Imagining future economies
UCI literary scholar edits new collection on science fiction and economics
Teaming up with some of the biggest voices in the world of English-language science fiction, Jonathan Alexander, Chancellor’s Professor of English and informatics at the University of California, Irvine, served as one of the editors for the forthcoming, Science Fiction and the Dismal Science: Essays on Economics in and of the Genre (McFarland, 2020). In this collection, authors, economists and scholars offer their cross-disciplinary insights into the connections between the genre of science fiction and economics. Alexander, himself an interdisciplinary scholar, has written about science fiction and contemporary speculative TV.
Below, science fiction scholar Christopher Fan, assistant professor of English at UCI, sits down with Alexander to discuss science fiction’s many forms, what it imagines for the future, and its commentary on economics.
Christopher Fan: In the introduction, you and the other editors of the volume -- who are, by the way, among the most prominent voices in the world of Anglophone science fiction -- make the broad claim that "science fiction has insufficiently addressed economic issues," and then argue that science fiction might "offer some ways to solve our [economic] problems." What prompted this sense of urgency? Why this volume now?
Jonathan Alexander: Great question. We, as editors, had some discussion about this, and I personally think that science fiction has long been concerned with economic issues; there is also a healthy tradition amongst science fiction critics that is concerned with political economy and even Marxist approaches to the genre. I’m thinking of critics such as Mark Bould and Carl Freedman, and of creative writers such as China Miéville and even much “older” writers, such as Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, who published The Space Merchants in 1952. Such work – both fiction and theory/criticism – is getting more notice now because scholars across the humanities are increasingly and critically attuned to the many ways in which economics and finance shape our lives. That shaping often finds both implicit and explicit expression in literary content and literary forms – including science fiction.
CF: Many accounts of science fiction argue that it's a genre unique to technologically advanced societies. I understand that to be an economic claim. Is science fiction thus a fundamentally economic genre that isn't always explicit about its economic imagination? “Star Trek's” famous replicators, for instance, imply a great deal about the economic relations of the Federation, not least the obsolescence of industries like agriculture ("Tea. Earl Grey. Hot!") and manufacturing, even if “Star Trek” is never explicit about those relations.
JA: I hesitate to assert what might be “fundamental” to a genre. But I do think that science fiction, as a genre, especially one that’s concerned with futurity, is one that is certainly amenable to considering, and perhaps even primed to consider, issues of economy, even if only implicitly as you suggest with the example from “Star Trek”! After all, if we are thinking imaginatively about the future through science fiction, an obvious question arises: how do we get from here (or now) to there (or then)? At the very least, the changes imagined in science fiction narratives between a present and a future can trigger intriguing thought questions.
To use “Star Trek” as an example, the Federation famously does not have a monetary currency, and that difference alone prompts the questions of how and why. How does such a society function? Why has it been organized without money? Not all science fiction narratives map out explicitly such changes, but some do. “The Expanse,” for instance, set in a future in which humans have begun colonizing the solar system, is significantly more explicit in exploring the intertwined political and economic relations of its imagined “world.”
CF: What do you see as science fiction’s unique capabilities in addressing economic questions as opposed to other genres -- e.g., fantasy, realism, naturalism, socialist realism?
JA: Any of these genres can – and often do! – address economic issues and questions. Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes series is a science fantasy series that really explores economic questions. This is especially the case when items can be transported to different “worlds” at different stages of technological development – a situation parallel to that of our own real-world planet, which is rife with uneven technological development and ability. But I do think that science fiction invites such questions, even if only implicitly, by actively imagining worlds that are different than ours but not necessarily magical. That is, science fiction, apart from fantasy, usually (though there are exceptions) relies on some plausible sense that what’s changed is possible and therefore, not magical. That sense of plausibility raises questions of how and why – the “what if” that makes so much science fiction interesting.
CF: Contemporary science fiction has been strongly drawn to dystopian visions. What role do dystopia and utopia play in economic science fiction?
JA: Given contemporary issues of geopolitical crisis, economic precarity and drastic environmental change, I’m not surprised that dystopian visions are striking a chord with readers. But I also don’t believe that dystopia is the “opposite” of utopia. Especially since many contemporary dystopian narratives end with some sense of hope for change, dystopian fiction seems to me a genre that is actually quite hopeful. It’s honest about what’s wrong, and about how current conditions could be extrapolated to “apocalyptic” scenarios, but the consideration of such scenarios is itself an invitation to think about how to prevent them from happening. Hence, there’s a kind of hope at play in a lot of dystopian fiction for me – and for readers of it.
CF: What do you hope readers will take away from this volume?
JA: We hope that readers will take from the volume a sense of the range and breadth of science fiction and how it imaginatively tackles issues of political economy. I hope too that readers will be invited to think about some of their favorite science fiction works in different ways, and that they might also be introduced to some work they aren’t familiar with. My chapter on Daniel F. Galouye’s brilliant novel, Simulacron-3 (which was made into the film “The Thirteenth Floor”), is a case in point. Galouye deserves a wider audience than he has, and I hope our volume can make him some new fans!
Science Fiction and the Dismal Science: Essays on Economics in and of the Genre is available January 24, 2020. In addition to Alexander, its editors include Gregory Benford, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at UCI, Howard V. Hendrix and Gary Westfahl. Keep up to date with Jonathan Alexander by reading his articles in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.
Christopher Tzechung Fan, assistant professor of English, is currently working on a book, tentatively titled Principles of Selection: Asian American Fiction after 1965, about post-1965 Asian/American fiction (especially science fiction) as an articulation of immigration policy and U.S.-Asia political economy.
Photo credit: Steve Zylius/UCI