The Big Idea: Michael Martineck
Posted on June 3, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 16 Comments
The concept of economics is one that wends through our entire lives — but what if we lived in a world where economics were even more pervasive than it is right here and right now? Michael Martineck has been thinking about just that world in his novel The Milkman, and today he’s here to offer you a tall, frosty glimpse of what that world would be like.
The big idea of The Milkman is a world with no governments. It didn’t start out that way. I was going to write about a guy who brings milk to your home. Can you imagine? You wouldn’t have to go to the store for it. The guy would traverse his neighborhood, getting little glimpses of peoples lives. Turns out that was a real thing, not that long ago, so I needed a new idea.
I entered college in 1984, intending to learn whatever I needed to be a writer. This would be easy. My father raised an eyebrow and said, “You’ve got to write about something.” I picked economics because of course everyone wants to read about economics. It’s right up there with dairy delivery.
Studying economics is actually more interesting than it sounds. It’s not about money. It is about people interacting with people. It only looks like it’s about money because capitalism is so profoundly powerful. The fears that George Orwell spells out in 1984, of a world gone terribly to the left, are ironic. It is now the other way around. Which got me thinking.
What would capitalism look like, cut from the ties of sovereignty? No laws. Hell, no rules. We are taught that markets are self-regulating. They urge themselves ever toward harmonious equilibrium. The invisible hand of the great and powerful market guides us all. It should be heeded, not impeded. Big government is the villain, caging our animal spirits, wrestling the market’s hand to the table.
How would society function without legal structure? I’m not talking about weak governments. I’m talking gone. What happens when people are governed only by the laws of economics and physics? It’s a big idea. Huge. Too big for me to write about. For 30 years it tumbled about in my head like a nickel in a dryer. Clunk, clunk, clunk.
One day I listened to Robert Parker talk about how Boston shapes his Spenser novels. The setting is almost a character, a participant in every mystery. I had a setting that acted like a character. Why not put the character in a mystery. Except, murder in the Free World – the world of The Milkman – breaks no laws because, well, there are no laws.
There are budgets, bottoms lines, and expectations regarding return on investment. Killing has costs. Someone should be made to pay for it. Literally. Breaches in corporate policy and suspected sabotage need to be investigated and assessed and liabilities appropriately assigned.
Not that this is justice. Funds are impersonal. Money cannot make you stop missing a person, place or thing. Sometimes you miss something even more when it’s gone, when it was taken for granted. For example, maybe you don’t think about how – I don’t know – milk is safe to drink from any old carton you grabbed at the grocery. You don’t ponder whether or not it is free of hormones and harmful bacteria because it has to be by regulation. Until there is no regulation.
The most cost-effective way to make milk is to not worry so much about the safety. Sure, it might kill off an infant here or there. Nothing’s perfect.
That doesn’t mean we stop trying. As my characters work through my setting they try to right wrongs. Regardless of how heartless the environment, they act like people and people care. Under the oppression of emperors and czars, bureaucracies and banks, people love and live. We still try to make things right. We fight for fairness, forcing it into the equation even when it doesn’t fit the math. When it means nothing to the bottom line.
The structure of the Free World is different from our own. The people in it are very much the same. The biggest idea in my novel is the one I didn’t have. It emerged through the characters. The world’s always been screwed up. I screwed it up a new way and realized there would still be some who would chip and chisel, carving out decency. I wrote a story about the dispassionate cruelty of economics through a milkman who touches a number of lives. So I kept my original title.
The Milkman: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
Having read The Jungle and observed Somalia, the idea of a world without laws does not appeal to me in the slightest. And, of course, Smith famously wrote that the invisible hand works best when government ensures a level playing field.
But I love your big idea. There *are* people who will try to make a corrupt system better. It was true in the 1940s, it was true in the 1950s, and it is true now. Thank you for reminding us of the truth.
The Adam Smith who gave the Lectures on Jurisprudence would think this totally mad. Adam Smith’s invisible hand presumes law, property rights, courts …
Apart from anything else, a world without states would create a market opening for, well, states.
“Killing has costs. Someone should be made to pay for it. ”
That’s actually pretty close to how justice worked in medieval Iceland.
It’s exactly how “justice” works in modern Pakistan, and in other countries that enact into civil law the same understanding of Islamic jurisprudence. A convicted (or, of course, accused) murderer can escape all punishment if the appropriate family member of the victim agrees not to prosecute, and this can be achieved by the murderer paying that family member.
Where it gets especially messy is when the murder victim has offended their family, and is being murdered in reprisal. Witness the currently ongoing case of a young woman publicly killed by her own family for having dared to marry against their wishes. Her murderers will not be punished, because the responsible member of her family has said not to.
You’re totally right. Part of the book is about how corporations struggle to fill in some of the gaps left open by the lack of states.
I have to take issue with your reference to Orwell. He was a committed social democrat/socialist, and generally falls on what we consider the left of the political spectrum. 1984 was not a warning against the dangers of the left (or the right), but rather a warning about the dangers of totalitarianism. I don’t mean to be a nit-picking pedant, but it bothers me when Orwell gets misused or misinterpreted.
Also, I’m curious to find out how a company can have liabilities in the absence of laws, which are (literally) the rules that apportion liability. Even where liabilities are undertaken pursuant to contract, the law and courts provide the remedies, enforcement, etc. In any event, the the book concept intrigues me. I think I’ll pick it up.
Whew. Glad you still find it intriguing. If I may, the language in the Free World has evolved from ours. You are correct. ‘Liability’, even as an accountant might use the term, implies a legal obligation. This world still has social contracts, so the functional definition persists. Companies still service debt, for instance, and list that debt as a liability.
Sorry about my take on Orwell. I agree that totalitarianism is the villain in 1984, but I think he went left – very far left – to introduce us. I thought it would be interesting to take the other way ’round.
This book looks very original and different. I like it when authors take chances like this and try to be different. Its very hard to do this well. I’m definitely adding this to my list and will give it a try. Good for you for trying something so different.
I picked up a copy of THE MILKMAN at a science fiction convention a couple of months ago. Having had a chance to read it, I just wanted to correct a misimpression that this column may have introduced: that because the novel explores economic ideas that it may be dry to read. In fact, it is great fun, with a really smart, dry sense of humour. It is also propelled by a murder mystery and various intrigues; the plot is quite involving. This is a very entertaining book, well worth a reader’s time. :-)
Thank you very much. I know you take humor seriously, so it is a wonderful compliment.
Sounds very interesting, so I’m afraid another Big Idea has taken money from my pocket ;) Looking forward to reading it
A Brit here pointing out that in some parts of the world, milkmen still exist, delivering milk early in the morning to the doorstep. You can even get it delivered in glass pint bottles, which is how I remember it as a kid in the seventies, when it was the normal way of getting your milk (I think it was controlled by the dairies, so you couldn’t buy milk in the supermarket).
If you want evidence for real milkmen, try (as a random example): paulthemilkman.co.uk
As the great manipulation of left-right political alignment in the “Opinion Media” has occurred in recent years, Libertarians have taken claim to “The Right” and placed every government with any level of authority on “The Left” (yes, they consider Don’t-Mention-His-Name-Says-Godwin as the Ultimate Leftist). But with the growing feeling that more power resides in megacorporations like Comcast, Koch and the eventual winner of the retail tug-of-war between Amazon and Walmart than in any governmental entity supposedly “ruling” your city/state/nation, our “Free World” future really is a “meet the new boss, worse than the old boss” situation.
Okay, we finally have money in our account, so I got it!
This really piqued my interest! Sounds like a really interesting and original idea. Is this self-published? I only ask because, for a new book that doesn’t yet have a single review on Amazon, I would be more inclined to buy it if it were priced lower than $4.99. (Yeah, yeah, I’m a cheapskate. But I also buy a lot of unknown writers and I’m more willing to take a gamble on just a couple of bucks.) FYI, there is a typo in the Amazon blurb: “diary” instead of “dairy”.