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Another Now coverYanis Varoufakis is my favourite Greek politician since the time of Pericles of Athens. He is probably best known for his time as the country’s Minister of Finance in 2015, when he applied his academic experience to the pressing problem of the nation’s economic difficulties (ongoing from the Global Financial Crisis of 2008). His bruising experience attempting to adjust Greece’s relationship with its creditors has brought him greater fame and an apparent desire to create change founded in a better, broader understanding of economics. His 2020 book, Another Now, continues the pedagogic drive of his recent volumes. This time, the format is a utopia, therefore bringing it within the orbit of Strange Horizons.

Another Now opens with a foreword signed by Yango Varo and dated 2036. The foreword states that the rest of the volume is based on a diary given to Yango upon the death of Iris—a diary which itself combines hybrid reality audio-visual content alongside the more traditional handwritten reminiscences. This authorial interpretation of an original text is familiar from many classic lost world tales, as well as being a beautifully apt form for a utopia. The foreword also sets up a couple of implicit threats, with warnings that the diary contains details of technologies which must not get into the hands of the corporates (more on this later). There is also a line which feels like a justification from Varoufakis for the form chosen:

Science fiction is the archaeology of the future, a leftist philosopher once said. It is now on the verge of offering the best documentary of the present. (p. 5)

In this, Varoufakis would appear to have a similar perspective to Kim Stanley Robinson. His The Ministry for the Future (2020), published a month after Another Now, has a similar mix of fiction, documentary, and doctrine.  Similarly, Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017) has a post-capitalist focus, enabled by technology and delivering a similarly pedagogic payload.

Whilst the book is shaped by the underlying diary, the text takes the format of a narrative. As the main characters are all well known to Yango, the book proper opens with a personal recollection of how he knows each of them. He and Iris share our past, a 1982 in which student activists decry Margaret Thatcher’s reconstruction of the British economic landscape. These are moments of radical experience which also underlie the early work of Ken MacLeod, but there is little sense of the Space and Freedom party (as found, for example, in The Star Fraction [1995]) in Varoufakis. Indeed, Iris soon forsakes both the hard graft of staying within a radical movement and that of an academic career. Conveniently, she is enabled to go her independent way through a bequest.

By contrast, our second main character, Eva, is an alumni of the 2008 financial crisis, who has moved into academia after Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy. These two protagonists are, almost naturally, in opposition—a very tidy way for the author to create the necessary dialogic tension in this very wordy book. Further, as each of them has deep knowledge and expertise, they also provide Varoufakis with the credible tools to explain Our Now. The lucid, direct, but not simplistic descriptions he provides of the economic underpinnings of the first quarter of the twenty-first century are a highlight in themselves.

The third primary protagonist is Costa, who, like Yango, comes from the island of Crete. Costa has both technical savvy and economic nous, and uses both to succeed in Silicon Valley—and to parley this into far greater wealth by shorting the market in 2008. Along the way, he has become embittered by the world’s apparent desire for personal wealth over improving the lot of all.

With the players in place, Varoufakis wastes no pages in having Costa build a machine which accidentally creates a tiny wormhole to an alternate present. There is some delightful handwaving here, as Yango chooses not to share technical details because he doesn’t want to provide information which would help the corporates recreate either the invention or the accident. Further, the wormhole only enables contact between people with identical DNA, which means that the window on the Other Now can only be as wide as the people whom Costa—and his alternate (for convenience called Kosti)—can trust. Naturally, that means Eva/Eve and Iris/Siris. Finally, to ensure the book doesn’t become an infinite treatise, there is a limited capacity to the wormhole itself, and it also has a limited timespan.

The precision with which Varoufakis has configured his teaching experience, then, is a joy to behold. To make things all the more interesting, the wormhole event happens in 2025. That gives a few extra years for the Other Now to develop into a mature alternative to this world. It also provides a little speculative headroom for Our Now, which is mostly limited to making clear that 2020 was as big an opportunity for change as 2008, and one that has been equally fumbled by those in search of a more equal and democratic world—to the advantage of those who have been further able to concentrate power.

The development of the Other Now is a pleasure to read about. I found myself chuckling at the turns of events. Sometimes, it seems hard to believe that things didn’t turn out the way the book describes. At other times, the sheer audacity of what Varoufakis proclaims is its own delight. Interestingly, the core action which creates the divergent path relies on a greater skill in decomposition of mortgage backed securities (Collateralised Debt Obligations) than Our Now engaged in. Indeed, one of the core causes of our crisis was the apparent impossibility of any party to understand which parts of these complex securities were actually secure and which were not. The metaphor of the day was that mixing shit into a sausage means the whole sausage is bad. Varoufakis’s description of what happened in our 2008 is brief, lucid, and convincing. Yet, in the Other Now, Esmeralda, who had worked for the financial institutions, was able to work with a group called the Crowdshorters to unpick these securities:

Painstakingly, they wrote software which could identify precisely which chunk of debt within each CDO was owed by which household, when each chunk of bill or a debt repayment was due, to whom it was owed, and who owned the specific CDO at every point in time. Using that vast database of information, they were then able to contact households—most of which were outraged by the bankers’ behaviour and the bailouts they were set to receive—and invite them to participate in low-cost, targeted, short-term payment strikes—or crowdshorting as Esmeralda called these campaigns. (p. 75)

The result is that no bailout can ever refloat the system, bringing the leaders of the Crowdshorters movement massive power. The core idea here is, essentially, a rent strike—but one that has a global impact due to the global nature of the financialised political system. The book positions the Crowdshorters as part of the “Ossify Capitalism” movement, which parallels our own Occupy Wall Street yet has a clear set of objectives. Another connected group, the Bladerunners, attack Big Tech, with campaigns such as the Day of Inaction—a global boycott of Amazon—and forcing the recognition of individual property rights over private data, which brings down Facebook. The zero carbon movement derives similar success, as do a number of other causes which each deliver an adjustment to the balance of the corporations and the common people. The results of all these changes bring about a world of “Corpo-Syndicalism,” as chapter three is titled.

The reader learns all of this only after reading the initial description of the new world as it exists in 2025, and at first it really does seem extremely unlikely that anything like it could ever come about. Perhaps this is a closer adherence to the classic form of the utopia to set out this wonderful world first. Indeed, how the new world got to its position from the same source that lead to Our Now makes the story a pleasure to read. These ideas seem all the more possible when, in this 2021, we have the example of a subreddit focused on Wall Street causing massive disruption to the markets through the short squeeze of the stock of an American video games retailer. Perhaps now we have the technological means to achieve what the Crowdshorters came up with in the Other Now’s 2008.

The bulk of the book, like many a utopia, wants in this way to show us a better world, to make us desire it and to believe it is possible.  It does this through the mechanism of a dialectic between two instances of the same person. I found this method instructive, both from a philosophical view and as a science fictional application. It is further rounded out by the vast differences of opinion between Iris and Eva at the start of the book and then the gradual shifting of their views when presented with a real alternative. There is much to absorb at the local, national and international levels. Some of the ideas seem to have roots that go back to ideas from John Maynard Keynes which were rejected in the 1940s. Others seem heavily dependent on technological capabilities, which had me thinking of this as the ultimate success of Red Plenty (2010)—the idea in Francis Spufford’s book of that title, that sufficiently advanced computing could successfully plan an economy. In the Other Now, computing power supports or reinvigorates central banking systems and national governments rather than private corporations. At the same time, their design is shaped with the intent of balance between individuals, regions, and nations. Mediated by machines it may be, but the purpose is to centre on the human and the humane, to push away from a world where money and profit can take primacy.

The deepest critique built into the work is that this machine mediation further centres a transactional nature in all human relationships, relying on a deeply embedded discourse of political correctness. Consent and equality, the continued existence of the patriarchy, are ideas that the Other Now has grappled with but stepped back from. The book does likewise, pointing out this failure and the lack of satisfactory resolution before moving on. There is further commentary on the nature of family relationships built into the story of Eva’s son, who latches onto Costa as a father figure in the absence of his own father. There may be something here reminiscent of Jordan Peterson’s view of lost and rebellious boys who have no constructive view of masculinity. This is a minor note beside Iris and Esmeralda’s deep disgust with the patriarchy, but it provides a hook to shape the conclusion to the plot. The result is a satisfying conclusion in terms of character, science fiction, and economic philosophy, whilst the afterword provides a delightful science fictional twist of its own.

Whilst that attempt to centre on the humane may limit capitalism, it would also appear to push unconditional intimacy out of bounds. The Other Now has a performative and deeply embedded discourse of political correctness. Iris considers this an extension of capitalism as it has the outcome of further centring a transactional nature in all human relationships. And yet, given the continued existence of the patriarchy, a focus on the explicit nature of consent may be all that is possible within the context of imperfect equality.  This is the part of the book which seems least sure of itself, expressing a deep disgust with the patriarchy but unable to engender an alternative that doesn’t also deform human relationships. Perhaps, it is saying, not all problems can be solved.

This discomfort comes back to help shape the plot, when it provides a hook to shape its conclusion. The result is a satisfying conclusion in terms of character, science fiction, and economic philosophy, whilst the afterword provides a delightful science fictional twist of its own.

Another Now is a book that repays the closest attention. Whilst it is rich in content, it is also warm in tone, encouraging the reader to keep going if it gets a bit tough. The author shares from his wisdom, learning, and lived experience in a way that feels both honest and heartfelt. The Other Now he envisions may not seem at all utopian to those who disagree with his politics, but I recommend this book in the hope that it can bring a more conscious response to the crises of Our Now.

Duncan Lawie has been reviewing SF for half as long as he has been reading it, although there was a quiet period during two years as an Arthur C. Clarke Award judge. His reviews also appear in the British Science Fiction Association's Vector magazine.
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