It’s year 2190 on Earth, year 40 on Mars. Mars has been settled by humans from Earth but these initial settlers rebelled against the mother planet, fought and won a war of independence. After ten years of ceasefire, there is an attempt at rapprochement. A group of young people from Mars, the Mercury group, is sent to Earth to reestablish communications. They live on Earth for a period of five years. They return to Mars with a group of Terrans (Earth humans) hoping to establish new trade agreements. Mars has advanced technologies coveted by Earth while Earth has resources needed by Mars. This is the starting point of a 600-page novel, Vagabonds, by the Chinese author Hao Jingfang. The author, with a degree in physics and a PhD in economics, caught Think in the Morning’s attention for obvious reasons. We wrote previously about Jingfang’s Hugo award winning novelette, Folding Beijing, here: I Want To Write A History Of Inequality.
There are many good reviews of Vagabonds online, mostly positive, and we won’t repeat what you can read there. Our interest in the novel, which we thoroughly enjoyed, focuses on the way the author sneaks economic ideas into the storyline and makes meaningful comments on life. We’ve heard this is not what a novel is supposed to do but we like Vagabonds anyway, perhaps even more because of it.
It’s a long book so we must be selective. Here are a few examples. The economists and theories we note are not directly cited but the ideas follow from the story text.
J.K. Galbraith and Thorstein Veblen (manufactured desires, Veblen goods)
“My teacher told us that Terrans love to manufacture nonexistent desires and needs.” Eko was startled. Toutou was right. The heart of commerce was desire, and when desires were satisfied, new needs must be manufactured. Whoever managed to create a new desire would own that market. The principle was familiar to everyone, but hearing it from the mouth of a child was something else. It meant that Martian education focused on the faults of a market economy from an early age. He wasn’t sure how much Toutou really understood, or if he was merely parroting what he had heard.
“No other company will be allowed to produce Mystify, and he’s going to make the price so high that only a small number of people will even be able to contemplate buying it. That, in turn, will turn Mystify into a status symbol and make it even more desirable. Customers will be knocking down the door. This is classic Theon.” “But it’s not fair.” Gielle’s expression was determined. “Everyone should be equal.” “Equality is nice in theory, but if everyone were equal, who’s going to buy? Disparity drives desire. It’s only by keeping Mystify out of the reach of most people that they’ll covet it. Theon is going to say that Mystify represents a sense of who you are. To wear Mystify clothing makes you noble, elevated, full of ideals; it turns you into a princess of Mars.” “But that’s a lie!” Brenda broke in. “I know, and I agree with you,” said Eko. He felt the pleasure of denouncing something he’d long despised. “But many people, some of them girls like you, will believe the lies. They follow his direction and think only of jewelry and clothes, of famous brands. Their hearts are empty, but they think by buying and buying they will possess a soul.”
Say’s Law (supply creates its own demand)
Only later did I realize that, for governments, creation isn’t a matter of art but a matter of employment. The one concern that keeps them up at night is unemployment, and the web market, as the world’s largest industry, is also a source of steady jobs. Every creator generates multiple jobs: agents, promoters, business managers, and so on. If these were no longer necessary, if the sharing and enjoyment of art were as simple as it is on Mars, then there would be mass unemployment, which would lead to social panic and threaten the rule of every government.
The oligopoly companies controlled the market and raised the prices. Almost anyone with skill and brains at the time realized that under such conditions it was impossible to obtain a better life by merit and smarts alone. The unfair allocation of resources couldn’t be bypassed. So they risked their lives to found a new republic where anyone was free to earn a better life not by possessing capital but by utilizing their talents.” Luoying was gradually coming to a realization. “My parents rebelled against my grandfather; we rebelled against my parents; and my grandfather rebelled against the vision we’re now trying to make true?” “That’s one way to think about it,” Reini continued in a calm tone. “Freedom, merit, and equality—any of these alluring words will always be pursued by a generation.”
Technology forms the background for life, while economics affects our lifestyle far more intimately.
Although the delegates from Earth each had their own goal, the overall thrust of their desire was for technology. Technology equaled wealth. For the whole of the twenty-second century, technology and know-how formed the foundation for every component of society all over the globe and became the new currency of the financial system. International economy relied on technology the same way old national economies had once depended on the gold standard. Control of technical know-how became the only way to maintain a difficult balance in an increasingly complex and fragile world.
Equality is nice in theory, but if everyone were equal, who’s going to buy? Disparity drives desire.
Marx (Labor Theory of Value)
“Theon is going to hide your invention and keep it away from the public. No one will know how to make the material, and they won’t be able to buy it either. Theon is going to make a tiny number of garments and sell them for astronomical sums.” Gielle looked lost. “But … why?” Eko knew he had her. “Let me ask you: How do you determine the price you charge for clothes?” “The cost of the material plus the machine time.” “That’s not how things work on Earth. He gets to decide the price, and he can charge as much as he likes.” “That’s ridiculous.” “It isn’t as long as he can find customers willing to pay.”
The crisis stemmed from an economy built on language. Earth’s IP (intellectual property) stocks had collapsed within a few days because the system of IP agents and resellers had grown too complicated. A single clever sentence could be wrapped in layers of packaging to become substance, and a single idea could be registered and inflated into a vast but empty shell. Buyers were no longer buying the idea itself; they were buying the chance to sell it to someone else. As ideas churned through this economy, rising in price with every exchange, inflation set in. Higher prices meant lower worth. This was a business without substance, a glowing golden balloon inflated by the race to sell something to someone else first. Until one day a needle poked the balloon, and a single hole led to the collapse of all packaging. The world was shaken to its roots. Everyone took to the streets to protest and complain and vent their frustration.
Population (Thomas Malthus, E.F. Schumacher)
Our population is only twenty million, not even as large as a medium-sized city on Earth. They speak with pride of how Mars’s two million strong once managed to defeat Earth’s twenty billion. But the small population is the foundation of our stability, our system. Our freedom of communication has an upper limit, and we’ve already grown so much that we’re pressing up against it. I fear that the migration into the crater will lead to fracture, to division. A pile of sand can grow only so high before it collapses, and a cell can grow only so large before it must split. A civilization’s division does not need a reason, because societies are like insects, and their structure determines their scale. The republic will not last as one nation.
Do you know who benefits from a system like this? Only the aged who already have fame and accomplishments. Once they gain the power to design the next generation of social circuitry, they’ll use their authority to force others to travel along paths they plan out. They have too much power! The problems you’ve identified aren’t limited to administration but touch upon the very philosophy of the functioning of society. If we’re to start a movement, we can’t be too timid. We must be direct and forceful, plunging into the heart of this world like a sharpened knife.”
The list above represents only a few of the intriguing economic ideas that course through this science fiction novel. At a simplistic level the novel is a comparison of a capitalist Earth and a socialist Mars, the U.S. versus China, democracy versus autocracy, the profit motive versus human rights and human scale, but it is much more than that. There are a great number of intriguing ideas offered for reflection. Is this appropriate for a novel? I don’t know but I found such passages interesting and thought provoking.
What Is Life
In ancient China, it was believed that a human life is the result of concentrated qi, of energy. A few decades is how long such concentrations lasted, and the qi dissipates in the end. In ancient India, some believed that a human life is merely a brief window into the eternal cosmic light. And in ancient Greece, the mythic Silenus ridiculed mankind by saying that the best thing for a man is to not be born at all, and the second best is to die as soon as possible. All these traditions faced our mortality directly. We have only a few decades, and no matter how we strive to extend it, a lifetime is but a brief flash in the eyes of the gods and eternal cosmos. But that is precisely where the beauty and power of life lies. All of our vitality, our beliefs, our struggles and resistance, our despair—they are endowed with splendor because of our rapid decay. Think about it: a human being flashes like a bolt of lightning, leaving no trace in the darkness. But in that brief window, they can crystalize something out of their simple soul, something that will last far beyond their death, that will reach for eternity. What a fantastical fate! Even to strike a few poses during that brief flash is among the most magnificent phenomena in the universe. This is why we must create. Every nation’s philosophy is sublimated from our sense of our impending death. This is our answer to the eternal question of why? In creation we carve traces of the soul.
“We exist as momentary gatherings of dust, brilliant flashes of fireworks. Yet each of us carries in our atoms the history of the entire cosmos. Each of our gestures reflects the culmination of the movements of the eternal sky and sea over the eons. Our actions today will be seen by the sky, while our spirit will be etched into the soil. “The sky is silent; let the land witness and weigh our soul!”
I’ve always wanted to ask: Is it really possible to write history? I’ve grown to think that everyone can write a different history that sounds like the truth.”
In books, history always exhibited the characteristics of water. For some who believed in linear progression, history was a surging river advancing relentlessly, as though the endpoint and humanity’s future had been ordained by divine will. In their view, Mars represented a type of pure socialism unprecedented in human history, the inevitable revolutionary result of a certain level of scientific and technological development, the first realization of utopianism, the bright, fresh tip of time’s arrow. But for others with a cyclical view, history was like a beautiful fountain. The grandiose appearance disguised an empty interior as streams of water shot into the air only to return to the fountain, and the same story simply repeated without end. In their view, the story of Mars was just a rerun of a story that had occurred countless times before: exploration, development, independence, political consolidation. Every time, those who developed a new world rebelled, and every time, the rebels turned into new oppressors. For yet others who leaned toward nihilism, history was only a thin shadow of reality. Reality was a deep, vast sea. What we could see was only the froth on the surface, while invisible details formed roiling currents beneath the waves. They believed that historical events were largely accidental, contingent, fortuitous, and put no faith in the retrospective explanations of later generations. In their view, a man named Sloan committed an opportunistic murder at a fortuitous time, but those who came later decided to tell a story about a long plot with years of preparation, a story of historical necessity. Finally, for those who believed in the law of the jungle, history was merely the result of the clash between powerful crosscurrents. In the struggle for survival, the strong persisted while the weak vanished. They believed in the truth of history, but there was no higher purpose, no teleology, no regularity. All that was was the contest between power and power, having nothing to do with philosophy or social systems. When Mars’s own military power grew strong enough to overcome that of Earth’s, war began. Power determined the conclusion. No matter the form of the truth, Reini believed that a single drop of water had the hardest time explaining the appearance of water.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
She understood how the writer felt between the lines. When Saint-Exupéry wrote these lines, his fate to be vagabond had already been sealed. Luoying closed the book and gazed at its orange and dark blue cover. Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Those words encompassed all the treasures of Mars.
Douglas Adams (The Four Stages Of Sand)
Who understands the beauty of sand? Everyone knows only the crystal clarity, the smooth flowing curves, as though houses were built to be transparent and smooth. They don’t understand the true beauty of the material, don’t know that the walls are compound glass, that the solar panels are amorphous silicon, that the coating on the walls is metal and semiconductors of silicon oxide, that the oxygen in the houses is a by-product of silicate decomposition. Everything comes from the sand. Our houses are grown from the sand, like flowers blooming from the desert. Who understands this? Who understands that crystal clarity and gritty coarseness are just two sides of the same matter? Who really understands why our houses cannot be replaced?
Without hesitation, she began to recite a passage from a book she loved, L’Homme révolté. Mais qui se donne … Almost three hundred years ago, Camus spoke of facing one’s destiny, of rebelling against history, of choosing the faithful land of Ithaca, of the first and last love of Earth.
I think life requires action, otherwise there is no direction. I’ve been thinking a lot about Camus’s L’Homme révolté, one of the books you gave me. It talks about the soil, the people, and the furious love of the heart strung like a tight bow.
“Didn’t Camus say that to create is to live twice?”
Pain chipped away at hope and faith, that was why pain was alone, devoid of explanation. Anka believed in himself. He had told no one of this, but he thought he could trust himself. He disliked talk of salvation: saving a civilization, a planet, humanity. No, he didn’t believe any of that. There was no such thing as the salvation of humanity, and it could never be justice to let some die in order to save all. Those who proclaimed such things were either trying to deceive others or had already deceived themselves. There was only the saving of an individual. That was all. “If they cannot all be saved, what is the use of salvation for one?” Dostoevsky said so in The Brothers Karamazov. But what was it that Camus said in response? “If a single individual cannot be saved, then what is the point of saving the collective?”
Rudy had wrapped his will in adaptability, bought ambition with liberty. A person living for ambition had only one choice, and thus had no freedom
Do you remember what you said about the disease of ‘great accomplishments dementia’? It’s not so unusual a condition for humanity.” “Because of the love of grandiosity?” “Not just that, but an even greater yearning: to complete the self. You’re searching for some meaning to lose yourself in, and many others are searching as well.
The major point as I see it of all these allusions and philosophical meanderings embedded in this science fiction novel is expressed by one of the more courageous characters, Anka.
What are they hoping to accomplish? To change the system? And then what? To change the way people live? What’s the use? That won’t solve the real problem. Any lifestyle or system is going to have flaws, unfairness, prejudices. The solution isn’t to change the system. In the pursuit of perfection, humans have tried all kinds of systems, all of which have unfairness. The only difference is how those who benefit choose to sing their world’s praises. The real problem is human nature. If a man oppresses others, he will do so no matter what kind of system is in place. What’s the point of hoping for change? There is no hope. The problems of human nature can be changed only through human nature, but there is no such solution. However, an individual’s problems can be solved by helping that individual. When there is a specific injustice, then it’s possible to confront that specific injustice. That is all we can do. Nothing else. Even in the most perfect society, there will be children who die unjustly. All human effort can achieve is to reduce, like an arithmetic series, the infinite sufferings of the world.
“Don’t you think it’s funny that a Terran [Eko Lu] is trying to save Earth with lessons learned from Mars, while a bunch of Martian kids are trying to save Mars with lessons learned on Earth?”
The round trip Mars to Earth to Mars indelibly changed the young students in the Mercury group and fated them to forever be vagabonds.
But all the mismatches came to the fore the moment she arrived home after a long time away. In that moment, the cracks became real: visible, tangible, as clear as the distance between one person and another. She was like a puzzle piece that had fallen off the picture of home, thinking that after her sojourn abroad she would be able to fit right back in. But at the moment of return, she realized that there was no spot left for her. Her shape did not fit the hole left in the puzzle when she left. It was only in that moment that she truly lost her home. Luoying and her friends were fated never to return home. The ship they were on was forever vacillating on the Lagrangian point between the two worlds. To vacillate was also never to belong. It was their fate to be cosmic vagabonds.