Future Tense

The Rise of Dismal Science Fiction

To understand our economic system, we need speculative stories.

Covers of many of the books and movies mentioned in this article.
Photo illustration by Slate

After William Gibson coined the term cyberspace in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, it almost immediately entered our everyday vocabulary. A play on information theorist Norbert Wiener’s idea of cybernetics, cyberspace became shorthand for the world inside our networked computers, that digital landscape where we met to chat, play games, and exchange intimate secrets. Today, cyber is part of our political language, too, used to describe everything from digital warfare to online intelligence gathering. What often gets forgotten about the origin story of this term is that Gibson wasn’t just talking the future of computers, but of a world where tech corporations rule every aspect of our lives.

We’re used to science fiction providing us with commentary on technology, and vocabulary to discuss its more worrisome consequences. But underlying our fears of robots stealing our jobs or corporations turning us into consumer droids are more basic anxieties about money—and science fiction is increasingly reflecting that. For audiences grappling with the fear of poverty, or simply bewildered by postmodern economics, stories like Game of ThronesBlack Panther, and Malka Older’s critically acclaimed novel Infomocracy function like Aesop’s Fables for the 21st century.

In 2011, HBO debuted the first season of Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin told Rolling Stone in 2014 that he was inspired by all the things J.R.R. Tolkien left out of Lord of the Rings, including “Aragon’s tax policy.” Though the novels had been popular, the show became a global obsession for audiences who could clearly catch the allegorical sting in the money-mad Lannister family’s slogan, “A Lannister always pays his debts.” Gold, class divisions, and oligarchy ripped the fantasy continent of Westeros apart.

Ed Finn, who heads the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, believes we’re using fantasy to confront fears rather than erase them. (Finn is the academic director of Future Tense, a partnership between ASU, Slate, and New America.) He says that Game of Thrones has become “a yardstick to assess what’s happening in the real world and decide whether we should be concerned.” The bloodthirsty rulers of Westeros “give us a set of metaphors in common that we can use to talk about complicated things in an approachable way.” Game of Thrones doesn’t spirit us away from our problems. Instead, the show allows us to identify what’s wrong. That’s why references to Westeros have become so common among pundits and policymakers.

The Mother of Dragons is just one of many economic metaphors haunting our pop culture. The Hunger Games gave us a neo-Depression dystopia where media-obsessed elites tormenting the starving lower classes. One of the hottest sci-fi shows on TV, The Expanse, is about class warfare in the asteroid belt. Indie director Boots Riley’s forthcoming movie Sorry to Bother You, which just debuted at Sundance, is about a telemarketer who sells people indentured servitude packages. Even if you flee into the world of superheroes, you’ll run into Black Panther grappling with trade policies.

Of course, fantasy and science fiction have tackled economics before. The original Blade Runner is a nightmare about endless recession, and Isaac Asimov’s celebrated 1950s Foundation series was partly about saving the galaxy with sound economic programs. The fear of automation, where humans are replaced by robot labor, goes back to the earliest roots of the genre: Karel Capek’s play R.U.R., which introduced the word robot to the world in 1921, was about a robot labor uprising.

But a new urgency infused the genre in the wake of the 2008–09 financial crisis. This crisis has become a powerful symbol for creators, almost the same way the atomic bomb was for science-fiction writers in the 1950s.

In 2008, the novelist Max Gladstone returned to the United States after working at nongovernmental organizations in China, and “it felt like the world’s value was evaporating. There was a kind of religious shock in the burning ruins of Lehman Brothers,” he told me. His first novel, Three Parts Dead, published in 2012, was a mythical reimagining of the financial crisis. In it, attorney-necromancers battle over how to carve up the body of a dying god whose every part has been used as a magical financial instrument to leverage his city’s failing economy. “You can’t tell a story like [the financial crisis] with realism,” said Gladstone. “You need fantasy to explain it.”

University of California–Riverside economic historian Juliette Levy teaches zombie tales in her economics classes, and she’s interested in science-fiction novels like Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. In these kinds of stories, set in worlds ripped apart by starvation and war, characters are less concerned with markets than they are with basic survival. Nevertheless, this kind of “dark” science fiction, Levy said, deals with “the foundation of economics, which is scarcity.” Over the past two decades, people have become acutely aware of the planet’s dwindling supply of clean water, oil, food, and other resources. There’s also a growing fear that our poverty will come faster, as automation devalues human labor. Blade Runner 2049 shows us a world where synthetic humans called replicants work as detectives and information analysts while human children sort trash in junkyard orphanages.

Whether or not people understand the complexities of economics, said Levy, they are “experiencing [scarcity] actively or are afraid of it on a regular basis.” Still, she finds that the economics in science fiction often feel “simplistic.” But just as Stanley Kubrick famously consulted MIT researcher Marvin Minsky about A.I. for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, some writers—including me—are turning to economists to make their financial worlds more plausible. Ken Liu, whose 2015 novel The Grace of Kings was snapped up by DMG Entertainment for a possible film, said that his fantasy world building “tends to place a lot of emphasis on the technology of politics, land ownership systems, and the administrative state in part as a result of reading the works of [Santa Fe Institute economist] W. Brian Arthur.”

When I was writing my novel Autonomous, I wanted to explore a future where automation has ushered in a world whose economy is built in part on indentured servitude. So I met with economist and Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith, who immediately started world building like a fiction writer. He suggested that I imagine that people in the 22nd century have lost the right to work or live wherever they like, unless they pay for the privilege. As a result, work itself becomes pay-to-play, and people without money have no choice but to sign indenture contracts.

I wasn’t aiming to create a metaphor. I was trying to be as literal as possible about how easy it would be to slide backward into the savagery of a slave economy. By incorporating the ideas of a working economist, I hoped to offer readers a believable thought experiment about the real-life dangers of unchecked capitalism.

Economists wouldn’t mind doing a little more consulting work for fiction writers. Just as physicists love to complain about terrible science in space operas, Smith had a lot of gripes about all the unrealistic economic ideas in current pop culture. (The Iron Bank’s investment policy in Game of Thrones was a particular target of scorn.) Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, a science-fiction fan, told me that it “would be nice” if he could be consulted on fantasy economics once in a while, too.

He just might get his wish. As long as the economy continues to be a source of tremendous anxiety, it’s going to fill our fantasies with alien currencies and demonic financial instruments. Maybe by confronting our problems in metaphors and thought experiments, we equip ourselves to solve them in the real world.

Annalee Newitz is the author, most recently, of the science-fiction novel Autonomous and is the tech culture editor at Ars Technica.