Mostly because it’s easy to get away with it, especially if you’re influenced by privilege. The more you have the more you can get away with. Suppress data on climate change, for instance, as many of the oil companies have done, and you’re rewarded with immense profits. Screw your workers into the ground, and you’re rewarded with a trip to space. That’s a childhood dream right there, but which part: the power over others, or the reward for exercising it?
The wrongness of vigilante justice gets a lot of lip service, but increasingly I wonder, particularly in reference to environmental crimes, if it isn’t the way to go. Governments can’t keep up. Politicians are bought by those same oil executives, by those same businessmen. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to kill them? More of an incentive, anyway. Then again, an incentive for whom and for what? A few terrible people might start acting a little better. But a few other terrible people might start acting a little bloodier.
Rem Wigmore’s Foxhunt is a solarpunk thriller set in a far future in which a vigilante group called the Wild takes on exactly this role. In our world, we’d probably call them environmental terrorists. In Foxhunt, they’re a general good.
Rules were there to protect you, but rules could still fail.
And when rules failed there was the Wild, hungry and ravenous. Vengeful. When Orfeus looked at Faolan, she wasn’t sure whether she saw a demon or an avenging angel, a creature armed with swords of light or some terrible monster made of dust and blood and rage.
Paltry fines and a slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket don’t stop unscrupulous companies from dumping toxic waste. We know that from experience. A more successful disincentive looks like a person with the face of a hyena coming to slaughter the dumping CEO in broad daylight, in the middle of the street, in the middle of their house. A yet more successful disincentive looks like a person with the face of a wolf, who can be contracted by even the most powerless citizen and who can slaughter individuals in the middle of the street, in the middle of the house, because the public are so bloody sick of paltry fines and a slap on the wrist that they’ll support the extra-judicial murder of the exploitative and the environmentally damaging. Sometimes violence is the only thing that works.
Socially sanctioned, violently enforced sustainability. Imagine the difference it could make. Some things even capitalism cannot survive.
With so much of the economy in Foxhunt underpinned by the threat of vengeance, it’s interesting to look at other economic interactions within the narrative, because there were a couple of times that they stood out to me. Trade seems to be primarily carried out on a barter system, and some of the trades argued for an interesting sense of value, and one which differs from ideas of value which we would expect to experience today. Consider:
She’d traded a bag of dried lavender for the tasegun, but she still had plenty of pouches of plants and herbs to trade. Booking passage some of the way back to Tinctora was easy enough. Orfeus handed over the small jar of rosemary to the cheerful, gangly transportation manager …
We are accustomed to thinking of lavender as inexpensive. It is a common plant, and you don’t even need a garden for it; like rosemary, it can be grown in a planter on a balcony. Granted, I don’t know the going rate for a taser and maybe in countries where small arms are more common it might be relatively affordable … but as cheap as lavender? In a contemporary context, that equivalence is suspicious. In a science fiction novel, however—and in one that depicts a more egalitarian, sustainable future—I have to wonder if the equivalence is indicative of the changing values that have underpinned so much of the novel … values that underpin, too, tolerance for the depredations of the Wild.
For a bag of dried lavender—and we can surmise it’s a small bag, because Orfeus has been carrying it around alongside her other travelling supplies, so it’s clearly portable—to be equivalent in value to a taser, one of several things needs to happen. Arguably, it could be a question of supply. If taseguns have flooded the market, and lavender has become a scarcity, then this could explain the equivalence … except there’s no indication that people in general are walking around heavily armed, and Orfeus has a garden full of plants, in a world where communities live in environments full of plants, and there’s no indication either that lavender is endangered, or otherwise rare. Alternately, it could be a question of social priorities, where objects that give pleasure are more highly valued than those which do not, or where objects which can be used are given more importance than those that can’t be (what, after all, is the point of a tasegun in a peaceful society where crime levels appear to be extremely low indeed?). Maybe it’s the time taken to produce the product in the first place that grants it value. I can’t say I’ve ever made a taser, but my dad used to have a lavender farm and I’d help out there in the summers when I was a student. Weeding, distilling, that sort of thing. If you factor in the time it takes to grow lavender as well as the time it takes to dry it, then I imagine it’s longer than what’s needed to put together a taser, even if you have to manufacture the parts for it.
Which is all a lengthy digression for a throwaway line, but throwaway lines, in worldbuilding, can lead readers down all sorts of strange and interesting paths. A small jar of dried rosemary in exchange for several hours' transport? If nothing else, it makes travel more egalitarian, doesn’t it? As do the wayhouses scattered through the communities in the novel, places where travellers can get a bed and a basic meal, trading goods if they want a little more for their meal than rice and beans and water. Wayhouses are infrastructure, and the ubiquity and the accessibility of this infrastructure speak to a society that has already achieved a basic standard of living for its citizens, and is utilising resources not needed for housing and food production on other social goods. While in some ways this is a world influenced by scarcity—meat, for instance, is rationed, being too resource-intensive to have every day—it’s clearly also a world that has redistributed its resources so that everyone has, in other ways, just a little more. Orfeus herself is an example of how this works in practise.
Orfeus is a musician. It’s not easy to make a living in the arts. In the world of Foxhunt, however, it seems just a little easier. If Orfeus wants to go on tour, she walks out her front door, trades some dried herbs for transport, and stays in wayhouses. If she wants to explore historical material for her songs, she has access to libraries and researchers to help her do this, and they don’t appear to ask for payment. From top to bottom, then, it’s clear that the economic basis of the Foxhunt future is different to our present framework. Capitalism, or what passes for it, has been replaced. Hardly anyone seems to miss it.
This is what science fiction does best, after all: it imagines futures that are different to presents, and tries to picture worlds managed differently to our own. And this is a question of management. Societies like this don’t evolve at random. They’re the result of choices, of the shared experience of consequence. If we do this, and that results, do we want to keep going, or do we want to try for a different result? Admittedly there’s inertia. Very few people want to live in a world where homelessness exists, for instance, but if you have a home it’s easier to go along with inequality than to risk your home to make sure that others also have one of their own. So we huddle, individually, in the spaces we have made for ourselves and hope it’s enough. We treat the communities we live in as an aggregate of individuals, rather than a functioning (or non-functioning, as the case may be) system.
I spend a lot of time thinking about systems—ecosystems, primarily, and their social equivalents. Stories like Foxhunt get me thinking about niches, the spaces in these systems that not only can be filled but will be filled—because if there’s a way for life to squeeze itself into adaptation and opportunity it’ll do it, which is something I often find enormously comforting.
Is it really, though? For all that I find wonder and diversity a comforting principle, in practise that principle is rather less diverting. Some of those niches can only be filled by predators. If we get rid of capitalism, there are going to be a lot of people trained in predation—and a few, no doubt, for whom it comes naturally—who are going to be wandering round that social ecosystem looking for things to hurt. If you can no longer get your rocks off by forcing your employees to subsist on a wage so inadequate that they need food stamps to survive, then the sudden cessation of that particular pleasure surely means you have to find another way to go about hurting others.
Foxhunt argues, and does so plausibly enough I suppose, that hurting another person creates two victims: the person being hurt, and the person doing the hurting. You will note my lukewarm endorsement of this idea. It’s true on one level, but my sympathy is still skewed to the intended victim. It’s why I don’t give a damn when the Wild, in the form of the Wolf, rips the throat out of an (implied) rapist:
“He brought no gifts to the house, though he was rich enough,” Faol said. Her eyes glinted like a knife in the bottom of a pit. “I think he took more than was offered. Took from the daughter of the house.”
Well, fuck him. That’s my unsympathetic reader response. Orfeus is rather more nuanced in her own reaction, although it’s a nuance that is only expressed in retrospect. “What was the proof?” she asks, with the victim already dead on the floor. As a reader I didn’t think to ask for any. I just accepted that he’d done it, because I wanted him to receive the punishment. I wanted it to be easy and certain and impossible for him to buy or lie his way out of. And I accepted it, too, because predators continue to exist no matter the economic and political system you build around them.
Which begs the question: what kind of predators can exist in a world like this? In many ways, Foxhunt supposes an almost utopian society, especially compared to this one. Crime is rare. People are generally free from want. Kindness and sustainability are community priorities, embedded into policy and practice. And yet, and yet. If I were the type of person to get pleasure from exploiting my workers and I could no longer do that, I might choose to get my pleasure by taking other things from them instead of labour. If my satisfaction hinged on increasing my own bottom line by cutting workers’ health insurance, or preventing them from accessing healthcare that I disagreed with, and I could no longer do that, how long would it take me to decide that the satisfaction from false accusation wouldn’t hit the same sort of button?
Want to hurt someone? Call on the Wild.
Want to hurt someone? Join them.
Orfeus does this. For her own benefit, too—which is incentive enough for her not to ask for proof before the Wolf kills “like other people danced, quickly and with joy.” And the corruption starts to sink in, and we the readers can see it—in her increased consumption of meat, in her aligning with the principles of Wild. And yet, and yet … Influence goes both ways. If you are raised in a world characterised by kindness and sustainability, and you join the Wild, and the Wild makes you different (or perhaps only uncovers what was there all along), then you bring to the Wild the parts of you that valued that same kindness and sustainability, and the Wild takes those things into itself … and changes.
Not a lot. Maybe only a little. Maybe there are systems too large for any small changes to alter. (Capitalism is so well-suited for predators.) And maybe there aren’t. Either way, what happens to predators then? It is, after all, so easy to do wrong.