Geoff Ryman’s science fiction for development economists

Lots of economists like science fiction, but science fiction that directly engages with the issues that economists think about is actually pretty rare (this list of science fiction novels for economists is, to my eye, more just a list of good science fiction). Paul Krugman once made a case for Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series as being essentially about development economics, since the books dramatize the interaction between societies at very different technological levels. I read the first novel in the series because of his recommendation, but found it rather more lightweight than Krugman’s post suggested, although still enjoyable.

For a science fiction novel that really is about development economics, I recommend Geoff Ryman’s Air: Or, Have Not Have, a 2004 novel that I read over the holidays and very much enjoyed. Ryman is British and seems to be not that well known in the US, though Air was nominated for and received a number of awards when it came out. The premise is simply stated in the very first sentence:

Mae lived in the last village in the world to go online.

The book is set in a fictional but very plausible Central Asian country, where an imagined technology is being introduced by a combination of a clueless government, a bumbling United Nations and a scheming local businessman. Already that makes it more realistic than much science fiction, and Ryman is very good at village life and the interlocking of personal and business relationships in small-scale societies. What makes this book so good is how it explores the social and personal consequences of new technology. Without giving too much away, here’s a sample from early in the book that illustrates how he does this:

The men in the club chose what movie they wanted. Since the satellites, they could do that. Satellites had ruined visits to the town. Before, it used to be that the men were made to sit through something the children or families might also like to watch, so you got everyone together for the watching of the television. The clubs had to be more polite. Now, women hardly saw TV at all and the clubs were full of drinking. The men chose another kung fu movie.

Like any good novel, it’s more moving and more complicated than a summary of the premise can convey, but I think much of it will ring true to anyone who has spent time in developing countries. I’m retroactive adding Air to my list of the best books I read in 2015. Ryman has apparently written some other books based on Cambodia, which I have not read but now look forward to checking out.

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