Book Review: Economic Science Fictions by William Davies

Monday 24th September, 2018

William Davies is Reader in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. He is author of The Limits of Neoliberalism (Sage, 2014), The Happiness Industry (Verso, 2015) and Nervous States (Jonathan Cape, 2018). Economic Science Fictions, edited by William Davies, was published by Goldsmiths Press (PERC Series) in March 2018.

Economic Science Fictions is an anthology with an urgent message: the global economy is too important to be left to economists alone. Davies’ edited collection convincingly demonstrates how science fiction provides an opportunity for those in a range of disciplines, such as philosophers, literary critics, and sociologists to engage with neoliberal phenomena. Economic Science Fictions offers a diverse selection of exploratory essays, theoretical analyses, and creative responses. In the foreword, Mark Fisher identifies how this multi-faceted approach is particularly valuable, since “it is not a single-total vision that is required but a multiplicity of alternative perspectives, each potentially opening up a crack into another world” (xiii). Thatcher’s neoliberal slogan “there is no alternative” – which has been adopted as the default argument for Late Capitalism ever since – is challenged through the plethora of alternative futures that this collection identifies.

Economic Science Fictions features twenty-two writers. There is a wide range of academic disciplinary expertise represented (including, but not limited to, anthropology, literature, film theory, economics, and political theory). The book also features responses from artists (including the collective AUDINT, Carina Brand, and Tobias Revell), novelists and writers (such as Khairani Barokka and Owen Hatherley), and architecture and design professionals. The sheer diversity of the styles of thought make this collection hard to synthesize: the overall impression is one of cacophonous but undoubtedly collective chorus. Through this diversity readers are presented with many unusual and rich ideas and manifold tactics for resistance. The collection is structured into four sections, exploring “The Science Fictions of the Economy”, “Capitalist Dystopias”, “Design for a Different Future”, and “Fumbling for Utopia”. Several themes resonate across these structural divisions, which are outlined below.

First, many chapters explore how multinational corporations can have powerful effects on the narrative lives of individuals. Nora O Murchú’s short story “The New Black” is a study in the intimate and mundane experience of automated work environments. Murchú presents a barrage of economic mantras, such as “Time is an asset that you are always spending” (154 emphasis original), in order to represent the individuated guilt of company time. Laura Horn’s chapter “Future Incorporated?” similarly investigates the dystopian fictions of commercial institutions. Her work questions how a shift from the dominance of the corporation to the co-operations could offer a feasible alternative to labour markets.

Second, several chapters attempt to rethink the economy as a fictional form. Economist and writer Ha-Joon Chang demonstrates how neoclassical economics is itself a kind of science fiction, highlighting how the “economic realities that we believe to be the outcomes of some ‘scientific, natural laws’ are really the results of technological changes, institutional changes, political decisions and the influence exercised by individual agencies” (39). Reconceptualising the economy as a fiction opens up a space for creative engagement and narrative reform. Another example of fictionalising the economy is found in Dan Gavshon Brady and James Pockson’s chapter “Fatberg and Sinkholes”. Designers at Wollf Olins, Brady and Pockson imagine a consultancy document of the future. Their ambitious and optimistic vision for British economics explores an economic model developed when “compelled to journey into the world beyond the M25” (170). They find an imaginary future focused upon “we-ness rather than what-ness”; a future economy built upon the needs of people rather than the refinement of product.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this book consistently provides reasons for hope in unexpected places. Mark R. Johnson’s chapter on “Megastructures, Superweapons and Global Architectures in Science Fiction Computer Games” is exemplary of this particular tone. In exploring the potential of agency in playable dystopian games (such as the Mass Effect and Halo series), Johnson argues that fictional economies “undermine and challenge traditional emancipatory techno-utopian discourses” (250). The formal properties of the videogame – a product of an industry reliant on championing technological development and responding to market demands – are reconfigured as an embodied means through which to understand their own economic failings. There is hope to be found even in Carina Brand’s chapter on “Feeding like a Parasite” which explores the representation of capitalism as leech-like (Marx’s Capital), life-sucking (John Glazer’s Under the Skin), and consumptive of human flesh as machine-fuel (The Matrix). Her incisive chapter concludes by suggesting that in representing the abstract idea of capitalism so viscerally in literature, film, and TV, we can better articulate that “we do not passively accept” (123) such inhumane abuses of our vulnerable human bodies.

Economic Science Fictions is remarkable in its combination of radical politics, imaginative storytelling and intellectual rigour. It is an impressive and valuable collection, which should be essential reading for those wanting to explore economics and policy with a utopian eye. It is equally useful for those seeking to understand the radical potential of reading science fiction. Each chapter envisions and articulates ways in which science fiction is at once a powerful critical framework and a source for creative inspiration. This book demonstrates how futuristic imaginings, space, and non-human agents offer a ‘final frontier’ for the radical imagination. Davies’ anthology convincingly emphasises that “utopian writing enables us to imagine ourselves looking back on the present with a critical eye. It is thereby a political resource, as it empowers the critic and the radical to see the present as amenable to conscious transformation” (16). Despite the monopoly of economic-thinking in our neoliberal present, the future may offer space for alternative drives and desires to be fulfilled.

This fantastic anthology is a book to which I will certainly return to, for a rare glimpse beyond that heavy “grey curtain” (Fisher, 2009) of neoliberal economics, into an infinite starry space of imaginative potential.

Review by Dr Zoe Hope Bulaitis, University of Exeter.

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