Monday, May 26, 2014

Homo Economicus

Neptune's Brood
Charles Stross
Ace, 2013
ISBN 0425256774

Classical economics mostly consists of theories concerning the price of goods, the value of money, and what governments should or shouldn't do about them. More recently critiques of economic theory like to point out that people, individually, or even in the aggregate, do not follow simple mathematical formulas. We don't have the processing capacity for all of the relevant information, even if it were available, and we evidently do not act on that information even when we do have it.

So what would the world be like if we were truly economical beings?

Charles Stross spins a great tale in Neptune's Brood. It's thousands of years in the future. The human race - the biological species that is us - has become extinct three separate times, but our offspring, metahumans (not the ones from DC Comics), carry our legacy forward.

Metahumans have some of the characteristics of humans, but they are homo economicus, entirely subordinate to economic laws, down to their very cells. Their desires are driven by the laws of debt and liquidity. That doesn't make them totally inhuman, but it means that Krina Alizond 114, a fraud specialist looking for the lost proceeds of the biggest fraud ever committed, has interesting and surprising motivations as she attempts to solve the mystery of her sister's disappearance while dodging an assassin and various parties who have gotten wind of the missing treasure.

Stross tells a story of people who appear to be quite a lot like us, until Krina stumbles across a couple having sex, or when she considers the prospect of food, or the alteration of her body plan. Homo economicus is quite obviously not human. The resulting story is remarkable for that reason. Stross isn't writing about humans like us, but we still want to sympathize with Krina and we're cheering her quest. Meanwhile, as the story progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Krina is like no one we've ever known.

Most of the story takes place in a single planetary system orbiting a star mostly like our Sun. Stross's description of the environment is inventive and fun. We get a taste of interplanetary travel as well as interstellar travel (which happens mostly by lightspeed laser transmissions), and what life might be like on the surface of a watery superearth.

The characters populating the story, though evidently not human like us, are still human enough that we can sympathize with them and understand them, even the communistic squid and the piratical bats. Like Alice in Wonderland we discover people we've never imagined.

This book was a page turner, in spite of its abstruse messages about economics. It's also been nominated for the Hugo, and it's one of the best Hugo nominated books I've read. Highly recommended.

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