Concept: Economics in Fantasy and Science Fiction

Today I will share with you a field that I only recently discovered to be not only personally interesting, but quite influential on my writing and reading. This was a field of study that, for most of my life, I found boring and difficult to grasp. I know now that I only feel as though my mind and horizons have expanded considerably since reading and learning about economics.

 

A potion merchant, such as might be found capitalizing on Hero Traffic in any troubled town. Courtesy of Seonhee Lim, whose gallery can be found over at http://www.limsh.com

What place has something as seemingly cold and pragmatic has economics in fantasy writing? Quite prevalent, in fact, and according to Jim Worstall, who wrote an article at Forbes called, Science Fiction and Fantasy to Learn Economics From , he quoted someone for saying that:

…most science fiction is about economics. What makes most future visions interesting is not just the technical particulars of the cool new Stuff, but the social ramifications.

A great example of this in sci-fi would be Frank Herbert’s Dune, a book I confess I cite often. In the story, we have a fictional substance called melange, or “the spice,” which is the single most valuable commodity in the known universe (and the Duniverse is quite expansive).

The story of Dune centers around various galactic factions struggling to maintain control over the one source of Melange, the planet Arakkis (nicknamed ‘Dune’), and if you think about it, most wars throughout history have been fought to decide control over resources. Economic reasons are arguably easier to digest than idealistic.

Control of Dune means more than untold wealth. Control of Dune means control of the spice, which Means control of the destiny of the human race. There are betrayals, deep political intrigue, and let’s not forget outright violent conflict, all as a direct result from the plots and schemes of powerful folks as they struggle to hold Arakkis.

In fantasy, a great story can also have economics central to the plot. Those familiar with Baldur’s Gate (recently remastered and released) know what I am talking about. It’s a realm where much of Dungeons & Dragons took place, and the story itself is loaded with fantastical elements and all manner of side stories. The central plot arc, however, is quite simple, and in it’s simplicity lays its brilliance: an iron shortage.

Consider this seriously for a moment. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear medieval? Or fantasy? Chances are you think about swords, or armor, or the lack of clean running water. But anyone who knows anything about medieval cultures knows that the blacksmith was a hugely important individual. All manner of things were made of metal, as you know, such as spoons, hooks, door hinges, horseshoes – basically everything that holds a society physically together.

Now take away the iron. Better yet, introduce a fantasy element that “poisons” the iron mine, tainting the ore and causing a sort of blight to occur so that iron and steel everywhere starts to deteriorate. The society, too, begins to deteriorate, which is exactly the goal of the villain. Long story short, the kingdom will go to war with itself – over iron.

Economics is a study of statistics, yes, but also psychology. These are not useless things with which one might familiarize one’s self when writing a compelling story or fleshing out a world. Imagine how exotic a world would be if they had no salt. Something we take for granted and pretty much have in abundance. How would a society be structured around the acquisition, refining and protection of salt?

Ask the vikings.

Here’s the takeaway: I used to think economics was boring and dry. Are there any topics you consider unnecessary when it comes to writing? You might be surprised. Or, were there any subjects that, like me,you discovered to be fascinating and relevant?

 

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Old Habits

I’ve recently gotten back into playing Magic: The Gathering, a card game featuring fantastic creatures, exotic landscapes and – you guessed it – magical spells. We’re talking high fantasy, a game created by Wizards of the Coast. If you haven’t heard of either of these, you’ll likely know them for their most famous invention, Dungeons & Dragons.

But back to Magic, I just wanted to share some thoughts. My earliest memory was in grade school – I wanna say 2nd or 3rd grade – and was somehow in possession of two or three of these peculiar cards, only one of which I can actually remember.

It was a Jungle Wurm, a creature quite serpentine in appearance, though as the flavor text on the card said: Broad as a baobob and about as smart.

jungle_wurm

A wurm sketch, by Seonhee Lim (gallery can be found at http://www.limsh.com )

I had no idea about the game, and to this day I’m not exactly sure I’ve ever come across a baobob tree. But even as an adolescent of the mid-90s I found the card intriguing. Perhaps it was the mystery of all those (occult) symbols? The artwork, maybe? I know now that the card itself wasn’t much good, but regardless I treasured that little piece of stiff paper.

Years later I would learn the game, develop my favored playstyles and become a competent player. The beauty of the game is that there are so many styles, effects, mechanics and tools that come in the form of monsters and spells that one could, eventually, craft a “spellbook” that mirrors your personality. With so many choices and possibilities, I believe that to this day, a man could be undergo a surprisingly accurate psychoanalysis based on their preferences of Magic.

A close friend of mine favors spells that disable an enemy and creatures that are crafty and agile. One could extrapolate that he has strong desires for control and prefers wit over might.

My older brother enjoys playing a style of “anything goes,” where the magic and monsters he prefers to use hurt everyone – even himself and themselves – a blitz of power.

My of own old decks, which survives to this day, consists primarily of death magic and life-giving reanimation spells, with a slew of choice angels and other divine creatures.

Analyze that!

A Word On Floatin Cities

floatingcastle

The Gate City Asoajar

Here is a sketch of a floating city of my own creation, from my written work. Courtesy of Seonhee Lim, who can be found over at http://limsh.com/ .

We’ve all seen them. In games, movies and literature, a city in the heavens or at lwast islands among the clouds. The whole discussion about “man looking at birds and dreaming of flight since the early days” has been done to death. But actually living up there? Personally I find the idea terrifying, but fun nonetheless.

If you’re a fan of Hayou Miyazaki’s works, you are likely familiar with an animated movie called Laputa: Castle in the Sky. In this story, we have humanity reaching a technological apex only blow up in wars against one another, resulting in survivors rebuilding civilization. By the time that story starts, the old titular technology is forgotten and considered myth.

If you’re a fan of RPGs, you’ll likely recall the nation of Zeal from Chrono Trigger, or perhaps more recently (though not so recent anymore) the city of Dalaran from the World of Warcraft universe. Zeal was a nation of floating islands populated by a magically hyper-advanced people (about eight of them, in fact, to fill the whole country. Ah, the glroy of ye olde school RPGs), while Dalaran was a city state of wizards who opted to lift their home out of the earth and position it as a sort of mobile fortress against the Lich King of Northrend. Both were magically influenced, their power very clearly demonstrated.

Another, from one of my favorite books The Thran by J. Robert King, featured a capital city, called Halcyon, of an advanced machine-based civilization not very unlike that of Laputa, though there was less of a steampunk influence. Also similar to Laputa, by the time Halcyon was rediscovered all of its human inhabitants had gone extinct. They also have a commonality of a powerstone fuel source that makes all their machines work and their abilities as a civilization so advanced.

Lastly, and briefly, there’s Bioshock: Infinite, a more recent game the likes of which I sadly have not yet played (as of this posting), but I’ve seen footage and heard stories. Columbia appears to be a city that levitates thanks to interdimensional manipulation, which I cannot pretend to understand, but it’s certainly different from just “magic” and “big propellers.”

Of course there are others; Zelda Skyward Sword, Metropolis and even the city in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo gets the shaft come to mind, but I think I’ve already over-listed.

So we have a handful of examples. Let’s step back a moment and contemplate this: living in the sky. By today’s standards, perhaps that’s not so insane – aside from a few problems like sustained energy and getting food/water/air up there – but it’s feasible. Imagine it then from the perspective of a medieval mind, or heck, someone from the American Industrial Revolution. Of course, this is coming from a writer who finds it amazing that one can step aboard a giant metal cylinder and, hours later, reemerge in another country.

That’s what this post is really about, sharing the awe I feel when I really think about a floating city. It’s easy to say “Oh sure, a city up in the sky,” but to truly comprehend the engineering required or the implications something like this would have on our lives is mind boggling.

Well, at least to me. Just sharing my wonder.

The Gate City Asoajar

The Dead Authors Podcast

Today I caught up to the 20th and latest episode of the Dead Author’s Podcast, a podcast I can best describe simply as “H.G. Wells interviews various deceased authors.”

The DAP is a tremendous piece of radio comedy, made up of improv (as near as I can tell) made up of the interactions between Mr. Wells (played by Paul F. Tompkins) and notable authors from the last couple centuries – so far. Utilizing the power of his time machine, H.G. brings us authors such as Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged, have yet to read it), Robert Lewis Stevenson (Treasure Island), the authors of the Gospels (that is, the Christian bible), Agatha Christie (Poirot, Mrs. Marple and the like), and my personal favorite: The Brothers Grimm (every fairy tale ever).

I share this not only because I have finished the latest episode (Ayn Rand) and eagerly await more, but I’d like to do my small part in spreading awareness. Tompkins does a splendid job portraying the mild-mannered H.G. Wells, and while listening I find it very easy to will my suspension of disbelief. The  guests are often a riot to have one as well, though it helps to know who they are beforehand. More people – writers, readers, podcast listeners – should listen to this, good, entertaining work is being done and at 50-minute episodes, the podcast is fairly easy to digest. Not only does it help pass time with fun, but I’ve been introduced to some authors the likes of whom I’d never heard, and if the acting says anything about the authors as they might actually have existed, well, as I hear them I find their characters to be believable.

You can follow and find the podcast here: http://thedeadauthorspodcast.libsyn.com/ .

Concept: Healing in Fantasy

Just some thoughts about healing.

Ever notice that healing magic makes an appearance frequently as a gaming mechanic, but not so often in fantasy literature or film? One needn’t be a highly experienced gamer to understand the need for such a tool, but I find it interesting to contemplate how magical healing works.

It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that our lives would be vastly different if the population had access to healing potions or perhaps some shaman or priest who, with a gesture and a prayer, could mend wounds and re-knit broken bones in a flash of light. In such a world – that is to say, nearly every fantasy game (or at least every RPG) – we are often asked to suspend our disbelief and not ask the simple question: “How does anyone actually ever die with this stuff available?”

Let’s set that aside, as the answer to that question would be the same even if one were to ask the point of gaming. But I’ve gotten really into my games at times, usually in an attempt to truly immerse myself and feel a different world. Even the most immersive of games will require some degree of suspension, however, as that is in fact their very nature. Other factors aside, I find that the nature of healing is among the most universal of these items.

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is a good example, as it’s fairly high quality (at the time of this writing) compared to most RPGs before it. Among the more realistic fantasy games, as far as realism can go with these things, there always exists the magical healing potion; not to mention the simple self-healing spell you can learn. But potions can supposedly be consumed by anyone.

Can you imagine being a chemist or apothecary in a fantasy realm? Forget blacksmithing or tailoring. If a man can mix together something that actually prevents death, then a man has found a monopoly.

But the healing itself, this is what I really want to talk about. In all my gaming and reading, it would appear to this humble scholar of fantasy that there are three primary kinds of healing.

Natural Magic: – this kind I imagine encompasses HoT (healing over time) spells, and can most easily be witnessed as rapid regeneration. In other words, a healing spell or effect of the Natural type enhances one’s ability to heal themselves… naturally. Consider herbs that boost the immune system vs. drugs that attack the disease or poison. Natural magic would probably be gained from a spirit of a tree, an herbal poultice, or maybe some alchemical potion made from plants.

Personally I imagine Natural magic to be preventative, rather than restorative, making a being appear much tougher than it actually is – by way of healing as fast as it takes damage.

Spiritual/Divine Magic: – the source of what I call Divine magic is either a diety worshipped by the healer or gained from one’s own “inner light.” Results from this sort of stuff might be what people call “miracles.” The warmth of some divine light that instantly restores a gaping wound or severed limb to its former state. Pretty nifty and likely the kind of spectacle that will make any skeptic a believer.

But how are we expectes to think it actually works? Would restorative magic spells like these return a man’s limb to what it was before it was cut off? If so, what are the guidelines? Is it based off the memory of the limb or the genetic memory of the body? Or is it simply the diety, through the magic, simply doing a “Whoops, you dropped this, lemme just – there you go, good as new.”

What if such a spell were cast on someone who was born without legs? Would they get legs they never had, or would they get no effect at all? What about neurological or psychological damage – do those Cure! Heal! Restore! spells do anything for the target’s mental health?

These are the kind of questions that keep me out of medical school.

Vampiric Magic: – for lack of a better word, the kind of healing “that occurs at the direct expense of another being.” Your classic example would be the vampire or any creature like, that lives off the blood or essence or life force or vim or vitae – whatever – to replenesh its own strength. One usually sees this spell under the name “Drain.” There is perhaps no more insidious a way of healing one’s self than by simply taking it from someone else, and likely the drained is tortured in pain or nightmarishly tormented until the drainer has had its fill. Or the victim dies.

This can arguably be considered a natural means (after all, aren’t mosquitos tiny, irritating vampires?), but I beg to differ. This is the method of bad guys and parasites – no wonder draining or vampiric spells are often in the emply of evil-doers.

What forms of of healing have you encountered, and liked the most? Thinking back, I think my own personal favorite means was as a druid or a shadow priest in World of Warcraft.

Concept: Change and Paladins

I have heard it put that a story is: The protagonist facing a problem and how they change as a result. How about change? Joseph Cambell might have a thing or two to say about this, and I’d be one to agree with him.

I was sitting at my desk the other day (no not that desk, the other desk, the one where they think I’m working on insurance claims) and it occurred to me that I adore characters who change. Then the thought that quickly superseded that was that I actually don’t write much about characters like those.

Holy crap. Here I was always thinking “Write what you love.”

So this is sort of a trip down memory lane for all of those Twenty-somethings out there who’ve picked up a Super Nintendo (or emulator) and played Final Fantasy 4. You know, the one where the dark knight Cecil must betray his kingdom, one for which he’s done some heinous things, in order to do the right thing. I guess as far as stories go, the plot is very simple. Oh sure, there’s more in it than that one liner – a couple betrayals, lots of monsters, some 2-dimensional character development – and in fact Cecil, the main character, is indeed one of most boring blokes out there. But he does something that a lot of other characters do not do: he changes. Sadly it’s not from uninteresting to interesting.

Cecil changes from a dark knight to a paladin. A man of darkness (as evidenced by his abilities and usage only of what’s labeled as “dark” or “evil” weapons and armor. Yeah okay.) to a champion of light.

Not that I particularly favor self-righteous and judgmental holy knights. I hated paladins in World of Warcraft, though enjoyed them in Diablo 2 (Two!!) and Baldur’s Gate (I still remember that sound when activating “holy strength” or something in Bladur’s Gate — epic. Those xvarts had it coming.). In worlds like those, there were clear-cut good gods and bad gods; good and evil. None of that real-world “But who is the one true god?” nonsense. Talking a god or spirit from those realms doesn’t make you crazy, it makes you capable.

I guess what intrigued me most about Cecil, to this day, was the forgiveness involved. It’s not enough to become a holy knight for no apparent reason. Most games to have you earn that at all, you just pick your class and find your next quest. Cecil though, boring as a personality as he was, felt like he was really redeemed. Perhaps that’s because the story starts around the decline of his career as a dark knight, and we as players never actually see or hear of whatever terrible things he’s done in the name of his kingdom, Baron – save one or two, and in those instances, he’s conflicted, so we already kinda know what’s gonna happen.

But the change. Could be the nostalgia of the game – okay, very likely that – could be the music, could be something else I can’t put my finger on. But in that moment when Cecil is more or less redeemed – when he destroys his former self in a cliche moment of doing some swordplay with a mirror – I can’t help but feel a sense of longing.

I guess deep down I really, truly wish I could find a similar mirror and destroy parts of myself that I hate.