The Greatest Depressions (and Economic Recoveries) of Science Fiction

Click to viewScience fiction never fails to predict bizarre, unwelcome futures and the current global economic meltdown is no exception. We love to imagine all the ways our world will end not with a bang, but with a flood of hemorrhaged garbage cash. Two of this year's scifi film crop, Babylon A.D. and The Road, predict a geopolitical landscape shredded by scarcity. But unlike most politicians, science fiction tales offer a wide range of solutions to economic peril: everything from time-travel-enhanced investments to interstellar hypercapitalism. And yet at the heart of even the most Utopian solution to financial collapse there lurks a tale of human self-destructiveness, a not-so-buried wish to see the species destroyed or enslaved for its economic choices. Do our fantasies doom us to financial failure? Since the cyberpunk 1980s, when the most popular visions of the future included corporate-urban caste systems, the idea of financial disaster has haunted scifi. While Babylon AD may have been a flop as a film, it's merely the latest in a long line of scifi tales that show a resource-depleted future divided between a tiny, glowing group of rich people and a global, subaltern class that lives in shantytowns. Even Dark Knight veered toward this vision of a future overrun by criminality, where skyscrapers have become dank, impoverished husks, and the ranks of public servants have shriveled down to one good cop, one good DA, and a mercenary weirdo.

The Road, both the Cormac McCarthy novel and the movie coming out next month, depict a future of nomadic poverty whose origins remain unexplained. Clearly there's been an economic disaster, but we're not sure if it's been spurred by Max Headroom-style corporate greed or something like a nuclear war. One thread that runs through stories about financial collapse is the idea that corporations run wild while government withers away. That was certainly the basis of cyberpunk classics Blade Runner and Neuromancer, and that tradition continues today in spirited satires like Max Barry's novel Jennifer Government. In that book, everyone takes the last name of their employer — our hero, a detective, is one of the tiny group of government workers who barely hold their own against the money-fueled shenanigans of the corporate classes (even Jennifer has to send her kid to a McDonalds school). Other authors, like Octavia Butler, imagine that the collapse of government in America will be accompanied by a rise in gang power, as well as (more dangerously) the power of Christian militias. In her intense, believable novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Christians kidnap "unbelievers" and put them in horrifying work/reeducation camps. Written before The Road, these novels also include harrowing scenes of homeless nomads on the road, trying to survive attacks from cannibals, Christians, and worse.

Having destroyed civilization or divided humanity into rigid economic castes, science fiction can try to solve problem Terminator-style, but throwing its characters out of the timeline in the hopes that they'll remake the world or find a better one. Japanese comedy Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust has the most literal take on this plot device: A woman in contemporary Japan uses a washing/time machine to travel back to the economic boom days of the early 1990s in the hope that she can get a bunch of cash to help her out of present-day debts. The trouble with this kind of time-travel solution is that it may get our heroine out of debt, but it doesn't exactly save the world. For world-saving solutions, you've got to go offworld and start terraforming. Butler's hero in the Parable novels works tirelessly to create generation ships that will take the downtrodden of Earth to another planet where they can reboot the economy. Ursula Le Guin's award-winning novel The Dispossessed takes place in a universe where a woman like Butler's heroine has succeeded and founded an anarchist-feminist colony on a moon in orbit around a planet of caste-divided capitalists. Unfortunately, the anarchist-feminists haven't solved all the problems of their parent society, and in fact the resource-hungry moon where they live has created a society of poor people whose government controls where they work and live.


The economic disaster of the planet Arakkis in Frank Herbert's Dune franchise is another target for terraforming. After hero Paul leads the oppressed Fremen in a successful revolution to wrest control of the planet's resources from a colonist ruling class, they slowly work to transform the planet from a desert to a rain-soaked, livable biosphere. Unfortunately, they recreate all the problems they suffered under despots like the Duke who rules Arakkis in the first Dune novel. Royal families battle to control the Fremen society, and rich family dynasties still control the destinies of the still-disenfranchised masses. More successful are the colonists in Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars trilogy, where several of the early colonists are explicitly trying to build an economy that is more just than the ones back on Earth. Even if these imaginary societies ultimately fail, there is still a tremendous pleasure in destroying them repeatedly to watch them flounder towards productivity again. Robinson does this by destroying most of Mars in a spectacular space elevator crash. But you can see this same urge to smash and rebuild the economy in the popularity of videogames like Sim City and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, a space colonization strategy game that was a spinoff of the wildly-popular Civilization I and II.


Perhaps the most popular solution to economic turmoil in science fiction is slavery. This is the subject of Brian Frances Slattery's recent novel Liberation, but is also the a cornerstone of pop fantasies like Blade Runner (slave replicants), I, Robot (slave robots), Planet of the Apes ("uplifted" ape slaves), and of course Battlestar Galactica and The Matrix (both have angry machine slaves). Each of these slave classes is created to make a broken economy run again. The idea is that humans, freed of drudge work, will become more productive and create inventions to bring about a better world. Sometimes those inventions are themselves robot slaves. Scientists are also always trying to solve the economic crises of Earth by inventing amazing AIs that will allocate resources perfectly for us. This is precisely what happens at the end of Asimov's original I, Robot book, where a robot becomes world president and no humans ever want for resources again. Less-successful efforts to save the economy via AI can be found in David Gerrold's underrated When HARLIE Was One (read the original, not the rewrite) and the movie Demon Seed. In the former, HARLIE the mega-bot would rather hallucinate and write poetry than come up with strategies to build more efficient widgets. And in the latter, Proteus the AI would rather imprison and rape Julie Christie than explain how to fix Earth's financial crisis. And so you might say slavery is in some ways the classic science fiction fix for economic crisis. It provides a quick solution that spins out an infinitely-reproducible number of crises, problems, and moral dilemmas. Like time travel, slavery does not fix the financial collapse for everybody — just for the few who remain free. Even worse, your slaves tend to revolt Dune-style, take over the planet, and fuck things up exactly the same way you did. So slavery shares with terraforming the basic problem that wherever the human species goes, there it is. You'll never get a good story without conflict, so scifi may not make a good model for real-life financial fixes. And yet it does manage to reflect at least one truth about real-life economic systems: We cannot seem to dream up a way out of our economic failures that does not have its own failures built in from the start. We are, like the humans in Planet of the Apes, always replacing one kind of slavery with another.

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