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.


Please credit Miss Austen for the "telling quote."

You're signaling your lack of sophistication if you have to be so crude as to spell it out - or you need it to be done for you.

And you're signalling that you're THAT guy.

Everybody signalling up in here

It's certainly not hard sci-fi, but I recently enjoyed Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter's 2012 "The Long Earth" about how society would turn more libertarian if most land and natural resource constraints were erased by a scientific breakthrough. The sequel, published this year, seemed a bit disjointed though.

So, what exactly are "the findings and constraints of contemporary social science"? After all, isn't social science an oxymoron, a mish-mash of conflicting (and value-laden) studies?




+100: "A manned mission to Mars is proposed. The film focuses on a heated debate in a Senate subcommittee over funding."

"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."

I'm hoping "similarly fantastical" is just a turn of phrase rather than an actual belief. The p-values for "Eden-like communists" and "faster than light" are not exactly on the same order of magnitude.

I agree, we are more likely to travel faster than light.

Proposed easiest method for Eden-like communists:

Step 1. Free market capitalists build better than Eden capitalist society.

Step 2. Communists take over, and for perhaps some years manage to maintain a communist Eden before falling into degeneration.

Or, harder method:

1. Free market capitalists get us off the planet.

2. Humanity disperses to various planets, some of which use market forces (and innovate), and some of which depend on communism (and do not innovate, but still are able to steal).

3. Communist Eden for up to, say, three generations.

Oh, you meant failed Communist Edens. Got it now.

A failed communist Eden is still a communist Eden for however long it happens to exist and be Eden-like.

After all, based on current understanding of physics, all systems will fail, including market systems (e.g. Heat death/big crunch/etc).

Communist Eden: 1. take capitalist seed corn, 2. make popcorn, 3. rage against capitalism.

Can someone explain to me why Eden communism wouldn't work if they had the right technology?

Assume they have a large but roughly stable population and extremely productive capital like Star Trek replicators, automated maintenance and so on. Everybody gets a handsome share of usable energy per time and replicator use. Surveillance prevents crime and armed conflict. Smart algorithms streamline administrative functions.

People are freed from menial labor, art can be copied digitally, and therefore creativity is in abundance.

In principle, what's wrong with this picture?

A review of the socialist calculation debate shows why a centrally planned economy, even one governed with the aid of Star Trek power computers, would fail due the absence of price signals.

I read Stross's Rule 34 and had to stop after a while. Funny enough, this was because his take on the financial crisis was so silly and ham fisted in a typically socialist way. So definitely soft fiction.

One socialist Sci Fi writer I can read over and over again however is Iain Banks.

If anyone can shed me of my libertarian ties it will be the works of Banks.

I love Iain Banks, especially his Culture novels, and agree with you that he is socialist but what I think Alex is getting at in this artical is that Banks work is fantastical because it is TOO Eden-like: we'd never actually end up with anything like that with our society.

On an only slightly related note, I think Matter is my favourite Banks book (partly because of the Morthanveld Nest World they visit - so massive!).

Matter is only the best Banks book from a Straussian view:


While Banks is a socialist, I don't think that you can meaningfully describe his Culture novels as economically socialist. I mean, they say, "Postulate god-like reliably altruistic AI and physical technology such that any project on less-than-solar-system scale is essentially cost-less." It's not that the luxuries enjoyed by Culture citizens are "free to citizens because the wealthy are taxed," it's that they're "basically free in the same way that air is basically free."

From the point of view of the Minds, the humans of the Culture could be considered as relatively poor as the most poorly off in the third world today -- it's just that the Minds are so unimaginably rich that even that poor is still "rich beyond the dreams of avarice."

Not that Banks would put it that way, because he is, as one says, socialist. But it is the implication of his setting is that. His non-Culture works were more relevant to real economics, and also tend to make my eyes roll a bit more.

I'm a libertarian, but I'd argue it's fantastical to rule out cornucopian socialism, such as in the Culture novels, when we're dealing with time-frames thousands of years into the future.

In Banks' books, for example, the economy and political system is entirely run by benevolent A.I.

In such a society, people become like children or pets, which I think he states in one of the books. That would paradoxically feel like socialism.

Moreover, to the extent that socialism is contrary to human nature - that too can be altered. Civilization has already sculpted the psychological makeup of the races to a modest extent, through the blunt instrument of natural selection.

Banks' socialism works off the basis of an actual end to scarcity though, which is why it is inoffensive.

The social-science softness of the Foundation universe was always really annoying to me. Travel between worlds is trivial, yet I'm supposed to believe they are isolated and have completely stopped trading with each other? Please...

In general, science fiction which includes a high ability to predict (see also Gordon Dickson) has implausibly technological innovation.

Not completely relevant, but I had to mention mad social science:

I'm a little skeptical of Sross. I gave Accelerando a shot but couldn't buy the apparent contradiction of thoroughly-enforced patent rights and easy piracy.

I read half of Singularity Sky and got bored. Maybe I'll give Saturn's Children / Neptune's Brood a try.

Saturn's Children and Neptune's Brood are significantly later works than Singularity Sky, and show an evolution in both Stross' craft as a writer, and his evolution in thought.

Saturn's Children is actually fairly unlike Neptune's Brood, despite being in the same universe (sort of -- NB is so far in the future of SC that they don't even have that much in common), and the books shouldn't really be taken as a unit. Most notably, SC is an homage to Heinlein's Friday, and is much more about adventure and sex, with some economics in the background, while NB is about economics and adventure, with a thoroughly sexless protagonist.

Stross has been in full retreat from the style of books that launched his career -- frenetic studies in rapid advance with a kitchen sink full of technologies -- for the last decade. I'm not exactly sure why: perhaps he thought that he'd be pigeon-holed into writing only rehashes of Accelerando forever, or perhaps simply his interests changed. At any rate, Singularity Sky is significantly different from NB.

Any other regular sf books you like, Tyler?

Speaking of hard social science, Raj Chetty has a nice column in yesterday's NY Times.

'I consider Eden-like future communist societies similarly fantastical'

How about desert moon communist mining colonies?

Because words from that world are what makes the best science fiction so memorable -

'A thin, small, middle-aged man beside Trepu began speaking, at first so softly, in a voice hoarsened by the dust cough, that few of them heard him. He was a visiting delegate from a Southwest miners’ syndicate, not expected to speak on this matter. “...what men deserve,” he was saying. “For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” They were, of course, Odo’s words from the Prison Letters, but spoken in the weak, hoarse voice they made a strange effect, as if the man were working them out word by word himself, as if they came from his own heart, slowly, with difficulty, as the water wells up slowly, slowly, from the desert sand.

Rulag listened, her head erect, her face set, like that of a person repressing pain. Across the table from her Shevek sat with his head bowed. The words left a silence after them, and he looked up and spoke into it.

“You see,” he said, “what we’re after is to remind ourselves that we didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we’re no better than a machine. If an individual can’t work in solidarity with his fellows, it’s his duty to work alone. His duty and his right. We have been denying people that right. We’ve been saying, more and more often, you must work with the others, you must accept the rule of the majority. But any rule is tyranny. The duty of the individual is to accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible. Only if he does so will the society live, and change, and adapt, and survive. We are not subjects of a State founded upon law, but members of a society founded upon revolution. Revolution is our obligation: our hope of evolution. The Revolution is in the individual spirit, or it is nowhere. It is for all, or it is nothing. If it is seen as having any end, it will never truly begin.’ We can’t stop here. We must go on. We must take the risks.”' http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ursula-k-le-guin-the-dispossessed

Oh, Ursula L. Guin, nice. Thank you the link to the book, BTW. But Eden, Anarres is not.

I'm not comfortable with your definition of "hard" science fiction, because it causes genres to change for a given story on the basis of future developments in science. I think that once a work is in a genre, it ought to stay there.

I've got a definition that I think works better. In considering the question, it helps to look at this as part of the same question as to how fantasy and sci-fi can be differentiated. A story with spaceships can be fantasy, and a story with putative magic can be hard sci-fi.

This broader division is determined (in my mind, at least), by who is the master. In science fiction, people (be they human or whatever) are the masters of the technology; in fantasy, the people have no understanding of the technology, they are merely users. In other words, fantasy has artisans (e.g., wizards) making use of a poorly-understood phenomenon; sci-fi has scientists learning how the world works, and devising technology to take advantage of it.

In this context, some things that look like sci-fi are really fantasy. The latter Star Wars movies (episodes 1-3) are like this: their focus on midi-chlorians is no different from a wizard with magic dust. Frederic Pohl's Gateway novels are similar: the blind use of alien artifacts is no different from Bilbo Baggins finding that the ring makes him invisible. This is why the setting for so many fantasy stories is a decaying, once-great society: in ages past the people understood their creation, but the knowledge has been lost.

Anyway, hard sci-fi is necessarily science fiction, which means that there's a systematic, scientific understanding of technology evinced in the story. But the theme or setting isn't what makes it hard or soft.

In soft sci-fi, the technological aspects are simply a backdrop, something that the story takes for granted without delving into. The space opera sub-genre is almost always soft sci-fi, because the story is all about the action. The ray guns, spaceships, and the like simply exist. There's no textual support for the actual science involved.

By contrast, in hard sci-fi, the science is an important aspect of the text. The author actively considers the science behind the technological aspects. For example, Vinge's treatment of the ubiquitous networking in "A Deepness in the Sky" is clearly hard.

I'm inclined to label Brandon Sanderson's "Mistborn" as hard sci-fi, because of the way he fleshes out the abilities of allomancers. This might seem odd, because the author really makes it look like magic. But the way they invoke their powers, the limitations on its usage and strict adherence to the framework of physical laws that we the readers are already familiar with, strike me as less magical, and more of an empirically-discovered science, and thus some form of sci-fi rather than fantasy. And the fact that it's a big part of the story (through Vin learning about her powers) makes it, more specifically, hard sci-fi.

So, to sum up a long-winded answer:

* Hard sci-fi is science fiction in which the scientific aspects are explicitly addressed as part of the story.
* Soft sci-fi just has a high-tech background without giving us any understanding of how or why it works.
* In fantasy there is little or no understanding of the "magic", even by those inside the story (let alone us readers).

Need to note Vernor Vinge here as well. Definitely hard sci fi, and with a strong libertarian bent.

The Peace War is a love affair with the maker movement, A Deepness in the Sky a celebration of trade and Rainbows End a clash between the liberating power of tech and it's abuses with a mediating AI.

The Peace War predates the "maker movement" by about twenty years. It's about anarchy and decentralization, which certainly are things that also play into maker culture, but it's hardly a comment on a subculture which wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eye when the story was written.

If I had written Maker Movement you may have a point.

I certainly see Vinge's tinkerers as the forerunners of the makers. Another reason why he among the best at hard sci fi.

Now, if only the singularity ...


"I consider Eden-like future communist societies similarly fantastical."

Iain M Banks culture novels do a good job of defending the social science side of such future societies. There is also "The Dispossessed" by Ursula le Guin (although not so Eden like) and the Cassini Division by Ken Macleod.

These novels don't breach any "laws" within social science. For example, the culture novels deal with the major problems for communism with a budget constraint that is very very slack, labour is not necessary, and the agents that manage the economy have some form of aggregate human welfare (plus rights) built into their preferences.

I am reminded of the Culture series of Iain M. Banks and what a post singularity society might look like. It is wildly libertarian in a way but there is also an underlying strain of communism in terms of guaranteed living standards. Although I guess you could argue that resources are just free for the most part.

@Alex Tabarrok

Thanks for an interesting post! To be honest I gave up on Stross years ago - he's a highly imaginative and intelligent man, but those traits don't necessarily translate into being a good author. Case in point, Merchant Princes, where he PROMISED a story about development economics but derailed spectacularly. :/

Whatever money is, it has to be convenient and easy to move around.

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