Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Science Fiction of Scarcity

“I loved the fact that the hero never once implies that it’s courage, spirit and faith that
saves him — as so many modern books and films would do — just lots of practical tinkering
and problem-solving: Science the crap out of it. Ditto for humanity as a whole, I think.”
~ Matt Ridley, By the Book 

“[The Apollo 11 mission] conveyed the sense that we were watching a magnificent
work of art – a play dramatising a single theme: the efficacy of man’s mind.”
~ Ayn Rand, Moon Launch Was Man's Shining Hour

Here are three clauses I never thought I’d use together in the same sentence: I saw a movie last night at the cinema with Matt Damon in it, and it was really, really good.

If you don’t already know, the film is called The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s superb piece of science fiction. If you haven’t read it, do. If you haven’t seen the movie, do—maybe especially if you think, like I did, a science fiction with Matt Damon in it will be shit.
But if you don’t understand why Andy Weir’s story is so cool, here’s the very beginning of an explanation …

The Science Fiction of Scarcity
We Have Such Abundance That We Fantasise about Having Less
Guest post by Sarah Skwire

We all know the scene. The urbane starship captain steps up to the console and requests, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” He waits a second or two until a steaming, perfectly brewed cup shimmers into existence.

From medieval dreams of the Land of Cockaigne, where roofs are shingled with pastries and roasted chickens fly into our waiting mouths, to the Big Rock Candy Mountain’s “cigarette trees” and “lemonade springs,” to Star Trek’s replicator, we have imagined the bright futures and the glorious new worlds that would give us instant abundance.

The “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” type of scene is such a standby in movies that it even has its own parodies, where instant preference satisfaction is not exactly … satisfying.

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
        The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism, and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centres of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. (Douglas Adams,
Restaurant at the End of the Universe)

If we didn’t know what was supposed to happen, and if we didn’t fully expect the future to fulfil our fantasies, and if we didn’t have a certain amount of frustrated experience with modern machines that promise wonders but deliver things that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike them, the scene wouldn’t be funny.

But I find science fiction most compelling when it goes in the other direction — when instead of imagining the end of scarcity, it imagines the end of abundance. The movie Total Recall imagines life on Mars, where even the air is rationed. The gritty reboot of the television series Battlestar Galactica puts us in world where fewer than 50,000 humans have survived and escaped from an enemy attack. The survivors spend much of their time trying to subsist in space amid constant and growing shortages of food, water, fuel, ammunition, and pretty much everything else.

In works like these — and yes, I know their imaginings are as romantic as the imaginings of Star Trek — we get to watch human beings pushed to their limits, using every bit of their ingenuity in order to survive. It was no accident, after all, that Gene Roddenberry called space “the final frontier.”

The latest iteration of this kind of scarcity science fiction is Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, the movie version of which premiered October 2. I first learned about The Martian through the XKCD webcomic strip describing the plot as made out of “the scene in Apollo 13 where the guy says ‘we have to figure out how to connect this thing to this thing using this table of parts or the astronauts will all die.’”

I was sold.

And it’s no spoiler to say that this is precisely the plot of The Martian. Astronaut Mark Watney is one of the first people to visit Mars. When the mission goes awry, his crew has to evacuate, and Mark is left behind. Everyone thinks he’s dead.

He’s not, though, and the remainder of the book is caught up in the details of the scarcities he faces, his creative attempts to overcome them, and our nail-biting suspense over whether he can survive one more hour, one more day, and maybe long enough to be rescued. Mark describes his situation like this:

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab [the atmosphere-controlled habitat in which astronauts from his mission could live without wearing spacesuits] designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

Mark’s assessment of his situation, which ends with, “I’m f—ed,” appears on page 7 of the novel. We spend 360 more pages following his solitary attempts to science his way out of the problem. And if you’re at all like me, you won’t be able to put the book down until you find out what happens. Done well, the movie should convey that same nail-biting suspense. [And it does! – Ed.]

imageThe Martian, and scarcity science fiction in general, is a good reminder of something we all take for granted, about a world in which no-one alone is even able to produce all they need to survive yet in the miracle of a division-of-labour society we all produce more than enough to flourish. The real miracle of the market is not the great individual with the great idea, bringing it to fruition and selling it to all of us. The real miracle of the market is that it reliably supplies us, every day, with all the necessities that Mark Watney has to work for so desperately. And it does that by allowing us to cooperate, and to broaden that cooperation beyond our immediate context, to the extended and anonymous world. That long-distance cooperation allows us to access so many different human skills, strengths, and abilities. [When I’m teaching this I call it The General Gain From the Existence of Others – from which: notes , slides]

With only himself to rely on, Mark Watney (who is primarily a botanist) is painfully aware of the skills he lacks, skills he relied on in his crewmembers who specialise in chemistry, or engineering, or other sciences. While it becomes clear that his botany skills will be a crucial part of his survival, so are all these others, and without any possibility of cooperating, he has to go it alone. He’s in the position of the folks who try to build a toaster entirely from scratch, or make a sandwich all on their own.

I loved reading The Martian, and I can’t wait to see the movie [don’t walk, run!]. Stories like this, and like Battlestar Galactica and others, allow me to explore the limits of the human ability to survive. I’m happy to visit those worlds and to entertain myself with their emotional and suspenseful visions of life on the narrowest of possible margins.

But the world I want to live in is the one where cooperation, through the mechanisms of the market, brings us movies about scarcity and survival, while outside the movie theatre we enjoy real-life abundance.

And also, maybe one day, a replicator that will allow my own cup of “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” to shimmer miraculously into being.

Sarah SkwireSarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.
A version of this post appeared at The Freeman.
[Pic from FEE]


  • ”Imagine a contemporary science fiction story that contains no references to environmentalism, no cutesy noble savages, no dystopian aftermaths, and no evil corporations, a story that reveres the individual mind, the efficacious can-do spirit, and has nail-biting suspense.”
    REVIEW, Bring Him Home, Indeed – Jason Lockwood, SAVVY STREET
  • “There’s one question everyone I know is asking about the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian: Did they mess it up?”
    “The Martian” and the Earthlings – Robert Tracinski, TRACINSKI LETTER
  • “Ridley Scott’s movie offers welcome relief from the fatalism that has darkened the screens of late.”
    REVIEW: A Paean to Human Ingenuity – Nick Cater, SPIKED
  • “The Martian is the most Randian movie in years, perhaps in decades.
    Ayn Rand and The Martian – Alex Tabarrok, MARGINAL REVOLUTION
  • “What economics can teach philosophers (and what Bastiat can still teach economists) is that other human beings need neither be a burden nor a threat, neither a hell nor a horror but a blessing.
        “This is the greatest lesson economics can teach: that in a society making peaceful cooperation possible we each gain from the existence of others.
        “What a great story to tell!”
    CUE CARD ECONOMICS: Economic Harmonies, and The Miracle of Breakfast – NOT PC

1 comment:

  1. The biggest impediment to prosperity and progress, prosperity and progress which comes from the interaction and co operation between individual people, is the heavy hand of the state. The state world wide, is a handicap.


1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say, it's important enough to put a name to.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.