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Unequal Universes

Speculative fiction is an increasingly vocal critic of neoliberalism.

Art from the cover of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice.

Winter is coming. People face imminent environmental disaster. The public servants sworn to protect them from the supernatural horrors that walk in the ice and snow are severely underfunded and face crippling labor shortages. Meanwhile, social elites engage in endless political bickering, vying for control in a faraway capital while creating a sovereign debt crisis and using the public purse to line their own pockets.

This apparent facsimile of the day’s events is plucked from the hit HBO show Game of Thrones. And Game of Thrones isn’t the only one cribbing from the real world. The financial crisis; the 1 percent’s abandon and abandonment; the mysteries of value, globalization, finance, and speculation; banking and currency — all of these have seeped into many recent works of Anglo-American speculative fiction, or SF (a broad term describing work across the often-blurred boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, horror, and other genres).

Though certainly not new, explicitly economic leitmotifs in SF works have been increasing in importance and centrality. Award-winning contemporary authors like Paolo Bacigalupi, Ann Leckie, and William Gibson have focused on themes of crisis, biopower, finance, and the potential for societal change. Works like Cory Doctorow’s Chicken Little depict finance as an arena for point scoring among ultrapowerful oligarchs, while recent films like Elysium and Snowpiercer portray resistance to growing economic stratification.

Amid gaping economic inequality and environmental crisis, the prevalence of these themes is no accident. To be sure, these works often have striking limitations. If inequality is a common motif, its source (capitalism) and its cure (collective action from below) are often muted or completely ignored. Yet despite their shortcomings, these new works exhibit a refreshing willingness to question dominant elements of our economy and social life.

For decades, SF has been a prescient critic of the rise and dominance of neoliberalism. Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik nailed the digital corporatist desire to end ownership in favor of rents, even on items like toasters, refrigerators, and the front door. In Ubik death itself, though it takes workers off the payroll, no longer offers escape from corporate exploitation. Instead, specialized mortuaries allow bosses to continue to extract value from workers beyond the grave.

Jeff Noon’s 1997 novel Nymphomation portrayed the British economy as a struggle between the corporate giant “Whoompy Burgers” and independent Indian curry shops. In the novel’s exaggerated but imaginable neoliberal future, Whoompy Burgers subsidizes university education in Manchester: students searching their transcripts or emails are bombarded by burger commercials, and a dancing hamburger tells them the number of burgers they have consumed thus far in the semester.

The University of North Carolina’s recent elimination of low-demand degree programs — “We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is,” one official explained — makes Noon’s imaginary look all too real.

In a less whimsical assessment, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1990s Mars trilogy anticipated a future in which national crises have been solved through selloffs to corporate management, and transnational corporate entities have taken over national fiscal and environmental management in return for direct control of national resources, both material and social. By the end of the trilogy, nations have gone bankrupt and sold themselves to rival corporate interests, and the entire Mars colony has become a subsidiary under corporate management.

The series presaged crises in places like Benton Harbor, MI, and other urban areas facing bankruptcy, where technocratic management has replaced democratic control.

Newer works in SF demonstrate the same willingness to question standard economic assumptions. Historically, planned economies in Anglo-American SF novels have been a mark of dystopia. However, Francis Spufford’s 2012 novel Red Plenty positively re-envisions the Soviet dream of an economy of abundance and the passion that dream evoked. The Soviet researchers who worked to find a way to direct Soviet economic growth to serve everyone are drawn with a sympathetic hand, and even Nikita Khrushchev is treated respectfully.

While Spufford’s narrative is politically problematic in a number of ways, his book and its reception show us that in the post-crash, post-Occupy environment, a growing number of readers want to rethink questions of economy and society that were previously seen as settled.

Speculative fiction writers are also tackling one of the most important subjects straddling the present and future: biogenetics and the direct control of life. Paolo Bacigalupi’s work exemplifies this interest, exploring what David Harvey calls the continuation of accumulation through dispossession in environmental and ecological terms. Bacigalupi’s Pump Six and Other Stories (2008) and The Windup Girl (2010) deal with the increasing dangers of capitalist control over the material of life itself through patent law and copyrights of genetic material.

Bacigalupi’s fiction is located at the intersection of two crises: an energy crisis in which petroleum has dried up and been replaced by agricultural sources, as well as widespread crop blight, which has left world control of food production in the hands of mega-biotech firms who own the only extant seed stocks.

While Bacigalupi’s narratives are rife with inequality and abject poverty, he portrays exploitation primarily as what humans do to the natural world. While the powerful figures he portrays do oppress impoverished people, they do so through their biogenetic control of the food supply. The poor are oppressed by their need to consume the products of agro-corporations, not in their role as producers of value for those corporations, as Marx would have it.

Ann Leckie is similarly concerned with the nature of exploitation. In the first two books of her Radch Trilogy, Leckie posits the biopower and profit resulting from state/corporate usurpation of workers’ very beings. In her novels Ancillary Justice (2013) and Ancillary Sword (2014), dead labor is literally stored for reanimation and later use through cryogenics and personality obliteration. At the same time, colonized populations are displaced from planet to planet to provide plantation labor for an elite caste of growers and merchants. After the workers’ rebellion has been crushed, labor resistance goes underground and creates its own economy of exchange and production. Leckie’s novels provide a strong example of workers’ agency and collectivity being acknowledged as possible methods of resistance.

Another SF author who gets it right is Terry Pratchett, whose novels are in part humorous, thinly veiled critiques of current social conditions: in a depiction of popular protest against a dragon usurper, Pratchett’s characters shout, “the people, united, can never be ignited!” The Discworld’s main city, Ankh-Morpork, embodies the vicissitudes of urban life. Its ruler, ruthless but devoted to the city’s welfare, is a mash-up of Machiavelli, Robespierre, and perhaps even David Harvey.

Pratchett’s novels Going Postal (2004) and Making Money (2007) both address issues that would gain prominence after the 2008 crash. In Going Postal, stamps replace specie-based currency with a social currency that contains labor value, while in Making Money the city Patrician attempts to get citizens’ money out from under their mattresses and into circulation for use as development capital. Pratchett expands the stamp paradigm, suggesting that real value comes from the potential of the city itself, as a space of circulation and capital flow. Eventually the protagonist bases a new city currency on a labor supply of golems, a fantastic labor theory of value, producing one of the few proto-Marxist visions of labor economics in fantasy literature.

Marxian concepts have a way of popping up in Pratchett’s work. In a famous passage from his 1993 novel Men at Arms, Pratchett analyzes class-based consumption and effective demand. A working-class character, Samuel Vimes, ponders his leaky boots. While the wealthy might buy one pair of boots for an exorbitant price, those well-made boots will last for the rest of their lives; the rich are thus out of the market if they wish and their feet are dry. The working-class person who cannot afford such expensive footwear must buy cheap boots, which soon wear out, prompting a new purchase of inexpensive boots, and so on. Eventually, the worker spends far more on boots, and still ends up with wet feet.

Cory Doctorow inverts the boots trope in his 2010 story “Chicken Little.” In this conjured world, entire industries cater to ultra-rich post-humans from whom a single purchase is enough to keep a company running for decades. These consumers live in town-sized underground machines, while around them the town’s entire populace exists to serve them. The consumers are capricious, unimaginably wealthy, and enjoy simultaneous status as human beings, corporations, and sovereign states. The world economy has become a way for these ultra-oligarchs to keep score in their intramural power games.

While Doctorow’s story is a canny extrapolation of current economic trends — and valuably shows us the limitless nature of money power — its narrative resolution lacks the collectivity present in many of Doctorow’s other works. The uniquely gifted protagonist compromises one consumer and gets the girl. Oligarchy is dented by the actions of one individual, and the protagonist transcends his circumstances to achieve his heart’s desire; but the larger structural problems are left in place. Doctorow’s consumers remain separated from humanity both physiologically and spatially.

Inequality expressed through spatial segregation has long been a powerful device in SF. As far back as H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), the “civilized” Eloi occupied the Earth’s surface while the Morlocks, born of oppression, lived below ground.  In William Gibson’s latest novel, The Peripheral, the rich and poor do not even inhabit the same quantum reality. The wealthy society is the result of a series of global androgenic crises that result in a forty-year die off of 80 percent of the global population.

Gibson posits a Malthusian catalyst for redistribution, a social solution in which wealth is attained through attrition rather than actively extracted from the greater population. The past that we are shown, its economy dominated by Walmart, drug manufacturing, and military service, is a “stub” of reality, entirely owned by one of the future oligarchs, who rewards a chosen few with information about lottery numbers and canny stock manipulation. Such largesse is the best that those in the past can hope for — they are entirely at their owners’ mercy.

It is a somewhat hopeful vision of the future in which radical technological advances can stem looming dystopia, but Gibson still relies on Malthusian ideas and the goodwill of powerful elites to create a better world, rather than the self-determination of the oppressed.

Recent movies use the same device of spatial separation to illustrate inequality, and display similar elements and shortcomings. The 2013 film Elysium depicts a system in which the 1 percent has abandoned the earth to live in space. The main character works as an assembler on Earth and is injured in an industrial accident when his factory is sped up to secure lucrative contracts from the wealthy space station community.

The movie is somewhat of an exception in that it does portray a direct relationship between wealth and poverty. The wealthy space-dwelling citizens recognize that their luxury depends on the oppression of others, and consciously maintain a militarized gulf between themselves and the poor to protect their own lifestyle.

Yet the film avoids the suggestion of collective action as a solution. The climactic social resolution is managed through a rogue computer program, smuggled into the space station by our lone hero and a few other supporters. This brings down the spatial apartheid and makes everyone, not just the segregated one percent, worthy of all social resources. Through a sort of “égalité ex machina,” redistribution is achieved through Christ-like solo sacrifice.

2014’s Snowpiercer also presents a rigidly hierarchical society in which the gradations of social class have been mapped spatially onto sections of a train. The only human survivors of a global ice age live in the train, which constantly circles the earth. While heat, water, food, and all other necessities flow from the dynamism of the engine — a metaphor for capitalist circulation — the denizens of the train are forced to know their place, as set by their tickets: First Class, Economy, or Freeloader, from engine to caboose, respectively.

Via a rebellion begun by the Freeloaders, three characters make it to the front of the train: one is offered a position to remain there and run the engine, while the other two attempt to disembark from the train altogether. Even worse than this attempted co-optation is the revelation that the train engineer had managed the revolt all along, a coerced approximation of renewal to keep the engine smoothly running in the future. Blowing the door of the train to escape, the rebels cause a catastrophic derailing avalanche. After the devastation, one of the three, a woman, escapes with a child into the waning winter.

The collective action of the revolution merely moves individuals from the tail to the head. It takes a natural catastrophe, instigated but not planned by the rebels, to derail the entire train. As in a variety of ecologically oriented speculative fiction, the transition away from capitalism is forced by environmental factors rather than achieved through collective action. One way or the other, though, the future is off the train: out of capitalist circulation, with an end to the hierarchy and domination that the train enabled.

As Jason Read has noted, Snowpiercer emphasizes the need for new visions of the possible. That at least provides an opening, even if we are left uncertain whether collective action was effective or merely a distraction, or what might be the political implications of the anarcho-primitivist vision of life beyond capitalism implied by the film’s conclusion.

Like all cultural works, SF is situated in a political and economic context. In ours, people are noticing that whatever carrot of prosperity capitalism seems to offer, the stick is all they ever get. SF’s heightened focus on inequality is a sign that the ideological basis of our current social order may be undergoing a significant shift.

At the National Book Awards last year, Ursula K. Le Guin, perhaps the most celebrated of leftist SF authors, urged her fellow authors to envision “alternatives to how we live now.” She continued:

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

The narratives discussed here suggest that there could be such a resistance brewing — that dreams of new possibilities may defeat the zombies of hidebound tradition and economic dogma.

Increasingly popular series like the Hunger Games books and films portray the poor and rich as so estranged as to be from different lands, and acknowledge that the rich few live off the labors of the many — who, when they no longer fear the few, still have the capacity to change the world.