Is There Such a Thing as a Free Lunch…in the Scifi World?

Art and commerce have long had an uneasy relationship. In fact, I can’t help thinking about economics and writing without being reminded of the saying attributed to Moliere, the French playwright: “Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.”

In other words, there’s a not too subtle association of pure artistry with poverty and an equally strong suggestion that if you write for money you’re somehow whoring yourself out…but we’ll come back to that point. What interests me is a subject that’s less frequently discussed even than art or sex: economics, specifically, economics in fiction. This means everything from how economic forces are shown to shape human identity and desire (hint: it’s usually bad) to how authors and their characters conceptualize economics.

I’d like to start with science fiction and the Free Lunch Question. In his SF classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, science fiction grandmaster (and libertarian) Robert Heinlein popularized the term TANSTAAFL which means “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” Meant to show the down to earth (ha!) pragmatism of his lunar colonists whose tough situations stripped all fantasies away from their economic calculations, TANSTAAFL has passed in to science fiction fandom as a generalized accepted truth. It even makes an appearance in Wikipedia where the entry on the phrase indicates it shows an understanding of opportunity costs.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress came out in 1966. Flash forward 35 years to another writer, Spider Robinson (who was, early in his career, tagged as the next Heinlein), and we have The Free Lunch. Now, given Robinson’s well-known appreciation of Heinlein (he’s written a gushing essay on Heinlein and finished a work Heinlein left as a stack of notes), from the title alone I’d to assume this is meant to be read as an open and direct answer to the master, and that suspicion is confirmed in Chapter 17 when one of the main characters thinks of how universally true this “Heinlein proverb” has been.

But what does Spider offer in its proverbial place? The Free Lunch, while pleasant, falls decidedly short in its understanding of economics, especially Friedrich Hayek on prices. Robinson gives us a lovely portrait of a multi-sensory amusement park (Dreamworld), characters who are genius outcasts with hearts of gold, and a string of fun encounters that make the book a good light read. However, the free lunch that gives the book its title is, well, silly, and it’s tied in to an extremely complex plot twist.

A number of weak, dwarfish time travelers have come back to our time to interfere with the flow of history and make a new world. You see, humanity so polluted the world that it has poisoned itself. The crux point is suspiciously close to our own time; they must act now or miss the chance and let the world poison itself. These time travelers decide that most of the problems humanity’s had have come from “insufficient wealth” and that they’ll solve this by secretly using their advanced technologies to make everyone rich. Leaving aside a number of problems (Is this really where our problems come from? If they have this superior technology, why don’t they fix their damaged genes?), there’s still a major question of information contamination.

Among his other contributions, Hayek showed that prices function to communicate dense amounts of information. Pumping free goods into the economy, making technologies work better than they should, and increasing production by making software bug free, the idea is that the free lunch will enable us to build a civilization strong enough to weather the coming crash.

While this shows Robinson’s well-established good heart, I have to squint and say…hmm. You’ll destroy the price system and increase production and consumption to ward off an ecological crisis? I think, my friend, that your free lunch will be quite costly in the end.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Take a look at The Free Lunch and let me—and Spider—know what you think.

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