A tale of a tale of a shareable future, part 1: Introduction

So about a month ago one Jeremy Adam Smith(1), editor of shareable.net, sent me a solicitation:

"I'm inviting science fiction authors to write stories of shareable futures, where technology has changed the rules of ownership and access, and people share transportation, living spaces, lives, dreams, everything and anything....As I told Cory and Bruce, I'm not looking for utopian propaganda--and indeed, I'd describe the stories they sent as counter-utopian. I'm looking for character and place, troubles and ambiguities, strong stories and intelligent speculation. Sharing solves problems--but what new problems could it create? What conflicts might it provoke?"

Now, here's something about living in a monetary exchange economy:

When I get such "would you write us a story?" emails, one of the first thing I scan for is pay rates. This is not because the money itself matters much. Given my sluggish productivity, my lucrative day job, and rates for short fiction nowadays(2), the check is not likely to have much impact on my finances. But for venues I haven't yet heard of, cents-per-word is usually a reasonable rough proxy for how interesting they're likely to be -- in terms of professionalism, prestige, audience, and presentation.

So what are money and exchange for? Well: by brutally simplifying and quantifying the complex and polyvalent, by imposing costs and forcing decisions, they make a large world with poor information transparency easier to navigate. Indeed you could almost say the entire world we live in, and all our human relations, are distorted by a system principally evolved to allow distant strangers to deal with each other.

As a science fiction writer I naturally think: could another system for allowing distant strangers to deal with each other displace it?

Jeremy was paying Clarkesworld rates, close to the top of the short speculative fiction market, which (along with his name-dropping of other authors I admire) enticed me to click through. And Shareable is interesting: sort of like what a glossy lifestyle magazine would look like if it were designed to encourage people to discard and scavenge things rather than buy them, to share rather than consume. (It is so slick-looking I thought it was a commercial operation, which I thought was a piquant irony; acutally it's a nonprofit, so that the irony is located in my misapprehension).

The solicitation also came at a time when I have been thinking a lot about speculative economics, about the degree of arbitrariness and contingency of economic systems(3), and the way our lives are molded by them:

  • The novel I'm currently supposed to be writing(4) is mostly set in a moneyless, panoptic global monoculture, a "pride economy" in which everyone's emotional state is subject to observation, bookkeeping, debate, and sometimes betting, in which sibling rivalry provides the conceptual template for all transactions, and in which there's only one monolithic medium for everything from how you obtain food and clothing, how you're getting along with your friend, and how much you trust a piece of information you read... and it's all falling apart.
  • I've been reading nonfiction about historical economy -- Before European Hegemony offers a fascinating survey of the 13th century's globalization boom, in which power was distributed roughly evenly among many competing economic regions -- until it fell apart under the stresses of the bubonic plague and the collapse of the Pax Mongolica, setting the stage for China's dramatic withdrawl and upstart Europe's domination from the 16th century on. In telling this story Abu-Lughod makes a compelling case for the contingency of economic history -- it didn't have to be the way it turned out, with one unlikely corner of Eurasia exterting hegemonic power over the rest of the world.
  • I'll be on a panel on Economics of the Future at Wiscon next weekend.
  • I've been talking to the kids a lot about money, work, and so on, and their insightful questions make me realize how odd and sort of suspicious the system in which we are embedded in. It is interesting how excited they are about people who intentionally live without money, scavenging the excess of our overstuffed drive to accumulate surplus; surely there's a clue there -- in their reaction --about what money means to us, and does to us, psychologically.

So... as I think you may have guessed by now. I said yes. Specifically, said he could reprint "Falling" (a short about an adhocratic Frankfurt of the 2050s which appeared in Nature, and which Nature kindly and experimentally-for-them allowed me to put under Creative Commons By-NC-SA) and that I'd try to write a sequel to "Falling" for him on his rather tight deadline.

This may be tempting fate. I almost never write sequels -- or even set-in-the-same-universes. The only real follow-on that comes to mind that I've attempted is that very same languishing novel (it's a companion piece to my story "Droplet").

To make the time-crunch involved more dramatic (as if I weren't already away this weekend, travelling transatlantically to Wiscon right after that, wrapping up a product release at the day job, and then flying to the USA where I will be single-parenting kids on vacation, and as if I didn't already owe Tim and Ethan stories and Sharyn a picture book script), we decided that I'd do an experiment in public composition by blogging (more or less extensively) about my attempt to write the short story in question.

And that, dear unsuspecting readers, is what you are in for now. In part 2, hopefully soon, a little more about my muddled ambivalence about capitalism, and how I got nagged (not by Jeremy!) into cramming this blogging-series experiment into the already ambitious short story timeframe.

 

[Crossposted at benjaminrosenbaum.com]

Footnotes
  1. It wasn't until composing this blog entry that I realized the irony implicit in writing a postcapitalist heterotopia for someone with that name; if he were a fictional character, my critiquers would make me take out the cute in-joke.
  2. You can live from short fiction in 2010, if you are also on the state roadkill registry and fish really well
  3. Such systems are not wholly arbitrary, of course; it's like with biological evolution. Given a certain technological and environmental framework and set of initial conditions, systems may be strongly driven to certain states. But on the other hand, like with biology, the full range of what's in principle possible is immense -- and small changes can develop into large ones.
  4. What's going on with my novel? Why thank you for asking! I was trucking ahead at 200 words a day until last October, when I passed 100,000 words total, and hit a wall; I had no idea what was supposed to happen next, I had created all this clever plotty foreshadowing and conundrums for the characters to resolve and building tensions, but I had no idea what I was leading to. I was just trusting myself to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the right time. Reached in: no rabbit. And I think it's not entirely unrelated to the topic of this post: I had unleashed a revolution (or uprising?) in an ambiguous heterotopia, and I had no idea how to follow it up. Since then I've been trying to overhaul it in synopsis form, and also working on a few other things. It's such a relief to have short stories at various stages in the pipeline again, I can't tell you.
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