As the most recent Damon Knight Grand Master of SF&F, William Gibson, has been saying for years, “The future is here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” After reading this anthology of short stories dedicated to science-fictional and fantastical economies, I’m inclined to agree. Though not without its gems, this collection of twenty-three speculative tales suffers from many problems common to ambitious start-up anthologies, and one of the most glaring is how few convey an understanding how real-world finance functions. It’s as if they’re writing without the same access to the sum total of our present economic knowledge. How, then, are these authors supposed to dream up other worlds?
Now, I want to be clear on three accounts before delving further into this question. First, there are pieces in this collection worth reading, and I will give them ready accolades in due course. Second, the generally thankless world of volunteer slush-reading and editorial decision-making is a backbone of the SF&F universe that merits encouragement. Due to the precarious financial nature even of critically acclaimed publishing ventures, we have only a few places where SF&F writers can explore specific themes with any promise of payment whatsoever. According to the Kickstarter page for this project, the team involved in this effort (David F. Schultz and the Toronto Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Meetup) wanted very much to add to that number of venues, both by developing future anthologies in a similar vein, and by hopefully reaching a level of patron commitment that can offer future writers professional rates. So this isn’t going to be the same essay I would write, say, in response to an anthology from a more seasoned and securely funded editorial team. This is more workshop than review, which I hope might also benefit other teams bravely developing SF&F platforms on minimal resources.
Third, it’s clear from Schultz’s own comments that this anthology came together with difficulty. Indeed, I was rather surprised by how cursory his introduction proved to be. (The real delight, as I later discovered, was a rich and well-structured afterword on speculative economics that should probably have been required reading for all writers submitting to this project.) But in that opening volley, Schultz made the best of a challenging situation—somewhat ominously, as it left me wondering while reading the rest of the collection which stories he was referring to—by noting:
Stories had to pass through three editorial rounds, including a final roundtable where we debated the merits of the best stories. The team did not always agree. Though the majority of the stories were supported by the team, a few were controversial, and vociferous objections crashed against enthusiastic support. The result is a collection that does not cater to any one particular taste, but instead represents a wide range of styles. There are stories for every reader—something for everyone to love.
That’s putting the matter mildly, as I soon discovered. I did love a handful of these pieces, but many were, to be quite frank, a slog—not just not to my taste but difficult to finish. Nonetheless, in my assessment of them all, I tried to make clear the difference between ones that simply revealed errors common to novice writing, and ones that plainly bear out Gibson’s observation about the unevenness of our future-present: stories, that is, with little to no evidence of the contemporary know-how needed to write effectively on speculative economics.
Why does this difference in literary failing matter? Because it’s fair to assume that a speculative fiction anthology expressly targeting economics would intrigue people with even just a hobbyist’s appreciation for related financial fields. People who love Gibson, for instance, or Frank Herbert, or Iain M. Banks, or Max Gladstone, do so in part because of these authors’ deft handling of socioeconomic themes in SF&F contexts. And that’s a key potential demographic of SF&F readers—and buyers!—that this collection unfortunately risks losing almost at the outset.
Indeed, the very first story made my heart sink, much as I had been eager to dig into this collection. Written in a style reminiscent of 1950s science fiction, those more wonderstruck years when big ideas still packed a revelatory punch, “The Slow Bomb” by Neil James Hudson depicts a world in which a bomb is descending at an impossibly slow rate—stayed in its approach by mysterious but high-energy forces—and a joint-military-and-civilian organization asks one man to run some calculations for them. Specifically, he’s asked to determine the monetary value of the last five years of human life, so the organization can decide if it would be worth hastening the bomb’s descent a little, by siphoning off some of the energy holding the darned thing back.
Now, in the lack of a computerized solution, I could grant this text a pass based on its ’50s feel. I can also attribute to the era it’s emulating the adorably naïve way in which this organization seeks the sanction of one man to carry out its selfish plans. But … actuarial science has been around since the late eighteenth century. This story shows no awareness of a whole field of study already dedicated to putting price tags on human and corporate lifespans. And so it was hard to maintain confidence in an anthology that starts out with such a simplistic approach to its central theme.
In general, too, the ordering of stories gave me pause. With the exception of two, “Consumption” (K. M. McKenzie’s Total-Recall-esque jaunt through virtual reality’s economic perils) and “All Rights Reserved” (Xauri’EL Zwaan’s Black-Mirror-esque-but-still-refreshing take on the digitized-human-in-servitude trope), all the stories that I found to be well-written on both structural and thematic levels were placed together at the end, before the brilliant afterword. Was this on purpose? Four wise and polished takes on speculative economics—in four very different writing styles—after a wobbly run of stories that ranged from good-on-some-accounts to exceedingly poor? If so, I have to say that this approach to anthology-building sorely tasks the reader by making them wait too long for consistently solid takes on speculative economics.
Maybe the editorial team saw a little more to love in the mid-range pieces? Let’s take a look, then, at those “almost” stories. I’ve put five in this category, along with an honorary mention for a piece entitled “Economics Discussion Questions,” wherein Elisabeth Perlman plainly did her best to draw relevant economics questions from even the murkiest tales in this collection. (Some of her questions don’t really match the crux of the stories as a result, but they do make for thoughtful standalone reading on the collection’s overall theme!)
“The Rule of Three,” by Steve DuBois, has some stiffness to it—especially at the self-conscious start, when it tries too hard to show third-gender savvy and makes an odd use of ‘splaining—but when Ogg speaks all is forgiven: DuBois’s humour relaxes this little-independent vs. big-corporate-magic shop standoff into a fairly enjoyable tale of careless contract-writing before an off-the-cuff ending. Meanwhile, Simonas Juodis’s “Shocktrooper Salesman” is also endearing, even if the final reveal is again a let down (it can be seen a mile away). The story features an alien trying to sell an initially unnamed top-predator species to another alien who is seeking a self-propagating nuisance of an expansion force; you can already imagine what species the Earth-bound reader is going to discover has been on offer the entire time.
Also among the endearing, but rudimentary, tales is John DeLaughter’s “The Soul Standard”—a coherently developed story that advances a speculative economics theme, in the form of a chain of emails among Lucifer and his staff, immortal beings who apparently need economists to teach them that scarcity creates value and “money isn’t souls or gold or pieces of paper; it is an idea.” This would work as a playful primer for young persons, but loses all credibility as a story for adults. A similarly-themed story, “The Short Soul,” starts on a disorienting note (the transitions remain stiff throughout), but on a thematic level author Jack Waddell makes solid use of traditional stock-market strategy to resolve an issue that his afterlife hellspawn, and their recently deceased team of financial advisors, are having while trying to recover from a bad bet made on soul potentials.
And lastly among this middle group, “Expiry Date” almost has the opposite problem—a weak ending, along with hand-wavy justifications for How We Got Here—but Eamonn Murphy at least channels contemporary fears about British healthcare’s long-term viability, envisioning in the process a nightmare in which even war vets are goaded by smarmy bureaucrats into dying before a brutal deadline on their insurance coverage.
Among the rest, though, the problems deepen from the merely disappointing into two far more serious domains of failure: structural and thematic.
Like “The Slow Bomb,” Steve Quinn’s “A Renewable Resource”—a story about a man who builds a city for a dragon, which then eradicates some or all of its people every fifty or one hundred years—suffers from coherent-justification problems, especially on the part of the people who accept murder by dragon as an inevitable consequence of living in the city. There could have been a more intricate story about economic give-and-take here, but instead the focus of the piece wanders between dragon visits, and its ending doesn’t match the narrative thrust of the opening tension.
“Supply Chains” by Petra Kuppers also bounces around (indeed, a common weakness for stories in this collection seems to be restlessness with the constraints of a specific POV), and even though the gist of the story follows a woman’s secret ingredient for an irresistible Mexican mocha (i.e. unrealized sexual energy), there’s still a “breasted boobily” flavour to this tale’s prose. Kuppers isn’t quite leaning on the “exotic” nature of the protagonist’s background and the “hint of rainforests and faraway lands” to advance the story’s slight fantasy element … but she’s not avoiding the fetishism, either.
“The Grass Is Always Greener” by Fraser Sherman and “The Slurm” by M. James also have pacing and POV problems: the former, while depicting a world where agents can sell people’s futures because of unread ToS agreements; the latter, while depicting a contracted monster-killer who ends up depreciating the value of their prize, due to costs incurred in the hunt. “The Slurm” has an especially self-conscious, can’t-quite-figure-out-how-to-start-the-story problem, while “The Grass Is Always Greener” struggles most with its transitions. Both sets of structural issues unfortunately make good premises and decent resolutions less interesting than they should be.
I was therefore heartened by Michael H. Hanson’s “Warm Storage,” which initially evaded an exposition issue also common to the collection by juxtaposing promotional AI-chatter about surplus human storage with the protagonist’s gradual entrance into the nightmare of a facility actually storing his kin. But this stronger prose breaks down when Hanson blunt-forces motivation, backstory, and heavily telegraphed resolution not long before the story’s end, writing that:
Two hours later, Franklin walked towards the exit and allowed himself the briefest of sighs. His childhood memory of Grandad Frank begging for mercy while being dragged off by two burly proctors still haunted him and gave him horrifying nightmares every night of his life. Franklin hated Protek and the world at large with an unholy passion. This terrible crime inflicted upon his Grandad and millions more was simply unforgivable, and retribution would soon ensue.
This is unnecessary and utterly heavyhanded … but very common for novice writing. And that novice quality deepens for five of the other six stories. If “The Grass Is Always Greener” jumps around a little, D. K. Latta’s “Have Ichthyosaur, Will Travel” feels downright impatient about sticking with any given scene in its tale of a journalist inadvertently figuring out what really happened to the dinosaurs while investigating a corrupt business tycoon. Likewise, if “Warm Storage” rushes its ending, Brandon Ketchum’s “Premium Care”—a story about needing urgent care but lacking proper coverage due to immigrant status—rushes beginning, middle, and end.
As for the other three—Wayne Cusack’s “Guns or Butte,” Andrea Bradley’s “The Monument,” and Diana Părpăriţă’s “The Unseen Face of the Moon Business”—each has an “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” quality, with varying levels of contradictory detail and inconsistent POV as each progress.
More importantly for this anthology, though, they and the sixth story in this group—the only one in the cohort that doesn’t falter structurally, Greg Beatty’s “I Can Always Tell A John”—fail to coherently advance the collection’s overarching speculative-economics theme.
As even Perlman’s valiant attempt at discussion questions later notes, “Guns or Butter” doesn’t explain why humanity has lost even the fundamental ability to barter, simply because aliens came by with machines that replaced the need for money. And in “The Monument,” it’s not clear what greater socioeconomic good comes from keeping worker-humans sort of gender-separated (but not really), sort of culled for “fitness” (but not really), and, most of all, in the dark about their next worksite: simply put, this is a half-hearted insect-human-hybrid-economy with no clear “so what?” factor. As for “The Unseen Face of the Moon Business,” this story about people wearing fake bodies to conduct better business has some bizarre approaches to its surgical economy (for example, obesity can usually be achieved naturally, so why does one character need to waste money on it?), and even more bizarre approaches to conveying coherent character motivations from scene to scene. It has more of a club-life love-story feel, with its science-fiction and economics components secondary.
And then there’s “I Can Always Tell A John,” which comes with a warning that definitely singles it out as the story that caused “vociferous objections” among the editorial team. I can see why, too, on one level—but I suspect I have another reason for finding it a poor fit. In Beatty’s tale, a glib sex worker, already used to surgically restoring her posterior after certain clients, takes on an alien who is ecstatic about the ability to mess with her relativistically. Fine. But then the sex worker meets with government agents who want to know if the alien told her anything of note … and she invites the alien to non-consensually initiate the same sexual act on them … which the alien does … which leads the sex worker to wax poetic about the new sexual economy this will herald for humankind.
Now, I’m pretty sure much of the editorial board was against the casual use of rape as plot device. Completely reasonable! But on a thematic level, this piece also just doesn’t jive. If you want to talk about new sexual economies with aliens, sure, we’ve got SF stories about that—just take a gander at Naomi Kritzer’s “Bits”—but the moment that this story’s alien, initially so nervous about making any transaction with the sex worker, rapes someone at someone else’s bidding … well, you’re not talking sex economies anymore. You’re just talking rape. Narratively speaking, this decision also doesn’t make any sense for the alien’s preceding character, as a john eager to pay for a service, nor for the sex worker, as someone who benefits financially from an economy of consent. Without consensual monetary transactions, this is just an alien-rape story, irrelevant to the anthology’s core theme.
Suffice it to say, then, where the stories in this collection fall flat, they really fall flat.
But, oh, then come the gems!
I mentioned two of them already—“Consumption” and “All Rights Reserved”, which are smartly told with good characterization. The others all follow each other consecutively to finish off the collection: “The Price of Wool and Sunflowers” by Samantha Rich, “Supply and Demand Among the Sidhe” by Karl Dandenell, “Shape, Size, Colour, and Lustre” by J. M. Templet, “Das Kapital” by Stephen Woodworth, and “Afterword: Cockayne Blues” by Jo Lindsay Walton.
These pieces truly redeemed my reading of this collection, because they illustrated the range of storytelling possible on economic themes in fantasy and science fiction. Templet’s is the most poetic of the group: a sparse, fairy-tale-esque story about a child learning a harsh and unforgiving lesson about the value of the pearls she naturally produces. On the other side of the stylistic spectrum, Woodworth’s epistolary fantasy happily rewards the reader familiar with Marx’s writing, and adds intelligently to the historical mythos surrounding Marxism’s origins. In between the two are Rich’s and Dandenell’s more traditional fantasies: the former imagining a geopolitical sphere in which each empire competitively micromanages stock prices through magic; the latter teasing out the nuances of political barter across fantastical species to keep trade routes thriving even under the yoke of a brutal monarch. Both stories deftly balance big-picture and private crises, which are survived only by the skin of their protagonists’ respective teeth.
As for Walton’s splendidly footnoted closing essay: it’s an academic but immensely playful piece that explores binding threads between the work of economists and speculative writers. The essay’s very name, “Cockayne Blues,” arises from an historical reference to a land of nonsense that Walton intimates emerges in “non”-fiction economic narratives, too. His work with barter myth especially offers plenty to writers and readers of SF&F, for in it he observes that:
The teller of speculative stories, especially, has loads of leeway. […] As most writers know, supposedly “extraneous” features of a story, its colour and flavour and minutiae, can be exactly what make its plot credible. Why is the barter myth so often set in that vague misty village, even in the more modern retellings? Probably because it makes it easier to imply—without quite setting it out explicitly—a good old-fashioned labour theory of value, and to prioritize traditionally masculine productive labour at that. The barter myth doesn’t want heckles like, “Hey, isn’t money created when a banker just types some numbers into a spreadsheet?” So instead, the emergence of monetary value in this world, through the labour, materials, and ecological and social connectivity of the villagers, is allowed to take on the character of a natural law. … It is a well-crafted fantasy about not just where money comes from, but where value comes from.
Consequently, it was only at the end of Strange Economics that I found what I had most desired from this ambitious project: namely, the chance to dally a while in economies dreamed up from a place of solid understanding about the fantasies and science fictions that already run our real-world marketplace. But I highly doubt that most readers, especially those keen on the titular theme to begin with, would wait out such a range of wobbly prose in hopes of a similar turning of the tide. And that’s a shame I hope can be resolved in future projects by this team.
While reading the most difficult-to-finish stories in this collection—the ones that conveyed authorial boredom, flitting restlessly from scene to scene or POV to POV; the ones that lost track of their premise or central conflict; the ones that rushed to simplistic “so what?” moments; the ones that took their sweet time to reach the same leaden ends—I realized I’d forgotten that, like writing, anthology-building is a skill that could always use refinement.
So, in the spirit of Perlman’s wise “Economics Discussion Questions,” here are a few of my own for any team currently pursuing this important but daunting work in the world of SF&F:
- If you’ve chosen to develop an anthology around a specific real-world theme, what are you going to do to ensure there is a baseline level of demonstrated knowledge about that real-world theme among the pieces you select for publication?
- Since you’re probably not able to offer much money to contributors, you have to expect lean pickings in the slush pile. Which are you going to prioritize, if you have to choose: a slew of stories that stand well enough as basic narratives, but do not sufficiently explore the anthology’s central theme … or a slew of stories that raise interesting and resonant thematic questions, but show significant structural weaknesses? Are there any measures you can put into place to work with the writers from either side of the spectrum, to help coax stronger pieces from them after initial submission?
- What will your guiding principles be for the overall content order of your collection? Does it make more sense to put an essay outlining key thematic issues at the end of your volume, where it might not even get seen, let alone read—or at the beginning, as a strong thematic framing device for all work to follow? As for the stories themselves, should you front-load, back-load, or more evenly disperse the stronger among the weaker works?
- How will you handle disagreements among editorial-board members? Is there a point at which a story will not be permitted to proceed, even if it’s been advanced by a vocal minority or group majority to final-round vetting, based on certain preset guidelines?
- What plans will you make to debrief after your project’s publication, to improve this decision-making process for your next project—and hopefully your next, and your next? What are ideal documentation practices to ensure the continuation of institutional memory among an ever-shifting team of volunteers, however dedicated they might be?
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