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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