The science fiction of social stagnation

Henry Farrell recently recommended Walter Jon Williams’ novel Metropolitan, and after devouring it quickly I will second the recommendation: it’s sharp, thoughtful, and engrossing. Nothing dates faster than visions of the future, but the vision in this 1995 book still seems strikingly contemporary. The book presents mind-blowing technological power that coexists with depressing stagnation, its extraordinary capabilities diverted mostly to bureaucracy and status-seeking.

This theme is comes out into the open at one point when one of the characters starts ranting about the inability to build new buildings, a synecdoche for the broader problem of social stagnation:

“Nothing changes in our world,” he says, “because the cost of change is so enormous. Not the least is simply the cost of space. Consider what’s needed simply to build a new building. There will be something on the site already, so the old building must be purchased, and all the people living or working there moved. All those displaced people will have to go somewhere else, at enormous cost, and even if the builders manage somehow not to pay the displacement fees, somebody will. So every new structure is a drain on the economy before it even starts. …

Nothing can be transformed in any significant way, because the cost of transformation is just so high.

The resonance with the contemporary debates over why it’s so hard to build stuff in the US is pretty obvious. Because it’s a novel and not social science, there’s no explicit argument about what has caused this problem in the fictional world.

But the world-building makes an implicit argument that stagnation is the result of the closing of the frontier. The conceit in the title is that virtually the entire surface of the earth, apparently including the oceans, is covered by cities. There is literally no usable space that is not already occupied by some structure and some political entity. Hence the problem that any new construction requires removing whatever is already there.

Furthermore, the universe beyond the earth is not visible or accessible, with the sky, sun, moon and stars walled off by a barrier called the Shield. This feature reinforces the book’s cosmically claustrophobic atmosphere, portraying a world in which people are trapped into zero-sum competition over a limited pool of resources. (As I recall, there’s a similar theme running through Iain M. Banks’ Against a Dark Background, though I read it some time ago.)

There is definitely a real difference between places where things can be built from scratch and places where building requires first compensating and removing the existing users (and it’s not just a US issue–compensation for residents displaced from their homes by new development has been a long-running political problem in China). But the the tradition of American science fiction, in which space travel is often the most important indicator of technological progress, is somewhat biased toward the idea that progress depends on having new frontiers of empty space to exploit.

We should hope this idea is not true. In general terms it probably is not: the American frontier was declared closed in 1890, but technological progress and economic growth in the US has been faster after 1890 than before. Nonetheless, I found Williams’ portrayal of stagnation pretty convincing and it will stick in my head for a while.

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