Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Virtual FantasyCon 2014: Your fantasy world's economy ~ a rich seam to tap

But Does It Make Sense?
Economics of fantasy systems. If Smaug holds all the gold and it gets liberated, what does that do to the economy?

Leila Abu el Hawa (m), Kari Sperring, Kate Elliott, Tom Pollock, Anne Lyle



A credible economy is part of credible world-building - but then Tolkien had a wooden city in the middle of a treeless plain, so it really depends on what you can persuade your reader to overlook. Some people feel thrown out of a fantasy world when it has self-evidently wobbly foundations, but some don't mind. That said, economies, buying, selling, goods, are foundational to a society. You don't have to consciously create an economy, but be aware that we're making implicity judgements about what ideas are important. 1980s fantasies were of power, elitism, the True King, The One, and so on - those were the ideas given credence.

When Kate Elliot thinks about landscape, think about the level of exchange appropriate to each one. Not all landscapes favour a currency exchange - you might have layers of different exchanges, including bartering and even social exchange. Perhaps the biggest challenge for her, she says, is not to put all that on the page! She worked out the actual cost of living in her world, to know the cost of rice vs the cost of an expensive horse. Embedding that kind of info as casual detail can help the reader. In Tom Pollock's mirror London, value is your face, quite literally: the more complete your face, the wealthier you are. Making that kind of shift in economy makes you aware of how much our own economic values are embedded in our language: talk of gold, silver, money, buying, and selling, runs right through our idioms and phrases. As a writer, you consider what matters to the people in your world.

Kari Sperring, as the historian Kari Maund, works on pre-monetary societies, where the question is what people are able to barter, from food to their abilities. We briefly diverge into a ferret economy based on bunnies, and somone asks what the bunny-squirrel exchange rate might be. [My money's on three standard squirrels to one standard bunny.]

There's also an important relationship between the economy and your characters. Where is your character positioned in society? Are they economically deprived or not? Kari, again with her historian hat on, points out that when we ask, "Why is this person where they are?" the answer is usually to do with money. She's trained to look at cultures and ask, "What are the systems that produce this?" For example, you just can't have a lesbian separatist feminist druid in the real eighth century - outside of your Tuath (your group of people), you weren't legally a person. A woman was already not a whole person, she was the property of her kin, so away from her kin, she was "unowned" and likely to be solved as a slave. Your character has to fit the culture. Then there's the familiar farmer-boy-becomes-king trope, but in fact he was usually secretly a kind already - and behind this lies a nasty snobbery, that one is "born" a leader.

You can say a lot about a character by how they fit within their economy - economic relationships are also social relationships. Who gives way, here? Where does your character sit in the strata? And so on. Ask yourself: have you ever made an important decision and taken money into account with it? Your character will do likewise - and what decisions they're able to take will also depend on where they sit in the economy.

We easily throw out the phrase "invaded by the barbarians from the north" - in the UK, that was Vikings, who were driven by their own economic imperative. Trading in the ancient and mediaeval world was much more extensive than is commonly thought; for example, the Vikings traded with turkey. The Origins of Russe, a book on trade routes, discusses one dig in Turkey which revealed a trader's store containing things from both Newfoundland and China. [For the geographically challenged, like me, Newfoundland is a large island off the eastern coast of Canada. At least I know where China is.] Don't underestimate how much people travelled in these societies. One thing Tolkien did get right (wooden cities in treeless plains aside), is travel time and distances.

In our current world, a loss of credit could bring very rapid collapse. For example, Chicago only has chlorine for 5 days' worth of water. Without credit, they couldn't buy more. And of course most of this is technological: if we lose all our computer memory [a huge electromagnetic pulse from an especially large solar flare , anyone?], our wealth vanishes.

The relationship between war and economy is also important. War doesn't solve the problem: weaving kinship groups is how we fix things, not with swords. But where there is massive economic disparity, revolution sparks. Think of two characters working 18-hour days and constantly on the verge of starvation, while an aristocrat goes out to party... Think of the French Revolution. ("The Celts didn't have revolutions, they just burnt Hereford a lot," says Kari.)

People's economic position doesn't always decide their political loyalties, though. Poor people in the US still vote Republican. People will go against their own social interest and there are different methods to control that - the media, religion, consumerism, and pitting deprived groups against each other. (Those poor people are stealing your stuff!)

The economy is also a motivator, but the independent-individual so beloved of the capitalist myth is, well, a myth. Studying economics is learning to think systemically. The "villain" (again that individualism) allows you to put a face on something that is created systemically. Usually, in the real world, the "evil" is created by the system.

Sometimes writers don't recognise the repercussions of their decisons in their world. For example, if there were no sea-travel from Roman times onwards, then Tudor England would not look like the one we know from history. When you change things in a world, pay attention to how those changes ripple onwards. The message has got out that magic has a cost, a limit, but we would use it as technology if we could. (Arthur C Clarke's third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.) Similarly, the economies of warfare are rarely considered and its repercussions rarely throught through. Where did the army come from? Do you have a standing army of 10,000? How are you paying them? What are they doing through the years of peace? Or did you use conscription? How are you paying them? Are they trained? Where's all their food coming from? And this is before the next stage: armies devastate landscapes. The economies of war also has future repercussions that spread out for a long time. World War Two, whatever else it was, also repretsented a massive injection of government cash into the economy. Armies can also be used as a way of corralling ambitious younger sons into hierarchies, so that their ambition serves the status quo rather than challenging it.

Fantasy reflects the concerns of the time it's written. At the moment, we're overrun with zombies - the fear that the great unwashed will come disrupt our tidy lawns and lives. And that, at its heart, is an economic fear.

Read more from FantasyCon 2014 or another great panel on world-building from World Fantasy Con 2013.

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