Time is money in The Quantum Thief

One of the reasons why I love science fiction so much is the imagination that its authors show in creating the worlds in which their stories are set. I am frequently blown away by how creative sci-fi authors can be when inventing strange new worlds, bizarre aliens and ways of living. Of all the books that I have read in the last few years, none have been more interesting or unusual than The Quantum Thief, the debut novel by Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi. The Quantum Thief surprised me with how outlandish an author’s imagination can be when creating characters, plot and sci-fi concepts to inhabit a fictional world. What I found most fascinating about the novel is that part of it is set in a moving city on Mars, called the Oubliette, where time is their currency. This made me think, how would this work and what economic issues would it bring up?

The first thing to note is that the Oubliette is not a post-scarcity society as are some in science fiction. There is resource scarcity - such as physical space, power, food and luxury items - which means a system of allocating resources amongst the Oubliette's citizens is necessary. Time is the medium through which the Oubliette allocates its scarce resources, as each citizen is given a certain amount of time which ticks away second by second but can be exchanged for goods and services. When a citizen's time expires their personality is download into a machine body known as a Quiet. The Quiet do the majority of the labour in the Oubliette, certainly all the essential jobs including keeping the city moving. A citizen serves time as a Quiet, only maintaining a fraction of their humanity, before being reborn as human and the process begins again.

We are introduced to the Oubliette through the eyes of a visitor, Jean le Flambeur, a famous thief who is looking for memories he hid in the moving city. This is an effective way of showing this strange society to the reader without the need for heavy-handed exposition. We see how time can be exchanged for goods and services, but we do not see how someone amasses additional time to spend. This would presumably be from selling goods or services to other citizens, however no one in the Oubliette appears to work. The majority of the labour is done by the Quiet. The Oubliette's economy is a strange mix of slavery and jury duty.

How would such an economy function in reality? There would probably be a problem with inflation as a citizen's money is constantly losing value. Any banks that exist would have to make the interest they offer on any savings very attractive to counter the effects of inflation. Although the natural rate of inflation built into their economy, i.e. the passage of time, would make investment more attractive than saving. However, investing your time in a new businesses to create economic growth and technological development would be risky. There is no welfare state in the Oubliette and a bad investment would be a quick ticket to the Quiet, thus most investors are likely to be risk-averse, which would hold back rapid economic growth and technological development.

Most normal economic process (such as investment, taxation, government spending, public services, importing and exporting) could not exist in the Oubliette. However, there is clearly a need for some public services as there is crime, namely the Gogol pirates, and thus a police force which must require some resources and its employees some remuneration. The citizens who provide services such as policing, and attempt to apprehend Jean le Flambeur, are presented as hobbyists who do this work out of interest rather than a means of securing an income. Most likely these people are already wealthy and thus do not need payment and therefore taxation and government spending is not necessary either. However, if most public services are provided on a voluntary basis then the Oubliette is one large economic shock away from the complete collapse of its essential services.

The lack of saving, investment, government spending, imports and exports means that the Oubliette is a static economy with a low level of economic growth. This plays into the politics of the society. The Oubliette is a secretly totalitarian society ruled over by a shadowy group known as the cryptarchs. Jean le Flambeur claims that it is a secret prison based on the idea of a panopticon, where every action is visible to those watching over it.

The main social value of the Oubliette is based around the importance of privacy, which discourages the sharing of personal experience of society and thus prevents the collective examination of social structures. In short, a ‘keep yourself to yourself’ mentality does not encourage the challenging of power structures. All of this points towards the Oubliette being a static but wealthy society, which appears to give its citizens a lot of personal freedom but below the surface it is very limiting and controlling.

Despite its static nature, there is inequality in the Oubliette. One character, the millionaire Christian Unruh, is clearly richer than the average citizen. There are also beggars, who are only a few minutes away from being sent to the Quiet, thus the Oubliette has unemployment. There must be a trade economy reassigning time from the bottom of society to the top for inequality to occur. The reader is introduced to shopkeepers, including a chocolate shop owner, which links into the point above about investment in the Oubliette being more attractive than saving due to inflation. All this points to a degree of economic dynamism thriving beneath the surface of the oppressive cryptarch regime.

There are no comparable real world examples of economies that are similar to the Oubliette. The closest example I can think of is Cuba. Cuba is a society which balances personal freedom with an authoritarian government. Cuba's currency, the National Peso, can only be used by its citizens, which prevents imports and exports, much in the same way that time cannot be exported or imported from the Oubliette. This leads to the country remaining static for political reasons. Beneath the surface of this static and controlling economy is a thriving and dynamic unofficial economy where citizens work around the government's restrictions.

The economy of the Oubliette is interesting and raises a lot of questions. Aside from analysing the implications of using time as a currency, The Quantum Thief is a really imaginative book. Its fantastic story is weaved around the setting of the Oubliette and it has interesting characters and a lot of tension. The Oubliette merely provides the backdrop for the drama of the story. The Quantum Thief is an original science fiction novel which shows a lot of creativity and I would recommend it to any fan of the genre.