It’s just business

Posted: January 21, 2014 in reading
Tags: , , , , , ,

I love a good fictional business, especially in science fiction and fantasy. Kingdoms and nations are all well and good, but there’s something more fluid about a company, something about its aims and practices, the way it crosses borders and slides quietly into the corners of our lives, that makes it more interesting. Something that makes it, in many cases, more sinister.

What Batman made on his lunch break

What Batman made on his lunch break

Businesses of the future

Science fiction is the obvious home for this, whether it’s the corporate hegemonies of a William Gibson novel or the extreme hedge funds of Richard Morgan’s Market Forces. Corporations are the staple villains of techno-thrillers and cyberpunk, Big Brother. Its that insidious nature, that ubiquity, that focus on profit over principle that fits them so well to a world built on sci-fi and noir.

Superheroes and the business as mask

In the superhero genre corporations play a more benign and far less interesting role. They’re usually the cover operation for a superhero, whether it’s Batman, Green Arrow or Iron Man. Sometimes their nature as businesses might play into the plot, as Bruce Wayne uses his front companies to move technology around or Tony Stark faces a corporate takeover. But for the most part these are just companies as masks, empty of the stuff businesses do. Even Lex Luthor mostly uses super science for his nefarious schemes, not the more straightforward mechanism of investments and mergers.

A notable exception to the superhero pattern was Joe Casey’s last two years writing the Wildcats, under the title Wildcats 3.0. Teleporting android Spartan takes over running the Halo front company and starts using it to change the world. For the first time the alien technology the Wildcats have access to gets to change the world they live in. And then… poor sales, fascinating book cancelled due to lack of fist fights and lycra-clad women. Damn.

Monetising fantasy

There’s also a hint of business in Joe Abercrombie’s fantasy novels, with the occasional appearance by the sinister banking house of Valint and Balk. I love seeing business intrude in the unfamiliar space of a fantasy world, combining the innovations of Europe’s early banking houses with the implication of dark forces in the background. Because modern business didn’t just leap fully formed from the forehead of Adam Smith, and it’s interesting to see someone working with the grey world of their emergence.

So yes, I love a good fictional business, in all its myriad forms.

How about you? Can you think of classic examples of fictional businesses that I’ve missed? Do you enjoy their presence or see them as just one more part of the scenery? Leave a comment, let me know.


Picture by Images Money via Flickr creative commons

  1. glenatron says:

    I don’t think I have paid as much attention to business in Fantasy, but there are a lot of really great historical novels that are set around banking revolutions- both Neal Stephenson’s System Of The World which explores the early days of the royal society and the Bank Of England but is, as a trilogy, inconsistently enjoyable. The first is somewhat interminable, but sets things up for the last to be awesome.

    Also I love the Niccolo stories from Dorothy Dunnett ( and indeed all her historical fiction ) which are set around the fifteenth century and traverse around Europe, North Africa and the Levant during the time when the Italian city states were really on the rise ( Cosimo de Medici is a significant figure in the stories ) and the business empire that Niccolo builds is at the centre of the story. Those were the first books I read that made being an entrepreneur seem like an awesome adventure and if I ever do set up a real business, it will because of those.

    • I ground my way through the first book in Stephenson’s System of the World, but it was such a struggle that I didn’t bother with the rest. Lots of interesting ideas but far too slow and full of every last detail of his research for my tastes. How long does it take for them to pick up?

      • glenatron says:

        I think Stephenson has an approach which is that he begins with all exposition and no action and gradually moves along towards all action and no exposition until he hits a singularity of action and the story ends. The later novels are way more fun and action packed with less boring Waterhouse stuff and more antics from other characters (and when Waterhouse returns in the last book it is a lot more interesting ) so you have actually done the hard part but there are some things in the last book that really annoyed me because they didn’t happen. As a historical novelist you have some lassitude of course, but there are some things that happen which would have been a major part of the historical record had they happened and although they make for exciting story, it feels wrong to me. Especially after reading Dunnett who manages to have the most dramatic adventures without ever bending history very far at all- indeed she often took inspiration from the recorded activities of the historical figures in her books. So that annoyed me.

        • Well, if I’ve gotten through the hard part I may as well read the rest. And the ideas were intriguing. Will just have to reign in my inner history pedant when I get to that bit.

  2. Great post, very thought-provoking. My hubby absolutely hates how people assign businesses with “motivations” and sometimes even rights (like political lobbying groups) because they are NOT people. He is an economic historian/archaeologist so I like to consult with him about the economics of my fictional city in my novel. It feels important to me that this aspect of my narrative holds together instead of just being a backdrop for the action of the story. It helps my city be more of a character to consider the businesses that power commerce and by extension, how everyday folks are spending their time in the world I have created.

    • Sounds like Mr Forwhomthegearturns and I have some similar views. I find the whole issue of businesses as ‘people’ fascinating. Legally, they’ve been recognised as ‘natural people’ in the US since a court case in 1886, giving leverage to the companies and their lobbying groups. But when a ‘person’ has such huge wealth, is potentially immortal and has only rights without duties that puts them in a terrifyingly powerful place.

      Plus, of course, they’re obviously not people. I mean duh, what were you thinking Supreme Court?

      That aside, your point about making institutions like cities and companies feel characterful and real is a good one. A sense of place can help a story to really leap out as something different, not just characters running through generic streets. So go you!

  3. Reading your blog today, I was strongly reminded of a particularly enjoyable StabCon interactive role play session set in Cyberpunk (RPG from R Talsorian Games). My strongest memory is of sitting around the board room table with all the characters playing extreme examples of real world business people. It felt enough like a work situation to really make an impact. Maybe that is why some of the fictional businesses work so well – those of us working in corporate culture can see the parallels so clearly.

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