Speculative Finance and Predatory Abstraction: On Jonas Eika’s “After the Sun”

By Ali Rıza TaşkaleMarch 16, 2024

Speculative Finance and Predatory Abstraction: On Jonas Eika’s “After the Sun”

After the Sun by Jonas Eika

IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD, we endure not only wars, pandemics, and climate emergencies but also the growing devastation wrought by speculative financial capitalism. We see its ever-increasing influence in the proliferation of derivative trading and in the rise of volatile cryptocurrencies. But when speculation becomes the dominant modality of contemporary capitalism, what happens to speculative fiction? How do the formal properties and narrative tropes of speculative fiction offer unique ways to interrogate the abstract and virtual aspects of finance, alongside their material instantiations?

Speculative fiction can assist in reimagining the market as a distinct social actor. It can reveal the underlying forces that inflict violence through what I call “predatory abstraction.” It helps us respond to the futures presented by speculative finance in ways that counter its damaging abstractions. It can engender skepticism towards the techno-optimistic outlook we tend to embrace and, at the same time, reclaim the future as an alternative to the present by being structurally appropriated by speculative financial forces.

These financial forces exert structural control in shaping the trajectory of the future, potentially altering the course of the future to align with their speculative interests or objectives, which are geared towards profit maximization and the elimination of alternative possibilities. In brief, speculative finance suppresses alternative futures, while speculative fiction multiplies and reveals alternative possibilities. As the future is increasingly closed off from new potentialities, the present appears to resemble a sort of financial temporal prison. Thus, speculative fiction performs the very task that speculative finance seeks to evade: it exposes the contradictions inherent in financial speculation and reveals the latent possibilities concealed within the present.

How can we express the realities and dynamics of speculative finance within literary narratives? Which works delve into the speculative aspects of financial capitalism and criticize its impact on how we live? Jonas Eika’s After the Sun (2021; originally published as Efter Solen in 2018), a collection of short stories that explore the impact of financial systems on characters’ thoughts, emotions, and bodies, presents one example of this kind of speculative fiction. In After the Sun, we can trace the aesthetic manifestation of the implosion of speculative finance.

Translated from Danish by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg, After the Sun has received prestigious accolades including the Nordic Council Literature Prize, the Michael Strunge Prize, the Montana Prize for Fiction, and the Blixen Literary Award. In 2022, it was long-listed for both the International Booker Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Furthermore, the book’s short story “Me, Rory and Aurora” has been honored recently with the 2023 O. Henry Prize.

After the Sun primarily interrogates themes of economics and tenderness, examining the effects of speculative financial capitalism on our intimate lives. Notably, it places its focus on the dystopian present rather than a distant future, providing a representation of speculative finance that defamiliarizes it. In this regard, the first story, “Alvin,” is particularly intriguing: it explores the impact of financial derivatives on both bodies and psyches. In the story, a Danish IT consultant living in Málaga, Spain, travels to Copenhagen to implement software for another bank. However, upon his arrival at Kongens Nytorv, he discovers that the bank has collapsed, as if it had exploded. Shocked by the inexplicable destruction of his workplace, he heads to the nearest café where he meets the enigmatic Alvin, a “young man, mid-twenties, short dark hair parted to one side, tall forehead, round rimless glasses.” While the narrator is employed in the traditional banking sector, Alvin, in contrast, delves into trading derivatives and operates within a realm of financial capitalism that might seem like speculative fiction, even though it is very much a reality.

“Derivatives,” Alvin says. “I don’t speculate about the future, I trade it.” He explains that derivatives and derivative capital have thoroughly conditioned the economy. Although illegal before 1970, derivative capital now “grossly exceed[s] the capital that came from the production and sale of goods and services, including stocks.” In brief, derivative capital represents a form of speculation devoid of genuine human labor—an undertaking where commodity prices, as articulated by Alvin, are nothing more than “ghosts from the future.”

The profitability of derivative capital depends on a collective perception of the future, rooted in the societal belief that “money is inherently valued in the market.” Without this belief, the cultural futurity associated with speculative finance dissipates. Derivative capital embodies the “art of promise and expectation.” Here, Eika illuminates the crucial role of promises and expectations within the discourse of financialization. This understanding is essential for grasping the distinctive temporality that financialization introduces into the measurement of value. This unique temporal aspect is intricately tied to the concept of “speculative value,” reflecting an era dominated by big finance in which economic value is increasingly derived from debt trading, financial market activity, and rentier practices.

Alvin and the unnamed narrator quickly develop a friendship reminiscent of a 21st-century Fight Club, forging an almost symbiotic bond. After their travels to Romania, they begin buying and selling stocks online in hotel rooms, operating in a realm far removed from the traditional economy, manipulating the markets through the laptops resting on their bellies. To them, it all resembles a computer game. “Trading without attachments,” they play with millions, searching for the cheat code in the game. Readers can sense the thousands of people on the other side of the screen whose lives are unwittingly destroyed by speculative derivative capital. “My friend,” Alvin continues, “of course the money we’re making is money other people are losing. That’s just the nature of derivatives.”

The narrator’s professional life feels like “one big coincidence” or the outcome of an inevitable “network of connections” within the market, particularly “the market of Internal Operating Systems.” Such a scenario becomes inevitable in a market that is increasingly shaped not by tangible deeds, labor, and product generation but, rather, by the abstraction of reality. At this point, it is evident that, through the relationship between Alvin and the narrator, Eika questions the true nature of reality in a world governed by inscrutable systems. Beneath their relationship lie the abstract but powerful systems that, in many cases, govern our lives. This becomes particularly apparent in Alvin’s approach to navigating this unreality, as he is always in search of unique products. His Copenhagen apartment is a place where these distinctive items appear as though they were “collected in a parallel universe.”

Upon returning to Copenhagen to finally complete his job, the narrator discovers that the bank remains a pile of rubble, yet its employees keep working amidst the smoking debris, depicting symbolically a world in which capitalism survives every crisis. The bank lies in ruins, and yet the markets endure. The bank has been destroyed, yet capitalism continues to govern. There appears to be no existence outside of capitalism!

As a work of speculative fiction, “Alvin” ironically depicts the sense of alienation that speculative financial capitalism creates in our minds, thoughts, and bodies. As Eika said in a 2021 interview, “The characters don’t care about the effects of their actions, they’re too emotionally incapable to see what their desire comes from, but it’s still there, as a bodily, ghostly knowledge.”

Ultimately, “Alvin” provides a precise critique of our contemporary speculative financial economy, seamlessly blending both dystopian and utopian elements. The story is dystopian in the sense that it reveals the forces driving financial speculation, resulting in a predatory abstraction that inflicts violence. Simultaneously, it’s utopian as it defamiliarizes the current speculative financial landscape while maintaining critical distance from it. Thus, for Jonas Eika, speculative fiction has the potential to do more than just passively describe economic reality; it can actively shape it as well. This is achieved through a process known as “cognitive estrangement,” conceived by critical theorist Darko Suvin to describe how speculative fiction distances us from our current reality, revealing contradictions and potentialities that are suppressed or denied in the present but yearn for realization. This approach leads to the generation of knowledge, where “estrangement” serves a cognitive purpose and embodies contradictions, reflecting real social antagonisms.

This positions Eika within a lineage of utopian social critique reminiscent of Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope (1954–59). According to Bloch, the capability for the utopian aspect of hope, which he refers to as the education of our desires, serves to distinguish the futures envisioned by speculative capital from the visions presented in progressive speculative fiction. After the Sun and, in particular, “Alvin” provide an original representation of Eika’s utopian social critique, showcasing his ability to use speculative fiction to defamiliarize contemporary speculative capital. Speculative fiction seeks to defamiliarize the reader’s gaze, and Eika achieves this by drawing his subjects closer precisely at the moments when critical distance is most desirable. His writing is hauntingly intimate and corporeal, directing our focus to the disarrayed existence in the era of speculative capital—an age in which every part of Earth’s natural resources, particularly human beings, is subject to retail logic.

After the Sun reveals the profound banality of speculative financial capitalism in action, highlighting how abstract financial derivatives can have tangible consequences on the lives, thoughts, and bodies of individuals. The collection depicts a postmodern capitalist hellscape that gradually unfolds through bodily interactions and impressions. This unique gaze models a politics of rendering the future unfamiliar, of inhabiting the realm of what is not yet realized, in order to keep it open for the possibilities yet to unfold.

LARB Contributor

Ali Rıza Taşkale is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Social Sciences and Business at Roskilde University. His research has been published in journals such as Utopian Studies, Distinktion, Thesis Eleven, Rethinking Marxism, Northern Lights, New Political Science, Contemporary Political Theory, Third Text, Theory, Culture & Society, and Journal for Cultural Research. His book Post-Politics in Context is published by Routledge (2016). Currently, he serves on the editorial board of Distinktion, overseeing special issues and the forum exchange section. Taşkale is actively engaged in a project exploring the logical and structural relationship between speculative fiction and speculative finance.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!