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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

GUEST POST: Fantastic Economies: A Conversation Between Gabriel Squailia and Karina Sumner-Smith

Gabriel Squailia: Karina, one of the most exciting things about discovering your book on the Talos roster is that we’ve both created worlds with fantastic economic systems completely different from what we’ve got on Earth. In Radiant and Defiant, the first two books of your Towers Trilogy, the economy runs on magic, while my debut Dead Boys presents an underworld with an economy based on time. Before we get into the nuts and bolts, I’m curious: how did you develop that part of your world? Were you interested in messing with money from the beginning, or did it evolve as you wrote?

Karina Sumner-Smith: Foolish as it sounds, when I started writing Radiant I didn’t realize that I was writing a book about money (or social class, or economic power) at all. Instead, the book began with an idea: what if there was a far-future, post-apocalyptic world in which everyone had magic, and magic was used for everything—and the main character was a girl with no magic at all?

Easy, I thought. Straightforward. But the interesting thing in building a fantasy world, I think, is taking what appear to be simple premises and watching them cascade.

It didn’t take me long to realize that this magic, this power that could open (literal and figurative) doors, that ensured health and safety and long life, was money. And if magic/money is something that you are born with, how does that shape your view of the world and your place within it? The “value of a person” suddenly has very literal, very real meaning—and very interesting consequences for concepts of social class, social mobility, and poverty within the world.

And if you have no magic—literally no money, no power, and no ability to earn either—what is your life like? How do you survive? What kind of person does that make you? These are the sorts of questions that really kick my story-brain into gear. And, for me, the best way to discover the answers is to start writing!

But how about you? The idea of the deceased residents of the Land of the Dead using time as currency is a fascinating premise. How does that economic system work, and where did the concept come from?

GS: It’s a startlingly similar origin story. I’d been kicking around the idea of a book set in the underworld for years, but it was only when I broke ground on this draft that I started thinking about money. My characters are all dead, and they all floated in on the River Lethe with whatever they had on them at the moment of death. Occasional floods bring in wrecked buildings and such, but the bottom line is that you’ve got no currency other than the odd bit of pocket change. The corpses of Dead City don’t build or make anything, much less mint currency—they’re a culture of scavengers.

The one thing everyone does have is time. Eternal time, since these corpses decay incredibly slowly. And most of them are spending it drinking, gossiping, and gambling, surefire ways to waste time in any world.

That’s where the notion of time-exchange came in. I needed a city of gamblers, but what would they gamble? Let’s say you start with the coins in your pocket, then lose the buttons on your shirt. You’ve got nothing to do, so you keep going, out of desperate boredom: “I’ll bet you a year I roll a seven next.” And then, when you roll a five instead, you’re my indentured servant for a year.

That’s the mythical textbook version that probably never happened, the equivalent to the barter town where dudes are trading hobnails for pints of mead or whatever. The reality is that once you lose, I don’t want to listen to you complaining for a year, so I trade you in to the guy who owns the gambling halls and keeps the accounts. He takes you, the debtor, into his vast pool of laborers. Then I get a year in my account and gamble it right back into his coffers.

It’s an absurd premise, but it’s how I felt about the debt hanging over me in my twenties: that I’d traded my present for my future, betting that I’d make gobs of money one day even while I suspected it would never happen. That sense of absurdity, coupled with the feeling that all the debt-ridden twentysomethings I knew were supernaturally diminished by the weight of the bills on their backs, was the real genesis of the storyline in Dead Boys.

Once you got in deep, did you discover that the economy of Radiant had similar roots in your own experience?

KSS: Absolutely. I think that when you begin to actively consider the financial and economic aspects of worldbuilding, what you are talking about are resources and scarcity. Who has something of value, what can they do with it, and what will they do to keep control of that resource? And, on the flipside, what happens to those who have few or no resources? What might they do to change their situation, and/or how do they survive?

In other words, when you’re thinking about economics in this way, you’re delving into some of the root causes of inequality within your constructed world—and I think that issues of inequality are inherently deeply personal. I know that a lot of the thematic questions that I end up posing in Radiant and its sequels are ones that I spend a lot of time thinking about. I loved delving into ideas of privilege and poverty, all the ways a person might have value that are in no way reflected by the numbers on their bank statement, and the things we feel that we are owed or have a right to as members of prosperous, developed nations.

Yet these are also the things that can grind us down on a day to day basis. Exploring such ideas in a fantastic setting provides a bit of distance, I think; lets us (as writers and readers both) explore new perspectives and points of view. So instead of talking about banking crises and discrimination, I’m writing about magic and ghosts, a utopian city of floating towers and the lives scratched out of dirt and ruin below them on the ground.

But magic, in my world, is the power of life—it keeps you healthy, heals the sick, and ensures long life, in addition to being used for a myriad of everyday tasks like buying lunch and sending messages. Yet time is such a different form of currency! What’s the value of money to the characters in Dead Boys? What can time buy?

GS: There’s the rub: animate corpses don’t really need much. They don’t eat, they don’t sleep, they don’t require health care. So from the start, I knocked the bottom rungs off of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and focused this economy on desire.

Aside from the booze and gambling, there’s a vast marketplace for the ruined objects scavenged from the River Lethe. Corpses will buy anything that reminds them of their lives, and the jetsam is marked up accordingly. But the big money is in preservation: the dead will pay vast sums of time to look more lifelike, even when the result would be hideous to a living human.

The story’s hero, Jacob Campbell, is Dead City’s most successful preservationist, thanks to his taxidermic acumen, and Dead Boys begins with him spending every moment of his fortune in a bid to find something worth doing for the rest of eternity. His quest takes him away from the economy of time into a way of occupying his afterlife with something meaningful.

But time-as-money, accrued for its own sake, is power, too, and that’s what Jacob’s companion Leopold L’Eclair is after. In the end, time means something different to each of the major characters in the story, so using it in the place of cash often felt like a way to riff on the book’s central obsession.

KSS: What about other interesting economies in SFF? I know when I’m trying to think of great examples of speculative economics, my mind goes right to science fiction. There are lots of great examples of novels and series that show interesting, complex speculation on what how a far-future economy might work, and how economic systems may be impacted by ongoing technological change. Books like Iain Banks’ Culture novels, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and some of Cory Doctorow’s works come to mind.

GS: Neal Stephenson, too, did amazing things with money in his early novels. My great disappointment in REAMDE had nothing to do with what that book was, but with what I’d hoped it would be: the first act seemed to promise his ultimate thesis on economics and culture, and then the plot kicked in.

Samuel Delany also has a wonderful eye for economics, and ever since I read this passage in his introduction to About Writing I’ve been unable to stop thinking about it:

  "One way or the other, directly or indirectly, good fiction tends to be about money … about the effects of having it or of not having it, the tensions caused between people used to having more of it or less of it, or even, sometimes, the money it takes to write the fiction itself, if not to live it. Supremely, it’s about the delusions the having of it or the not having of it force us to assume in order to go on. … the economic is, nevertheless, not the most interesting thing to me as a reader personally … But stories that never address money or the process by which we acquire it—if not directly then indirectly—are usually stillborn."

KSS: When it comes to fantasy, I have to point to Elizabeth Bear’s excellent Eternal Sky trilogy as an example of great fantasy-world economics done well. Of course, the books didn’t strike me as novels about trade and economics, so much as stories in which the economic and cultural impacts of trade were a carefully planned and well-integrated part of the story’s whole. The attention to detail here really worked for me.

Or then there’s Terry Pratchett’s Making Money, a book about … well, banking. (Proof that Pratchett can make anything entertaining.) And on the flipside of that coin (so to speak), where do you think fantasy writers go wrong in writing about economies and their consequences in fantastic worlds? What would you like to see done better, or differently? 

GS: Fantasy in its epic mode tends to treat money as it would be treated in a D&D campaign. I’m not sure that’s a flaw so much as a habit, but it does cause the issue to protrude. Patrick Rothfuss’ scrupulous accounting of Kvothe’s funds in The Name of the Wind often made me wonder if he had a character sheet. I liked that Kvothe didn’t have much of it, that poverty was a constant threat, as opposed to Harry Potter, who’s just got a bunch of gold in a vault, doesn’t he, for pretty much all seven books? He could’ve benefited from a robbery.

But given how much contemporary fantasy plays with magic—what it is, how it works, what it can do—I’d love to see more active toying with the nature of money itself. Since getting it, keeping it, and getting more of it is one of the primary struggles of our lives, it seems like there’s a lot of room to make some radical changes and see how they affect the rest of the story.

Maybe this is antithetical to what fantasy’s trying to do, though. Epic fantasy seems largely concerned with mutating the past but retaining its essential character, or filtering it through the present, while urban fantasy aims to reflect the moment with more pointed metaphors. Completely alternate visions of reality might not be in fantasy’s wheelhouse. But maybe it ought to be urged in that direction. To me, economics seems like a powerful lever to lean on. It seems like a greater emphasis on action means less room for fiddly bits like economics, but I’d love to be proven wrong on that count.

KSS: Done well, I think an interesting speculative economy could be illuminated by or drive an action-oriented plot. Desperate characters take drastic actions—and what makes a character more desperate than having no money, no resources, and a ticking clock?

For me, I have the greatest trouble with the stories that are about massive wars between nations, armies clashing in huge battles, etc., where it’s clear that the author has never considered how those are paid or fed, who’s funding the rebellion, or how these nations trade and interact outside of the battlefield. For me, that’s not just a matter of attention to detail or rigorous worldbuilding; it’s a key part of creating a story that feels real and true. Political scandals, massive social upheavals, war and rebellion, magic and power—money always plays a part.

I’d also love to see more examples that move beyond metal coins as currency in a feudal society, or variations on modern-day capitalism. Why can’t the economic system of a world be as different, fascinating, and complex as its history, politics, or magical system?

GS: I do feel like we’re at the beginning of a new phase for fantastic writing, with far less attention being paid to homage. Maybe the SF/F answer to Liar’s Poker is in the pipeline as we speak!

KSS: And I, for one, would love to read it.

Official Author Website
Order DEAD BOYS here

GUEST AUTHOR INFORMATION: Gabriel Squailia is the author of the dark fantasy Dead Boys, out March 10 from Talos Press. An alumnus of Friends World Program, he studied storytelling and literature in India, Europe, and the Middle East before settling in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Known locally as BFG, he makes his living as a dance-floor DJ. His ramblings, hinged and unhinged, can be found over here.

Official Author Website
Order RADIANT here
Pre-order DEFIANT here
Read Cost And Consequence In The Creation Of A Magic System by Karina Sumner-Smith (guest post)

GUEST AUTHOR INFORMATION: Karina Sumner-Smith is the author of the Towers Trilogy from Talos/Skyhorse: Radiant (Sept 2014), Defiant (May 2015), and Towers Fall (Oct 2015). In addition to novel-length work, Karina has published a range of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories that have been nominated for the Nebula Award, reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies, and translated into Spanish and Czech. She lives near the shores of Lake Huron with her husband, a very small dog, and a very large cat. Visit her online on her website.

NOTE: Netherworld Capital City art by Jesse Van Dijk. Author pictures courtesy of the authors themselves. Samuel R. Delany picture courtesy of Maria Popova & Brain Pickings. Kvothe artwork by Marc Simonetti


Ron Buckmire said...

How could you talk about economics in speculative fiction and not mention Daniel Abraham's The Dagger & The Coin series where one of the main characters, Cithrin, is a BANKER and there are major plot points that revolve around trade and promissory notes!

Carl Gregory said...

Ron - you beat me to that one! Also, rise of a merchant prince by Raymond E Feist - about the only one that majors on economic themes, although there is a recurring theme about how the war will be funded in that series. And before all his books turned terrible....

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