Entry updated 15 October 2021. Tagged: Theme.
The word "economics" derives from a Greek word signifying the art of household management. Its modern usage has been extended by analogy to pertain to the management of the industry and finances of nations. Medieval economic "theory" was dominated by ethical considerations, and evaluative judgments still remain entangled with the science; economics thus has the capacity to arouse powerful passions in spite of its frequent designation as "the dismal science". This is very evident in fiction dealing with economic systems. Thomas More's Utopia (1516; trans 1551) is largely a treatise on economic matters, and much subsequent Utopian literature has been concerned with economic theory's relationships with political power and social justice.
The idea that economics should attempt to shed its ethical entanglements and be reformulated in terms of "natural laws" was popularized by "The Grumbling Hive", the poem which formed the headpiece of The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714) by Bernard de Mandeville (1670-1733). The poem and the tract advanced the thesis that, if the market were allowed to find its own equilibrium while individuals attempted to maximize their profits in open competition (no matter how greedily), the community as a whole would benefit. This notion was later taken up by Adam Smith (1723-1790) in The Wealth of Nations (1776). In the nineteenth century the rise of various socialist movements, latterly armed with their own Marxist theory of economics, brought a good deal of ideological conflict into economic thought at both academic and popular levels. This conflict is very evident in a great deal of nineteenth-century utopian fiction. Voyage en Icarie (1840) by Etienne Cabet and The Happy Colony (1856) by Robert Pemberton were among the earliest socialist utopias, although their arguments are moral rather than scientific. Theodore Hertzka's Freiland (1890; trans 1891) and its sequel were among several novels exploring the pros and cons of a mixed economy, but there are relatively few nineteenth-century laissez-faire utopias. By the end of the century the argument was becoming confused by the interest which utopian novelists were taking in Automation and Technology, but economic egalitarianism remained a central issue in such technological utopias as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) and the many ideological replies produced in its wake. Like many other US socialists, Bellamy took more inspiration from Henry George (1839-1897) – author of Progress and Poverty (1879) – than from Marx. (George's influence is also very strong in the works of M P Shiel, and his ideas can still be found echoing in the writings of Barrington J Bayley.) Despite Marx's twentieth-century status as a figurehead there are surprisingly few outrightly Marxian utopias; the best example is Sur la pierre blanche (1905; trans as The White Stone 1910) by Anatole France.
Relatively few twentieth-century utopias give more priority to economic considerations than to political or technological issues; notable exceptions are Robert Ardrey's World's Beginning (1944) and Henry Hazlitt's The Great Idea (1951; vt Time Will Run Back 1952). The longest and most extravagant economic tract cast as fiction in the twentieth century is Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957), a pioneering work of libertarian apologetics in which the world's capitalists go on strike in protest against the forces of creeping socialism (see Libertarianism). Marxist economic theory is more prominently featured in Dystopias like Jack London's The Iron Heel (1907) and in Satires like Upton Sinclair's The Millennium (1924). Sharper and more flamboyant economic satire can be found in Archibald Marshall's Upsidonia (1915), about a world where the profit motive operates in reverse, and in Leon Stover's The Shaving of Karl Marx (1982), which slyly suggests that the policies which Lenin instituted after the Russian Revolution have far more in common with the ideas of H G Wells than with those of Marx.
The early Pulp-magazine sf writers were not much concerned with economics, tending to take the historical continuity of the American Dream for granted, although Fred MacIsaac's "World Brigands" (30 June-11 August 1928 Argosy All-Story Weekly) is an interesting story from the non-specialist pulps in which the burden of World War One debt leads to a war between the USA and its former allies. When John W Campbell Jr took over Astounding Science-Fiction, economic issues were returned to the sf agenda. They were taken up by Robert A Heinlein, whose "The Roads Must Roll" (June 1940 Astounding) is about a strike called by "Functionalists" – proponents of the theory that the greatest economic rewards should go to the people with the most vital jobs. Heinlein's "Let There Be Light ..." (May 1940 Super Science Stories) as by Lyle Monroe includes cynical asides about the suppression of innovations by power groups who have a heavy investment in existing technologies – a notion whose variants include items of modern folklore (see Urban Legends) as well as the themes of stories; "Logic of Empire" (March 1941 Astounding) has some similarly cynical comments on the economics of Slavery; and "The Man Who Sold the Moon" (in The Man Who Sold the Moon, coll 1950) concerns the struggle to finance the first Moon voyage. Heinlein's economic theorizing was comprehensively updated in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966), which examines the financing of a revolution in some detail and helped to popularize the acronym tanstaafl ("there ain't no such thing as a free lunch"); his uncompromising libertarianism – which has echoes of Social Darwinism – set an important example within the genre, instituting a tradition vigorously carried forward by Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle, G C Edmondson and L Neil Smith, among others, and led to the founding of the Prometheus Award.
Other pulp stories in which the emphasis on economic considerations is central include "The Iron Standard" (December 1943 Astounding) by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C L Moore), in which Earthmen force reluctant aliens to help them by disrupting their economy and threatening the power structure of a static society, and "The Helping Hand" (May 1950 Astounding) by Poul Anderson, a neat parable about the economics of "foreign aid". Economic issues are also to the fore in Anderson's series about interstellar trader Nicholas van Rijn and his associates, notably "Margin of Profit" (September 1956 Astounding) and the novelettes collected as Trader to the Stars (coll 1964). Oddly enough, the other writer of the 1950s strongly associated with Campbell who showed a very strong interest in economics was Mack Reynolds, whose parents were devout socialists and whose ideas were strongly influenced by the three-times socialist candidate for the US Presidency Eugene Debs (1855-1926). Reynolds's efforts range from the wry "Subversive" (December 1962 Analog), the satirical Tomorrow Might Be Different (November 1960 F&SF as "Russkies Go Home!"; exp 1975) and the melodramatic "Ultima Thule" (March 1961 Analog; in fixup Planetary Agent X 1965) to the fascinating Thought Experiment described in The Rival Rigelians (August 1960 Astounding/Analog as "Adaptation"; exp 1967), in which visiting Earthmen divide an alien world's nations in order to compare the power of free enterprise and Marxist planning as forces of social evolution. Reynolds went on to write a series of utopian novels cast in a Bellamyesque mould, beginning with Looking Backward, from the Year 2000 (1973) and Equality in the Year 2000 (1977).
A rather different approach to economic issues was manifest in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, where the emphasis was on satirical irony. The author who best embodied the outlook of the magazine – and who eventually became its editor – was Frederik Pohl, whose economic fantasies stand in sharp contrast to those of Heinlein, Anderson and Reynolds. In his collaboration with C M Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; rev and cut 1953), the economy of the USA has been driven to extremes of conspicuous consumption in order to maintain economic growth, and the advertising industry has become the linchpin of government. In "The Midas Plague" (April 1954 Galaxy) the situation is further exaggerated, every citizen having a burdensome consumption quota as the nation strives to cope with the abundance of machine-produced goods (see Automation). In "The Tunnel Under the World" (January 1955 Galaxy) an artificial world exists only to test advertising pitches. In another collaboration with Kornbluth, Gladiator-at-Law (June-August 1954 Galaxy; 1955; rev 1986), the stock market is supreme, manipulated by corporations run by reclusive super-geriatrics. A further notable Galaxy satire is "Cost of Living" (December 1952 Galaxy) by Robert Sheckley, in which the middle class can maintain its standard of living only by mortgaging the future income of its children. Satirical economic fantasies are seen also in the work of Damon Knight, whose Hell's Pavement (fixup 1955; vt Analogue Men 1962) features consumption quotas in a future USA ruled by commercial interests ruling over enclaves of loyalty-conditioned consumers, and whose The People Maker (November 1957 F&SF as "A for Anything"; exp 1959; rev vt A for Anything 1961) explores the socio-economic consequences of the invention of a Matter Duplication. The latter makes an interesting contrast with two other stories on the same theme: George O Smith's "Pandora's Millions" (June 1945 Astounding), in which civilization collapses as a result, and Ralph Williams's "Business as Usual, During Alterations" (July 1958 Astounding), in which it doesn't. The manipulation of consumers in pursuit of economic stability is investigated also in more impressionistic stories, including Rosel George Brown's "Signs of the Times" (December 1959 Amazing) and J G Ballard's "The Subliminal Man" (January 1963 New Worlds).
Although the satirical tradition has been carried forward by such novels as Frederik Pohl's solo sequel to The Space Merchants, The Merchants' War (1984), the dominant species of economic speculation in 1980s US sf was libertarian polemic, as seen in such novels as G C Edmondson's The Man Who Corrupted Earth (1980) and Ben Bova's Privateers (1985), both of which imagine entrepreneurs boldly taking charge of the conquest of space after pusillanimous US governments have given up on it. The vulnerability of the modern world to economic catastrophe is a minor theme in several sf novels, including The Visitors (October-December 1979 Analog; 1980) by Clifford D Simak, in which generous aliens do the damage, and Wolf and Iron (1990) by Gordon R Dickson, in which we have done it to ourselves. Stories of eco-catastrophe (see Ecology) often include commentaries on the economic problems associated with Overpopulation and "underdevelopment"; The Sea and Summer (1987; vt Drowning Towers 1988) by George Turner is a notable example. The evolving economic problems of the Third World have also been brought into sharp focus by Bruce Sterling in "Green Days in Brunei" (October 1985 Asimov's) and Islands in the Net (1988). The collapse of old-style communism in the Former Soviet Union has perhaps encouraged libertarian polemics to become less strident and alarmist – although China's growing economic power offers scope for less purely racist Western recastings of the old Yellow Peril fear. Meanwhile the economic restructuring of formerly communist nations has offered as much scope as the problems of Third World poverty for those writers seriously interested in the Near Future. Novels dealing with the economics of post-communist Russia include Jack Womack's borderline-sf Let's Put the Future Behind Us (1996) and William Gibson's Pattern Recognition (2003).
Charles Stross's Accelerando (fixup 2005) amusingly proposes a post-Singularity "Economics 2.0" which old-order humanity is not equipped to comprehend – and is best advised to avoid any dealings with – but which is subject to its own unimaginably complex analogues of scams and pyramid schemes.
Real-world economists with sf connections include Paul Krugman (1953- ), winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for economics, who has frequently cited Isaac Asimov's Foundation series as a significant inspiration; and Yanis Varoufakis, who uses genre tools for a Thought Experiment about his speciality in Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present (2020).
- William Davies, editor. Economic Science Fictions (London: Goldsmiths, 2018) [nonfiction: anth: hb/]
- Jonathan Alexander, Gregory Benford, Howard V Hendrix and Gary Westfahl. Science Fiction and the Dismal Science: Essays on Economics in and of the Genre (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishers, 2019) [nonfiction: anth: pb/Shutterstock]
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