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How Science Fiction Helps Us Understand Economics

Cyberspace. The concept was born in 1984, with the novel neuromancer by William Gibson, and it almost immediately entered common parlance. This pun, taken from the notion of cybernetics» invented by Norbert Wiener, is now synonymous with the inner world of our connected computers – that digital space where we come together to chat, play and share intimate secrets.

The term “cyberis also part of modern political language; it’s used in everything from digital warfare to online intelligence gathering. We often forget that neuromancer wasn’t just about the future of computing: it was about a world where megacorporations technologies have taken over our daily lives.

Measurement of the severity of real events

For a long time now, science fiction has offered us a critical reading of technology and has invented a vocabulary to evoke its most worrying consequences. But our fear of having our jobs stolen by robots – or of seeing megacorporations turn us into consumer-automatons – is based on a much more mundane anxiety: the lack of money. SF is increasingly echoing this anxiety specific to the time. For people in fear of poverty, or simply helpless in the face of the postmodern economy, works like Game Of Thrones, Black Panther and Infomocracy are the La Fontaine’s Fables of the XXIe century.

In 2011, HBO broadcast the first season of Game Of Thronesbased on the novel series The iron Throne, by George RR Martin. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2014, Martin claims to have been inspired by the gray areas of the Lord of the Ringsthose details that JRR Tolkien failed to describe – among which the “Aragorn’s Tax Policy”. The novels were already very successful at the time, but the TV series propelled this universe to the rank of planetary obsession. Viewers have fully understood the allegorical spade contained in the motto of the greedy Lannister family: “A Lannister always pays his debts”. Gold, class divisions and oligarchy have set the fantasy continent of Westeros on fire.

Edd Finn directs the Center for Science and Imagination at Arizona State University, as well as Future Tensea partnership between this university, and NewAmerica. The researcher believes that fantastic worlds are not escapes, quite the contrary: according to him, we use them to face our fears.

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Game Of Thrones would have become “a tool for measuring the severity of real events, which allows us to determine whether we should be worried or not”. The bloodthirsty monarchs of Westeros “provides us with a set of shared metaphors, which we can mobilize to evoke complex subjects in an accessible way”. We don’t look Game Of Thrones to escape our problems: the series allows us precisely to put our finger on what annoys – which explains why references to Westeros are now legion in the speeches of commentators and political decision-makers.

Powerful metaphors

The Mother of Dragons is one economic metaphor among many others; our pop culture is full of them. The Hunger Games depicts a dystopia inspired by the Great Depression, where media-obsessed elites torment the starving poor. One of the best SF TV series of our time, The Expansehas as its central subject a class war at the heart of the asteroid belt. The new film from independent director Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You –which just premiered at Sundance, tells the story of a telemarketing operator tasked with selling bondage contracts to his company’s clients.

And if you take refuge in the world of superheroes to find a little comfort, it’s a waste of time: for Black Panther, trade policy issues are a major issue.

This is obviously not the first time that fantasy and science fiction have tackled economic issues. The first blade runner, released in 1982, depicted a nightmarish and endless recession. In the 1950s, the protagonists of the famous series of novels Foundation of Isaac Asimov saved the galaxy with the help of adapted economic programs. The fear of automation – which would see humans replaced by robotic workers – dates the birth of the genre: the term “robot” was born in the play RUR (1921) by Karel Capek, which recounts a revolt of automated workers.

The financial crisis of 2008-2009, however, instilled a new sense of urgency in this literary genre. This crash has become a powerful symbol for contemporary creators, as the atomic bomb was for writers in the 1950s.

In 2008, after working for several NGOs on Chinese territory, the novelist Max Gladstone returned to the United States. He told me he had “the impression that the value of the world was evaporating. Lehman Brothers had gone up in smoke, and its charred ruins aroused a form of religious stupor.. In his first novel, Three Parts Dead (2012), he reinvents this financial crisis from a mythological angle: lawyer-necromancers debate the best way to carve up the body of a dying god, all his magical energy having been used to bail out the faltering economy of a metropolis. . “You can’t tell such a story realistically.says Gladstone. It is necessary to go through fantasy.”

Juliette Levy teaches economic history at the University of California, Riverside. She’s made a habit of incorporating zombie stories into her classes, and she’s interested in science fiction literature—especially Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi and Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

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These stories take place in worlds torn apart by famine and war. They depict characters more interested in their own survival than in the health of the financial markets. Levy nevertheless affirms that this SF “disenchanted” illustrated “the very foundation of the economy – in other words, scarcity”.

The reserves of drinking water, oil and food are at half mast. Over the past twenty years, humanity has become well aware of this. There is also a growing fear of poverty: automation is on the way, and human labor is gradually losing its value.

In the world of blade runner 2049police investigations and data analysis are entrusted to synthetic humans, or “replicants”, while human children are condemned to sort the garbage in orphanage-dumps.

Economists in the service of science fiction

This shortage “people experience it day after day, or they very often dread it”, whether or not they understand the intricacies of the economic world, says Levy. She feels, however, that SF often presents the economy in a “simplistic”.

Fortunately, there are famous counter-examples: we know, for example, that Stanley Kubrick consulted Marvin Minskya researcher at MIT, to develop the artificial intelligence of 2001, a space odyssey.

Some science fiction authors consult economists to make their universes more coherent – ​​this is my case. It is also that of Ken Liu, author of the novel The Grace of Kings (2015), the rights to which were acquired by DMG Entertainment for a possible film adaptation. Liu explains that his approach to building fantasy universes “typically emphasizes political technology, land tenure systems, and the administrative state—issues partly inspired by reading the works of W.Brian Arthur», an economist at the Institute of Santa Fe.

writing my novel AutonomousI wanted to explore a future reality in which automation would spark the birth of an economy based onindenture [un type de contrat utilisé au XVIIe et XVIIIe siècle par des immigrants sacrifiant temporairement leur liberté pour travailler au service de colons, ndlr].

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I spoke with Noah Smith, economist and columnist for Bloomberg. He immediately set about constructing a fictional world, as a writer would have done, and recommended that I imagine a XXIIe a century in which citizens would be deprived of the right to work or live where they wanted, unless they paid to preserve this privilege; the poor would have no choice but to sell their freedom in exchange for a job.

I was not trying to elaborate a metaphor. I wanted to be as literal as possible and show how easy it would be to fall back into the savagery of the slave economy. By incorporating the insights of an economist into my story, I hoped to provide my readers with a believable situation that might lead them to question the dangers of unchecked capitalism.

Many economists would like to act more often as consultants for fiction authors. Physicists love to point out gross scientific errors in space opera; Noah Smith, on the other hand, is annoyed by the lack of coherence of the economic systems that populate our pop culture – he sharply criticizes the investment system of the Iron Bank of Game Of Thrones. Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics in 2008, is a great lover of science fiction; he told me that hewould like» be consulted from time to time to work out the economy of a fantasy world.

His wish may well be granted. As long as the economy is at the heart of our deepest anxieties, it will fill our imaginations with extraterrestrial currencies and demonic financial instruments. Perhaps these metaphors and reflections will one day allow us to solve these problems in our real world.

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