The Financial Fiction Genre

Related Genres : Science Fiction

One modern work of financial fiction, John McLaren's Press Send which is discussed in the section on banker novelists could also be regarded as a work of science fiction as artificial intelligence is unlikely to reach the level described in the book in the foreseeable future, if at all. In contrast Po Bronson's The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest describes a type of computer that did not exist when he started writing the novel but which was planned by major firms by the time it was published and hence his novel is a work of social realism - not science fiction. However, some science fiction writers of the 19th century and more recent times have had some interesting things to say about finance.

Jules Verne

It is not commonly known that Jules Verne had inside experience of the working of high finance. Although he had long held the ambition to become a writer he felt the need for a more secure occupation when he got married and in 1857 he became a stockbroker. According to one of the other stock brokers Verne was "better at banter than at business" and therefore in 1862 when he was offered a contract for Five Weeks in a Balloon he said a very relieved goodbye to his colleagues in a short speech that has been preserved for posterity.

I am going to leave you. I have had an idea which . I have only had once in my whole life. I have written a novel of a new kind, all my own. If it is a success, it will be the vein of gold leading me to a gold mine. Then I will go on writing, writing without a break, while you will go on buying shares just before they start to go down and selling them just before they begin to go up. I leave the stock exchange.
Many recent figures who have left the world of banking to become writers will have a certain empathy for Verne, particularly if, like Linda Davies, they took the risk of abandoning their banking career before getting a contract for their first novel.

Verne made his name with a series of novels based on extraordinary voyages; in addition to Five Weeks in a Balloon there were Journey to the Centre of the Earth, A Journey from the Earth to the Moon, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days. Although works of science fiction had been produced by much earlier writers - the astronomer Kepler had written about the possibility of space flight as had John Wilkins, one of the founders of the Royal Society - Verne is probably the real founder of the genre.

Despite his earlier career, or perhaps because of his dislike of it, money and finance play only a minor role in these works, except in the case of Around the World in Eighty Days. The hero of the story, Phileas Fogg undertakes his epic journey to win a bet, his stake being £20,000 that he has deposited in Barings Bank (which, over a century later,thanks to Nick Leeson, achieves a notoriety which leads to it being mentioned in connection with the plots of financial thrillers such as Nest of Vipers by Linda Davies). Phileas Fogg is pursued most of the way by a detective who mistakes him for a bank robber. In achieving his objective Fogg spends money so freely that he is no better off financially at the end of it.

Written in the hey day of the gold standard, the precious metal features strongly in some of Verne's lesser-known works. In The Hunt for the Meteor a meteorite of pure gold worth 5,788 Francs is intercepted by a scientist with a beam like a laser. The price of gold-mining shares drops precipitously as it is anticipated that they will be worthless when the meteorite falls to Earth but they are snapped up by a speculator who makes a killing when the scientist causes the meteorite to come down in the sea and explode into tiny particles. In Hector Servadac the comet Gallia, which is made of gold telluride, crashes into the Earth carrying off a piece of the Earth's crust and on it a group of men including the Prussian moneylender Isaac Hakhabut. Similarly in The Volcano of Gold the villain of the story is crushed by a huge nugget from an eruption.

Edward Bellamy

Edward Bellamy, an American author variously described as a utopian socialist or an advocate of state capitalism, is best known for his novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887, first published in 1888. The central character, Julian West, is an insomniac living in Boston who is put to sleep by a hypnotist in 1887 and revived by a Doctor Leete 113 years later. After wandering around Boston, West expresses his surprise ant the absence of banks. Dr. Leete explains that their functions are obsolete in the modern world and describes how goods are distributed.
A credit corresponding to his share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen on the public books at the beginning of each year, and a credit card issued him with which he procures at the public storehouses, found in every community, whatever he desires whenever he desires it.
Dr. Leete goes on to say that the credit cards are issued for a certain number of dollars but the dollar merely serves as a unit of account for comparing the values of products. Cash no longer exists.

It is ironic that the first proposal for credit cards should be made by a socialist. Bellamy was an enthusiastic advocate of the nationalisation of public services and numerous "Nationalist clubs" inspired by his ideas sprang up in the United States. However the movement was already in decline by the time of his death in 1898.

Samuel Butler

Erewhon, or "Nowhere" (mis)spelt backwards, is a novel set in an imaginary society in order to point up various features of life in the Victorian England of Samuel Butler's day. The book has been compared to both Thomas More's Utopia and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Erewhon was first published in 1872. Butler had lost his religious faith after reading Darwin's The Origin of Species but he- thought Darwin was wrong regarding certain aspects of evolution and wrote a number of books on the relationship between memory and instinct with criticisms of Darwin. In Erewhon there is a chapter on the evolution of machines in which Butler anticipates many of the arguments that would later be used by proponents of artificial intelligence. The novel also contains chapters on animal rights and even vegetable rights!

Among the institutions in the land of Erewhon are musical banks. There are actually two currencies in use in Erewhon. The most prestigious is that issued by the musical banks and everyone feels the need to keep some of it in order to appear respectable but for all practical purposes the other, mundane currency (which Butler does not describe) is used instead. This chapter simultaneously satirises the desire for respectability as a motive for religious observance and attacks money as a sacred cow. The former point might have seemed more pertinent to Victorian readers but the latter has more relevance today and contemporary readers are perhaps more likely to interpret the chapter as an indictment of a society in which banks have replaced temples.

Butler thought that lack of money, as well as love of money, was a root of all evil and his views on this subject influence George Bernard Shaw's, as expressed in his play Major Barbara. Shaw expressed his debt to Butler in the preface to the play.

Eric Frank Russell

Eric Frank Russell was born in 1905 in Sandhurst where his father was an instructor at the Royal Military Academy. During the Second World War E.F. Russell served in the RAF. He had begun writing science fiction short stories in his spare time before the War, and subsequently became a full time writer of short stories and novels. In 1951 Russell published And Then There were None, a short story that was later incorporated in the novel The Great Explosion published in 1962. The story portrayed a society that functioned without a centrally issued form of money. Instead exchange was mediated by obs short for "obligations". When somebody did something for another person he or she planted an obligation on that person which could only be discharged by doing something for another person.

Over two decades later Michael Linton developed LETS a system of local currencies based on transferable credits, that has been compared with Eric Frank Russell's obs. Although Linton had developed the core of the LETS model independently, Russell's novel encouraged him when he came across it and he referred to it frequently in the documentation on LETS first published in 1985.

Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl was born in New York City in 1919 and worked as an editor of a couple of science fiction magazines before serving in the US armed forces during World War II. Afterwards he became a literary agent and also took up writing himself. Pohl was a central figure in theFuturians who advocated that science fiction could serve as a vehicle for social criticism and political transformation. The Space Merchants, first published in 1953, and The Merchants' War in 1984, depict an over-the-top advertising and consumption-driven culture where brand loyalties are more important than political ideals. Other works by Pohl attacking consumerism are The Midas Plague (1954) and Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus (1956). In the latter work the Christmas season has become an orgy of consumption and its religious significance largely forgotten. Many people would think that is a state we have reached today.

William Gibson

"Virtual reality" and "cyberspace" are two concepts which are very much of the present day but they owe very much to the American born writer who has long lived in Canada, William Gibson. Cyberspace has existed since the invention of the telegraph but we do not seem to have had an adequate concept of it until Gibson's novel Neuromancer appeared in 1984. Cyberspace may have existed then but virtual reality did not and therefore the novel proved prophetic.

The world depicted in Neuromancer is one in which cash is on the way out. It is still widely used for black market transactions everywhere but it is increasingly difficult to use it for legitimate business transactions and in Japan is illegal. Not all countries have gone as far as Japan. There are still coin-operated pay phones in Istanbul. However, in general credit or bank money, is used instead even though the banks are vulnerable to the operations of hackers, or console cowboys as they are called in the book. There are even Bahamian banks in orbit around the earth.

Money is actually only a minor theme in Neuromancer and it may well be the case that far from being prophetic, Gibson's vision of a cashless society is merely a reflection of forecasts which were commonplace when the novel was written. Nevertheless he is certainly right about one of the main advantages of cash - its usefulness for anonymous transactions such as those on the black market, or any of a criminal or disreputable nature.

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Last updated 11 October 2004.