The Subprimes: a novel of the Piketty/Klein apocalypse

The Harvard Business Review asked me to review Karl Taro Greenfield's magical econopocalypse novel The Subprimes, and I was delighted.

This phenomenon is even easier to see in cinematic science fiction, because the movies don't even pay the lip service to technical plausibility. Six months after The Matrix plucked a resonant chord in our popular imagination — despite the silliness of all-powerful AIs keeping humans around because they make excellent batteries — Seattle was wracked by the anti-WTO protests. So while AI remains mostly a distant dream, terrifying tales about AIs, from The Matrix to The Terminator, have only gained currency as the world has become dominated by multinational corporations: immortal, transhuman artificial life-forms that use humans to reproduce, but are fiduciarially forbidden from acting with empathy toward them.

Science fiction is a marketplace of ideas. The stories that writers spin represent a normal distribution of all the futures we might experience. But these stories are winnowed by a fitness-function that selects the ones that chime with the popular imagination. A world in which technology has produced incredible productivity gains, but in which all of those gains have accrued to the people who own the machines and not the people who operate them or are displaced by them, is one in which futuristic tales of humans being surplus to society's requirements have a delicious and terrible plausibility.

This brings us back to The Subprimes, which is an open chord played across all of the strings of American social anxiety. Greenfeld's mother is an immigrant and he has spent much of his life outside of the U.S., making him extremely well-poised to write about America — close to the phenomenon, but distant enough to have seen its edges and noticed the funny smells it produces. It's a road-trip novel (actually, it's several road-trip novels, having many point-of-view characters) set in a near-future plutocratic, climate-wracked America.

Greenfeld's "The Subprimes" and the Way Fiction Predicts the Present [HBR]