For the past three years we've been watching great economic institutions, from banks to nations, collapsing into chaotic uncertainty. The economic future looks murky at best, and apocalyptic at worst. You can prepare for the coming upheavals by reading nonfiction by economists, political scientists, and pundits. But sometimes it's hard to imagine what's coming next without a good story to illustrate different possibilities.
That's why we've put together this book list for you, packed with novels about what happens to the world after total or partial economic collapse.
Special note to people who are going to ask about the Foundation series: Those novels may be about economics and social collapse, but not economic collapse per se.
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler
In this two-part story of America's fall from economic superpower to oil-starved chaos ruled by roving gangs of Christian fundamentalists, Butler tells a chilling story of the end of civilization and the rise of hope in the form of a new religion. She charts the life story of a young woman, Lauren Olamina, raised in the near future in a walled suburb outside the poverty-stricken horror of what was once Los Angeles. When gangs finally burn her suburb down, she escapes with just a backpack, a gun, a bit of food, and enough seeds to start a farm in a remote part of Northern California. Kidnapped and tortured by fundamentalists, she later creates a religion whose chief tenant is that "God is change." As the country slowly drags itself back from the brink, Lauren devotes herself entirely to raising money for a generation ship so that humans can continue to evolve elsewhere in the galaxy. Realistically disturbing and hopeful by turns, these novels explore economic collapse as well as what small communities do to rebuilt the economy bit by bit.
Virtual Light, by William Gibson
The first novel in Gibson's Bridge Trilogy, Virtual Light focuses on an America whose middle class has disappeared - leaving only the super-rich and masses of poverty-stricken people who live in squats at the edges of cities. The novel is set in one such squat, crusted on the outside of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, damaged in an earthquake and left to turn into a shantytown. When a Bridge-dweller discovers secret plans to redevelop San Francisco, the story turns into a cat-and-mouse game that takes us through a world so divided between rich and poor that the gulf between them has become a wound.
Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
Like Virtual Light, Diamond Age is set in a future where rich and poor are divided by rigid class divisions. Many people live in enclaves defined by wealth - and some, like our protagonists, live in a neo-Victorian world where social norms of the 19th century are lovingly embraced. But things are about to change, because an educational primer written for a little rich girl falls into the hands of a poor street kid. Educated by the digital book, she becomes a keen strategist and sets about to change the world by educating other abandoned children like herself. This novel explores a number of fascinating themes, not the least of which is how culture and education are shaped by economics. The one resource that could change the balance of power between rich and poor, Stephenson seems to suggest, is education.
He, She, and It, by Marge Piercy
Another cyberpunk future of corporate enclaves and fallen goverments is Piercy's He, She, and It. In it, one of the world's last remaining "free towns" (i.e., not corporate-owned) fights to retain its autonomy by fostering a lucrative cottage industry of cyborg soldiers. But one cyborg turns out to be more than just a commodity, and he develops his own opinions about the ethics of killing for the highest bidder.
Rule 34, by Charles Stross
Just published last month, Rule 34 deals with the aftermath of the present banking crisis, exploring what happens to Europe and America in the wake of one of the most devastating financial bloodbaths in recent memory. Analysts develop automated tools that sort through corporate records to look for signals of people engaging in moral gray-area behavior that could lead to another crisis. But, like the cyborg in He, She, and It, these automated tools wind up doing more than just keeping the economy running. (You can see our full review of this book here.) Stross has been praised by Paul Krugman as a particularly economic-savvy science fiction writer, and this novel about bank regulations and shell nations is Stross at the height of his econ geek powers.
Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
This now-classic novel about a world after peak oil offers us a vision of what happens when Big Genomics replaces Big Oil. Agribusiness rules the world, and people struggle to survive on GMO grains made vulnerable to diseases while the government of Thailand guards its main source of wealth - a library of heirloom genes - jealously. If you want a glimpse of post-oil economics, this book is the place to start.
Liberation, by Brian Slattery and Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson
In our review of Slattery's book about how economic collapse brings slavery back to the U.S., we wrote:
The U.S. doesn't collapse because of ecological disaster or plague, but just economic crappiness. It's pretty much Brad DeLong's worst nightmare: the U.S. dollar becomes worthless, the foreign lenders all pull their money out, the banks all go under, everyone starves. When things reach their worst point, a former gang of super-criminals called the Slick Six reunite to put things right (sort of.)
Robert Charles Wilson's novel Julian Comstock, released the same year, deals with similar themes: An economically bankrupt north America returns to a slave economy and wages a civil war.
Jennifer Government, by Max Barry
In Max Barry's affecting, comic tale of life in a world where businesses have become defacto governments, everybody's last names are the names of the companies that employ them. All schools are privatized, and many are run by McDonalds (where they serve only McDonald's food, of course). Nike advertises its latest sneaker line by arranging for people to do drive-by shootings while wearing their footwear. There are no rules that prevent corporations from committing murder - literally. But a few people who still work for the state, like our hero Jennifer Government, are trying to put the brakes on rampant corporate warfare, complete with battles in shopping centers.
Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson
Hopkinson explores what happens when the city of Toronto pulls an Escape from New York on its downtown area, walling it off and creating a lawless prison for its inhabitants. Predated by rich people who want to harvest their organs, and left without any social services at all, members of the Caribbean-Canadian community struggle to survive with dignity. What's fascinating is that Hopkinson brings traditional Caribbean magic into her futuristic tale, showing us characters who gain power through retaining ties to their cultural past - and defeating drug lords of the future in the process.
Cities In Flight series (also known as the "Okie novels"), by James Blish
Published in the late 1950s and early 60s, this series of four novels deals with what happens to cities that take advantage of a new anti-gravity technology to "spin off" into space and become floating economic entities looking for work all over the galaxy. The series is influenced by post-economic collapse events during the Depression, when thousands of refugees from the Oklahoma and Arkansas dust bowl came to the west coast of the United States looking for work - these homeless workers were dubbed "Okies" and "Arkies." Blish imagines whole cities, complete with mining industry infrastructure, responding to poor economic conditions on Earth by looking for new planets packed with raw materials to exploit (especially in the second novel, A Life for the Stars). Essentially, industrial production never has to die — instead, the entire rust belt just flies to a new place and becomes productive again.