JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Bookstore shelves are bursting with the advice of financial gurus, telling you how to plan for the future, enjoy your wealth to the fullest, and prevent bankruptcy and identity theft. These same themes have started creeping into the fiction aisles.
From member station KUSP, Rick Kleffel reports writers are finding fertile ground as they explore economic genre fiction.
RICK KLEFFEL: What interests us, inspires us or frightens us changes. And this is reflected in our popular fiction.
Mr. T. C. BOYLE (Author): In the morning, as soon as the offices were open, he put in calls of the phone company, the gas, electric and water, identifying himself as John Marquetti(ph) and ordering a stop service on all utilities at the house.
KLEFFEL: T. C. Boyle's latest novel, "Talk, Talk," is a tale of economic terror.
Mr. BOYLE: He filed a change of address at the post office, then called American Express and Visa, the two cards he'd seen the bullhead flash, and claimed he'd lost his wallet and wanted replacement cards overnighted by FedEx. When the new cards arrived at the post office box he'd set up, he began to order things for delivery to 1236 Laurel: a new washer and dryer, an antique slate pool table that weighed over 1,000 pounds, a pair of purebred Dalmatians, a deluxe 14-jet hot tub that could accommodate six people comfortably. That was just the beginning.
KLEFFEL: Boyle had no idea when he began to investigate identity theft that he'd be writing a horror story.
Mr. BOYLE: When I was doing the research for this, before I'd really had an idea of what I would be doing, I was getting horrified, and I thought it was a kind of horror novel. Maybe Stephen King should've written it, you know?
KLEFFEL: Boyle knew that he was not writing a standard horror novel, but he knew as well that this was not a standard thriller either.
Mr. BOYLE: My publisher is saying, well, this is a thriller. But of course I've never read any thrillers or any whodunits and I don't really know what the conventions are, aside from, you know, having seen thriller movies and so on, and we see the setup. It's very black and white, always.
But I don't follow those conventions, and I don't care about them. I'm a literary writer who wants to subvert convention and make something new.
KLEFFEL: Indeed, Boyle is on the forefront of a new literary niche: economic genre fiction. Amir Aczel is a historian and the author of "Fermat's Last Theorem" and "The Artist and the Mathematician."
Mr. AMIR ACZEL (Historian): This is, I think, an important point that a lot of people who write books now understand. Economics is no longer an abstract discipline. It's something that affects our everyday life.
KLEFFEL: Boyle's economic horror fiction is just one example from this new genre. David Edelman is the author of "Infoquake," a science fiction novel that is not about space ships or aliens but product marketing.
Mr. DAVID EDELMAN (Author, "Infoquake"): The world of "Infoquake" is full of these programmers who have this cut-throat competition. And really it's sort of the late '90s turned up to 11. You sort of have this hyper-kinetic focus on, you know, getting the new thing that, you know, investments in companies, just because it's the cool new thing and you want to get there before somebody else does.
KLEFFEL: Edelman's futuristic economy is based on his perceptions of the present.
Mr. EDELMAN: In this future, you don't really have much of a middle class anymore, and that's something that I believe strongly, I see today, is - seems to be kind of vanishing with this growing divide between the rich and the poor.
(Soundbite of film, "They Live")
Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) You have given us entry to the resources we need in our ongoing quest for multi-dimensional expansion. And in return, the per capita income of each of you here tonight has grown, and this year alone by an average 39 percent.
KLEFFEL: John Carpenter's 1988 movie "They Live" posited that yuppies from another planet were systematically exploiting the Earth for their own benefit. It's a wry commentary on the politics and economics of Reagan-era America.
The rise of high-tech in the years that followed provided a natural incubator for a new generation of science fiction and fantasy writers. Charles Stross is a computer programmer and the winner of science fiction's coveted Hugo Award.
Mr. CHARLES STROSS (Author): Corporations are, it can be argued, the first form of viable working artificial intelligence.
KLEFFEL: Stross writes fantasy as well as science fiction. His fantasy novel, "The Hidden Family," tells the story of the Clan, who can transport themselves between alternate worlds. This reading from that novel explores what happens when capitalism confronts feudalism.
Mr. STROSS: The Clan is not what you'd call a limited liability company. It's a partnership, a family firm, if you like. You see, we hold our lands and riches and titles in common trust for the Clan, which operates in concert and receives the profits from all our ventures.
KLEFFEL: But Stross says that the heroine of "The Hidden Family," Miriam Beckstein, has other ideas.
Mr. STROSS: She's attempted to set up a new business. She's attempted to convince the Clan that they can make money through technology transfer from an advanced society to a poor one by introducing education and building mines and roads and modernizing. Her attempts to convince them to do this have met with, shall we say, a bit of push-back.
KLEFFEL: This includes knights on horseback shooting at her with machine guns. Stross is not the only writer to push back at standard-issue Medieval fantasy. Jeff VanderMeer's latest novel, "Shriek: An Afterward," tells the story of Janice and Duncan Shriek, a brother and sister who live in the city of Ambergris. They are caught up in a realistic economic war fought in a fantasy setting.
Mr. JEFF VANDERMEER (Author): I wanted to try to keep that visionary quality, that surreal visionary quality, that the best fantasy has, but also have characters where you could imagine them going down to the corner store for a gallon of milk. You could imagine them having to have a day job.
In other words, inject a bit of realism. And what I found is that the more I did that, the more it allowed me to go off in a more surreal direction otherwise in the stories, because the bedrock, the foundation of the story was realistic.
KLEFFEL: The onset of the Cold War brought us a new generation of science fiction, giant bug movies like "Them" and existential tales of alien terror like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." These movies externalized our inner fears of the atomic bomb and the Communist menace.
Amir Aczel suggests that the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union created a new era of economic awareness.
Mr. ACZEL: Before that, you could argue, say, on the world stage, which approach is correct, the economic laissez-faire capitalist approach to life on this planet, or is it the command economy, where the Politburo decides how many shoes to produce?
So I think that the demise of the Soviet Union and the triumphing of capitalism also is a factor that brought economics into everyday life.
KLEFFEL: The 1990s brought us record bankruptcies and day-trading millionaires. We've seen the peril and the promise of people in charge of their own financial destiny. When we hope to make money with long-term investments, we're writing our own science fiction. When we dream of how we'll spend that money, we're writing our own fantasy fiction. And when we confront bankruptcy or identity theft, we descend into economic horror. And more and more, the facts of our lives will be mirrored by the fiction we read.
For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.
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