As we have detailed in a former post, science fiction is a great tool in order to address financial and economical matters. Because it allows to invent weird preferences, and also because it is a key part of the world building approach, it allows for great speculation. Keeping this in mind, there are two strategies when trying to dive into these type of imaginaries :

  • Looking at science fiction and trying to sort out the financial issues that are at stake. The Whuffies from Cory Doctorow’s « Down and out in the magic kingdom » being a perfect example, and finding a visual illustration in BlackMirror’s « Nosedive »:


Black Mirror’s “Nosedive” : another “Whuffie” example ? 


  • Looking at science fiction that has been commissioned especially on this matter. The « Strange economics » from David Shultz is an archetypical example of this approach : put a bunch a science fiction writers, give them a subject (i.e economics), and analyse the results.

One of the novels presented in « Strange economics » is called « The slow bomb » and exemplifies how science fiction can help us speculate. In the story, bombs have appeared above all major cities. They fall down at an extremely slow rate. In fact, this movement is barely visible. The « hero » of the novel is asked by the military to put a figure on the value of human life in order to reorient the time, money and resources left for a mars colonization program.

Basically, they have found a way to use the massive energy of the bomb falling, but by doing that they are accelerating the fall. And here it goes, : « We can not colonize another planet while you are figuring out how to wind the world down. We need a massive surge in growth, a massive advance in technology. We need the energy more than we need the time.  (…) We have to bring the bomb forward in order to get a few off the plane (…) Get me this equations, and I can get your descendants on the program » (to mars…).

The setting is unexpected but it raises numerous real questions:
  • The value of a human life is something that economists have been debating for years. In fact, the EPA (Environment Protection Agency) evaluates It to be around 9.1 million dollars, and the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) to be around 7.9 millions dollars. This is not a simply hypothetical issue since a legislation allowing for a higher speed limit on highways might end up with many people spending less time in their cars (hence, more people doing something else that might be productive), but also a few people killing themselves. Another real life example was the tradeoff that was made by the Bush administration regarding the strength of car’s roofs. By doubling the strength, around 200 lives could have been saved, but the cost for auto manufacturers would have exceeded by 800 millions the value of life saved.
  • The funny part of the novel is that the date for everybody’s death is set: the bomb falls at a specific rate. There are a few years left in the novel, but what happens the closer you get to the end ? Even more if you know the date for sure. In real life, we face these issues when dealing with terminal cancer or elderlies : how do you value life when the time horizon is not set but coming to a short ? The issue is quite hard to deal with regarding actual sickness, but appears more “thinkable” when connected to a speculative and parallel world. Also, it helps refreshing this old question, and might be a starting point for a quest of new stories and evolution. In fact Justing Timberlake (yes yes…) offers such a  point of view on this in “In Time”:


In Time : what do you do when you know how much time you have left ?


  • Finally, the novel really shows how politics and economics are closely linked. In this case, the politicians are asking for an economic rationale to be able to do something that they believe to be key for the human race (going to mars). In real life, the situation is the same : when the FDA increases the value of life, it has a direct impact on what you write on drugs, how many warning labels you put on it etc.