Essay on fantasy fiction, economics and trade
May 7, 2013 2:26 PM   Subscribe

Many years ago I read an essay that was pretty critical of the way so much fantasy fiction could not build believable societies with plausible economic underpinnings. The author was fairly concise and snarky, arguing that (I'm paraphrasing here) she could suspend disbelief about dragons and magic, but that she couldn't slog her way through a book where not the least bit of thought had been given to how all these characters and their associates could make a living, grow or acquire food, and otherwise acquire money and engage in trade. I think it was an essay by Joanna Russ in Fantasy & Science Fiction in the 70s, when she had a regular book review column there, but I could be conflating like mad.
posted by maudlin to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds as if it might be On Thud and Blunder by Poul Anderson; it's from 1978 originally.
posted by Jeanne at 3:23 PM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

You might also be interested in Charles Stross' Merchant Princes series. It's technically SF, not fantasy, but you'll never look at a comparable fantasy kingdom the same way again.
The economic arguments are part of the story, but there's a fair amount of info-dump about economics.
posted by bad grammar at 3:27 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've bookmarked that Anderson essay, as it seems to be damn good on its own, but while it's from the correct time frame, it doesn't emphasize economics the way I remember from the original, nor can I remember reading the anthology it was first published in. (I'm really not into sword and sorcery very much. Well, very close to "not at all".)

I have this tactile memory of the slim issue of the magazine (might even have been this specific issue) and a sharp memory of Russ' sardonic tone, whereas Anderson is a little more earnest.

On preview: that Stross series looks interesting, too. If no one can find the essay I'm thinking of, I'll gladly accept recommendations for essays and fiction on fantasy that is economically correct.
posted by maudlin at 3:41 PM on May 7, 2013

Crooked Timber held an online seminar on Stross' aforementioned Merchant Prince series, including contributions by Paul Krugman and Brad Delong
posted by Jakey at 3:55 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: These might help:
- Economics in Speculative Fiction
- Patricia Wrede on Commerce, Trade, and Public Life
- Another article on the economics side of world building
- Grain into Gold is a for purchase PDF on realistic economies in PnP RPGs; a review and overview

This is a bibliography of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Contents of each issue are listed, so you could poke through there as it suits you. The essay does not seem to be in the issue listed above, unless it was in Russ' Books column.

And speaking of Russ, here is her bibliography on the same site. I do not see anything in the essay section that leaps out at me, but there are a few possible candidates.

Good hunting.
posted by zueod at 7:58 PM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: AHA! I think I found it -- thanks, zueod! That bibliography led to to the February 1979 issue (which I definitely read -- I remember On Wings Of Song).

She reviewed Lord Foul's Bane in that issue (I was thinking that it had possibly been The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant). Further Googling led to this collection of essays (On Joanna Russ) and on page 28, I hit gold:
Russ turned again to the topic of reviewing in her penultimate review, in November 1979, which responded to letters attacking her short but pungent demolition of heroic fantasy in the February 1979 issue, letters [sic?] that had been inspired by the publication of Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane (1977) and Joy Chant's The Grey Mane of Morning (1977), some of the first fantasy trilogies inspired by Tolkien. Some of the dozens of letters attacking Russ were published in the July 1979 issue, and she responded a few months later [November 1979 -- the issue I linked to in my last comment]. ...

This lengthy response to her angry readers was concluded by a clarification of her views on heroic fantasy. She apologized for upsetting people by saying that "something in which one has invested intense emotion is not only bad art but bad for you, not only bad for you but ridiculous." ... "The current popularity of heroic fantasy escapes me," she says; it is a symptom of political and cultural reaction, itself a response to economic depression. There is artistic worth in some fantasy. ... But if they are no more than daydreams, she implies, then fantasy is not only worthless, but harmful.
So it seems that I have to get my hands on the February, July and November 1979 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. (Oh, yeah, those covers look familiar.) The November essay is in her collection of essays The Country You Have Never Seen, and if the book is as comprehensive as some sources suggest, I should be able to find the original February review as well. Luckily, the Merril Collection has a copy.

I found a few quotes from the February essay in this book on Tolkien, but not much about the economic elements I remember so strongly (which, again, I could be conflating with something else.)

So whether or not the essay is exactly as I remember it, I can soon read it again, but I also have been pointed at several more great reads in this area. Thanks, all!
posted by maudlin at 8:55 PM on May 7, 2013

« Older Obsessed With a Friend   |   Urgent care walk in clinic in Los Angeles Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.