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[Editor's Note: This article continues the conversation on extractivism in SF, that began with the Strange Horizons special issue on extractivism, in September 2022, and continued with Jenna Hanchey's essay on Tade Thompson, in the January 2023 issue.]



For a short spell, the Spanish Inquisition apprehended Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis, and his apprentice Jean Frederic Leschot for “sorcery.” The three of them were clockmakers, and had unveiled doll-like automata at the royal courts, showcasing a writer, a draughtsman, and a pianist who “breathed” as she played the organ. In the eighteenth century, clockmakers were regarded as magicians wielding spells, genius and eccentricity matched. They were dangerous artists who could even be bought for a price. In 1795, the end of that century, a barely disguised political allegory was commissioned by Tipu Sultan: an automaton of a tiger, crouching at the bare neck of a British soldier,[i] a symbol of looming rebellion.

Jaquet-Droz automata, musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Neuchâtel, photograph by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons

But the nineteenth century rolled in, and the magicians, like everyone else, were caught up in the thrall of industrialisation—automata turned into a process of automation. Like Jacques Vaucanson, other mechanical engineers of automatons were hired by the court and moved to alter the manufacturing and production process within factories, building new machines that changed how silk was produced or perfecting other measuring processes.[ii] The machines they made and inspired did the work of hundreds of workers: breaking things, mixing raw material, moulding it, packing it. Labour(ing), as Marx calls it in the The Grundrisse, which was once so piecemeal, metamorphosed into “an automatic system of machinery” (italics mine). The ducks and dolls became a curiosity, little tchotchkes and children’s toys produced in an assembly line, caught up in the production of other mass goods

In 1854, Hermann von Helmholtz gave a lecture, “On the Interaction of Natural Forces.” He was already well-known for his work on energy conservation and thermodynamics. He talked about Vaucanson’s and Drosz’s automata, about bodies that did not lose will or strength, that did not give in to exhaustion at the end of the day, and explained that rest was necessary to conserve a finite amount of energy. “We no longer seek to build machines which shall fulfil the thousand services of one man, but desire on the contrary, that a machine shall perform one service, and shall occupy in doing it the place of a thousand men.”

The world had moved on from automata, their brass and steel-tuned mobility, their untiring and dutiful capacity. They’d taken the principles of mechanics inherent in the creation of these robots and applied it to engineering and large machinery that apparently did the work of hundreds of men. Yet, the dream stirred, and the world shook with nerves—where, really, would the workforce for progress come from? There was so much to still be done. So much, housework and maintenance included, that still had needed to be manually upheld to keep the machines running. For years it was debated: the question of the slave, and similarly later, the question of the servant. How many of them, and for how much; the moral and economic costs were set against each other. Who would do the work that cannot (“yet” as Andre Gorz, the post-work philosopher of the twentieth century, optimistically imagined) be mechanized?

But I speak of this, all this history about tinkering clockmakers and large machines, because it is the site of modernity, where science fiction was birthed and where its concerns were outlined. This is an essay on the commodification and extraction of time—from bodies and space through a conceptual and historical detour, asking questions of the science(s) that inspired it and the fiction written about it. What would artificial life look like, and why did Victor Frankenstein not treat his creation like his child but as a slave who would do his bidding? What sort of leisure would our utopias produce, like William Morris says in News from Nowhere—would there be machines that are our masters or would they be our servants? What of inventions, like clones (in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis in 1925), time travelling gizmos (H.G. Well’s eponymous novel), robots (brought into existence by the Capek brothers). How would they change us? Even in fantasies and early adventures, there are fantastic golems, zombies, lilliputians, and in our present, we still have them: artificial intelligence, Oompa-loompas, and two-foot-tall magically enslaved house elves. What of post-scarcity utopias and democracy? I’m writing this essay to explore how so much of science fiction, past and present, bumps up against the measuring and mastering of time and bodies. What are the sinews that connect these facets of life? Why? And what in the world is going on here?


Before we turn to extraction, I have to ask the reader to bear with the detours. At the outset, I must first explain the relationship between our reality and literature (primarily for fear that causality will be applied to what I do ultimately say). First, let us admit that the science that happens in our world and the science fiction that is written and canonized does not exist in stark opposition, or even in tension with one other. On the contrary, they share a relationship of intimacy, reacting and responding to the other’s claims, and sometimes even wholesale borrowing from each other. Scientists labour in laboratories; they also write science fiction. Science fiction is written by writers, and it also inspires scientific invention and discovery. Science and writing share a mode of exploration, speculation, imagination, and even discovery. Science and literature are both shaped by ideology, and are both circulated and produced by the vagaries of industry and business.

Here is what they do not share: science is not a novel, a short story, or a piece of writing, and its product is not a piece of text; science and writing do not share the same method—one usually tending towards objectivity and empirical claims in its conclusion, and the other aesthetically determined and ambiguous; science shapes the world in large, broad, swathes, giving blueprints for technology to adopt and sell while science fiction has a more individual quality, experienced in the solitude of reading, inspiring and shaping things at a different degree. Science fiction is not science, even if it may be scientific.

There are many differences and many similarities, but it is too boring (and inaccurate) to slap on a hierarchy to their methods or moralities. Science fiction deals with the multiplicity of the sciences by being itself a multiplicity: hard and soft and speculative, solarpunk and cozy and grimdark. For the purpose of this essay, what matters is that science fiction responds and negotiates with the evolution(s) of science and technology, and also, that fiction imagines whole worlds and systems based on science’s implications. Science is science fiction’s conceit.


The relationship between man and machinery goes back centuries. Man was too human to be a machine—or so the Greeks said, regarding machines too base, too crass, merely tools that did the work of men. Simultaneously, much of the ideal man was composed upon the idea that man was a machine, a physical sensorium that worked through mechanistic processes.

A woodcut from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1590), via Wikimedia Commons

Regard the robot who was everything that was not man: the creation existed in Greek myth, in Homer, part of the retinue of ferocious gods: golden handmaidens in Hephaestus (a god of craft), the sentry in the Crete called Talos, robotic assassins who guarded relics. Before the Čapek brothers even wrote R.U.R and canonized the term “robot,” Albertus Magnus, a friar during the Middle Ages, laboured for thirty years to build the noise-making and babbling “androide” (“andro” as “man,” and “eides” granting it “shape” or “form”—the android appearing as a sort of man-shape rather than a man). Automata proliferated during the seventeenth century, including brazen heads that apparently told the future. In the Talmud, they (golems) turned to dust once their job was done, or if their master died. Robots were the perfect servant. The robots were beings of unquestioning repetition, absolutely subservient to their maker, tools to specific ends.

In certain anecdotes, Thomas Aquinas smashes Magnus’s mechanical automata because it destroyed his concentration with its incessant speech. In other anecdotes, robots were a cause of threat, apprehended by churches and decried by priests as blasphemous. The robots were disturbing, threatening artifices that evoked a sense of the uncanny. Adam’s nature as a perfected golem terrified those who believed that much of creation should be left to higher forces and alarmed those who saw puppetry. It wove doubt into religion.

Yet man was hardly a machine, full of morals, capable of being moved to consider feeling and reason both; Edmund Spenser in Faerie Queene depicts such a creature, Talos, who follows an order to its limit; as does E.T.A Hoffmann’s Spallanzani, and we ultimately come to the numerous factory workers in Karl Čapek's play, and all the obedient drones and stormtroopers in Star Wars. In most of these examples, man was regarded in juxtaposition to the robot; the opposition between the stiffness of the robot and the fluid multiplicity of man. Simultaneously, the robot was what enabled a life of holistic ideals for man (no housekeeping, hard labour, mundane manual tasks) by being his slave. The robot was necessary to understand what man could truly be, what power he could wield, what worlds he could conquer, what wisdom he could luxuriate upon. The robots were workers: handmaidens, entertainers, cleaners, builders, carers, and so on, which is why the Greeks imagined them as instruments that could only be treated as slaves. By the seventeenth century, a division persisted between the kinds of things that could be automated and the things that denoted reason and intelligence; if it could be automated, scholars said, it could be done by slaves.[iii] The distinction became clearer as mechanization was achieved during industrialisation. It was easier to imagine robots as a mass of mindless workers. Man had autonomy, whereas the robot did not. The robot toiled according to man’s dictum. It was due to this simple principle that sentience (as an ability to feel) was granted, and singularity (the ability to think for themselves) conceived of, as well as narratives about beings that dealt with the nature of free will and determinism.

Vesalius' De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (1543), via Wikimedia Commons

The idea that man was himself a machine, or at the least that physical processes of an individual could be understood through mechanistic idioms, did not find purchase until the enlightenment—when a near-reversal took place; Thomas Hobbes claimed that thoughts or emotions were “a motion in the internal substance of the head,” Leibniz suffused all phenomena with a force of its own and supplied that organic and inorganic processes occur according to their own internal principles, and others, like Denis Diderot and Pierre Gassendi, espoused varied materialisms. Some of the more mechanistic and physical philosophers even went as far to say that the brain secreted thoughts like the liver secreted bile. In the seventeenth century, Descartes had already stated, “I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth,” and propounded that the animal was automata (“bête-machine”). Many of these mechanisations were described in terms of the metaphor of the human body as a clock. He wrote, “These functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels.” But it was the provocation of La Mettrie in his Man as Machine (L’homme Machine), written in 1748, where the argument of mechanisation was fully extended to humans. The machine, even then, was a capacious thing—dynamic, vital, responsive, often even granted a soul—and it took till social Darwinism was at its height to regard it as passive matter, mere parts that were inert in themselves but functioned together.[iv]

The idea of man as a machine had a tremendous impact upon the biological sciences. Much of biology developed from the belief that an organic body could be understood if taken apart and examined. The body was a collection of parts and processes, and anatomical studies were significant in this development: from Galen’s dissections and his theory of the humours, to the exacting empirical studies made by Vesalius’s human body (akin to the “factory”) in 1543, only approximately thirty years after Da Vinci drew the Vitruvian Man, which was also derived from many gutted corpses at the University of Pavia. Measurement was an intrinsic part of the anatomical study, and the harmonious proportions of the body were used to establish a mathematically exacting standard of virtue and beauty modelled on Olympian athletes, warriors, and especially, gladiators. The ideal (masculine) body was one whose parts were precisely related to the whole, much like a machine. The naked man, his muscles performing a definite function, had been represented and idealized; once measured, it could be mastered. Much of these, of course, were brought into conversation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a few centuries later in 1818 as one of those novels that birthed science fiction and horror, marrying hypothesis to impossibility in biological research. By the nineteenth century, anatomical studies had followed whole new fields of study: physiognomy of facial and bodily traits, medicine, anthropology, and soon enough, phrenology and craniometry and eugenics.

At our contemporary juncture, with the decline of its glorification, it is easy to forget the kind of sway the eugenicist movement had. Negative eugenics—the breeding espoused by H.G. Wells of selectively “slay[ing] the hindmost”—became a disciplinary mechanism, supported by state power in several nations, begetting forced experiments, sterilization campaigns, massacres, and concentration camps at the movement’s zenith. But eugenics has left an enduring legacy (now allegedly a social Darwinism shorn of its “bias”)—of proto-natalists, neurology, genetics research, reproductive technologies (like surrogacy), carceral and military technologies (including prosthetics), artificial intelligence, and even beauty standards and the apps we use to determine ancestry/heredity. Eugenics has always been an extractive technology, tending towards creating distinctions between the valuable and the unnecessary, remaking bodies into resources.

It is difficult to demarcate the line between eugenicist movement and biological research; difficult to treat the body or modify it without running up against the desire to understand its many parts, like one takes apart a machine to know how it ticks. I believe eugenics is so troubling not only because of its biological determinism but also because it raises an epistemological inquiry with urgency: is the desire for knowledge a desire for mastery and control, and by what means and how far do we take an inquiry? And while the answers that are produced all navigate and negotiate similar historical tangles, the only gesture in good faith is towards as much individual sovereignty and autonomy as possible. Feminists like Shulasmith Firestone, Donna Haraway, and countless others have treated biological and reproductive technologies as agentive, espousing alternate ways of considering the divisions and hierarchies between body and mind, organic and artificial, and moving towards removing existing constraints upon freedom, such as gender or ability.

Eugenics is also married to its sociological sister discipline of euthenics (the improvement of human environment and functioning) that rose during the twentieth century. Home management, it was often called, with roots in the Greek “oikonomia”—the management of the house, including labour, routines, and money—that birthed modern economics. The term was gendered, and while most of the output was directed towards the domestic livelihoods of women and housekeeping (Good Housekeeping magazine being one of its prevailing products), it also left its imprints on workplace and time management techniques that are popular today.[v] The standardization and institutionalisation of clock-time, as fundamentally expressed E. P. Thompson, by the end of the seventeenth century instituted a discipline whereby time has to be regarded as a commodity to be preciously spent, with distinctions marked between personal time and hourly waged labour[vi] and a between mechanical and measured metrics of time and organic time experienced by the individual.[vii] There was a clock everywhere: whether at the factory, the school, or within the body. From time thrift to euthenics, a discourse of increasing productivity, of doing many things quickly, simultaneously, and well came to occupy the recent world. It coupled optimization, multi-tasking, and efficiency, and time management was central to this theme. These concepts became watchwords of the Taylorist principles of workplace management and even the workplace ergonomics of Mayo, and is why we have open floor plans and plants in our offices. With eugenics, the body was to be mastered; with euthenics, time was the elusive space that had to be optimized.

The collision between art and eugenics, insofar as art tried to produce the beautiful, the subjectively true, the objectively accurate, or just potential reality, has tended towards a reproduction of the professed ideal. This ideal, of course, has never stayed constant: at one time, the masculine ideal was a sculpted gladiator or soldier, and at another it was the heroic figure of the working man in his long, sinewy perfection, tilling fields or sailing storms. The idea that man could be represented as a machine, a combination of forces and movements, each of them performing a definite function, underwent many changes, the metaphor matching the newest technological transformation. Mechanization was still the horizon, and while the earlier machines were formed of Newtonian rationales, the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries' idyllic norm was depicted in motion, a body composed of directed energies, and research into the body was supported by artistic efforts such as chronotypes of men repetitively striking the hammer or photographs of labourers at their tasks.[viii] Labour has long provided the image of the body.

The body was a composite of parts that tended towards the conservation and direction of finite amounts of energy, understood by the leading engineering marvel at the time: the thermodynamic engine.[ix] Like the engine, the body was a machine, a site of power that could be moved to labour; but like the engine, the body could be worn down, be reduced by fatigue, and need resources. The movements of the body were recorded, taxonomically, and medical and physical research went into making sense of how the body could be made more productive and physically improved. Labour, as a rational, moral, and necessary aspect of being alive was a mechanical force that, through capitalism’s distinction, could become labour power. The mechanisation of the body formed the bulwark of reason for its exploitation.

Motion, after all, was inherent to all organic matter. By the 1880s, there was a glut of research into the reason for the body’s loss of energy, and in poured work on physical and mental fatigue, exhaustion, tiredness, ennui, the disease of the will, neurasthenia, and so on. Fatigue replaced laziness, from the idle mind as the devil’s workshop, to the waste of energy, as the reason for why the worker was not doing enough. The body, at such a point, was seen as an imperfect machine, but one that was fitted with potential that could be extracted: labour as resource, as commodity, as a unit necessary for production. Helmholtz, the pivotal figure of energy conservation, saw the body as a human “motor” and prescribed rest to the worker so they could avoid such bodily “entropy”.[x] Helmholtz’s research organized the worker, the workplace, and industry, and he himself soon became a representative of a mode of utopian idealism, the ideologue in Brave New World.

These tangled histories of automata and bodily perfection endure in science fiction, a genre committed to narratives about technology—about man and machine, man in the world of machines, and machines in the world of man. Narratives about biological engineering, whether the grotesque of Frankenstein, behavioural technologies in Brave New World, or implied degeneracy in The Time Machine (and countless stories and novels that followed) have picked apart at the threads of such science and philosophy from various ideological positions, and have pondered over the very questions asked by clergymen and scientists alike: What of time? What of labour? What of freedom?


The biological transformation of humans, whether engineered through scientific intervention or through evolutionary changes, has forged a significant part of the canon of science fiction; it has been included in dystopias (Brave New World, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men), proffered utopias (Robert Heinlein’s Beyond this Horizon), anti-utopias (Philip K. Dick’s The World Jones Made), epistolary futures (Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden), gimmicky ones (Poul Anderson’s Call Me Joe), and almost everything else, even the Superman comics. By the time the new wave of science fiction established itself in the seventies, Ursula Le Guin’s biologically engineered humans were old hats donned by a discerning talent. Science fiction today, primarily drawing its influences from the new wave, uses such transformations like plucking a jackrabbit out of that very hat, asking the creature to enumerate its many newfangled implications.

On the other hand, science fiction narratives that represent/reproduce time are a little more complicated to engage with. Is time part of the structure of the novel, like mosaic novels, or non-linear stories—or even linear ones? Is the narrative written during a different time (aren’t all novels written in a different time)? Or is it about a different time in the past or future? SFF narratives about time are usually in two or three categories: alternate history, time travel (including time loops), and the manipulation of time. The last one is tricky to establish, and examining the way time affects and infects a narrative is different from examining how time is treated in the narrative. The two may overlap, and its literary ancestry may be difficult to underpin, unlike biological transformation in SFF, but I choose here to only be concerned with narratives that bring together the idea of time and human transformation together—not because the manipulations of time aren’t revelatory, but because there is a landscape that I am trying to map about science fiction under time-space compression, a space of exploitation and extraction. Extractivism, the productive process of commodifying a natural resource and removing it from its natural habitat is doubtless a capitalist enterprise. Thus, is time a resource or a quantity that is extracted, and if so, how? I want to know how we make time.

Consider Connie Willis’s Oxford Time Travel series. While each of the novels involve various characters travelling through time to historical periods, the novels are historical set pieces (the Black Death, the Victorian era, and the second World War, respectively) and the later novels devolve into alternate histories through interventions. The characters are undergraduate students at Oxford’s history department in the 2050s, conscripted into “discovering” history as uncharted territory—a colonial epistemological project where time enables extraction. The students are inoculated, given the newest technologies of healthcare, outfitted, and sent off to accurately reproduce an account of a more or less known occasion. The mechanics of time travel are owned by the department, and they use it for a flurry of activity to reproduce more details, an exactitude of their own history. By the fourth book, the students are motivated, overworked, undertrained, and unremarkably shuffled to enormous consequence in their lives—a labour of love furnishing a comedy of errors. In reality, the discipline of history is fraught with epistemological anxieties of interpretation and revision, but Willis’s historians seek to make more of the same history, to master time and produce exactitude, rendering history faithless and its retainers actually destitute. Written during the last decade, Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Prime Meridian also depicts characters who have been part of making history. Amelia, a “friend-for-hire” in a bleak future of high rents and relentless gig work that feels barely days away from our own, meets a client who used to be a superstar during the golden days of techno-optimism. She introduces Amelia to a pulpy world of science fiction films, of heroes besting monsters and worlds becoming habitable—a history of science fiction and its own capitalist and colonialist enterprise. Amelia dreams of a ticket to the recently colonized Mars, an imagined utopia that is only represented in the novella in film posters. History, in Garcia’s telling, is a cultural artifact made by washed-up artists. Both these narratives keep time by keeping history, making too much of what is lacking, whether emotionally or economically. In these narrations, making history is a way of constantly working at it.

Narratives collapse into the historical approaches of managing the body’s own finitude, its quantifiable hours, its calculable energies, its mortality. Science fiction has made mysteries of these quantities in stories about robots, giving the anthropomorph all that man lacks, and robots have represented for a long time the perfectibility of man (even in Asimov’s earliest stories) and the realisation of the technocrats’ dream: they don’t sleep, they don’t die, they don’t struggle with their passions. In our time in the Silicon Valley, CEOs practice an ethic of sleep deprivation and develop drugs to keep themselves hyperactively awake. Robots are flat characters, and in their flatness they are good. Even Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, with its agentive golems, induce confusion of knowing where the human individual ends and the robot begins, and who is better is obviously part of the imposter’s tale. But the narrative of human perfectibility through bioengineering and genetic intervention dealt with finitude far more decisively, making perfect resources of bodies. In 1941, Robert A. Heinlein wrote a series of stories that was later serialized in Methuselah’s Children (1958), about a family that encourages breeding between those who have grandparents who lived for a long time—and succeed in building a eugenicist paradigm that is thoroughly wedded to longevity and moral excellence applied to labour. In the 1990s, Nancy Kress began publishing her series of novellas; stating in her foreword that she remained unconvinced by The Left Hand of Darkness, she sought to explore a socioeconomic landscape where a handful of children have been biologically altered to never sleep.

Sleep, of course, has been one of those infamous sticklers; it was related to idleness and loss of control through the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, and later as a foil to optimization. The historian Jacques Le Goff describes that during the fourteenth century, to not measure and order time was to waste it, and time already wore associations with humanism and money on its sleeve. The nature of sleep changed during this period as well: “day” and “night became more discrete, and the otherwise normative four-hours of sleep were replaced with one night-long slumber.[xi] With the development of the clock, “A more precisely measured time, the time of the hour and the clock, became one of man’s primary tools.”[xii] In 1863, the physician Pierre Foissac stated outright that “sleep was a waste of time,” and by the time we recede into our familiar era, persistent strides have been made to increase the quantity of hours humans have at their disposal to increase productivity: drugs and caffeine-laced food, time-management techniques and technologies, and constant surveillance. From the body as a clock-like machine was borne the ideal of manipulating that clock for capital. Robots did not sleep. The imperative to measure time and attach it to morality may have been religious Protestantism, but work-related ethics and moralities persevered into our otherwise secular age, and its logic of hard work, risk-taking heroism, and entrepreneurial ability tended towards a romanticism of busyness and order as a pleasurable aesthetic. Industry in the eighteenth century was a battleground, and the indispensable fight for the employee was shortening the working day; Marx said that capital drives towards the extension of the working day, towards increase of surplus labour, but when eight hours cannot be legally challenged, workplaces developed around increasing output—birthing that strange discipline we now call management studies, which we employ to keep our bodies and our workers functioning as smoothly as a machine.

The Sleepless series is a grand philosophical enquiry and speculation into social organization (much like other grand, sweeping novels that pitted ideologies against one another within a character-driven narrative) fancying what increasing the number of hours an individual has during the day could do. The biogenetic engineering of the sleepless is to produce a body that need not stop, which does not require rest and recuperation, and can tirelessly concentrate. In Kress's series, sleeplessness helped the altered children mature and learn faster and increased their productivity. Taking away the ability to sleep also granted the children with extreme longevity, rendering them, relative to other humans, almost immortal—infinitely increasing the time they had at hand. Like in C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen series about in vitro conditioning and cloning, the sleepless are seen as stilted and unnatural, and the super-sleepless in the later books are likened to robots. Kress is not a hard-line eugenicist, and her central thesis about what productive members of a society owe those who are unproductive, built over an expansive trilogy of a post-scarcity world with inordinate leisure for most, tends towards the discovery of metrics beyond productivity to measure life and that work (and merit), when tied to an imperative of socioeconomic progress, will inevitably produce hierarchies and exclusions. More recently, Victor Manibo’s The Sleepless has an uncannily similar schematic, portraying sleeplessness as a chronic condition induced by a pandemic, except it is brought to an increasingly time-controlled world. Manibo’s novel depicts a world where the sleepless succeed simply because they’re able to do more—more work, more side-hustles, more creative pursuits—leading those who aren’t affected by the condition to bioengineer a way to actually become sleepless. Sleepless is a more immediate novel, set within a world that is increasingly alienated and surveilled, and has ordered much more of a person’s time through precarious and contractual labour that requires constant availability; set against a creative pursuit, a labour that always tends to demand more than it pays, Manibo’s protagonist, a workaholic journalist, chooses to work.

The internal body clock, a nineteenth century idea that the body could be regulated and ordered like a windup toy, has been realized through discipline—effectively outlining “the annhilation of space by time” described by Marx; while The Grundrisse expresses the nature of machinery, of its existence as fixed capital that enables value creation, later in Capital, he decisively sets down the beastly “werewolf-like hunger for surplus labour” of capital, which tends towards consuming the hours of the day in the service of labour. Marx describes time spent at work as “moments of capital” or elements of profit, whereby each moment is a source of surplus value abstracted from a surfeit of surplus labour i.e., the more time you give, the more money your employer makes from the labour that is necessarily incongruent with the wage. The magic trick resides in creating excess (exploitation) from the already excessive (exploitation) to form the cherry atop their cake. But if the industrial, Fordist, factory workplace separated labour from the necessity of rest and recreation (“work” and “life” as we call it), the Taylorist workplace of the twentieth century sought to occupy it wholesale. Newer time management tools (like biometric clocks, linked smart devices) have all hinged on the annihilation of any distinction between work and life and its wholesale occupation as labour time. The hitherto “personal” has been encroached upon though technologies that enforce regulation, order, timeliness, punctuality—deadlines! These technologies are adopted voluntarily, albeit not deterministically, for the sake of regulation, maintenance, and transformation of the self in the world. In novels about sleeplessness, the biological (and the bodily) has been altered towards time management in the service of work as a moral common good, a sort of reflection on the processes of how we become progressively, relentlessly productive. Manibo’s protagonist, as an individual under the survivalist and competitive logics of a late capitalist system, makes a choice that enables him to work harder and longer.

The implications of such a survivalist scheme perhaps are most moralistically and literal when fleshed out in a children’s speculative novel: Momo by Michael Ende. In the story, Momo is an orphaned child with the rare gift of listening to people well; she is adopted by a town of well-intentioned adults who spend their time with her, playing, telling stories and sharing their lives. The antagonists are the men in grey, shadow representatives of the timesaving bank who convince the adults that they need to account and preserve time (rendered as an exacting currency drawn out to the second) to store in the bank—although the more time they store, the more time they seem to lose, and the busier they become. The story follows Momo as she tries to free these adults from the discipline of accounting time. It is a narrative about the transformations in work culture within an evocative localized setting, a miniature about the claustrophobia of industriousness, alienation, and consumerism. Commodities, according to Marxist thought, were already quantities of congealed labour-time. However, the use of time as an alternate currency is part of offshoot economic theories (where a unit of time is exchanged for a service) and a business case study; it is also depicted in futuristic films like In Time (2011). The film was sued for intellectual copyright by Harlan Ellison’s estate claiming it was based on his short story, “’Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” where the lack of time regulation is treated as a heavily punishable criminal act and, like Luddites, a dissenting group tries to disrupt the accumulation of time by whimsically interrupting the normal workday. Time, however, has always been part of the banking system through loans; time has been used to make money. The system of credit—a loan from the future—seen first in science fiction in Edward Bellamy’s libertarian utopia Looking Backward, has been diversely used to science fiction’s fancy as a way to acquire, save, and make money from the future, playing off the stock market’s own speculative tendencies.

Among recent publications, Ned Bauman’s Venomous Lumpsucker takes the question of credit to a satirical and prescient extreme: how can we borrow from a potential time when it likely doesn’t exist? Bauman’s novel describes a future of systemic ecological collapse and species extinction, where, in a bid to protect resources populated by endangered species, companies would have to pay out some “extinction credits”—the price being relatively low, companies pay the excess, considering the price of the land’s actual retail value. The action of most of these narratives rests on taking time back, either by restoring it to an assumed natural flow, interrupting and disrupting its control, or stealing it. Momo is the most straightforward in positing time as a resource against the notion of time as a quantifiable accumulative commodity.

Narratives about time travel or immortality, though about controlling time, contend with the loss of otherwise “natural” time. Most character-driven narratives about travel through time (and/or space) replicate the sailor’s long journey and the sailor’s quest, and simultaneously, the sailor’s separation from his loved ones and the beloved’s sorrow. Time travelling is often a narrative about star-crossed love, a past landscape of dead lovers still alive, and even a record of longings during the time lost in transit—the love story being an affecting textual vehicle of retrospection and recursions. Simon Jimenez’s debut novel The Vanished Birds is a space opera about the love lost to time, a non-linear story spanning thousands of years crafted through first-person narratives. We move from the ecological collapse of the earth to the establishment of capitalist control over space and its colonies, beginning with a single colony (Umbai-V) organizing their lives through the harvest and sale of a monocrop, purple dhuba seeds, to the discovery of instantaneous travel (with no loss of time), and the engineering of a trap that keeps a boy alive to extract his blood for profit and further colonisation. The cruel and relentless extraction of every single possible resource, even blood, is the heart of Jimenez’s jaunty novel, where every member of the crew, every employee under contract to the multicorporation, and all bodies captured by it are rendered valuable only because of the time they give away and their tenable bodies; the narrative speaks of colonial capture inherent in the capitalist encroachment over all space and time. Like the earth, bodies are simply another resource that can be utilized, and at the end of their useful tether, disposed of.

Time, its commodification and extraction from bodies and worlds: Kage Baker’s Company novels are a pliant example of such a circumscribing tendency explored in science fiction narratives. While each of the novels are stand-alone texts that explore, like Willis, particular historic set pieces and artifacts, it is the prologue to The Garden of Eden, the first novel, that evinces an absolutist and absurdist tendency of treating time like a country to plunder and control. In the prologue, we are in a utopian future of immortality and time travel, the gears controlled by Dr. Zeus Incorporated. The formula for the multi-corporation to amass power is simple: use time travel, capture poor and precarious children who are “natives” of the past landscape, experiment and biologically alter them, grant them the gift of immortality, and use this “permanent workforce” to endlessly to go to the past and hide artifacts, rescue endangered resources, make investments, and finally, retrieve them in the future. The Company novels are written in the light-hearted conversational flair of a group of employees complaining about their tyrannical boss, so these bleak lives are actually rather thrilling narratives of stealing objects out of time, extracting the past to furnish the present, much like narratives about credit, or about procuring surplus labour power. Perfection and improvement are twofold, where a perfect “genetically enhanced” workforce produces improved conditions of life for those who control the technologies to make perfect. The godlike omnipresence of Zeus over the past only describes capitalism’s predisposition towards extractive technologies of control, colonization, and exploitation that complement the very technologies that seek to improve conditions of life.

The flipside of a world that values perfectibility is the disposal chute—where all the things that don’t quite meet the standards get thrown: imperfect bodies, dated technologies, byproducts of designer luxury. Extractive technologies are bound up in the production of waste; in their designation of particular zones and particular profitable resources within a landscape (usually a poor nation), other resources that are necessary for the sustainability and survival of inhabitants are reduced to waste; both the earth’s natural resources and the labour force is assumed infinite—to be used and disposed of as and when the supply chain demands. For an example from science fiction’s canon, in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, water itself is a scarce resource, and a hegemonic inequality is set up between those who control the water and those who need it; between the communities who are bound up in the protection and care of water sources are the ones denied its free use. The creation of desirable commodities also leads to the production of technologies to dispose of its byproducts. Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide similarly describes a world of stark inequality between the people who recycle electronic waste and the technologically advanced societies that depend upon its extraction. Extractivism is the creation of commodities from resources, and simultaneously, it is the relationship of development to waste.

It would be amiss if I didn’t mention that cyberpunk, from William Gibson’s Pattern series to Cory Doctorow’s zombie novels, Schismatrix, and particularly Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, have explicitly emphasized the discriminating, racialized, gendered, and ableist foundations of the drive towards excess and waste in hypercapitalist societies in which labour power (however contractual or semi-legal) supports civilizational progress.

Cyberpunk is a perfect representation of extreme time-compression and of “modernity” on steroids, where nightmares about our technological optimism have been realized. But Bladerunner’s neon vista is a wasteland. But to get to the point: cyberpunk narratives are also about agents of change, of beings composed of salvage and waste, cyborgs who are dated and old, part of the mass of mindless corporate slaves. The tendency of capital towards self-improvement and social control technologies, even in hypercapitalist landscapes, produces degeneracy, madness, loopholes, glitches, debris—so if you’re looking for hope, I suggest we start looking through the muck for something to forage.


Conclusions are merely polite digressions, bombast to locate to a different horizon. Nonetheless, I would like to get to the point, having circumnavigated through automata, clocks, and other machines, theories of consciousness, metaphors of the body, and narratives of time’s technologies and its commodification.

My first provocation goes thus: science fiction narratives about time are actually narratives about work. While robots and man-machines have always been associated with labour and servitude, engagements with time and its technologies in science fiction (especially since the new wave) are engagements with its presence as a commodity—as already congealed labour-time, whether seen as exchange value in the form of currency or credits, as artifacts of the past, or as an embodied or delimited space that can be occupied. There is no conception about time that isn’t tied to its taxonomy, measurement, regulation, and control in the service of productivity.

Second: time sovereignty, the idea that time can be controlled, wouldn’t be possible to conceive of without imagining both the methods and the tools. The control of time involves both the embodied and the bodily, the self and the world. Its sovereign absolutism tends to the idea that control of time-space should transform the world in its totality; it believes that physical change can and should impact experiences of time. In every way, time is rendered manipulable by manipulating the body as much as the world.

Third: the ethos of improvement, regulation, management, and perfection that is bound in a culture of productivity cannot help but also be tied to the reigning economic logic of extraction and commodification. There cannot be a world of absolute leisure without an underclass to service its needs. There cannot be a world of excess without resource exploitation and imperialism.

Fourth: the drive towards an individual “workaholic” heroism of, delivered through the mastery of time (being “bosses of our own time”) and in search of success, only erases the collective and community that is essential to an experience of work as a potentially unalienated activity. Imagine this: work could potentially be fun.

And, as a corollary, my last provocation: we are, absolutely, a mass, a middling throng of drones, robots, cyborgs—we only have to accept it to be able to work together.




[i] Lisa Nocks, The Robot (Greenwood Publishing, 2007).

[ii] Simon Schaeffer, “Englightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, ed. William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Simon Schaeffer (University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[iii] “Leibniz, who designed another early mechanical calculator, seemed to attribute no restlessness or capacity for perception to his device. Instead he wrote that it would rescue ’excellent men’ from losing ’hours like slaves in the labor of calculation.’” Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument About What Makes Living Things Tick (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[iv] Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument About What Makes Living Things Tick (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[v] Melissa Gregg, Counterproductive (Duke University Press, 2018).

[vi] E.P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Disciple and Industrial Capitalism” in Past and Present (Oxford University Press, 1967).

[vii] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1934).

[viii] Fae Brauer, “Man or machine: ideals of the labouring male body and the aesthetics of industrial production in early 20th-century Europe” in Art, Sex and Eugenics: Corpus Delecti, ed. Fae Brauer and Anthea Callen (Routledge, 2008).

[ix] Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (John Hopkins University Press, 1982).

[x] Anson Rabinach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity (Princeton University Press, 1990).

[xi] I have to thank my editor Gautam Bhatia for bringing this detail to my attention.

[xii] Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (University of Chicago Press, 1977).

Editor: Gautam Bhatia.

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department.

Shinjini Dey is an editor, writer, and reviewer. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, Analog Fact and Fiction, Decolonial Hacker and many others. She can be found on Twitter at @shinjini_dey.
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