THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 10, Fall 1995

William A. McEachern, Editor

Economics of Science Fiction

As we know, good teachers build bridges from the familiar to the new, which is why common experience is such a great point of departure. One subject that I believe is "common" but in a different and useful way is science fiction. In literature, movies, and television, science fiction is on a roll. In literature, science fiction has a long and rich tradition dating back at least to Voltaire, who wrote of space travel. The two top-grossing movies (in real terms) of all time, Jurassic Park and E.T., are both science fiction. And television shows such as The X-Files, Deep Space 9, VR5, The Outer Limits, and the Science-Fiction Channel serve a growing interest.

My American Heritage Dictionary defines science fiction as: "A literary or cinematic genre in which fantasy, typically based on speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets, forms part of the plot or background." Plausibility based on science is a prerequisite, which is why plots based primarily on the supernatural, such as fiction à la Stephen King, don't qualify.

Where are the economic lessons? The science may be fiction but the economics is often on the mark. Consider how different worlds cope with scarcity. In Frank Herbert's novel Dune, the planet lacks water but giant worms produce a consciousness-altering spice that ties the universe together. So despite the adverse conditions, Dune is worth the high cost of inhabitation, just as are the oil fields in the frigid tundra of Alaska and Siberia. With water so precious on Dune, technology is developed to economize on water, such as the body suits that recycle fluid excretions into drinking water. Body fluids are also recycled in the movie Waterworld, where there is water everywhere but scarcely a drop to drink. The Mariner, the central character, exclaims, "In Waterworld, nothing is free!" Dirt is more precious than gold. Other worlds and other times address their own problems of scarcity.

Often the plot in science fiction arises from fights over resources. In H.G. Wells's classic War of the Worlds, the inhabitants of Mars must abandon their dying planet, so they want our real estate. In the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the aliens want to take over our bodies, and in the Alien series, they want our bodies as hosts for their larvae. In most stories of alien abductions, the scarce resource is information, usually about the human race. Even the benign aliens in E.T. are snooping around in the woods at the beginning of the movie, inspecting our flora and fauna. Generally, aliens want our stuff and they are willing to cross the stars and risk exposure and worse to get it.

Science fiction underscores the role of technological change, a topic of particular interest to economists these days. Plots that involve time travel often draw a direct bead on technology. For example, in the Back to the Future movie series, the semi-mad scientist Dr. Brown builds a time machine that initially runs exclusively on high-grade uranium. In the future, he refines that machine (by then dubbed "Mr. Fusion") to run on anything, including table scraps and beer cans. The idea of getting more from less applies more generally when those from advanced civilizations make wonderful machines out of old junk, as when E.T. uses an old record player to send a message to a distant star.

Technology in the future sometimes seems to overcome the problem of scarcity, at least for some resources. For example, the "replicators" in various generations of Star Trek produce food apparently out of thin air (just as our banking system creates money). It's not clear what resources are used up in the process. Perhaps the major technological wonder common to various lines of science fiction is the ability to jump into hyperspace, which permits travelers to exceed light speed. Since it would take billions of years to cross the universe even traveling at the speed of light, intergalactic or even interstellar travel would be impossible without the deus ex machina of hyperspace. Sometimes a natural resource solves problems, as with so-called "wormholes," which serve as shortcuts across vast distances. Economic activity springs up around wormholes, just as it would around airports, seaports, or interstate-highway ramps.

Since resources span the universe, specialization and trade are often highly refined in science fiction. Dune imports water and exports the consciousness-altering spice. Some planets or moons are mining colonies; some are penal colonies. Sometimes the penal colony and mining colony combine, in a future version of chain gangs. What sort of resource is valuable enough to mine and haul vast distances? Gold or precious gems, perhaps? The cargo is usually less exotic — iron ore, for example. Transporting raw material across space is cost effective in the future because of huge interstellar freighters with the ability to jump into hyperspace. A variant of the hyperspace idea is for the space crew to hibernate for years during long trips. Interstellar freighters are to our trailer trucks what e-mail is to the pony express.

Usually the driving action in science fiction stems from some catastrophe, either from a natural force, such as the hurricane in Jurassic Park, or from human action, such as the environmental degradation common to many future worlds. In Waterworld, the greenhouse effect has melted the polar icecaps, flooding the globe. In Star Trek III, saving the whales equates to saving the world. In that movie, Spock touches on the common-pool problem in noting, "To hunt a race to extinction is not logical." In Star Trek VI, the Klingons, faced with a deadly depletion of their ozone, decide to join the intergalactic Federation. These environmental calamities give new meaning to our notion of "supply shocks."

"Big business" in science fiction, as in other fiction, is usually portrayed as at worst evil and at best incompetent and bureaucratic. For example, in the movie Aliens, the "corporation" that operates the mining colony secretly tries to bring the horrible creature back to Earth. Government in science fiction is usually portrayed no better than big business. In the Star Wars series, a dictator and his deputy, Darth Vader, armed with the Death Star, rule the galaxy. In Orwell's 1984, government is the "big brother" that is watching, and in Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil, government creates bureaucratic torpor. Government agents want to dissect poor little E.T., they shoot down Starman (who was only responding to an invitation from Voyager), and in dozens of stories about UFOs, including The X-Files, they try to suppress information about extraterrestrials.

In some future worlds anarchy reigns, often as a result of a disaster of human origin, such as the global warming in Waterworld or the nuclear aftermath in the Mad Max series of films. For example, in the post-nuclear world of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Bartertown is where trading occurs. Bartertown is an apt name for an economic center in an anarchic world. Curiously, among the tens of thousands of geographic names in my Britannica World Atlas, I could find not a single Bartertown, or Bartercity, or Barterville. It took science fiction to dream up Bartertown. Incidentally, in the Mad Max series, gasoline is the resource to die for, literally. The high cost of gasoline creates substitutes — Bartertown is powered by methane gas derived from pig manure.

I have touched on only a few of the many examples of economic applications in science fiction. Science fiction poses interesting issues both where the laws of economics hold and where they have apparently been repealed. As Isaac Asimov, the most prolific source of science fiction ever, noted, "It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be....This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking." I suggest that from time to time we join our economic way of thinking with a science fictional way of thinking to provide students a richer and less bounded path to economic understanding. If you have any thoughts along these lines, I would be glad to pass them along in the Grapevine.

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