- The Novums of FiscalmancySpeculative Finance and Speculative Fiction in Ian McDonald's The Dervish House
I. Financial Science Fictions
Science Fiction in the Age of Speculative Finance
What happens to speculative fiction (sf) under a perpetual winter of financial crisis? If, as John Rieder (2008) and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. (2003) have argued, sf's advent is coterminous with and ideologically pinned to the rise of imperialism, its development also takes place from within the regime of productive, Fordist capitalism. Sf's technological novums—from the Nautilus to the time machine, faster than light engines to robots, quantum computing to nanotechnology—bare this imprint of production's dominance. But what happens to sf as the mode of production shifts from the material to the immaterial, from the dominance of the commodity form to the dominance of [End Page 129] the financial instrument? How does sf adapt to the centrality of finance and the normalization of crisis that is now endemic to its ascendency as the main ground for capitalist accumulation?
Exploring this question does not suggest that production-oriented novums have disappeared from sf; production and commodities will always form a significant part of the capitalist landscape. Rather, it is to ask how sf world-building adapts to accommodate the shift from commodity production to the regime of finance, with the latter's emphasis on rent, interest, and circulatory financial accumulation. In short, I'm most interested here in the development of what could be called financial science fictions that take speculative finance as the root and branch of sf worldbuilding.
Ian McDonald's near-future novel The Dervish House (2010) centers on exactly such questions about the role of finance in both its form and content.1 Set in 2027 on the fifth anniversary of Turkey's entry to the European Union, it foregrounds nanotechnology as its key technological sf novum and as the inheritor of cyberpunk's world-transforming revolutionary power. However, as financial sf, it makes its narrative debt to the 2008 crash explicit: "The shadow of the great crash hangs over our generation," observes Professor Budak, "yet here we are in a booming market utilizing even more complex and subtle and interlinked financial instruments. At some point it will inevitably crash again: as weapons of mass destruction go, unrestricted market economies are among the more subtle" (McDonald 2010, 178).
The Dervish House, with its emphasis on exploring the arcane technologies of finance capitalism in the wake of the 2008 crash, appears at least nominally part of the "Crunch Lit" phenomenon diagnosed by Katy Shaw (2015). Describing the appearance of this new genre following the crash, Shaw writes that "Crunch Lit fictions are concerned with the tensions, conflicts and fallouts related to an economic reversal of fortunes for capitalism in the new millennium. Fictionalizing the financial crisis, these texts offer contemporary readers social studies of finance, not just stories about economic misfortune" (Shaw 2015, 12). Crunch Lit novels wrestle with the dual character of what Alison Shonkwiler terms the financial imaginary, which could be thought of as a dialectic that connects the crises in representation to the increasing abstraction of financial capitalism and that is "produced by the social [End Page 130] uncertainties and precarities that result from the expansion of financialization over multiple domains of life" (Shonkwiler 2017, xi).
Although written in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, as financial sf, The Dervish House differs in important ways from the fictions described in Shaw's and Shonkwiler's projects. Rather than a direct representation or mediation of the 2007–9 crisis period, it provides an extrapolation of the afterlife of its effects as the determinate ground for the near future. The 2008 crisis forms a backdrop to the novel as part of its political unconscious, structuring its plot armature and form. In this sense we might think of it as postcrisis fiction: if Shonkwiler's project tackles realist depictions of the post-1973 period of speculative finance, and if Shaw emphasizes the new genre of financial novels and films that elucidate the 2007–9 credit crisis, The Dervish House, in contrast, explores the domestication of crisis as...