We all know that economists love science fiction — especially Isaac Asimov fan Paul Krugman. But science fiction and fantasy can also help teach ordinary people about the Dismal Science. Here are 22 great science fiction and fantasy stories that can help you make sense of economics.
Top image: Making Money by Terry Pratchett
The Long Earth series, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter; and the Discworld series, by Terry Pratchett
Oh, and probably plenty more besides, knowing Pratchett. The Long Earth series was partially inspired by Pratchett’s interest in what would happen if we no longer had a scarcity of land problem, but rather a scarcity of people problem:
“An overarching theory here is how much our wars are caused by the scarcity of land. Supposing that the thickness of a thought away is another earth, almost exactly like this one, and as far as we can tell not inhabited by anything human. It’d be the land rush to end all land rushes. So off we go, but hang on a minute, there are no mobile phones … so there are certain problems: metal doesn’t go well through whatever ether you step through to get to the next world. You’re really pretty well having to start again, so it’s a strange kind of situation – people are incredibly rare, they’re the biggest resource you have.”
Economic theory is also almost ever-present in Pratchett’s Discworld series, but particularly so in his 2007 novel Making Money, which is basically a hilarious lesson on monetary policy.
Neptune’s Brood; Accelerando; and The Merchant Princes series, by Charles Stross
We called Neptune’s Brood “a comedy of banking and manners with some chase scenes and explosions thrown in for good measure,” and come on, who can resist a comedy of banking and manners?
Speculative fiction and economics are kind of Stross’s thing: Accelerando tells a story of a world in which capitalism has pushed humans out of the driver’s seat and replaced them with super intelligent AI’s, and the Merchant Princes novels are so steeped in econ that Krugman describes them as “parallel-universe fantasies that are also essays in development economics.”
Makers, by Cory Doctorow
This is a near-future story about an enormous technological boom and bust, that also examines the tools people and corporations use to maintain favorable economic conditions. Makers follows two friends who invent things, including the New Work, a technological New Deal. It collapses, the friends end up building interactive rides in abandoned Wal-marts, Disney finds out and is pissed, and then the IP lawyers get involved.
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
This book takes place in two worlds — one based on principles of anarcho-syndicalism, and one split between two states similar to the United States and the Soviet Union. With her trademark attention to culture, LeGuin follows the evolution of economic ideas as well as their migration — for example, the way non-dominant economic theories continue to live on and influence dominant ones.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
A super-upsetting novel about extreme resource scarcity, environmental disaster, and agribusiness, The Windup Girl is one of those books that strikes a little too close to home. Oil is gone, the sea levels are rising, and food is sold by exploitative calorie companies driven entirely by their bottom line. This is a great look at what happens when basic necessities become so scarce that people go to extreme lengths to control them.
The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
The Year of the Flood is a terrifying look at an economic breakdown caused by a combination of disasters and class divisions gone amok. Set in the same ecologically ravaged world as Oryx and Crake, the story examines a society where the government is a corporation, where the upper class live in special communes, and where undesirables are food.
The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
Nanotechnology has changed the world in this near-future thriller. Matter compilers provide all the goods you could want, but they receive the necessary energy and basic molecules, from a Feed controlled by a particular phyle, or tribe. Other phyles want in on the business, and three of them are locked together in a war for market share. Over in China there’s an open-source “seed” movement, there are serious questions of intellectual property, and only the rich can afford non-replicated items.
The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
An amazing series, set in a post-material scarcity world. Lack of scarcity is a not-infrequent jumping off place in science fiction, but Banks’s Culture is distinguished by its detail, its depth, and its optimism. In an interview with Spike Magazine, Banks talked about his inspiration:
“He first conceived the Culture in the late 60s, and has developed it ever since. “It’s basically a lot of wish fulfilment, I write about all the things I would like to have, ” he says.
“I’d had enough of the right-wing US science fiction, so I decided to take it to the left. It’s based around my belief that we can live in a better way, that we have to. So I created my own leftist/liberal world. ”
“It’s different with mainstream fiction, where you’re stuck in reality. In science fiction you can ask ‘wouldn’t it be good to have this?’”
The Three Californias; The Mars Trilogy; and 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Economics are a theme that Kim Stanley Robinson keeps coming back to. From the eco-econ of Pacific Edge to the globalization and multi-national corporations of the Mars Trilogy, to the competing economic systems of 2312, Robinson treats economics as a vitally important theme. Here he is, talking about the important link between economics and science fiction in a 2012 interview:
“I am coming to understand that economics is many things, sometimes a social science, but often mostly a name for explication and analysis of a legal system, often pseudo-mathematical or quantitative, which never challenges our current system’s basic rules and assumptions. So “economics” is by definition an explication of capitalism, and as such it can be clarifying or obfuscatory, but it is never speculative or projective, in that it does not often propose really new systems. There are almost no worked-out alternative economic systems, although I’ve seen some good preliminary work in Albert and Hahn and elsewhere; but still, the best current critiques of economics are coming out of sociology or anthropology or political science or law, not out of the field of economics itself. So I am looking around in all these fields and finding lots of interesting things, and I hope it will turn into something I can use. Seems to me science fiction ought to have a substantial dose of post-capitalist futures included in it, just to keep sf’s edge, and keep people thinking in new ways about the future. Capitalism as currently practiced will wreck the Earth; people don’t want to wreck the Earth; therefore a better economic system is called for. So, this is the kind of call that science fiction is supposed to answer.
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Herbert’s classic blends together issues like scarcity, monopoly power, and the relationship between production of scarce goods and ecological concerns. Dune also addresses the relationship between things like resource availability and culture, and paints a fascinating picture of an economy based on scarcity.
“Past Tense,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
In this two-parter, Sisko, Bashir, and Dax accidentally end up in 2024 San Francisco, a San Francisco wracked with homelessness, hunger, and class segregation. A portrayal of a one-percenter society gone mad, the episode ended up being less futuristic than the showrunners thought: as the episode was finishing production, the mayor of Los Angeles proposed fenced-in areas for the homeless to stay in, so that downtown LA would be a more desirable location.
“Three Hundred Big Boys,” Futurama
Tax rebates and how people spend them: a question of interest both to economists and to, you know, me personally, because it’s that time of year. In “Three Hundred Big Boys,” President Nixon decides to give every citizen a $300 tax refund, which the characters proceed to spend in hilarious ways: Fry uses it for a hundred cups of coffee, Bender buys tools to help him steal a $10,000 cigar (now that’s what I call investment), and Leela goes swimming with a whale.
This post-apocalyptic cult favorite continually addresses issues like corporate power, resource scarcity, and trade agreements. For example, in the first season the towns of Jericho and New Born strike an agreement wherein New Bern’s factories will supply windmills in exchange for food and salt from Jericho (spoiler: it doesn’t end well). Food distribution is an ever-present question, and corporate involvement in the military both pre- and post-apocolypse is a recurring theme.
“The Brain Center at Whipple’s,” The Twilight Zone
Trust The Twilight Zone to have something on point. This meditation on obsolescence follows an owner of a huge manufacturing company who decides to automate, causing mass layoffs. You can probably guess the ending: in the end, he himself is made obsolete, and is replaced by a robot. From the closing narration:
The point is that too often man becomes clever instead of becoming wise, he becomes inventive and not thoughtful, and sometimes as in the case of Mr. Whipple, he can create himself right out of existence.
“The Sun Makers,” Doctor Who
In this classic story, Pluto has six artificial suns, a breathable atmosphere, and a lot of industry. It’s run by an organization called The Company, who relentlessly exploits and unfairly taxes its workers (apparently the writer was really mad about the British Inland Revenue’s taxation). The head of all of this is the evil Collector, a member of a people called the Usurians who economically enslave planets and then hit them with impossible taxes. Fortunately there’s a rebellion, and in the end the Collector is reduced to poisonous fungus.
Obelix and Co., by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, The Asterix Series
In this comic book, the Romans take a new approach to finally bringing the one magically-enhanced rebellious village in Gaul: capitalism. The economist Caius Preposterus starts buying menhirs (large standing stones) for ever-increasing prices every day. This causes increasing class stratification, civil unrest, and finally a financial crisis. There’s even an accusation of insider trading.
What science fiction stories do you think contain great economic lessons or examples?