Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Money in fantasy

Monetary systems in fantasy often fall into the gold/silver/copper lines. Partly because this is familiar and partly because it’s easier for readers to remember than, say, platinum/steel/tin.

Usually, the variations come in what the different types of coins are called. In Westeros, the world of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, gold coins are dragons and silver coins are stags – an interesting tip of the head to the political system, where the previous (dead) king’s symbol was a dragon, and the current king’s sigil is a stag.

In China Mieville’s world of Bas-Lag, people use shekels as currency, which I liked a lot because it reminded me of the ancient Middle East. Jack Vance’s world of Tschai is even more imaginative, though, since people there use sequins.

Sequins, on Tschai, are small colored gemstone-like objects that grow in nodes that bud unpredictably from the ground. Nodes can produce over a hundred sequins, which all start off clear, but take time to ripen to their final colors of scarlet and purple (passing through white, blue, green, etc. along the way). This sets the system in place – the clears are almost worthless while the purples are the most valuable.

So fortune-hunters on Tschai look for nodes. Needless to say, there’s an area where nodes do grow in some quantity, and it’s a hunting province patrolled by the vicious aliens called the Dirdir.

In our own past, people have used cowrie shells and salt as currency (the word “salary” derives from “salt”). Theoretically, money can be made of anything, as long as people can’t easily reproduce or damage it – coins made of glass would be unfeasible. It should also be in a form that can be readily transported and transferred.

Only in modern times has money been digital, existing as information passed from one computer network to another. I’ve thought and thought, but there seems to be no way to translate this to a fantasy world, without first setting up a banking system and teaching people finance. Until then, characters will just have to carry around their shekels, sequins, stags and so on.


DRC said...

The currency in my world is called 'Denor' after the Royal city Denorga where it is all governed.

I like shekels though. Never thought to use that. Oh well. Never mind... ;)

Anonymous said...

Most European nations used silver as the base coin, not gold (unlike in D&D inspired fantasy).

In the game series Fallout they use caps, as in metal bottle caps. Easy to find but hard to reproduce.

Loren said...

That's because silver is more common than gold. These metals are much desired but rare, which makes them valuable. But if the medieval alchemists had succeeded in making lots of gold and silver, those metals would have become useless as money. In fact, in 1404, King Henry IV of England had outlawed the alchemical manufacture of gold and silver, likely for that reason.

Something of that sort happened to Spain in the 1500's, when Spanish conquerors brought back lots of gold and silver from the New World. They thought that that gold and silver would make them rich, but it caused a lot of inflation. People wondered why the price of eggs went up.

"I learnt a proverb here", said a French traveler in 1603: "Everything is dear in Spain except silver".

That might make an interesting plotline -- someone thinks that discovering the secret to make gold will make them rich, but it makes gold worthless as money, though still useful as a raw material.

Marian Perera said...

DRC : Naming coins after a city is a great idea. Maybe paying with those outside such a specific location can be done, but it also marks you as being from that particular city or region.

ralfast : I love the image of people in a dystopian wasteland collecting bottle caps (or Coke-can tabs) to use as currency.

Loren : Thanks for explaining that. Finances have never been my forte - I'm great at saving money, but it took Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers for me to understand exactly what auditors do. I should look up exactly how inflation occurs too.

JH said...

Planet of Adventure was one of the first scifi book I ever read, this is a cool blast from the past.

Also gonna have to disagree with this:

Only in modern times has money been digital, existing as information passed from one computer network to another. I’ve thought and thought, but there seems to be no way to translate this to a fantasy world, without first setting up a banking system and teaching people finance. Until then, characters will just have to carry around their shekels, sequins, stags and so on.

While the "digital" part may not be applicable to fantasy (without like, magitech computers made of ghosts bound to do counting and long distance communication or something), what you're describing are systems of credit, which have been around basically forever and contrary to longstanding orthodoxy, were actually the first forms of money, read more here:

Ancient systems of credit would actually be a cool addition to fantasy novels dealing with the distant past, but complex systems of loans and banking existed at least as far back as the high middle ages in Europe and the Middle East. A good book on economic history that could aid worldbuilders of fantasy in that milieu is Before European Hegemony by Janet Abu-Lughod. I wrote a review/summary here:

Also worth noting is that paper money is pretty old too: localities in Tang China were printing it back in the 600s. The inspiration were merchant receipts... a form of credit as part of a finance system.

JH said...

"I should look up exactly how inflation occurs too."

Inflation is best understood by thinking of money as a commodity, subject to supply and demand like any other. When there are lots of apples, the amount of money needed to exchange for an apple goes down. When there is lots of money, the amount of apples needed to exchange for a unit of currency goes down, i.e., prices in general go up. This happens when a large influx of whatever is used as money enters an economy. Loren gave an example of how this works in bullion (i.e. precious metal) money systems: someone discovers/extracts/steals a whole lot of precious metals, and suddenly there's so many coins that can be minted that money is no longer "scarce" enough to justify previous prices. In fiat money systems (i.e., paper money backed by the credit of a national government), inflation can occur when the government prints money, as part of some kind of monetary stimulus policy maybe. Since paper money is backed by the country's credit-worthiness, I think inflation also occurs when the country's credit goes down, since its money is perceived as less stable/valuable and so more is needed to buy things. The natural rate of growth in an economy can also cause inflation since people take out loans to finance businesses, and fractional reserve banking allows banks to basically print more money than they actually hold as capital stock.

JH said...

Also to follow up my first reply, two examples of credit money that people in olden tymes could carry around are tally sticks and letters of credit. The second is basically a check, the first needs a little elaboration but is pretty cool:

Loren said...

Thanx for explaining, JH. Inflation can also happen when demand outruns supply and everybody tries offering more money to get what's available. Think of ticket scalping.

As to variations on economics, small-scale societies often have "gift economies", where one can get status by giving a lot away. Think of people who throw lavish parties for each other in present-day society.

That does not work very well outside of people who know each other well, and barter has its limitations also: how much of A is worth how much of B and how much of each worth how much of C? So even "primitive" people end up turning certain items into money, like seashells. More recent such items are rum (early modern colonies) and cigarettes (some prison camps).

So one could think of other items that could get used as money.

Precious-metal coins may not seem vulnerable to inflation, but leaders have been known to debase their coinage, shrinking the coins or mixing in cheaper metals. The Roman Empre in the 3rd century CE was especially bad at that (Roman Currency of the Principate), as much as a factor of 10.

colbymarshall said...

This would be a severe problem for me if I was a fantasy character, seeing as how I can't stand to touch metal. (weird personal quirk)

Marian Perera said...

Jordan : That was fascinating. Paper money in the 600s... I definitely need to do more research. Though it should have occurred to me that credit wasn't so uncommon even way back then - the Brotherhood without Banners passed out "credit slips" in A Song of Ice and Fire, so obviously the concept isn't new.

Thanks also for explaining how inflation works. I never thought of money and goods as being in a balance.

Colby : That's a very interesting quirk. :) Reminds me of how elves couldn't stand to touch iron.