May 5, 2015

The Merchant of Venus

In science fictional worlds, humans and aliens need to sort out daily life - warp drive, wormhole issues, money. Money may seem petty compared to the more galactic challenges, but no matter what planet it sidles up to, it begets social strata, commerce, and trade. It makes a world go 'round.
Stefan van Zoggel's Star Wars Stamp
Some sci-fi worlds try to forego the need for money, and run on the post-scarcity model, where goods, services, and information have become free (or practically free) to all inhabitants. As you'd expect with any idealized new economic system, post-scarcity can be more complicated than it seems (is the role of scarcity actually useful to a thriving economic system? what happens to the concept of value?), though "food and resources for all" does seem wildly desirable.

Where this is not the case, though, weird/fun units of currency are necessary:

Latinum  in Star Trek, used by the Ferengi

Cubits  in Battlestar Galactica, used on the planet Caprica
Galactic credit standard  in Star Wars 
Altairian Dollar, Flanian Pobble Bead, Triganic Pu in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Kongbucks in Snow Crash, used in Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong
Solari in Dune
Greedo hoping to collect his bounty, Star Wars

We find out, via Pobble Beads and Kongbucks, how our sci-fi characters act when faced with heart-wrenching issues of fairness, the challenge of cooperating, the bounds of rationality. What would you do if your family didn't have enough Latinum to put food (slugs) on the table? It is much easier to scrutinize even surprisingly familiar actions when we are standing outside, peering into a fictional world, or even jumping in ourselves. It's an important exercise, really.

Humans think and learn differently when placed in fictional contexts. Dr. Tania Lombrozo of the University of California, Berkeley, Psychology Department told the OSLab something we found fascinating...Researchers gave participants a scenario where two parties were in conflict over moral beliefs. They found that participants were more likely to say they could both be right if one was a human and the other a fictional alien, than if both were humans. The boundaries shifted, and an opening was created because they were on another planet. Fiction can potentially act as a social simulation in which we let go of the delirious hold we have on our entrenched beliefs, spread our biases out like personal maps, and maybe change a few features, overlap our map with someone else's. Even better, it is known that people can translate what they learn in a fictional world to the real one, so it's possible to interact in sci-fi, take hold of a good lesson gleaned, and bring it home.

Money is the loud, honking clarion call of human desires. Maybe it is beneficial to play out economic systems in our sci-fi, learn a few things about generosity with money, fairness in trade, empathy in the face of social inequity, and envision a system where these elements are pleasantly rampant. The economies of Earth's future may need some sci-fi mentoring.

Or, as Canadians did in droves after Leonard Nimoy's passing this year, we could simply change our present currency to reflect the alien we'd most like to honor:

a "Spocked" Canadian five dollar bill

Live long and prosper out there, and reflect from time to time on the place we humans truly occupy in space: how much of what we are is sci, and how much is sci-fi? And what are we learning betwixt the two?

Also, if you want to see how your dollars will work in your favorite sci-fi world, hop over to io9's Handy Currency Converter for Alien Money


For more on how sci-fi and science work together, you'll want to be in on the #ScienceIsStory Twitter conversation May 8 and hear Seth Shostak of SETI's Big Picture Science radio show tell great tales of science becoming story on May 9. It's all part of the Interstellar Day of Science and Storytelling, brought to you by Chabot, National Novel Writing Month, and Big Picture Science.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment (edited for spam only)