Sunday 27 October 2019

Orconomics, by J. Zachary Pike, and The Question Mark, by Muriel Jaeger

I decided to acquire Orconomics after some enthusiastic comments by members of the Classic SF Group. It is subtitled "A satire", about which more later. The setting is a land populated by a wide variety of more or less humanoid races (the usual dwarves, goblins, trolls, elves etc) with technology at the usual medieval level, plus magic wielded by suitably talented and trained wizards.

The story is a tongue-in-cheek variant of a traditional fantasy quest, with an assorted group of unwilling adventurers all press-ganged into undertaking a search for some stolen marble heads of symbolic importance. Their leader is an experienced "professional hero", a dwarf called Gorm, who has fallen on hard times. On the way the group encounter various dangers, set-backs and surprises, with the ending being rather different from what might have been expected.

Apart from the names of the races, there are other borrowings from elsewhere – both fact and fiction. For example, a firm making fine quality edged weapons is named Vorpal, which is first used in Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky poem. Also, the stone heads are known as the Elven Marbles, presumably a reference to the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, sculptures which were "liberated" from the Athens Parthenon long ago and are the subject of a long-running ownership dispute. 

There is a lot of humour in the story with the satirical element being focused on economics. The economic system of the entire country is based on heroic adventures, with speculators trading in the profits to be expected from successful adventures (those being ones in which vast wealth is recovered, e.g. from stolen hoards). There is an organised system for professional heroes or quest-givers to lay claim to some expected hoard before setting off to recover it, bringing in investment to fund the mission, with any profits being divided up pro-rata among the investors.

The author explains at one point: "The speculators who bought those shares often bundled them into plunder finds, which were then divided and sold to other companies, who were owned by other companies, and beyond that…well, it hurt Scroot's head to think about who owned what." The target of this satire is obviously the packaging of sub-prime mortgages which were a major factor in the 2008 financial crisis. The problem from the dramatic viewpoint is that this specific event happened years ago and the details have probably been forgotten – if they were ever understood – by most potential readers. Satire based on current affairs dates rapidly.

At first I was rather underwhelmed by the story, but as it progressed and the characters developed I became increasingly engaged and ended up thoroughly enjoying the tale.

Orconomics is the first of the Dark Profit Saga trilogy, the others being Son of a Liche (already available) and Dragonfired (being written). I was looking forward to reading the sequel until I saw that the price for a paperback (the only format I buy) listed by amazon as just under £15, which is two or three times the going rate for a standard paperback, so I'll pass on that.


One of the British Library's Science Fiction Classics series, The Question Mark was first published in 1926. It was the author's first novel, followed by three more over the next decade. As Wiki says: "Her novels deal with such topics as extrasensory perception, utopian speculation, and genetic engineering and are considered important for their place in the history of science fiction. At the time, her work was not well-received by critics, and she abandoned her career".

The plot of The Question Mark concerns a young man from the 1920s who wakes up two centuries later. He finds himself in a socialist paradise, with economic equality for all having been achieved and automation having reduced the need to work to a bare minimum. However, that does not mean that there aren't flaws – and these concern human nature. The population is divided into the great majority, described as "normals", who are poorly educated (by choice) and driven by emotion rather than reason, and the rational "intellectuals", who run the society and drive its technological advances.  Jaeger has some sympathy for the normals but shows how they are infantilised by their lack of responsibility, flitting constantly between different fads, fashions and esoteric religious beliefs (a theme picked up by various later SF books I have read – the one which first springs to mind being The Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys).

One aspect of the future society which is portrayed as controversial is the availability of peaceful euthanasia on demand, also used as a means of disposing of hardened criminals and other troublesome individuals. However, another aspect of population control which would be even more controversial today is eugenics – specifically the used of selective breeding to weed out undesirable characteristics from the gene pool. This was historically very popular among intellectuals when the book was written, but forever discredited as a result of being put into practice by Nazi Germany. The author seems to assume that population control would have been drastically enforced, given that her England has been turned into a pastoral country with a relatively thinly spread population, but there is little comment about this. The ending is rather vague, as the story just stops when the author has said what she wanted to.

The Question Mark was a reaction against the idealised future societies portrayed in fiction popular at the time, and was intended to paint a more realistic picture of how society might develop if everyone's physical needs for food, housing and travel were met. The apparent utopia gradually becomes more dystopian as the protagonist learns more about it, so this story is really an initial step towards the far more dystopian Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1949).


mudpuddle said...

abebooks sometimes has reasonable prices (you probably know that, tho)... never heard of Muriel Jaeger, i'll have to make some inquiries... sometime...

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks, I'll keep an eye out for the Pike book at a sensible price...

I had never heard of Muriel Jaeger either, I don't think that any of her work has been in print for several decades, until the British Library decided to republish this one.