Hard Social Science Fiction: Neptune’s Brood

Hard science-fiction is science fiction that respects the findings and constraints of contemporary science. By analogy, I deem hard social science fiction* to be science fiction that respects the findings and constraints of contemporary social science especially economics but also politics, sociology and other fields. Absent specific technology device such as a worm-hole, hard science fiction rejects faster than light travel as little more than fantasy. I consider Eden-like future communist societies similarly fantastical. Nothing wrong with fantasy as entertainment, of course, just so long as you don’t try to implement it here on earth.

Charles Stross is one of my favorite hard social science fiction authors. Stross writes both hard science-fiction and hard social-science fiction, sometimes in the same book and sometimes not. The Merchant Prince series, for example is hard social-science fiction drawing on development economics with a fantasy walk-between-the-worlds element while Halting State is hard-hard science-fiction set in the near future (n.b. HS memorably begins with a bank robbery from Hayek associates).

Stross’s latest, Neptune’s Brood, is hard-hard science-fiction set far in the future and perhaps best illustrated with this telling quote:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every interstellar colony in search of good fortune must be in need of a banker.

Although set far in the future, Neptune’s Brood contains plenty of commentary on recent events if one reads it carefully for hidden meaning, i.e. a Strossian reading. It is no accident, for example, that it opens with a quote from David Graeber’s Debt and finishes with altruist squids.

Neptune’s Brood is Stross’s attempt to understand money by thinking about what money and banking would look like given interstellar travel and relativity. Not surprisingly, Stross draws upon Paul Krugman’s Theory of Interstellar Trade and also (perhaps less explicitly) on the new monetary economics of Fama, Black, Hall, Cowen and Krozner. One plot point turns on what might happen should the velocity of money increase dramatically! I was also pleased that privateers make an appearance.

Hard social-science fiction is not just about economics. NB also contains interesting commentary on technology, religion, social organization, reproduction and their mutual influences. I wouldn’t put NB at the top of my list of Stross favorites but I enjoyed Neptune’s Brood and you need not let the commentary interfere with the story itself which in Stross fashion moves along at a rapid clip with plenty of enjoyable action and mystery. Recommended.

* yes, it should probably be hard social-science science-fiction but that is too much of a mouthful.


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