Looking For Dismal Science Fiction

No, I don’t want bad SF. I want good SF — but about economics, the “dismal science.”

As part of my side hobby of world-building, I’ve been collecting SF-oriented papers by economics like Paul Krugman and Robin Hanson. Hanson’s page (linked left) is a great starting point. There are some fantastic ideas there.

But what about closing the loop? Which SF authors get it right? Do any of them focus on future economics — and still manage to write good fiction?

Charlie Stross jumps out at me as an example of someone who understand economics well enough to take it into account. (I haven’t gotten around to reading his Merchant Princes series, but that seems like a good example from what I’ve heard) I’m under the impression that Paul Krugman is a fan of his, come to think of it. Surely Stross is not the only one, though. Help me out here: who does economics well in SF?

12 thoughts on “Looking For Dismal Science Fiction

  1. Ken MacLeod’s work is all heavily influenced by economics (sometimes Marxist, sometimes less tradtional). J. Neal Schulman’s Alongside Night is not great writing, but is one of the better expressions of 70s libertarian agorist para-economics. Vernor Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky both posit interesting and relatively believable economics of long-distance starfaring civilisations.

    Worth looking at are the Prometheus Awards, which are notionally for libertarian SF but as often as not go for SF that displays some economic literacy (eg, IIRC Stross won one despite his comments that all libertarians are mentally ill).

    Peter Hamilton’s space operas often posit far-future economies, and even use them to motivate plots, but I hesitate because the economies typically stretch plausibility rather thin. Richard Morgan does a fairly good job with the economics and socio-economics of a cyberpunk world in most of his books, but in my view gets a big demerit from the total polemical implausibility of his one book that was actually about economics (Market Forces).

    1. … and only in a sub-reply will I mention John C. Wright’s utterly thrilling and brilliant and ecstatic post-singularity economy in his Golden Age trilogy, far and away the most imaginative and compelling far-future economy I have read, because in spite of his compelling writing he is in fact an extraordinarily unpleasant uber-right-wing ass whose awesome fiction I can no longer read without nausea because of the bile that rises when I think of other comments he has made.

      Which pisses me off because I really want to re-read that trilogy but find that I can’t stomach opening the books.

      1. I’ve never heard of the man — what is so icky about him? I’m fascinated by the depth of your revulsion; to try to answer my own question, I found his blog, but he seemed just irritating and boring enough for me not to want to read deeply enough to figure it out. (Which doesn’t make me want to read his fiction, truthfully, but that’s different from what you describe.)

        1. Never heard of him before, but I am scanning his memories on LJ.

          Stuff that annoys me, so far:
          From http://johncwright.livejournal.com/10487.html
          “I hope my pagan friends will think favorably of me in their rituals and spells, and bless me; the divine spirits or angels whom they praise in their rites are God’s creatures also, and it may be His plan to lead some of his children from types and images to truth by gentle steps.”

          His response to political correctness: http://johncwright.livejournal.com/242240.html

          His response to feminism:
          http://johncwright.livejournal.com/8804.html

          Comparing abortions to the Holocaust:
          http://johncwright.livejournal.com/10109.html

          There are more, but that’s a start.

          It looks like he a was a sane, reasonable person until he had a heart attack and hospital-bed conversion (from which he didn’t die).

    2. All good suggestions, thanks! I haven’t paid much attention to the Prometheus Awards, but it sounds like I should check out a few winners.

      Vinge is one of those authors people keep recommending to me. I should really make another effort to get into his stuff.

  2. What facets of economics are you looking for?

    Some authors pay a lot of attentions to parts, while ignoring others. Interstellar trade, fuel costs, costs to raise things out of gravity wells v. space construction, deep space mining, economics behind space elevators, national economics in interstellar trade, etc.

    I can’t think of a single author who keeps everything in mind; the tendency to have non-human cultures be mono-cultures on planets without economic or material diversity leads to breakdowns in any economic system.

    1. At the very least, stories that take economics into consideration when, say, building Death Stars. Or deciding to invade a planet full of armed people when the resources they need could be obtained much more easily from asteroids.

      But I’m also interested in stories that wonder what an alien economics might look like, sure. It’s an invitation to ask question about to what degree not only our culture but our circumstances and anatomy affect our concept of economics. Food has been the basis of a lot of human trade — how would economics develop for a photosynthesizing race?

      1. Truth be told, other than Brin, nothing really jumps to mind.

        There is a huge potential for economics to be a significant deal in Brust’s Taltos series (kinda/sorta SF< mostly fantasy), or Bujold's Vorkosigan series, but it doesn't really come into play. Heinlein had some, in various books, but it isn't pervasive or all that strong in any. Niven's Ringworld had some, but I didn't read any of the sequels, so I don't know how that went. Farmer's Riverworld had economics in it, but it wasn't entirely sensical, and I gave up on the series after 3 or 4 books for other reasons.

        Doing economics well is hard, in SF. A logical approach to economic issues usually results in dismantling the store's raison-d'etre.

        I'll see if I come up with anything.

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