And no, I’m not talking about the delusional nonsense sort, either. I’m talking about the place where the panel on Fantasyland Economics at Lunacon ended up going – something of an exploration into the lack of anything resembling economic commonsense in so many science fiction and fantasy books (and movies – but those are usually afflicted with handwavium maximus issues anyway: how often does a movie archer run out of arrows? And that’s not talking about the transdimensional rift that provides Hollywood guns with an endless supply of miracle bullets that nobody ever has to buy) and some commentary on doing it right.
The thing is – and I said this at the panel – doing it right really isn’t that difficult. I might be a little on the extreme side, having done things like work out how much a gold coin about the size of an old British sovereign would weigh, how many of them would fit into a wooden chest with an interior that was about the size of your average Hollywood pirate treasure chest, and whether a couple of fourteen year old kids could carry that much (the answer – unsurprisingly – was hell, no). Then figuring out about how much several hundred of them would weigh. And how much space they’d take if they weren’t stacked tight. And whether said kids could stash that much on them without being overburdened or overflowing the assorted pouches they had on them.
Okay, okay, I’m obsessive.
The thing is, gold is pretty bloody heavy. That’s one of the reasons paper money got popular really quickly. A piece of paper signed by a trusted authority (this part matters) guaranteeing that you will receive a pound of gold when you present the paper weighs you down a hell of a lot less than the pound of gold. Or equivalent value in silk, or spices, or whatever. And that is part of how the economy works everywhere and always has and always will. It’s pretty much a guarantee that even in the far future SF with galactic empires (we’ll argue about the viability of those some other time), there will be some form of more or less agreed-on currency, and even in a situation where you have replicators and fabricators capable of nuclear-level atom rearrangement to produce anything people need, there will be things that people want to pay extra for and there will be a means of paying for it. Which also means your characters need to have a source of income.
By the same token, in your fantasy world, your characters need to eat and sleep buy supplies for whatever adventure they going off on, and again, they need a source of income. In a fantasy world even the most basic weapons are relatively expensive (since metalsmithing is a specialized job that takes years to learn, and swordsmiths are even more specialized). A basic sword that a man at arms would use is moderately expensive. A really good sword is extremely expensive. Balance matters – a good sword feels weightless in the hand, a bad one… doesn’t. And wears the user out much faster. And in a fantasy world, chances are there isn’t a particularly organized system of paper or other fiat currency because if you’ve got a bunch of smallish countries arguing with each other, they’re not going to agree on an exchange rate so traders will operate in hard goods (preferably small, lightweight hard goods – see “gold is heavy”).
This is where history can be really fun. There are spices that were worth considerably more per ounce than gold because they were extremely rare in Europe and it was difficult to bring them from (usually) India without spoiling them. Chinese silk fell into this category for a long time, too. Another interesting bit of trivia is that it was hundreds of years after the Western Roman Empire fell before gold coins returned to circulation. For most of the so-called Dark Ages and a good chunk of the Medieval years, Europe operated on silver coins. Then there’s what happened when a country couldn’t dig up or otherwise get its hands on enough precious metal for coins (yep. This is the original form of inflation – some ruler would decide that in order to have enough currency to actually keep trade moving along, he’d adulterate his coins with something else (usually lead). The result was always that the cost of things went up in that area and trade went away because nobody trusted the coinage to be what it said it was. And this was on top of the problems that came with everyone having different measures – there’s a reason why scales are the age-old symbol of the merchant. As often as not precious metals got traded on weight only, and not on face value of coins). Of course, if you’re trading on weight and your silver coin is adulterated with another heavy metal like lead, there might not be much difference in a very small coin (such as was normally used). And kings tend not to appreciate being accused of cheating, funnily enough).
Okay, that diversion went kind of wild. In any case, your characters in any environment, be it fantasy, SF, urban fantasy, whatever, need to have a source of income. They need to be able to acquire the things they’re going to use, and they need to run out of stuff. Otherwise the piece goes past handwavium into bullshittium which isn’t nearly as much fun. You don’t need an advanced economics degree for this – just a few bits and pieces Heinliened into the narrative at the right moments will build the illusion of a lot more – consider Sarah’s Darkship Thieves and Darkship Renegades. Kit doesn’t harvest the pods just because they’re needed. He gets paid for it, and paid fairly well at that. He and Thena wind up deeply in debt for a number of reasons. Thena sells a ‘borrowed’ broom on the black market in Darkship Thieves in order to buy other things she needs. These aren’t economic lectures, they’re just part of the way things are and they’re slid in as part of the narrative.
I cheat (shamelessly) in the con vampire books by giving Jim a fortune accumulated over many years so he doesn’t have to worry about money. He does have to worry about modern bookkeeping issues and making sure his paper trail is impeccable because for him a discovery audit leading to bankruptcy would be the least of his worries. In Impaler, Vlad uses loot to pay his armies but by the end of the book he’s thinking seriously about the finances of his kingdom because if he can’t pay his people he’ll lose his throne and probably his life as well. And so it goes.
Then of course, there’s Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, particularly the ones set in and around Ankh Morpork, and extra-particularly the Watch books. Vimes and his theory of why rich people are rich. These things don’t just ring true, they make the whole thing feel much more real because the question of how to pay for the things one needs is an integral part of the story. When you compare that to certain books (no, I am not mentioning names. I’m quite sure everyone here has a whole list of names they can use) where everything is available everywhere even in itty bitty villages in the back of nowhere or you get a fantasy piece where there’s no reason for gold to be valuable – intrinsically the stuff is worthless. You can’t eat it or screw it, it’s too soft and too heavy to use as a weapon or building material. It’s only viable as a decoration, and a decoration that’s that easily damaged or lost isn’t going to cut it unless the society’s got past hunter-gatherer – but it’s still the most important thing there is, or… well, you get the idea. It’s a bit like the guns that never run out of ammunition in the movies where nobody ever has to buy ammo or even go collect it.
So yeah. If you want your SF and fantasy to feel like there’s a larger working world in there (and it works with the plot – I’m the first to say that sometimes it doesn’t), throw a bit of the mechanics of money in there. If you really want to go all-out, you can have your fantasy kingdom suffer a variant of the tulip mania and the crash that followed. Have the characters who don’t have money barter things – but do so using the money amounts. For years after the Romans left, large chunks of Europe still ran on Roman currency. They just took payment in kind – taking X amount’s worth of wool in payment for X amount’s worth of grain.
And of course, don’t forget that ultimately what decides the value is how much someone will pay for it. That beautifully gilded turd is worth nothing if nobody will buy it.