I am a fan of speculative fiction (science fiction) and was surprised to consider how many of these stories contain an economic bent. There are plenty of stories that include the adoption and use of science, but for many stories, there remains the use of science to advance society and create wealth (To boldly go where no one has gone before?) But why is economics so attuned with science fiction?
Economics is about the allocation of scarce resources. In many ways, science fiction discusses scarcity, such as the lack of air (Total Recall), Land (Waterworld), Spice (Dune), Food (Soylent Green), or other resources. In these, and other stories, the characters seek ways to collect, mine, create, or otherwise acquire something of value. Often these characters require the engagement with others to assist in the quest, a potential buyer, or some advisory that prevents either the collection or exchange of an item to occur. (Which is one of the reasons that markets feature in so many stories, such as from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. This markets provide a place for an exchange to occur, for no one is self-sufficient in an complex world.)
Which leads to something else that lies at the heart of economics: markets. One can define a market as possessing three characteristics (although the Encyclopedia Britannica lists a few other items):
1. A buyer,
2. A seller, or
3. A good or item to exchange between parties.
And one could add are few more caveats:
- A medium for discussion (how do we discover information about the product and a price?)
- A way to allocate geography (where is the product?)
- A scarce resource that people value (is there a way to put a value on this product?)
- An agreement regarding when the transaction occurs (how will we know when we reached a solution?)
- Consent for the transaction to occur (are both parties agreeing to the outcome?).
If an exchange is/is not made, all parties agree to an outcome based on the what, the where and the when, that occurred. As such, one could say the market is closed even if an agreement was not reached. (If one of these assumptions are not meet, while the exchange can occur, one would say that anything short of these tenants would be theft.)
But even within the market and the assumptions are met, there are several stories that have an economic angle that drives some characters…
1. the potential power between the two parties (monopolies, competition). The following story discusses how an electronic market is set up to handle resources in the Martian colony (Escape Pod Martian Chronicles, Part 1 and Part 2).
2. the potential for external observers to dictate a transaction (regulation), Again, not all transactions are legal, or can be frowned upon, such as hauling children (Guardians of the Galaxy 2).
3. the presence of alternative goods/choices (opportunity costs), such as managing people as in the “The Evening, the Morning and the Night”.
4. the timing of the final exchange (time value of money), the Restaurant at the End of Universe where compound interest pays for the final meal.
5. determining a market price, such as in “Chivalry” by Neil Gaiman, where an elderly woman negotiates the value of the Holy Grail, read by Levar Burton,
6. the process of collecting resources and skills, such as in “The Starsmith”, where one travels across space and relearns how to craft metals.
Not all science fiction stories have a strong economic tie, such as the Star Wars Episode IV: A New Beginning remains a retelling of the Hero’s Journey or the 1902 Journey to the Moon. But there is enough stories that have an economic tie that there may always be a market exchange somewhere in the story. (Even Star Wars had a Cantina Bar where the search is on to hire a pilot!)
I am not alone in my assessment, based on the following article from the World Economic Forum. So the next time you ride a spaceship, travel through time or battle an alien, you may meet rational parties (at least to themselves) seeking resources, living out your first lesson of “Economics 101”.