science fiction

What happens in cashless societies? Five answers from science fiction

If we don’t work for money, what might we be working for?

There is a funny section in Philip K Dick’s Ubik where one of the central characters has an argument with a door, which unlocks only when you pay it. It’s funny not simply because of the image of a talking door though: somehow, science fiction authors, when devising telepathic policemen and cryogenic preservation, often seem to miss out on some of the more obvious changes that might occur in the future, such as to the concept of money itself, and end up sounding really quaint. But unlike the near absolute failure on the part of SF authors to imagine the internet, money should be a difficult thing to think away from, since it’s been around for so long in human history.

At first glance, a cashless society is not really one of the more innovative ideas for SF to pride itself in, largely because you’d think we would have moved beyond those petty ideas in a sparkling, utopian future. Cash? That would mean labour, working for a living, and that kind of old-fashioned thing. Isn’t the whole point to rethink human history where we don’t need incentives like money motivating us every step of the way?

But cashlessness isn’t simply about dispensing with the need for cash; it’s also about streamlining the abstraction of value by substituting it with something else. Somehow, if you think of money in terms of idea and incentive rather than metal and paper, it’s actually no different from a very specific form of communication and exchange. So, as is the case with ideas and their variations, it’s fair game for science fiction authors to do with as they will. Here are a few examples of what some authors have done with the idea of cash, or the lack of it, in society:

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany

Something bad has happened in the city of Bellona, and everything’s falling apart. Time is messed up, and people have come unmoored from their usual ways of living. They drift about in familiar meeting spots in the city, living life from day to day, curiously oblivious to what’s at stake, and yet finding more avenues for personal expression.

Our protagonist, Kid, a newcomer to this strange place, is busy writing a poem in the face of all this uncertainty. He goes about doing odd jobs, without really having a use for the cash he earns. He always makes do, because people seem to like him. In the face of impending apocalypse, money stops making sense, but Kid gets by thanks to his reputation as an emerging poet.

Art, friendships, gender: everything is thrown into a weird flux, and so is the need for money. Dhalgren is an infamous text, because it’s so elliptical and confusing, but it’s also a case study of how uncontested necessities such as money fade away in the face of something profoundly disturbing.

The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin

The people on Annares form an anarchist society, unlike the one on sister moon Urras, her rich, capitalist counterpart. But here’s the rub: it’s Annares that’s probably the “ambiguous utopia” in question, not Urras. People don’t earn; they work for the sake of work, and sustain one another through work, because that’s what you do in a parched world that’s arid and unforgiving.

In fact, this isn’t simply a coincidence: much of Le Guin’s oeuvre is obsessed with natural environments as arbitrators of human behaviour. Money doesn’t need to be an incentive any longer: if you don’t work, you perish.

“Lobsters” from Accelerando, Charles Stross

Chapter 1 of Stross’s acclaimed “fix-up” novel Accelerando reads like a whirlwind tour of what’s to come: the “singularity”, a time when it will no longer be possible to predict the direction in which we are going technologically. Enter Manfred Macx, an ideas man whose job it is to stay ahead of the curve, absorb every single instance of cutting edge research happening across the globe, and then come up with concepts he hands over to people for free. Yes, for free. In the process, he’s freed himself from having to earn anything in cash.

Manfred lives on favours. He’s the classic science fiction problem solver, updated for the new century: with no time or patience for political conniving or old school manipulative capitalism, Manfred believes in a world where you help everyone out, and everyone helps you out in return, even though it isn’t always technically legal.

Embassytown, China Miéville

Miéville’s only serious foray into science fiction envisions a rather beautiful doomsday scenario. A trading outpost at a backwater planet named Arieka where humans exist in an uneasy relationship with aliens who can’t lie: that’s basically the context for Miéville’s book, but where he takes it from there is where it’s really at.

The aliens have unnerving technology: it’s all essentially living matter that makes up their architecture and machinery, and the humans on this planet need it to survive. Unfortunately, what is otherwise a barter-style relationship goes horribly wrong when humans unwittingly introduce the art of lying to these aliens. Before long, the Ariekei are addicted to lying, and a weird exchange erupts out of nowhere, with hordes of aliens mulling about the human settlements, craving sentences, words, metaphor: anything at all that isn’t the literal truth.

Words become currency, in a manner, and things only get weirder from there, as is usual with any Miéville. Trust me, it makes a lot more sense than I make it sound.

The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi

This is arguably the strangest novel on this list (and that’s saying something when you’re up against the likes of Delany and Miéville). If Stross’s short story hinted at a society in the throes of political and technological upheaval, Rajaniemi goes all out with this book, where everything is so incredibly advanced that it’s near-indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur C Clarke would have said.

There’s a mobile city on Mars called Oubliette, where people don’t earn in cash: they earn in time. But there’s more: when you run out of time, your personalities get uploaded onto machines and you work your way out of the afterlife as a member of the “Quiet”, while your bodies are kept in storage.

Well, there you have it. Cashless societies are all in a day’s work for these provocateurs of the imagination. If anything, they give the lie to the belief that science fiction is primarily escapist. What we have in all these books, apart from the imaginative pyrotechnics, are authors thinking seriously about what drives us human beings to go out and do the things that we do. Can we really not think beyond pieces of paper, circular chunks of metal, or even digital entries in our bank account as tangible rewards for hard work? These writers would certainly beg to differ.

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