Science fiction economics

Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation has written a very informative and balanced article in today’s Observer about technology and jobs – it’s more balanced than the headline (“The Robots Are Coming!”). He discusses the gloom about the hollowing out of good, ordinary, middle income jobs as featured in Tyler Cowen’s fascinating Average is Over and the forthcoming The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee; but also some of the reasons for not assuming we’re heading straight for the dystopia of a society divided between a minority of highly skilled, high earners and a lumpenproletariat earning minimum wage for service sector jobs the machines can’t quite do yet.

I’m in the latter camp, although not at all sanguine about the social and institutional adjustments that will need to be made as we glide into the Age of Robots. These adjustments are everything: technology drives prosperity and progress (old fashioned idea, I know), but society determines how the benefits are shared.

In the article Alan Manning (author of a book with one of the best titles ever, Monopsony in Motion) refers to ‘science fiction economics’, a marvellous concept. Blade Runner is the obvious reference for the robots-are-coming thesis, but Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net leapt to my mind as the best example. Some of William Gibson’s recent novels, of course, such as Pattern Recognition.

Any other suggestions for the best economic analysis through the medium of science fiction?


16 thoughts on “Science fiction economics

  1. Pingback: Excellent post by our #economicsfest programmer @d… | Bristol Festival of Ideas

  2. One of the original and most fun is Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Forward from 1888-2000″

    In general I think science fiction handles money badly

    I once interviewed Bruce Sterling about his for a podcast (currently offline) and asked him why science fiction didn’t deal with economics very well and he said it was because it was boring (he meant from a novel reader’s view).

    Personally, I think the best book about this is Michael Moorcock’s “Dancers and the End of Time”. When technology can produce everything we need, what on Earth will we do all day? Maybe art will be all that is left for us to do…

  3. If you really want Science Fiction humdingers try the Autumn Statements from The Chancellor and The Treasury. Wow, way out, scary etc. etc.

  4. Diane,

    I am not sure if you are asking about economic analysis in science-fiction generally, or specifically in relation to the robot debate.

    a) If it is the former, Noah Smith published a blog post on science fiction for economists which was in fact inspired by one of your own blog posts!

    This is a great list of science fiction books, to which I’d add Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (with the idea of ‘eco-economics’), Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld saga (which is lots of fun, and describes the emergence of a new economy in the afterlife) and (of course) Dune.

    b) If it is the latter: The late Iain M. Banks ‘Culture’ novels describe with optimism a society where all manual labour (and most of the intellectual labour) is carried out by AI and drones.

    Chris Beckett’s ‘The Turing Test’ contained a nice short story called ‘La Macchina’ on the labour market conditions for robot workers.

    Ted Chiang’s wonderful ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ describes the economics and ethics of working in a start-up that grows robots (‘digients’) as if they were children, to sell them in consumer markets.

    I hope some of these are useful.

    Best wishes,


  5. Probably too longview to be pertinent to our proximate future, but the late Iain M Banks’s *Culture* novels deal with the superabundant utopia of its titular civilisation, and often contrast it with different (not always more Earth-like) economies and political set-ups. One important point being that even a superabundant civilisation has to go out to its edges to look for friction, because otherwise there’s nothing to do. Plus they’re rollicking good fun!

    A little closer in temporal terms, Ken MacLeod’s *Star Fraction* series deals with politics and economics in future Earth and post-Earth contexts. (MacLeod a long term friend of Banks, probably not incidentally.)

    Neal Stephenson’s _Cryptonomicon_ and *The Baroque Cycle* are (in part) fictionalised histories of currency, economics and cryptography (among many other things); I believe _The Diamond Age_ deals with nanotechnological superabundance, but I’ve still not got round to that one yet, so don’t quote me on it. :)

    Charlie Stross’s ongoing *Merchant Princes* saga is a treatise on economics disguised as science fiction, then disguised again as a portal-fantasy (for contractual non-competition clause reasons, apparently). His recent _Neptune’s Brood_ novel apparently has a lot of economics in it, too, partly due to Charlie’s (justified) contempt for the recent surge of Bitcoinmania. (There’s a recent post on Bitcoin on his blog that’s delightfully incendiary, too.)

    There’s probably more (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and indeed most of his other sf, for instance), but that’s enough to be getting on with for now, I’d have thought. Pretty sure Krugman did an interview about economics in sf fairly recently (apparently he’s a fan of long standing), but IIRC a lot of his recommendations were pretty old-school.

  6. There’s a NESTA thing in the works about all this, as you may know. Will include a chapter of mine about SF, robots and the future of work – which refers to a few things already mentioned (e.g.Banks). My general impression is that SF is pretty weak on economics, though, save for the items on that noahpinion list…

  7. Let me reiterate the suggestions above. Banks, Stross and Robinson are all obsessed – entertainingly — with economic matters, with Robinson giving (I think) the deepest consideration.

    Tim Kreider offers a lovely paean in the New Yorker to Robinson, calling him one of the greatest political and social writers of our era.

    My politics are just enough separated from Stan’s that I can enjoy occasional, fraternal digs at his economic utopiansim, which involves a wee bit more deliberate planning than I consider likely or plausible. In my opinion, humans are too ornery and delusional to reach consensus on the logical-seeming redesigns that Robinson demands, and which – by the way – will inevitably contain more unexpected drawbacks than any Grand Designer has ever been willing to admit.

    Still, many of the good things that he calls for (and that I desire too!), like a much longer and broader set of Consequence and Inclusion Horizons — will come about. Partly from a mix of utopian finger-waggings by brilliant thinkers… but also via the trick-and-tool that has worked for us, so far… the reciprocal accountability that comes from a truly open, flat and transparent exchange of ideas and criticism, in a society that is always open to pragmatic and far-seeing endeavors.

    Moving on. The fiction of Frederik Pohl often dealt with economics, from exaggerations like THE MAN WHO ATE THE EARTH to speculations on cartels (JEM) to capitalism (GLADIATOR AT LAW). An earlier marxist Sci Fi guy was Mack Reynolds. LeGuin explored non-Marxian extreme socialism in THE DISPOSSESSED.

    My own fiction has an economic bend in EARTH and in EXISTENCE where I portray meetings among a new trillionaire oligarchy, trying to figure out where aristocratic rule went wrong in the past and how to “do it right this time.” Villains… but thoughtful ones! See:

    Of course I do nonfiction on economic matters too. e.g. The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

    Or see:

    I hope some of this is helpful.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin

  8. Very many thanks to all of you for the suggestions and comments. It’s given me rather a long reading list, as my own SF reading probably counts as pretty old school by now.
    Other suggestions on Twitter were Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson (again), Jack Womack, EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’.

  9. Terry Pratchett has often dealt with the institutional foundations that allow economies to function. Taken together, many of his later works are a kind of fictional illustration of “Why Nations Fail” and/or “Wealth Of Nations”. “Monstrous Regiment”, for instance, describes life in a country ruined by an extractive elite. “The Truth” and the novels featuring Moist von Lipwig deal more explicitly with some of the key institutions that enable economies to work. Others describe in passing the benefits of invention and innovation, trade, specialisation, free immigration, and free choice of work. Pratchett even has something to say on the Robot question, in “Feet of Clay”.

    For those who _do_ subscribe to the “hollowing out of the middle” idea, or are interested in the possible social effects, Will McIntosh’s “Soft Apocalypse” is a ‘fun’ read. (See Noah Smith’s description of “The Windup Girl”, in his post mentioned by Juan above, for what I mean by ‘fun’.)

  10. Diane,

    I shared your link with the Association of Professional Futurists’ list. This reply may be useful in your search:

    “There’s quite a bit of economics in recent sf. The geekish writers like Doctorow and Stross are keenly concerned with economics, from pricing to markets to abundance. Left sf writers like Mieville and the late Iain Banks focus on utopia, political economy, and labor (to put it all too briefly). Prediction markets pop up in novels by Ken Macleod and Marc Stiegler.” [Bryan Alexander]

  11. Why no one is seriously discussing the impact of 3D printing as a driving force that may empower middle income families and shift market power away from the richest 1%?

    • The obvious and probably true answer is surely “because no one takes it that seriously”, no?

      Though IIRC Cory Doctorow’s done a bunch of stories around that theme over the years, and Bruce Sterling’s “Kiosk” deals with the topic while showing exactly why it’s not idea worth taking seriously. So, yeah.