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.