Economic Fantasy And The Anti-Anthem.
August 26, 2013 4:43 AM   Subscribe

Settle a bet: Friend claimed that Terry Pratchett's "Going Postal" and "Making Money" where unique in the fantasy genre for dealing so much with the economics and " white collar" systems of a fantasy setting. I said that couldn't be true but couldn't think of any examples ( they abound in Sci-Fi, but we're talking wands and robes here, and the Baroque Cycle is only kind-of-fantasy). So, what are some examples of fantasy novels where things like labor unions, mediums of exchange, guild politics, trade imbalances, commodities markets, hostile takeovers and government regulation are both explored and woven into the plot?

Bonus round: Books with the above but that also celebrate ( or at least put in a quasi-positive light) the values of social democracy, peaceful resolutions, cooperation, labor rights, class struggle, etc. Basically, the opposite of Ayn Rand's Anthem.
posted by The Whelk to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe this is a stupid suggestion, but did you already consider the Harry Potter series? Potter's totally wands and robes, and these are major themes in the books.
posted by whatzit at 4:54 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Not a book, but the story of Baldur's Gate involves the Big Bad causing an iron crisis to starting a war between two cities and infiltrating/taking over the merchant guilds. It's not strictly economy, he does the same with the police force and tries to install himself as a political leader. Staging an iron shortage and driving up the market price is a big part of the first chapters tho.
posted by MinusCelsius at 4:55 AM on August 26, 2013

A Game of Thrones has Ned Stark, when he is Hand of the King, desperately trying to balance the budget of the Seven Kingdoms.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:59 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Steven Brust's Dragaera novels often deal with these themes and social mechanisms, especially in Teckla and Orca.

And previously.
posted by cgc373 at 5:03 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Windup Girl!

And Dune?
posted by Specklet at 5:14 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I was about to say Dune and even the Star Wars prequels, but those are a bit more science fantasy* than straight swords and sorcery.

* Science Fantasy - The scientific elements are sort of just hand-waved in and nobody cares too much how they work. Could be "a wizard did it" for all it matters to the story. Nobody ever talks about how hyperspace works in Star Wars, but they go on about it in Star Trek.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:18 AM on August 26, 2013

Try China MiƩville's Bas-Lag trilogy: Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council. All three contain subplots about class struggle &c., and Iron Council has a worker's revolt as its central plot.

[The links above, btw, go to Powell's Books through a link that give its union 7.5% of each sale; it seemed more appropriate than Amazon given the topic.]
posted by jfbeatty at 5:28 AM on August 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

There's an anime series called "Spice and Wolf" which is specifically about that. The protagonist is a travelling merchant; the "wolf" is named Horo and she's a minor deity.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:30 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Daniel Abrahams, The Long Price Quartet. Explicitly fantasy. Economics is a huge part of the world. In fact, one of the protags works at a bank/counting house.

Steampunk seems to deal with these themes quite often.

Charles Stross's The Merchant Princes is economics in a fantasy world/alternate Earth, but unfortunately {SPOILER} that has a science fictional setup in the end.
posted by pie ninja at 5:31 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Eleanor Arnason's The Swordsmith is about a metal worker with a reputation for making swords trying to make a living in a country on the edge of war. It's not specifically about organizing, but labor rights are a theme.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:45 AM on August 26, 2013

One of the two main plots in Raymond Feist's Rise of a Merchant Prince is about a character becoming a (well, obviously) successful white collar merchant. The other is follows the more conventional kill-things-with-swords-and-fire trope.
posted by Going To Maine at 5:56 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Daniel Abraham's The Dagger and the Coin has a narrating character who is a banker and does a lot to make sense of the economics in that universe. The same author wrote "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics", so he knows his shit. I haven't read Long Price, but Abraham has a general thing for economics and politics and their intersections.

Tamora Pierce's Tortall universe seems to have a pretty realized economic system, and the second Beka Cooper book revolves around taking down a counterfeiting ring and there's a lot in there about taxes, who takes care of the lower classes in times of famine, etc. The world that's laid out in the several series she's written in that universe seems very fully realized economically, particularly in regards to the slave trade. This one is particularly progressive, especially for a high fantasy novel, and it really doesn't shy from showing the way that the lower classes get by, which seems rather rare for fantasy to do.

It's not high fantasy, but I just finished the third book in Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories series, Without a Summer, which is basically an alt history version of the Luddite rebellions with illusion magic.

Jane Yolen's Pit Dragon series is sort of sci-fi with a lot of fantasy elements (it's basically a fantasy novel that takes place in the far future on another planet) and it spends 3 books sort of on adventures and stuff and then changes everything around in the 4th one and does a sort of take-down of a system of indentured servitude developed from being a prison planet where everyone's descended from prisoners and wardens.

NK Jemisin's Dreamblood duology isn't strictly economically focused, but there's an interesting caste system in it and you get to see people from different economic systems interacting, for better or for worse. The second book in particular has some interesting contrasting views on money when the healer/priestess who wears fine, expensive clothing paid for by the church befriends the barbarian woman from a tribe that expects women to control the finances of her household mostly independent of men, with her bringing value to the tribe through her cleverness and economic contribution. Also, lots of stuff about tariffs.

I think the biggest thing with fantasy is that it tends to feature main characters out of the noble classes for whom money isn't an issue and isn't dealt with much: Harry Potter has so much gold that he never has to worry about money except in relation to bringing up how poor the Weasleys are every 10 seconds, Artemis Fowl always wants more gold but he's never worrying where his next meal is coming from, and all the traditional lords and ladies of high fantasy are all set, money-wise.
posted by NoraReed at 5:57 AM on August 26, 2013

Mefi's own Charlie Stross' The Merchant Princes (mentioned above) is a six-book series that focuses on the economics of people who can walk between worlds. It may be a bit sfnal for your needs, but it's fairly explicitly a pastiche of Roger Zelazny's Amber books, which are as fantasy as you can get (but not focused on economics).
posted by immlass at 6:07 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series deals with the economic pressures of getting rid of slavery on a society and basically, waging war on the slaver guild in gory detail. Other economic ramifications include having knowledge of gun powder in a medieval, magic ridden world.
posted by jadepearl at 6:07 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ekaterina Sedia deals with this in The Alchemy of Stone and so does Alaya Dawn Johnson in her Polynesian fantasy series.
posted by spunweb at 6:08 AM on August 26, 2013

KJ Parker's The Folding Knife has a main character running a bank and politicking lots.
posted by Tapioca at 6:19 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bonus round: Books with the above but that also celebrate ( or at least put in a quasi-positive light) the values of social democracy, peaceful resolutions, cooperation, labor rights, class struggle, etc.

You're not going to find any fantasy works with those elements, at least not "high fantasy". If the setting is an analog for medieval Europe, which almost by definition is the setting of "high fantasy," those concepts and phenomena would be anachronistic in the extreme, i.e., if they existed, the setting would be very different. You can't really have a feudal society when concepts of labor rights and class struggle are running about. Or, perhaps more accurately, concepts of labor rights and class struggle simply do not emerge in feudal societies.

So you may find quite a few books with elements of economics and economic intrigue--Rise of a Merchant Prince, mentioned above, came immediately to mind--but I really don't think you're going to find any of the other stuff. You can't have social democracy without democracy, you know?
posted by valkyryn at 7:31 AM on August 26, 2013

The Red Wolf Conspiracy and sequels struck me as very socially conscious and centered around the powerless.

As a counterpoint to what you're looking for, Terry Goodkind spends one whole book in his Sword of Truth series ranting about a society that collapsed because of affirmative action. Or due to the clever, greedy machinations of a race of inherently inferior peoples. It depends on how charitable you want to be.
posted by jsturgill at 7:36 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is a ton of this in The Kingkiller Chronicles. For instance, at one point the protagonist is studying engineering and magic. To pay for school, he manufactures simple items that the school sells. His instructor assures him that he will make more money creating something original.
posted by willnot at 7:51 AM on August 26, 2013

Here's the aforementioned "Fairy Tale of Economics."
posted by Iridic at 8:29 AM on August 26, 2013

L.E. Modesitt's Recluce series has a ton of nitty-gritty economic stuff, although in most of the books it's household-scale. The White Order/Colors of Chaos, though, have a fair bit about how to collect taxes, manage a large city, set up tariffs, and administer a continent-scale empire. Modesitt was a political advisor in Washington for a while, and it shows.

To counter Valkyryn's point (to some extent,) David Eddings's Tamuli involves a bunch of knights from European-analogue countries going to a China-analogue empire and teaching them about upwardly mobile social systems. This is just about as racist as it sounds, but it's at least not maliciously racist. (In 80s-era fantasy, that's sometimes as good as it gets.) Also, Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar is in many ways a modern liberal's paradise, although it's not a democracy. Magic and divine guidance make all sorts of things possible.

Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead is a delightful fantasy about contract lawyers who practice necromancy to resolve their clients' claims. It may be the closest in terms of interrogating a single modern system in fantastic terms that I've read recently.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:55 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Diana Wynne Jones wrote many books set in parallel universes, and a few of them deal with the economics of acquiring things in one universe and selling them in another. Perhaps the most extreme are The Dark Lord of Derkholm and its sequel The Year of the Griffin, which are set in a universe whose entire economy is based around providing a theme park environment allowing travelers from the other universes to experience "Fantasyland". The economics stuff is well done and very funny.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:20 AM on August 26, 2013

It may not count for your bet because it's not a "published work" but Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality includes, among other relavent things, a discussion of exchange-rate arbitrage between the Muggle world and Magical Britain:
So not only is the wizarding economy almost completely decoupled from the Muggle economy, no one here has ever heard of arbitrage. The larger Muggle economy had a fluctuating trading range of gold to silver, so every time the Muggle gold-to-silver ratio got more than 5% away from the weight of seventeen Sickles to one Galleon, either gold or silver should have drained from the wizarding economy until it became impossible to maintain the exchange rate. Bring in a ton of silver, change to Sickles (and pay
5%), change the Sickles for Galleons, take the gold to the Muggle world, exchange it for more silver than you started with, and repeat.
posted by mbrubeck at 9:49 AM on August 26, 2013

Zelazny's "Madwand" sort kinda in a way a bit. Especially guild/union stuff. The 'madwand' is someone with magic that wasn't trained by another magician. Kind of upsets the usual order of things. In this case, the madwand is a kid from our world.
posted by Goofyy at 10:03 AM on August 26, 2013

The Lies of Locke Lamora deals extensively with economics and the white-collar business pursuits of Camorr and surrounding areas. Of course, the titular character is too busy fleecing them for all they're worth to worry about social democratic values, but the underlying fabric of the economy is there. Thieves prosper.
posted by WidgetAlley at 10:52 AM on August 26, 2013

The Cerebus novels devote quite a lot of space to Lord Julius's views on the best way to run a bureaucracy.
posted by flabdablet at 10:55 AM on August 26, 2013

Bujold's Sharing Knife tetralogy is all about the economic, social, and racial restructuring of a society emerging from a magical apocalypse a 1000 years ago (?) which killed almost everyone and devastated the world, as well as overthrowing the magical elite which precipitated the disaster in the first place and reducing them to a hated and increasingly marginalized remnant whose only raison d'etre is mopping up after and preventing the apocalypse from recurring. She reimagines the economic development of the Mississippi basin in the 18th and early 19th centuries in the background along the way.

Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter is an exploration of England's industrial revolution projected into Faerie, in which few aspects of the brutality and degradation of the original fail to find their parallel manifestation. If there is a more thorough evocation of Blakean "dark satanic mills" in a secondary world, I'm not sure I could stand to read it.
posted by jamjam at 12:58 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Philip Reeve in the Mortal Engines quartet. Municipal Darwinism, Traction Cities, Predator Cities. From the wiki, Thatcher is the god of Unlimited Municipal Darwinism and is worshipped by the Traktionstadt Alliance particularly.

Don't read the wiki before reading the books, because they're pretty good and worth going through on their own terms, at their own pace. They reminded me of Philip Pullman, only crisper, more ingenious and with a harder, steampunky-er edge.
posted by glasseyes at 2:08 PM on August 26, 2013

I don't recall any economics but Tad Williams' War of the Flowers has class struggle in a Faerie world.
posted by tracer at 2:43 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

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