Lessons learned from Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy

Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets might sound like an unlikely source of inspiration for a fiction writer. It’s a book about the influence of market values as they intrude into every corner of our lives, a challenge to accepted truths on the subject. There are no exotic locations or exciting events as you would get reading a book on history or mythology. And yet, having finished it this morning,¬†I’ve found that it’s given me much to work with when writing.

Images of Money 2

 

The way we assign value

Often in books, especially those focused on action and adventure, objects and events are given much the same value by all involved. The Holy Grail is a thing of huge importance to all who encounter it because of its power. Not everyone might care about the core maguffin for the same reasons, but they value it in much the same way, and its value remains the same no matter their reasons for valuing it.

But something Sandel draws attention to is that the way we value objects changes their value. Once corporate boxes were put into football grounds they became less egalitarian places. High and low alike weren’t crammed together on the terraces, and the wealthy looked down on the masses from behind protective glass. People were attending who valued their status above the sport, and that changed the place.

The way we assign value changes our behaviour, and that can change our world.

Hidden ideologies

Sandel, like many other commentators, challenges the neutrality of certain assumptions. He argues that using market forces to assign services and goods changes those things. Modern economic assumptions aren’t the universal truths many treat them as – they are ideological assumptions.

Whether or not you agree with Sandel it gives you something interesting to ponder when creating a fictional world. What are the assumptions its inhabitants take for granted? What are the religious, social, political and economic ideas they never even mention because they are so fundamental to their lives? Taking that in new directions has potential for creating unusual fantasy and science fictional societies, like Iain M. Banks’s Culture.

The Dan Brown effect

There’s also an interesting lesson for those of us trying to work within creative industries. Sandel argues that placing a commercial value on something can squeeze out its other values in our minds. So a work of art with great merit might be far less successful than a mediocre one if the mediocre one is seen as easier route to profit and so pushed by big companies. This can warp our culture, and raises a challenge for both writers and readers in cutting through the business to put cultural value first.

Looking for the unexpected

As writers we need to be eclectic, to take lessons from all fields, to give our worlds depth. Sometimes that’s about basing a character on a real person or gaining inspiration from a painting. But sometimes it’s about reading books on economics.

So, any thoughts on this? Have any of you read books that became surprising sources of inspiration? Where have you got good ideas and new perspectives from? Leave a comment, let me know.

 

Picture by Images of Money via Flickr creative commons

When science fiction does faith

Science fiction has a very variable relationship with religion and faith. Both its pulp adventure roots and its lofty scientific ideals initially pushed it into a shallow and oppositional relationship with religion. But when it gets to grip with faith, sci-fi can create something powerful.

In a recent Guardian blog, Damien Walter asked whether God has a place in science fiction. For me, this misses a more human question. Opinions vary greatly on whether God is present in our lives. But that people experience faith, a set of religious ideas and emotional experiences, is hard to deny. And that experience has been important throughout human history.

In as far as it tackled religion, early sci-fi was concerned with the trappings and rituals rather than the emotional experience. Pulp stories used religion as a sign of the exotic, of strange foreign people the heroes should civilise/shoot/snog. More idea-oriented stories tended to set up religion as a source of superstitions, to be reasoned with and debunked. When elements of real religions turned up it was so that authors could offer rational alternatives, as in Arthur C Clarke’s depiction of the Bethlehem star as a nova (The Star, 1955) or Lucifer as a misunderstanding of our alien saviours (Childhood’s End, 1953).

In recent decades, things have got more complicated. We’ve seen Iain M Banks explore the alienness of transcendence in The Hydrogen Sonata and the emotional impact of a man-made Hell in Surface Detail. Julian May‘s Saga of the Exiles and Galactic Milieu books are full of Catholic characters, as well as a transcendent future based on the theology of real Catholic scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (a guy with some pretty wacky ideas for a Jesuit – a century or two earlier the Inquisition would have taken their flaming torches to him). The rebooted Battlestar Galactica, though not always sophisticated or coherent in its handling of faith, did place religion centre stage.

For my money, the best example is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. This uses an intriguing sci-fi setting to explore the emotional experience of faith. It made a belief system that is alien to me – Jesuit-flavoured Catholicism – feel real, meaningful and comprehensible. And it used it to shine light on its sci-fi concepts.

Sure, there are still a lot of poor portrayals of religion in sci-fi (I’m looking at you Star Trek, with your ‘this whole planet worships the cheese god‘ approach). But there are poor portrayals of everything. What matters is what the good examples do, and science fiction can do faith well.
So what do you think? Know some particularly good or bad examples I’ve missed? Think I’m completely off the mark? Have faith in every word I write? Let me know.