Money Matters

It’s kind of funny how most of the science fiction and fantasy I’ve read skims over matters of finance. Or maybe not so funny, given that I’ve not run into too many authors who actually get how money works. I will freely admit that my understanding is shallow at best.

At the same time, there are so many opportunities missed by just having some vaguely defined currency unit that every follows, whether said unit be credits (common in science fiction), gold or silver coins (staple of fantasy, although you don’t often see much about the weight of said coins or about shenanigans like degrading gold coins with cheaper metals – and the inflation that follows.

Heck, I’ve wondered what would happen to the Harry Potter universe if a savvy muggleborn took one of those galleons (which cost five pounds sterling each) and sold it to a gold dealer on the muggle side. Rowling implies pretty strongly that the coins are if not pure gold, then damn near, possibly with a few extra enchantments so the coins aren’t too soft. Presumably similar enchantments on sickles and knuts stop the silver and bronze tarnishing.

Just imagine… muggleborn spends 5 pounds. Takes their shiny gold galleon and sells it to a gold dealer. The descriptions suggests a galleon is probably about an ounce, so there’s a good chance that once the dealer takes his cut, they’ll get back say… let’s round it to 200 pounds (which is probably on the cheap side since I’m pulling figures out of my anatomy). Waits a while and takes the 200 pounds to the goblins. Gets 40 galleons. That’s one heck of a return rate, although it would need to be done carefully and not too often to avoid suspicion. Even if there’s some kind of enchantment on the coins, by the time a muggleborn finishes school, there’s a decent chance they’ll be able to remove the enchantment. Or just damage the coin enough that it’s not recognizable as an actual coin.

Money is complicated. It’s not this deep arcane thing, but there are definitely fun quirks a writer can play with. Take today’s tech level. There are numerous currencies in use around the world, most of them fiat currencies, which means a specific denomination is worth more or less what the people using the stuff say it’s worth. Generally speaking the exchange rate between different currencies stays more or less stable, as in one US dollar usually buys a little more than one Canadian dollar, and something less than one pound sterling. The more political and other instability in a country, the more likely its exchange rates will go all over the place (one of the reasons I doubt the Euro will last, as it happens. Countries with chronically unstable politics tend to have wildly fluctuating exchange rates – that rarely if ever come close to parity with the currencies of more stable nations. There’s a reason the Deutschmark was ridiculously stable and high-value before the Euro was created. It’s much the same reason the Lira wasn’t all that stable or valued. Shoving a mixture of stable and barely functioning economies into a single currency isn’t going to work very well).

The same thing is going to happen in any fictional world. What you pay for things will depend on how common they are at the location (you have no idea how long it took me to get over the idea that the lorikeets that form huge wild flocks in South East Queensland are seen as immensely valuable exotics over here in the US. I had the same reaction to finding passionfruit advertised as an exotic tropical fruit, complete with fits of giggles at the thought of the vine that damn near took over the back porch when someone dropped some seeds there being a precious exotic fruit), how difficult it is to produce, and of course, how much people want it.

Which naturally means that if passionfruit vines grow like weeds where you live, they’ll be cheap, but if your climate is totally wrong for them and you’ve got to either grow the things in a carefully monitored greenhouse or import them from somewhere, they’re going to cost a ton and be a status symbol. Since – just to complicated the whole matter of what’s valuable – anything that’s rare and difficult to get hold of is certain to become a status symbol for whatever form of wealth your world has.

This is why I figure that if we ever get to a level of tech where meals can be cheaply synthesized, the prestige eating places will make a big deal of having human cooks and wait staff. Similarly, in a lot of houses built or renovated in the 1930s in Australia, if the owners could afford it they used asbestos panels in the walls and ceilings. It was the big thing and expensive. Wood was “common”.

Then of course you have the potential for fun in a more modern setting in the form of computer glitches, poor programming and the like. How often does it happen that a mistake in making an online payment results in extra charges? How many people carry around multiple forms of payment because they can’t guarantee that wherever they’re going will take the one they prefer?

And of course the big question – how will your character handle something going wrong with his/her/its bank account?


    1. *bows* To get currency and an economy right takes a lot of work. I had to make a table with exchange rates, for starters. And then lean on research.

      Today I was looking at medieval coins. A denarius (Silver) from around 1000 was the size of my thumb-nail. In 1250 or so, before the mines at Kutna Hora really got going, the same denarius was the size of my pinkie nail.

      1. Yup. Old-style inflation, where the size of the coin changed, or it got debased with other metals (that one was a favorite of the Byzantines, as I recall).

  1. Because I’m basically writing escapist literature, I usually don’t mention money at all. In the first book I figured out a way for the MC to go from broke 23 year old parts-counter dude who got fired because he turned into a monster, to having the resources to fight space aliens. (Alien technology, aka Handwavium.) After that, the issue didn’t come up.

    Other than that, money stresses me out when I think about it or read about it, so I don’t put it in. “Adventures” where the tension comes from poverty, it’s not an escape. It’s a punishment.

    Somebody needs to go from Toronto to Arizona, they just go. What’s the point of having alien technology on hand, if you have to worry about airfare?

    1. Hey, if you’ve got viable handwavium, more power to you.

      Of course, what happens to your alien technology dude when he tries to buy himself new undies with the wrong currency could be entertaining, especially if he winds up using the alien tech to get out of there ahead of the cops. Which then runs the risk of descending into total farce as the character fights space aliens while trying to replace his worn out duds.

    2. Dorothy L. Sayers was open about having had made Lord.Peter Wimsey ridiculously wealthy because it cheered her up to live vicariously, and because it let her hero do anything he needed to do for sleuthing (like fly to Paris, investigate stuff, and come back, or make long telephone calls).

      1. It does cheer me up, you know. The MC needs a car, he gets a car. His girlfriend needs a car, he gets her one too. A kid side character is flat broke but needs a phone, the kid gets a phone. Aliens come to town and need a house to hang out in, they get a house.

        Its like being able to do things for friends. I can make their lives easier, within the confines of the story, so I do.

        This is supposed to be fun, right? What’s fun about worrying if your credit card is going to bounce?

  2. Makes me think, “Argh, if I want the money to make sense, I can’t just handwave population size and agricultural systems. I have many projects in which I want to handwave that stuff.”

    1. LOL! Oops…

      Actually, you can handwave a decent amount of it, but you’ve got to slip enough in there to suggest the things you want. Hints like granny mumbling about how the merchants never bring the really nice bright fabrics to the markets any more is enough to imply that standards of living are falling. Ruined or abandoned farms that have been there for generations tells of catastrophic population loss or decline, the same way cities or towns with significant numbers of crumbling abandoned buildings do – especially if there’s no new construction in the vicinity.

  3. Money is a great way to normalize the value of many, many disparate goods and transactions. It’s kind of an agreement. The emergence of bitcoin finally gave me this intuitive understanding.

    I used it in one of my books where individuals are contributing goods to a great exodus. They’re still individuals. It’s their stuff. In exchange for their contributions, at the end of the journey they get to stay on someone else’s land for a certain amount of time, and the landowner has to figure how many days a mule or a rake is worth. He tries to be nice and upsets the market. I called him the human dollar for the duration of the mayhem.

    1. Oh, yeah. That would cause a certain amount of chaos.

      Sadly, far too many people have forgotten that the ideal of any currency is that everyone comes out of a transaction better off than they were before they started. If you start tracing equivalent trades, it quickly turns messy, but hopefully not before whoever you’re doing it for works out that everyone along the way has gained something they wanted or needed.

  4. In a scene in Time Enough For Love Lazarus Long who was founder and banker of a new colony was confronted by the town businessmen demanding that he do something about the money supply. He took out a large denomination note, carefully recorded the serial number, then set it on fire to the horror of the onlookers. “But that’s money! How can you destroy it?” What followed was a short course in fiat currency and mediums of exchange.
    In another book, title of which escapes me, Heinlein put it even more simply. His rule for determining the value of a currency, what is the price of a simple loaf of bread? Being extremely old I can recall when a loaf of decent bakery bread was about a quarter. These days you’re lucky to find one for a dollar and fancy breads might run to twice or three times that.

    1. Yep. Fiat currency has issues. Not that the gold standard didn’t.
      I believe the modern version of the bread measure is the MacDonalds index. Depending on whether you’re using “what does it cost to buy a Big Mac” or “How many hours does a typical worker have to work to earn a Big Mac” for the measure, it gives a decent kind of thumbnail of a currency or an economy.

      And if they’re using the paper money to wipe because it’s cheaper than buying loo paper, get out by whatever means you can.

  5. You might get a chuckle out of this. Some years ago (90s?), in Boston, we were having a morning meeting. The food service had sent over a spread, muffins and other goodies, and there was a small plate of… what the heck are those? Some kind of purplish fruit? I’m not gonna try it, are you? Being the outlier in the group, I grabbed a spoon and tried one. OOOH, THAT’S GOOD! As I remember it, I couldn’t convince anyone else to try one, so I got to eat all or most of them. Later that day, I chased down the food service guy, and asked him what that was. He grinned at me, and said, “It’s called passionfruit. Really good, isn’t it?” I nodded, and asked him where I could find it. He told me I could probably find it in the markets in Chinatown, but he said it is hard for people to get them when they are just ripe enough. So he suggested I just eat them when they got them in the food service. Which I did, fairly often. Most of the time, everyone was surprised that I was looking for, and eating, those strange fruits. Too bad, they should have tried them!

    1. Heh. Good for you!

      Passionfruit is kind of weird looking, and it’s really hard to judge if it’s at the right level or ripeness. But it’s a wonderful flavor. I miss that almost as much as I miss the Bowen mangoes, which are way sweeter and less stringy than the mangos over here in the States.

  6. Poul Anderson had a story with fairy gold.

    The thing was, it was unleashed in a town where there were many people each of whom wanted to sell one thing to buy something else. The gold ran full circle and ended back in the original hands — and everyone was happier.

    This is why more gold and silver in the money supply did generally increase prosperity.

    1. Kind of like the story of the man who shows up at a hotel and hands the clerk a $100 bill to hold the room he’s thinking of renting for the night. The clerk uses the bill to pay his debt to B, who pays his debt to C, all the way to Z paying his debt back to the clerk…
      …who gives the $100 bill back to the man who’s decided he’s not going to rent the room after all.

  7. …anything that’s rare and difficult to get hold of is certain to become a status symbol for whatever form of wealth your world has.

    I recall reading that Buckingham Palace had a highly prized set of plates and utensils, made of aluminum.

    1. Imagine if gold were the price of aluminum. Imagine if the platinum group elements were that cheap. Imagine what becomes economic. Is our being able to fly easily the creation of cheap aluminum?

      1. I imagine it didn’t hurt any.
        And we may be about to find out how are “rare earth” metals aren’t.

        1. we already know they aren’t. they are just rare in earth in places and conditions where we can effectively mine them.

  8. if i wanted to figure out economics i wouldn’t be writing SF and urban fantasy…

Comments are closed.