- Future FluctuationsEconomy, Exchange, and Subjectivity in Recent English-Language Speculative Fiction
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every interstellar colony in search of good fortune must be in need of a banker.—Charles Stross, Neptune's Brood (2013)
Charles Stross's novel Neptune's Brood (2013) projects ideas from David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2014) into a distant future where debt has become a law as unbreakable as the speed of light. Neptune's Brood extrapolates current financial and market constructs to literalize the way that those constructs colonize and control not only markets but also people's lives and subjectivities. This relationship between economics and speculative fiction (sf), at the forefront of Stross's novel, has a long history. In 1759, for example, Adam Smith penned a short sf story as a way to illustrate his Theory of Moral Sentiments (DeLong 2016), and Marx's [End Page 105] descriptions of economics in Capital are famously punctuated with werewolves, monsters, vampires, and the undead (Marx 1990). Moreover, speculative economics relies on fictive finance, debt, and futures—all unreal, scientifictional transactions that move money through time and space in ways that would shock even H. G. Wells. As Steven Shaviro and others have argued, speculative finance itself already speaks the language of sf: it depends upon extrapolating the conditions of a reliable present into a predictably profitable future (Shaviro 2006; 2011). This essay, building on such insights, examines the relationships between contemporary sf and our current regime of neoliberal financial capitalism.
The global consequences of neoliberal economic policies have been devastating to a level that beggars belief. As Mike Davis points out in Planet of Slums, 30,000 people a day die from easily preventable waterborne illnesses (Davis 2017, 142), many of them in countries that are under structural adjustment regimes imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Such countries are forced to restructure their government spending, cutting back on public services (most often public health) to send money back to Wall Street (Davis 2017, 148). Banks and investors thus profit from the financialization of public debt at the cost of a daily death toll that would not be believable in even the most grimdark sf novels. Such a system can wreak such damage with impunity in part because it is enabled by what Philip Mirowski characterizes as the Neoliberal Thought Collective (NTC), which includes institutions like Mont Pèlerin, the Brookings Institution, and Americans for Prosperity as well as celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins. The NTC (which often embodies a widespread ideological consensus rather than an organized effort) uses various branches of popular culture to reinforce an economic narrative that guides political, social, and individual lives (Mirowski 2013). Mirowski suggests that "the rise of the Neoliberal Thought Collective cannot possibly be understood narrowly as an offshoot of 'economics' as such; rather, it is a general philosophy of politics and the meaning of life" (Mirowski 2016).
Because the NTC narrative is embedded in scientifictional culture already, destabilizing and denaturalizing this narrative may well fall at least in part to sf (Shaviro 2011). Although many sf writers condone or accept capitalist [End Page 106] neoliberalism, there are several strains of the genre that aim to identify the mendacity and harm of the current capitalist system. William Davies suggests that science fiction, because of its ability to juxtapose radical differences between past, present, and future, "empowers the critic and the radical to see the present as amenable to conscious transformation" (Davies 2018). There are different approaches, naturally, and I will highlight three: writers like Stross and Ian McDonald use sf as a way to emphasize and analyze neoliberal economic trends, projecting them forward to expose the NTC narrative's reach and social imbrication. Rebecca Roanhorse and Priya Sharma crucially reclaim the subjectivities of people embedded within predatory capitalism and empire, directly challenging the NTC's exploitation and erasure of subjects at the margins. Finally, Kim Stanley Robinson combines both these strategies, detailed economic analysis and an exploration of marginalized subjectivities, to envision new collective tactics to challenge and perhaps even overturn the neoliberal order...