Economics in Science Fiction

In a recent issue of Asimov’s, James Patrick Kelly laments in his “On the Net” column, the absence of economics as a structural component in science-fiction stories. I hope James will read this post because a new source of economic power creates plenty of trouble in my novel, Maker Messiah. It’s not just the unintended consequences of the new technology, though plenty of those arise. It’s the intended consequences of Philip Mahen’s machines that create the biggest problems and the nastiest dilemmas.

Economists study how we allocate scarce resources via markets and money and enough statistics to circle the planet. Ho-hum. Until that is, Philip deliberately vaporizes the lynchpin of all economic behavior. When his Maker machines threaten to replace perpetual scarcity with universal plenitude, the wheels come off every economy in the world. Microcapitalism for the masses becomes Armageddon for the power elites, but it’s just the beginning of a new moral sensibility. And the realization of Philip’s dreams.

Tech-driven Morality in Maker Messiah

Can lifeless technology improve human behavior?

In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that Western societies have already altered our baser natures for the better, partly through technology. But could a single technical advance create lasting moral improvements in weeks or months, rather than over decades or generations?

Despite steady progress in science and technology, there hangs a vast suspicion today over the very idea of technology advancing the human condition. Smartphones and cancer drugs, yes. Compassion, not so much. Even in fiction, powerful new technologies almost always portend dark and brutish futures.

Instead of examining the potential flaws in this perspective, or arguing that the proverbial glass is half-full rather than half-empty, Maker Messiah dares to ask: What sort of technology could plausibly change human behavior for the better? Not 100 years from now, but tomorrow.

If Maker tech blows through our assumptions about scarcity, what happens to the moral sensibilities we have based on those assumptions? Notice the technology comes first, with the rationalizing and explaining (morality, religion, philosophy) following along afterward.

Could Philip Machen’s Makers become a reality? Are the 3-D printers being tested today harbingers of true matter replicators? If so, no one would be more surprised than I. Yet if matter-energy transmutation is possible on a practical scale, I believe it will be done. Then we will really have to pay attention. Got freedom?