Neither the Billionaire nor the Tramp: Economics in Speculative Fiction
I sat at a table full of professors and tried to explain the idea of world-building.
This was five years ago. Jeff VanderMeer and I (along with about a dozen others) were scrambling to put the final touches on Shared Worlds, a writing and world-building camp for teenagers at South Carolina's Wofford College.
There was a math professor, an English professor, a few historians, and a mix of others from a mysterious world I think of as "The Sciences."
I babbled on, trying to figure out how to bridge the "lingo" gap and get everyone to understand. (I mean, where do you begin to explain the notion to someone who doesn't think about this stuff every day, all day?)
Of course, I didn't really need to bridge anything. These people were smart, very smart, and they grasped the concept fast.
Then an Associate Professor of Accounting and Finance named Dr. Philip Swicegood spoke up.
"You should have a class on economics at Shared Worlds," he said.
My first thought, I am ashamed to say, was, Eew! But I nodded, smiled, and waited.
"Economics!" Swicegood said. It was the way I might say, "Star Wars marathon!"
My expression, I'm sure, was somewhere between blank and horrified.
"Really," he assured me, "economics. For instance, what does your character want, and what is he willing to do to get it?"
Swicegood would later explain, "Economics is about exchange and incentives."
"Economic exchange and response to incentives can create a great angle for revealing motivation and clarifying values," he said.
And later: "Realistic economic exchange implies that both parties think they are better off after the transaction."
This went on for a while. I took notes.
Below, I speak with six speculative fiction writers about economics and speculative fiction. We discuss "sprawling cultural exchange," markets, and other mechanisms of "arbitrating resource flows." We talk about free will, personal sovereignty, and competing currencies. We talk about freedom of agency, personal integrity, and justice. We talk about Star Trek's acutely capitalist Ferengi and "the diminishing marginal utility of money."
And all of it comes back to fiction—character motivations, setting, and story.
Each of the six participants—Elizabeth Bear, N. K. Jemisin, Dani Kollin, Brian Francis Slattery, Charlie Stross, and John C. Wright—has a compelling interest in economics and does something interesting with the economies in his or her secondary world(s).
Elizabeth Bear is the author of The Jenny Casey Trilogy, The Promethean Age series, the Jacob's Ladder Trilogy, The Edda of Burdens trilogy, The Iskryne series (co-written with Sarah Monette), and the New Amsterdam series. Her current series, which began with the novella Bone and Jewel Creatures and continued with the novel Range of Ghosts, "explore[s] the trade and economic situation of a vast, pre-modern empire."
N. K. Jemisin is the author of The Inheritance Trilogy and the forthcoming The Dreamblood duology. In the former, she's created a Renaissance-level global economy; the latter takes place in a world where prosperity depends on fertile land, as well as "free healthcare and universal education."
Along with his brother Eytan Kollin, Dani Kollin is the author of The Unincorporated Man, The Unincorporated War, The Unincorporated Woman, and the forthcoming The Unincorporated Future, which is due August of 2012. With the Unincorporated series, the Kollins have created a world in "everyone cares about everyone else because it's profitable to do so."
Brian Francis Slattery is the author of Spaceman Blues, Liberation, and the recent Lost Everything. Slattery draws inspiration from the economies of poorer nations to create fictional, post-collapse worlds that resemble our own but that have been skewed sideways.
Charlie Stross has authored the Singularity Sky series, the Laundry Files, the Merchant Princes, and the Halting State series, as well as various collections and many standalone novels. "When writing fiction," Stross says below, "work out what people value first—and what their role is in their society. The economics then emerge from the inter-personal relations, and enrich the background and characterization."
John C. Wright is the author of The Golden Age, in which he has created "a libertarian near-utopia." He is also the author of the Everness series, the Chronicles of Chaos, Null-A Continuum, and the recent Count to a Trillion.
How does the economy of your secondary world(s) work? What's exchanged? What are the incentives?
Charlie Stross: Most of my fiction is set in worlds not greatly dissimilar from our own, at least economically. The media of exchange and the incentives are more or less identical to our own. In those that are more distantly related, I generally look at the underpinnings of economics from two angles: what's in scarce supply, and what people want or need. Where you have supply and demand you either have a market, or some other mechanism for arbitrating resource flows. Even in those societies where material scarcity may be taken care of and everyone has enough food, housing, clothing, and starships to go round, there's a scarcity angle to play: Human psychology tends to value being at the centre of attention, and so attention economies come into play.
Brian Francis Slattery: Rather than creating an entirely new world, I tend to take the world as I think I understand it and move it sideways. So the economic logic, I think, is pretty recognizable as our own, with much the same exchange systems and incentive structures. You know, money's exchanged for goods and services, and when money fails, there's barter. In my first book (Spaceman Blues), I didn't even move the world all that far sideways: I didn't want to play with New York City's informal economy so much as find a working metaphor to depict it in an entertaining and hopefully also slightly informative way. Granted, I ran with that idea pretty far into the ludicrous, But I still think that one of the weirdest things about that book is how much of it is true.
N. K. Jemisin: In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy), the economy is global despite the world being at only Renaissance-level development or so. This is largely because magic is used to facilitate communication and travel, at least for certain goods or those with a certain amount of wealth and influence. The world is on a single currency, the meri—although this was done to make the economy easier for a single family (the Arameri) to control, not out of any particular economic interest.
Although the system is largely capitalistic, with the same incentives as any capitalist system—accumulation of wealth and power, avoidance of poverty—it's by no means a free market. In fact it's heavily regulated, in keeping with the world's philosophical dedication to order; they believe an unregulated system invites chaos. And where conventional, legislative regulation fails, the Arameri are perfectly willing to use magic to manipulate the system. When wages fall too low, for example, the Arameri unleash a plague or two to reduce the population of workers. They also achieved all this by taking advantage of the apocalypse to reboot society to their liking, and periodically using magic to wipe out nations that disagreed with their economic policies.
Elizabeth Bear: One of my major interests in writing the Eternal Sky novels was to explore the trade and economic situation of a vast pre-modern empire. I think that modern people make two mistakes in thinking about travel in a medieval or Enlightenment-era society. We make it both too hard and too easy. The fact of the matter is that even in our own perfectly non-fantastic world, people did travel—and they mostly did it by walking, and they sometimes did it over vast distances. There were trade routes that stretched from Beijing to Stockholm, and Genghis Khan used Pony-Express-like tactics to get riders from one end of his empire to the other in under six weeks. There was trade, and cross-pollination, and exchange of ideas and goods along routes thousands of miles long. China's famous porcelain was influenced by Indian and Arabic elements, and silk made its way west to the Atlantic. I've tried to reflect this sort of sprawling cultural exchange in the books in Range of Ghosts and its sequels. Nothing drives me crazier than worlds with no economies, where the technology and social structures never change. So I guess the question is, what's not exchanged?
Brian Francis Slattery: In my second and third books (Liberation and Lost Everything), there was much more messing around with the economic system. In Liberation, the United States has suffered a very severe economic collapse. In Lost Everything, the ravages of war and climate change have made the U.S. economy as we know it pretty much moribund. But in depicting the effects of these things on people, and thinking about how people react, I turned to real examples in the present day—just in other parts of the world. In Liberation, the economic situation is based more or less on my understanding and experiences of life for the rural poor in Guatemala circa 2002, where things were very hard, but all around, I saw people constantly finding ingenious ways to get what they needed on the little they had. (Tragically, things there now are worse, and I am afraid for the people that I knew there.)
Dani Kollin: In the Unincorporated series what is exchanged are shares of people. The people work for credits. The more people earn the more the shareholders get. Everyone cares about everyone else because it's profitable to do so¾a ruthlessly efficient incentive. In short, it's a world where charity is profitable, materially profitable. If one were to take the Marxist doctrine of the labor exchange of value and put it on a transporter pad with Adam Smith's Invisible Hand and then have a horrible accident in which the two were inadvertently mixed, you'd end up with the world of The Unincorporated Man.
N. K. Jemisin: In [the desert city-state of] Gujaareh (in the forthcoming Dreamblood duology), the economy is modeled on that of ancient Egypt, which gained much of its wealth from being the crossroads of trade for the ancient world. But within Gujaareh, prosperity rests on a few pillars: the first being the land, which is abundantly fertile thanks to the annual flooding of the river, and the second being free healthcare and universal education, which makes for a healthy, highly-skilled population that doesn't lose much productivity to disease or short life-spans.
The healthcare and education are provided by the priesthood of Hananja, the goddess of dreams, in exchange for a moderate tithe from each citizen—including tithes of dreams (and sometimes lives), which are the source of magic in this world. But more magic is taken from the populace than is needed to keep it healthy. That leaves a surplus—and people being people, someone in Gujaareh is going to find a way to make money off this surplus, even though it's essentially people's souls. And just as the commoditization of faith has repeatedly torn apart the Catholic Church (and other religious institutions), it creates a huge problem in Gujaareh as well.
Brian Francis Slattery: Lost Everything is based more or less on my understanding of the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Second Congo War (1998-2003). I didn't experience any of it firsthand, which is why the word "understanding" is probably a vast exaggeration to describe what I think I've grasped about the DRC—but I learned as much as I could about it, through books and documentaries. Perhaps most harrowing was a movie called Kisangani Diary by Hubert Sauper (who also made Darwin's Nightmare), about Rwandan refugees in the DRC during that time; it stands in my mind as a particularly unblinking account of human suffering that probably happens much more than those of us in the privileged world would like to think.
Charlie Stross: One novel I'm working on at present is a space opera, set in a universe with no faster than light travel. The one thing valuable enough to be worth trade across interstellar distances is the uploaded minds of people with specialized skills; and they have an entire currency system fine-tuned to handle incredibly slow interstellar exchanges, a form of digicash where transactions have to be digitally signed by banks separated by interstellar distances. Because, of course, if you're selling goods that won't arrive for decades, the last thing you want in return is a currency that is prone to bubbles and market crashes.
John C. Wright: Of my books, only The Golden Age, which was meant to depict a libertarian near-utopia (for libertarians, utopia is not an option) addressed any economic issues, and this because economics is at the core of libertarian thinking. Indeed, one is tempted to describe libertarianism as the attempt to apply free market principles to personal and political and other relationships outside the market.
The postulate of the Golden Oecumene was that all exchanges and interactions were voluntary, including the uses of technology that could rewrite a man's own memory, personality, habits, and change his body and soul to suit himself. This was combined with a strict moral imperative of absolute personal sovereignty. No one could lay a finger on another man's property, not one brain cell in his head, not one mote of his person or property, without his consent, no, not even to rescue him from self-destruction. This was your humble author's attempt to carry a libertarian political principle to its logical extreme.
The society was also depicted as being immensely, unimaginably wealthy, as far above us in wealth as we Moderns of the Industrialized world are above even the wealthiest cattle owner of the Bronze Age. No matter how many tents and wives and head of cattle he had, the ancient shepherd-king could not afford an aspirin when his royal head ached.
In my book, the depiction was of a society that could accomplish nearly anything that was possible: ignite Jupiter to a second sun; put a greenhouse over Antarctica; take a vacation once every thousand years for a year, when all the world's business stopped; tame the solar wind by building a structure of artificial energy-matter inside the photosphere of the sun. But since I wanted some realism in my unrealistic utopia, I enforced certain rules of economics which are built into the nature of reality, and which no social order, howsoever different from our own or enlightened above ours, can ever change: there will always be sacristy of resources. No matter how wealthy your society, there will always be tasks the imagination of man can conceive which has not the current resources to achieve.
There will always be conflict. In one scene, my protagonist Phaethon wants to re-engineer Saturn and abolish his distinctive rings. Since there is only one Saturn, certain machines who had filled up the interior volume of the core of that gas giant objected to the proposal, as did those for whom the glory of the ring system had a value beyond any economic value.
There will always be rich and poor. Even if the poor are unimaginably richer in utopia than the richest man of the modern day, equality of income is neither practical nor possible, since the nature of economic exchange presupposes an inequality of skills and goods, hence an inequality of the value your neighbors and customer will put on those skills and goods.
Whether the neighbor's valuation is arbitrary or not is beside the point: I assume nearly anyone reading these words would be more eager to see a sequel of a new Star Wars movie than a movie made by an unknown? Even if the unknown movie was better, the brand name means something to most fans, because of the good will built up over decades, therefore the market, that is, the aggregate decisions of all the participants in their decisions to buy or refrain from buying, would value a new Star Wars sequel more highly than an unknown movie. Likewise, there will always be a need for market exchanges.
Again, even if all the members in a utopia are a rich as Croesus and King Midas combined, the less skilled of worker will find it to his advantage to do the work he does best and to specialize in it, even if, paradoxically, he lives alongside superhuman machines and artificial persons more skilled in all endeavors than he. A handyman who cleans a surgeons tools in two hours, which the surgeon, more skilled at tool-cleaning could clean in one hour, if the surgeon's skill is worth $100 an hour, it will be worth it for him to hire any handyman who charges less than $50 an hour, not because he cannot clean the tools twice as well as the handyman, but because it is not worth the loss of his time that could be better spent doing what he is really good at.
In an extended society, this very inequality that promotes market exchanges creates an incentive for men to associate with each other beyond the range of their immediate emotional orbit of family and clan and friends. A civilization is possible. Without this, what you have is not civilization. No matter how technologically advanced you are, if you have no social relations, you are barbarians.
This is rather openly dramatized in the book by the portrayal of the Lords of the Silent Oecumene, whose society consists of a population of hermits who live surrounded by the super-intelligent machines which create for them their illusions of reality. At the core of their system is a black hole from which they can derive, in apparent contradiction of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, free energy in infinite amounts. But this situation eroded their need, and soon robbed them of the desire, to maintain civic social relations. Each man was a Lord, a lonely sovereign, almost a god—and, like the pagan gods of old, answerable to no one, needing nothing, and having no law or civilized customs. To answer, at long last, the question you asked: what did the utopian post-humans in the Golden Oecumene use for money?
Money in the real world is relatively stable in supply, keeps its value over time, is identifiable, hard to counterfeit or dilute, is always in demand, is fungible, and is divisible. Of all things in history, so far, gold and silver have best track record of satisfying these criteria. The artificial credit of nation-states has proved less successful, since it is vulnerable to inflation for political purposes. In the make believe world of the far future, I tried to pick a good that the happy folk of that day would always want and need, and could always identify. I said that they had three competing currencies: one was energy, measured by ergs; one was computer time, measured by seconds; and the last was gold. I mean, hey, they live in the far future, but it is allegedly our future they live in, so something of our customs and institutions would survive.
In sum, the economy there worked according to the same rules as the economy here. Economics is a science, after all, and a science fiction book, even if it is allowed to play fast and loose with speculation, is not supposed to violate any known laws of science. The laws of economics do not change any more than the laws of physics do. The same incentives were in place then as now.
What is the relationship between character and economy in fiction?
Dani Kollin: Tenuous at best. Think of Star Trek. The only economic characters that were dealt with in any detail were the Ferengi, portrayed mainly as the gnomes of Zurich. They were the slapstick race of the galaxy; good for a laugh but when things got serious you brought in the Klingons or the Borg. That's because for most people economics is boring. This holds true in all fiction, not just the science variety. We all love to see the hero discover the mountain of gold. It's fun and a great story. Has anyone ever written a compelling fictional narrative on what happened to the world economy when that found mountain of gold was introduced into international markets? Nope, and for good reason¾it would be pretty boring. You can explain an economic system as a backdrop and use it as a catalyst to move your story forward (as we did in The Unincorporated Man), but you'd better have a story to move forward or no matter how ingenious your economy, your audience will go home.
Elizabeth Bear: We have to work to eat, don't we? And work is what gives our lives purpose—a calling, as it were. I think we get so divorced from the means of production in our modern society that we forget that for a half million years, creatures we would recognize as human have gotten by from day to day by growing things, hunting things, making things, harvesting things, gleaning things, trading things. Everything comes from somewhere: dinner does not materialize neatly in a plastic package under fluorescent lights at the supermarket.
Charlie Stross: I tend to use Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a guide: We have basic needs that must be fulfilled in order to stay alive, and secondary needs in order to feel comfortable. So economic activities are always a necessary background detail of characterization. In roughly contemporary fiction, that usually means the protagonist has a salaried job (or equivalent), which puts constraints on their freedom of agency; used correctly it can be a very effective contrast medium for highlighting their personality.
Two signs of a somewhat lazy author: a protagonist who is independently wealthy, or one who is down-and-out and hasn't got two cents to rub together. The former has freedom of agency, while the latter has no commitments and nothing to lose. Both of which are headaches the author now doesn't have to worry about—neither the billionaire nor the tramp spend any time worrying about the boss phoning up at 9 p.m. on a Sunday to ask them to hold down a shift for a no-show on the Monday when they're supposed to be having adventures! (See also the Bruce Wayne problem.)
Brian Francis Slattery: As I see it, for each character, the economy is a bit like the weather. It shapes the world they live in: Good weather presents opportunities to do things that are impossible in bad weather, and when really big storms come, initially the only thing to do is to try to survive it. After the storm passes, the characters' individual worlds are changed, perhaps subtly, perhaps broadly—maybe, through some weird quirk, as much for the better as for the worse—and they must figure out how to do the best they can with what they have. So far, I've tended to write about what happens when things go bad generally—and this is revealing my own biases when I write novels—but at least in my case, I've tried to focus on people who survive, resist, and perhaps even overcome the hardships they face, because they're hardy, clever, resourceful, or maybe just lucky.
Part of the pleasure in writing characters for me is in discovering how each individual reacts to the situation they face. I learn so much more about the characters, the kind of story I'm trying to tell, and the way the characters (as they often do) derail my original intentions. That said, I could very easily imagine a book about characters who can't overcome the difficulties they face, and I can see how such a book could be really compelling. And I'm really interested in writing stories in which the economic environment changes a lot over time—where things are pretty volatile—to see what kinds of stories might emerge from that.
John C. Wright: In the utopian commonwealth of the far future depicted in The Golden Age, everything was for sale except for justice, honor, and personal integrity. It is the cost of not selling one's personal integrity, however, which forms the point of the drama of the book. My hero was willing to give up everything, including his own memory, to keep it.
What is the value of the money in your world(s), and what can it be used to buy, etc.?
John C. Wright: In general, there is almost no relationship, unless you write a tale where the main point of the drama is an economic disaster like a depression or a strike. See Atlas Shrugged for a good example of how this can be done artfully and dramatically. Whether one agrees with the author's theories or not, what Ayn Rand did in that book is instructive for any writer: She tied the moral code and hence the drama of the main characters into the economics of the events going on around her. In this way, the events were not about positive or negative cash flow (which is boring) but about good and evil (which is the most dramatic thing in the world, nay, the only dramatic thing).
Charlie Stross: It depends on the world in question. Sometimes it'll buy you a better brain or a nicer lifestyle, or the chance to try and dig an entire nation out of a development trap. And sometimes all it buys you is a nicer seat on the train to the extermination camp, or a silk rope for the gallows. Money can only buy what's for sale.
This raises the fun topic of the diminishing marginal utility of money; if I give you a $100 bill, it means less to you than it would were I to donate it to a homeless guy trying to live rough in a blizzard, and both of you would value it more than, say, Warren Buffett. Similarly, despite being a billionaire, Steve Jobs couldn't buy a cure for his cancer at any price: It just didn't exist. (He could afford to register for a liver transplant in three states, then keep an executive jet on 60-minute readiness for three months while waiting for a histocompatible organ to come up—but that pretty much exhausts the limits of what money can buy you by way of extra medical treatment, short of dropping a few tens of billions on cancer research ten years before you need it.)
Elizabeth Bear: The world of the Eternal Sky is not using fiat currency yet—it's all hard currency and trade goods. And the control of the trade routes is a major driving force in the narrative. Trade is money, and money is armies, and armies are power—not to mention that trade is the ability to feed your people, and build aqueducts, and gain or maintain temporal power.
N. K. Jemisin: In the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms—a society whose guiding principle is order—money buys impunity from orderly rules and structures, up to a point. The movers and shakers in this world are exempt from all laws; in The Broken Kingdoms one character explains that the right to kill without consequence is the ultimate power claimed by those at the top of society.
Dani Kollin: Ours is a post-singularity world, so money can buy you trips around the solar system, perfect health for centuries, (rather cheaply too as everyone has a vested interest in keeping you working for centuries so they can milk you for earnings), huge houses with a robotized cleaning staff to keep it sparkling. Surprisingly enough the curse of rising standards still applies. Money can't get you laid on a Friday night unless you are naturally good at that sort of thing, or can afford to pay for it. But remember, sex is a constant because it is a human need and remains a relatively consistent one. Money can't buy you love (The Beatles were right in this regard). It can't buy you friends, though it can buy you companions. Remember that money is both a lubricant of technological progress and the means to access the technology already produced, and does both at the exact same time.
N. K. Jemisin: Money [In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms] also buys magic, which is technically restricted to those with the training to use it, though of course obtaining this training, or hiring those who possess it, is beyond the means of most people. But because magic has been commoditized, a thriving black market in illicit magic exists as well. The magic that poor people can buy is minor stuff—spells to heal chronic medical problems, occasional favors from local gods who are willing to sell their services, temporary conferrals of power sold by those gods as a magical narcotic. The wealthy can buy the sorts of "miracles" seen in our own technological world: the ability to travel across the planet swiftly, deadly long-distance firepower, instantaneous communication.
But the greatest power in this world—the greatest impunity—is priceless. This is possessed by the gods, who are exempt even from the laws of physics and nature. Since the Arameri have ownership of some gods' slave labor at the beginning of the trilogy, they effectively control godlike power. This isn't something that can be purchased; one must have the right combination of ethnicity, lineage, and luck.
Brian Francis Slattery: In the three books I've written, the best way to describe the value of money is variable or even volatile. Ever since I grasped the concept, the idea that money is a sort of convenient social fiction has never been too far from my mind—you know, because the paper notes are inherently worthless, and the value is really only in our minds—and I've gravitated toward stories where the characters are acutely aware of that fiction and thus only half buy into it.
I've once again taken my cues from my experiences in poorer countries, where, with multiple currencies and unstable exchange rates at play, the fiction about money's worth is pretty shaky, and makes the value of everything much more negotiable than it is in a place like the United States. It can lead to some pretty horrific transactions: people willing to sell themselves, or even worse, being involuntarily sold, for what someone in the United States would pay for an air conditioner.
But the other side of that logic has people going about their day-to-day lives with, in some ways, more humor in it. If every transaction turns into haggling, the idea isn't so much about parting fools from their cash as it is about arriving at an exchange that everyone's reasonably happy with, which could mean a lot more social interaction at, say, the supermarket, than we in the United States are accustomed to. As someone who thinks more social interaction is generally a good thing, that particular aspect of haggling, of bargaining with mirth and with the intention of reaching agreement, is something I've really enjoyed whenever I've had a chance to do it, and I've tried to put as much of that into my books as I can.
N. K. Jemisin: In Gujaareh, money buys dreams and nightmares. But I can't talk more about that 'til the duology comes out!
John C. Wright: Where economics might play a role is as backdrop. In a movie like Cinderella Man, the Great Depression shows the backdrop of the hero and lends drama to his prizefighting career, because he is boxing not for prize money but for milk money. When his child steals a salami from the butcher, it becomes a poignant, even triumphant, moment for the father to teach the child that hardship does not excuse wrongdoing—and a scene like that would lack drama had the child not been poor and hungry, and the father hungrier than the child. But, for all this, the Great Depression was a backdrop: the causes or cure of the Depression was never mentioned in the film, nor should it have been. Cindarella Man was melodrama, not SF, but the same rules of how to cobble a good story still apply.
Charlie Stross: In a science-fictional context, it's the job of the designer of the secondary world to work out what items are available for sale, or unavailable at any price. Which in turn may have a big impact on your characters' motivations.
Any parting words of encouragement, advice, or mischief for writers struggling with economics in their secondary worlds?
Brian Francis Slattery: Avoid ideology, which is not the same thing as avoiding politics.
Elizabeth Bear: Just remember that economics isn't just some esoteric, high-level thing. It's every lemonade stand and every ferryman and every wandering bard.
Charlie Stross: Don't assume that capitalism is the only way to mediate exchanges of value. Even in the world today, by some estimates only around 25 percent of exchanges are mediated via the formal cash-based economy. The commonest economic unit around the world today is that bastion of Marxist communism, the family unit—within which everyone pools their assets and allocation is on the basis of need. It doesn't scale up well, but between parents and children/siblings it generally works well. Again, there have been many gift-based societies, and others where status is determined by one's ability to conspicuously destroy luxuries. Indeed, there's a body of theory based on historical studies and sociology that suggests money was originally invented as internal tokens for accounting within Neolithic temple complexes, and predates barter (while the classical economic theory is that barter came first, and money was a formalization to permit exchanges of value between people with dissimilar goods to trade).
The way we do things in the developed western economies today is very weird by historical standards. So when writing fiction, work out what people value first — and what their role is in their society. The economics then emerge from the inter-personal relations, and enrich the background and characterization.
John C. Wright: One thing writers should avoid is this: writing about economics if you are an ignoramus. I read a book by an author whose name I won't mention, and in an early chapter, as part of his future history, he depicts an economic catastrophe and the events leading to it. Because I was interested in economics, I was curious as to how this author would handle the economics involved. Because the author was a famous hard science fiction writer, known for doing his homework and getting his technical facts straight, I was not just curious, but eager to see him handle a science known to me.
The author proposed that a worldwide economic depression could be caused, not by government interference in the credit cycle, but by investors all over the world trading online turning their computers off at night so that one hemisphere was engaged in speculation while the other was not, creating a speculator's bubble, which lead to a panic and a run on the banks. (This was written before the days of the Internet, you young whippersnappers, so the idea of a worldwide Wall Street connected electronically was shiny new SF speculation of the first water.) I can hardly suppress my groan of disappointment. A schoolboy with one semester of freshman economics could have set this author straight: Speculators do not cause a general depression of the prize of wages and goods. Only meddling with the money supply can do that, and speculators have no such power.
This hard SF writer, so well known for doing his homework, had the dog eat hit homework this time. The portrait of how economic concatenation works was about at the level of Karl Marx, which is to say, cargo-cult economics. Imagine reading a book where a rocketship is described as zooming up through the upper atmosphere to space and then finding itself helplessly adrift due to the fact that in space there is no air for the rockets to push against. The error of this writer was of that magnitude. If you are going to write economics into your SF, make it dramatic, and do your homework.
N. K. Jemisin: "Follow the money" is a political adage that I've found useful in world-building, because it helps me consider a society as a supply chain. I have to think about who's on the receiving end of that supply chain; how and what systems work to transport wealth, concentrate it, and resist its loss to those who "aren't supposed to" have it; and who/what is being exploited to provide it. Just thinking that through sets up most of your societal world-building right there. And one of the most useful things I did in coming up with the Dreamblood world was to study the economics of ancient societies. But it's not the big stuff that reveals the economics, like monuments; what you really want to look at are the hair ornaments.
No, don't look at me like that. Consider: Every human culture does stuff with its hair. So who makes the brushes? How does an ordinary person buy or make a comb, or a clip, or beads, or hair dye? How do they buy it, and how much does it cost—not just in resources but in time and labor? How can they afford the free time to do elaborate things with their hair, if they do? (Yeah, okay, so you might have a fantasy world full of bald people; I'm speaking figuratively, here. But if they're bald, how do they get their scalp-polish?)
What I'm getting at is, economics are visible in the everyday. Nearly every major city has a museum that showcases art or artifacts that depict everyday life in various cultures—even the tiniest museums have that. So go look at the toothbrushes. Figure out how the clothes are made. What's a luxury food, and what's a staple, and how is either one obtained, and who gets to eat what? Looking at the little things did more to help me figure out the "big picture" than reading a dozen economic texts. But economic texts are helpful too. I really liked Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh's Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.
Dani Kollin: Don't worry about it too much. Ours is very unique situation where economics was at the heart of the novel. Almost every other novel in the world will have [economics] at the periphery. If you have a great story and you don't mess up the economics (to the point where it distracts), you can get away with being vague. Just deliver on the parts readers care about (sex, violence, love, betrayal, family, drama, humor, etc.) and they'll forgive that you didn't explain how ATMs work on a gas giant in the Andromeda Galaxy.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly and Booklifenow.com. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. Jones lives in Upstate South Carolina with his wife, daughter, and flying poodle.