awakes 1910) and Charles Eric Maine's The Man Who Owned the World (1961). Harry Stephen Keeler took the notion to extremes in "John Jones's Dollar" (August 1915 Black Cat), in which a dollar invested in trust for John Jones's distant descendants ultimately grows (by 2921 CE) to exceed the total wealth of the solar system. Mack Reynolds's "Compounded Interest" (August 1956 F&SF) employs Time Travel to open a past investment whose exponential growth eventually covers the enormous cost of the required Time Machine. More recently, however, we have become all too well aware of what inflation can do to long-term investments, and the hero of Frederik Pohl's The Age of the Pussyfoot (1968) awakes from suspended animation to find his "fortune" valueless in terms of real purchasing power. It all goes to prove the old adage that money doesn't grow on trees – except, of course, in Clifford D Simak's "The Money Tree" (July 1958 Venture).

A deeper exploration of currency transforming the human world in a manner analogous to Information Theory is one of the threads running through Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, beginning with Quicksilver (2003). Thanks to the Internet, virtual money in Online Worlds has developed a real-world economic significance of its own, explored in such fictions as Charles Stross's Halting State (2007), Cory Doctorow's For the Win (2010) and Neal Stephenson's REAMDE (2011). Stross's Neptune's Brood (2013) imagines a Far Future galactic Economic system based on "slow money" which should by design remain stable and reliable over the long time-periods of relativistic interstellar travel; unfortunately the safeguards prove to have been circumvented by a scam operation involving a fake planetary colony (see Colonization of Other Worlds). [BS/DRL]

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