Recently, I got to contribute to an extremely cool thing: the Upshot anthology by RisCura, a collection of short stories exploring how today’s investment decisions can impact the future.
It’s a dark and delicious collection of sci-fi tales by some of my favourite writers around, including Bongani Kona, Angela Makholwa, Charlie Human, Tade Thompson and Mohale Mashigo, all curated by the magnificent Lauren Beukes.
RisCura is a purpose-driven global investment firm, and I'm bloody impressed that they initiated this project. There's a long history of science being inspired by science fiction (Jules Verne inspired both the helicopter and the world's first successful open-water submarine; Arthur C. Clarke inspired the world wide web, to name just two examples). But I'm more interested in the ways that fiction can help us to think through the consequences of technological change, as they intersect with things humans do.
The stories in this collection all explore emerging financial trends, from the increasing costs of private education, to debt slavery, to robo-advisors, to the impact of longer lifespans on our ability to save for retirement. But every story takes a surprising twist! It's one thing to read about the theory of Universal Basic Income, but it's a richer experience to read the story of a hustler trying to find a way to exploit it, as in Tade Thompson's story 'Elegba's Valley'. It's interesting to wonder what living longer will do to retirement savings, but way more fun to read Angela Makholwa's hilarious tale of a man who outlives his savings and gambles everything on a preposterous scheme.
Engaging with financial concepts through fiction not only helps us understand them better, but also expands our sense of what's possible. As Lauren Beukes says:
Fiction allows us to imagine the unimaginable, which seems especially pertinent in these unprecedented times.
I wrote two stories for the anthology, "Undercurrency" and "According to Plan".
"Undercurrency" is about the emerging ocean economy, and some of my anxieties around sustainable investing and large-scale aquaculture. It's also a pretty raunchy love story about a woman who simultaneously falls in love with kelp forests and a hot scientist named Jorge.
"According to Plan" is a bit sillier, and it's about what might happen if an AI controlled all of your investment decisions for you, but you kept changing your mind about what your goals were.
You can read all of the stories in the collection here. There are also lovely audiobook versions of some stories, including "Undercurrency". The audio version is truly lovely, featuring delicate sound mixing and a superb audio performance by Megan Loyd Roberts. I recommend the audio version over the written one!
Here's the first part of Undercurrency as a little teaser for you.
For Charne Lavery
The sea is a deep grey today, a roiling mass of lead under the dawn sky.
She starts every morning like this: pauses on the boardwalk that runs through the centre of the compound down to the office, a full hour before anyone else is awake, and watches. The age-old instinct of all farmers: survey your territory.
The problem with the bloody sea is that it doesn’t tell you much. She gets more from the hologram in the middle of their boardroom, a miniature, moving model of the entire crop, compiled in real time from over seventeen thousand sensors placed along the rig. She finds herself watching it for long minutes at a time, admiring the way the little drones comb across the kelp grid. They’re autonomous, checking each frond for discoloration, signs of nutrient disorder or pests, dragging the whole rig to the optimal level based on what the crop needs. She loves to see it like that. Her vision, assembled in blue pixels in front of her.
And yet she still starts every day out here in the cold. Staring down the ocean like a challenge. It’s what brought her here, after all. Haunting her dreams since she was ten: that day her brothers had taken turns dunking her in the rough surf, until she’d started to cry, and Clint had said: “Better learn to swim, Olive Oyl. The oceans are rising and they’re going to drown everything … everything.”
But Olivia Abrahams is nothing if not someone who can see the bigger picture. What she sees now isn’t the sea – but possibility. A perfect blank slate.
She walks down to the main office building. The investors arrive next Friday for the site visit. There’s so much to do – decks to be finished, models to be tweaked, lab rooms to be tidied – and she needs to double-check the offsite accommodation in town, because these people are not exactly going to be comfortable in staff dorms.
Everything depends on this. Five years of work, the last of her savings. They’re fast running out of runway. If she can’t close another round of funding, it will all have been for nothing. And there are still problems with the tech – the water drones use up almost as much fuel as they’re producing, dragging the kelp lines up and down. It’s a fight she was having yesterday with Kenny, her heavily bearded lead engineer: “We’ve spent three months on this. We’re running out of time.”
He’d just blinked back at her. “I don’t know what to tell you, Olivia. I can’t change physics.”
She’s working on being a less demanding boss. It’s not easy for her, but she’s trying. Once, when she was four, her daughter had said, with great gravity, “Mommy, if you are too strict, nobody will like you”. Truer words never spoken.
She’s surprised to see that the lights are on already. And there are voices coming from her office. She speeds up.
It’s Yoliswa, her head of security, standing over a man Olivia doesn’t recognise, barking questions at him. They’ve had poachers trying to dive in the bay before, looking for rock lobster or abalone. But as soon as they realise there’s a security team, the problem goes away. She’s not sure why Yoliswa would be bothering her with this.
“Morning, Yoli,” she says, going with casual.
“We found this man exploring the kelp lines,” the security
“On the pilot rig?” Olivia is surprised. There are a number of small nursery rigs close to shore, laid neatly across their little bay. But the mature kelp elevator is a full eight kilometres offshore, the buoys barely visible from the observation deck. They’ve never found divers there.
“He says he’s a scientist.”
“Well, that’s a new one.”
The man grins at her, his teeth bright against his face. Naughty-boy smile, the kind that seems permanently etched onto someone. The smile lines crease his whole face, and he’s so dark and sun-weathered, it’s impossible to tell how old he is. Under a thin blanket draped over his shoulders, he’s shirtless. Wiry as the nautical polyethylene ropes her crop grows from.
“Malacologist, if we’re being pedantic,” he says. He’s got an accent she can’t place.
“I study snails.”
“That’s nice for you. Please could you explain what you’re doing on private property?”
He laughs. “I didn’t know the ocean could be private property.”
Wishing you hot sex on a boat,
Updates from Sam-Land
Okes, I have ceased to be a human person and am now merely a TOOL for converting caffeine into WORDS OF MY NOVEL.
Dale Halvorsen and I are so tantalisingly close to finishing this draft! It's basically all I can think about right now. Good grief friends, writing novels is really fucking hard. Please send help in the form of:
- photos of your pets
- Spotify playlists featuring songs without lyrics OR sea shanties
- wholesome dad jokes
I love you! Hope you're all staying safe out there!