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Bleg 2: Science Fiction

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I have read hardly any science fiction. However, I have found that it is often easy to explain some of my economic ideas in terms of The Diamond Age or Snow Crash. What other science fiction books do you recommend for the way that they offer interesting perspective on economic institutions?

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COMMENTS (38 to date)
Grant Gould writes:

Stross's Merchant Princes series is pretty much entirely about development traps and various forms of arbitrage.

TJIC writes:

Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress".

Blish's "Cities in Flight" series.

alex writes:

Ask David D. Friedman or Paul Krugman

jb writes:

The Culture series by Iain Banks describes a well-thought-out and internally consistent mechanism for a post-scarcity socialist utopia.

The trick is: the government consists of hyper-intelligent benevolent AIs.

If you haven't read Stephenson's "Confusion" series, that has some really smart economics in it.

OneEyedMan writes:

The Dispossessed. Like Ian Banks' Culture books it depicts a futuristic anarchistic society that leans heavily on computers to solve the knowledge problem but unlike the Culture series they are not post scarcity. Lots of interesting stuff about privacy and the hard choices their system gives them.

Heinlin's Starship Troopers you may already know, but shows an alternative system where only those who have served in the military can vote, but the economy is capitalist.

Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World deal with related issues of utopian economics and dignity.

The Forever War shows how relativistic phenomena would influence how wars are fought and the costs on those fighting them.

The Mote in God's Eye has some interesting stuff on overpopulation, and just how far from true overpopulation we are.

A Deepness in the Sky has plausible descriptions of what relativistic limitations would do to interstellar trade.

The Demolished Man discusses what telepathy would do to economics and crime.

SB7 writes:

I love Banks' Culture material, but I think it would not be so useful for providing examples of economics. The titular civilization is post-scarcity in general, but the stories all occur when and where scarcity comes into existence again: there is still a finite amount of interstellar transport, a finite amount of jobs with the most prestigious employers, a finite amount of invitations to the best parties, a finite amount of social capital, a finite number of positions at the top of the rankings in competitive pursuits, a finite amount of military power to deploy. It makes more sense and is far more consistent than any other "post-scarcity" society depicted in fiction, but the economics of it is all still quite hand-wavy.

Dune might be a worthwhile book for this, though I'm not sure how much more I would recommend it that The Culture.

P. Lee writes:

David Louis Edelman's Jump 225 trilogy: Infoquake, MultiReal, and Geosynchron.!5530905/io9-book-club-assemble-this-month-david-louis-edelmans-infoquake!5161075/multireal-is-your-dot+com-nightmare-writ-large

They Walked Like Men by Clifford Simak

Zero History by William Gibson

Dervish House by Ian MacDonald

Sorry for the long post and hope it helps!

CZempel writes:

Consider examining the Prometheus Award winners:

Shangwen writes:

You might have better luck with SF short stories rather than novels. LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is a good example of an economically ignorant, zero-sum depiction of an economy.

Come to think of it, most SF that touches on economic issues is rich in English-professor conspiracy theories, and in general plenty of demonstrations of authorial economic ignorance. Lots of planets cruelly mined for resource extraction by monopolies, Big Bad Corporations etc. Consistent with the English professor characteristic, they are also inconsistently libertarian with respect to free speech.

Alex J. writes:

From Vernor Vinge: Rainbows End on the singularity and communications technology. True Names on crypto and virtual reality. The Ungoverned on "competitive governments", available here.

I second The Confusion.

Blackadder writes:

For the explanation to work the reference will have to be to something a lot of people will have read. Sadly, most of the suggestions do not fall into that category.

My advice would be to forget about Science Fiction, and try to take your examples from The Wire.

SB7 writes:

A Deepness in the Sky is a great pick. Good thinking, OneEyedMan.

AirmanSpryShark writes:

Riffing on the Heinlein theme: _The Rolling Stones_& _Farmer in the Sky_

John writes:

Add "The Man Who Sold the Moon" by Heinlein.

Also both Asimov's Foundation series and his Robot series are interesting.

JF Sullivan writes:

"The Game-Players of Titan" by PKD. While not one of Dick's best works, it has an interesting bit of game theory in the end based on the question "How can humans beat aliens at a card game when the aliens can read your mind?" Dick's solution is quite ingenious.

"The Penultimate Truth" is also interesting about an underground factory churning out weaponry for a war that has been ongoing for a hundred years. When the workers find a piece is failing and they will soon die a man sets out to the surface which legend holds is a blighted wasteland... and turns to be a verdant paradise of an elite of PR men generating government propaganda to keep the factory workers convinced the war is still going on...

Hasdrubal writes:

As John stated, Asimov's Foundation series is interesting. It's basically premised a social science that is as precise and accurate as people think economics is today, a world where "Taking the Con out of Econometrics" would never have been written.

sk writes:

Not a book, but a tv show and a movie illustrating the merits of negative liberty and free enterprise: Firefly and Serenity.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I will second the recommendation for "The Baroque Cycle" which I guess is actually historical fiction but is just amazing for amongst other things its economic content. It discusses such varied topics as the development of insurance, money and banking, the unintended effects of regulation (such as banning short selling), free trade and well much more... And all of it is very well done.

More on the science fiction side:

The Golden Ecumen trilogy shows a libertarian society with very strong social norms. Not to give away too much, but effectively, there is a non-governmental body who through a network of voluntary contractual obligations enforces social norms while the government enforces a very basic minimum of rules that we would associate with a libertarian society.

The Unincorporated Man reflects upon a future in which again, there is a very limited government with a twist: everyone is incorporated. Basically, when you are born, your parents receive 25% of your shares, the state 5% and you get to keep the 70%. Those who own your shares are entitled to that portion of your income and a certain amount of control in your life to defend their interests as shareholders. The book is written by two brothers and you can really feel the dualism as the book equally defends and attacks the system it portrays.

Asimov wrote a great trilogy whose first book is called "Caves of Steel". The three are very much "noir" detective stories set in an absolutely technocratic future. There is a fair amount of exploration of a variety of laws and norms that have arisen to deal with an overpopulated Earth. It also in the later books looks more at a (somewhat) opposite of Earth on the "Spacer" worlds which humans have colonized.

Interesting from a public choice theory point of view is the short story "The Evitable Conflict" in Asimov's short story collection: I, Robot. The world economy is being run entirely by a set of gigantic supercomputers who plan the entirety of production perfectly. Yet, a number of issues have cropped up where minor cases of over or under production have occurred. I won't reveal what is happening, but it is a somewhat unexpected twist which students of public choice theory will kick themselves for not having seen coming.

ThomasL writes:

I second (third? fourth?) Foundation. It is staple of the genre. Even thought I couldn't really say it was a personal favorite, it is certainly a book worth reading.

I'd go with just the first book. I didn't think the rest of the series was as tight.

Jose Alcántara writes:

I'd recommend Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling. It's a 1988 novel that also provide an insightful vision of how transnational communities (like the ones you see in The Diamond Age) may work and organise.

People call Topology "rubber-sheet Geometry". Good sci-fi is often rubber-sheet sociology.

Heinlein's juvenile fiction often examines the relation between physical constraints, on the one hand, and laws and customs, on the other.

Years before the internet, John Brunner predicted computer worms in __Shockwave Rider__. He also described something like Adm. Poindexter's proposal to use bookmaking (internet betting) to predict terrorism (and anything else).

Isn't it easier to find examples in biology? See E.O. Wilson, __The Ergonomics of Caste in Social Insects__(AER), and Hirscliefer, __Anarchy and its Breakdown__ (JPE).

Radford Neal writes:

"Citizen of the Galaxy" (novel), by Heinlein, for its treatment of slavery, traditional societies, and corporate governance.

"And then there were none" (short story) by Eric Frank Russell for economics of anarchy. Available at

Paul Miller writes:

The windup girl. Recent and as good as stephenson but with genetic engineering intead of computers or nanotechnology.

Psychic Octopus writes:

Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It illustrates how society reverts to pre-capitalist modes in the wake of devastating cometary impact.

Evan writes:

An Enemy of the State by F. Paul Wilson. It might be the most explicitly econ-themed sf book I've read. Its portrays a malevolent future government eerily like ours, that spends huge amounts of money bribing its citizens with entitlements and government jobs. Unlike our current government, which prefers borrowing to cover up the unsustainable nature of the system, this one relies on seignorage. The main conflict is a group of semi-non-violent revolutionaries (they steal and damage property, but try to avoid killing) who are trying to overthrow the government by accelerating the entitlements crash.

Poul Anderson's short story Turning Point is one of the most heartwarming stories I've ever read, it deals with the themes of IQ and comparative advantage. It also perfectly embodies your frequent mantra "Lose the 'we'". If you get it in certain anthologies (the one I have is Time and Stars) it should be packaged with No Truce with Kings, which deals with the knowledge problem, and the problems inherent in government by benevolent technocrats.

Trader to the Stars, and some of the other Nicolas Van Rijn stories by Poul Anderson are also great. These stories are fairly economically literate in that Van Rijn tries to get people to do good by creating good incentives, rather than persuading them to be good people. They're also a good intro to evol psych.

Larry Niven's teleporter stories, like Flash Crowd and The Last Days of the Permanent Floating Riot Club do a good job of showing a society changed by a single disruptive technology, and a few new PSST that emerge. Most of them can be found in The Flight of the Horse and A Hole in Space.

Bill N writes:

Michael Flynn's "Firestar" series follows a near future through a couple generations as they cope with manipulation, free will, technological change, and an alien "test" of humanity. The stories include juvenile delinquency, a chartered school, capitalist motives, political activists, politics, war, and project management.

Lars P writes:

As much as I love SF, Blackadder is right: The Wire is overflowing with economy drama, especially Public Choice.

twv writes:

Several of Jack Vance's novels deal with the rise of an individual through application and clever work. EMPHYRIO features a closed economic society with trade guilds and lots of government control over workers, with the top caste gaining rents by monopolizing the market. WYST almost qualifies as an anti-utopian classic. TO LIVE FOREVER is about the economics of state-controlled longevity.

Eric Frank Russell's THE GREAT EXPLOSION contains a classic segment describing an anarchist society. The people there are amazingly uncoöperative. They trade "obs" or obligations.

Cyril M. Kornbluth's THE SYNDIC has the mob running the U.S., and a number of economic ideas running through it.

In general, though, economics is not the science behind many "science fiction" works. Most sf authors are not very economically savvy. Most are utopian or technocratic. Still, the Heinlein wing has a sort of practical, common sense perspective going through it.

Sometimes the "hard-hearted" approach - which might be characterized as 'economistic" - yielded classic stories. Contrast "The Cold Equations" with "Think Like a Dinosaur."

Anon. writes:

Permutation City by Greg Egan. Idea-driven extremely hard SF, it reminded me a lot of Borges.

Shane writes:

Not sure if it counts as economics but Tad Williams's amazing Otherworld series depicts the near future in which a group of super-rich people create a virtual reality internet so advanced as to be indistinguisable from reality. They plan to overcome the one thing wealth cannot stop - death - by uploading their memories into the machine and living for eternity as gods. Has some very plausible ideas for how our near future could look.

Issac Asimov's Foundation series seems to have an economics angle. It deals with "psychohistory", the idea that the future of civilisations can be predicted over the long term while the future of individuals cannot.

Rod writes:

Several of Jerry Pournelle's stuff, especially when writing with Flynn & Niven.

Joshua Herring writes:

"The Towers of Utopia" - Mack Reynolds - can't remember too much about the details, but it involves a massive welfare state

"Mindstar Rising" - Peter Hamilton - more political than economic, but involves rebuilding after global warming and a catastrophic socialist experiment

"Architects of Emortality" - Brian Stableford - I understand this is one in a series dealing with the same future world, but it involves transition to a postindustrial economy in which the younger generation, but not the older, may have achieved practical immortality

"Tower of Glass" - Robert Silverberg - involves, among other things, a giant building project made possible by the transition to an android labor force

"Ring Around the Sun" - Clifford Simak - involves an alien species flooding the market with cheap products to destroy the world economy

"Mallworld" - Somtow Sucharitkul - About a planet-sized shopping mall - to the extent that it's about anything in particular. Brilliant book, impossible to describe. Admittedly, probably one you can't easily use in lectures.

mobile writes:

Cory Doctorow's short novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom about a post-singularity world. Rich with anarcho-capitalist and non-pecuniary economic themes. And in keeping with its non-pecuniary themes, the story is freely available.

David Friedman writes:

The Poul Anderson story "Margin of Profit," one of the series featuring Nicholas van Rijn, is a favorite of mine. The central point is that, in order to stop bad people from doing bad things to you, you don't have to make what they are doing impossible, merely unprofitable.

Vinge's story "The Ungoverned" describes the invasion of an anarcho-capitalist society by an adjacent state.

Joshua Herring writes:

On reflection, if there is a Peter Hamilton novel that's of particular economic interest, it's "Misspent Youth"

Roger Sweeny writes:

I would un-recommend Asimov's Foundation novels. They are science fiction classics and I devoured them when I was young but ...

There is pretty much nothing about economics in them. The dues ex machina in the series is "psychohistory," an academic breadthrough that almost perfectly predicts what will happen centuries into the future. General equilibrium on steroids.

One gets the impression after reading them that smart, well-trained people should rule. (On the other hand, if you strongly believe that anything like psychohistory is impossible, the books may subvert that idea.)

The three original novels come to almost a thousand pages. The reading is easy but I don't know any high school student who would read an extra thousand pages for a course, even an AP course.

Isegoria writes:

Paul Krugman has admitted that he wanted to be a psychohistorian when he grew up, and so has Hal Varian, so Asimov's Foundation is, at the very least, inspirational.

Krugman, by the way, recommends against Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon but in favor of Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes novels.

Shane writes:

I liked Greg Costikyan's "First Contract."

When aliens come to Earth with far superior technology, Earth becomes a third-world planet. An intrepid entrepreneur tries to find a new way to compete in the new interstellar market.

It contains much detail about trade economics and entreprenurial methods.

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