Speculative fiction often employs a deliberate vagueness when it comes to the economics of fictional universes. In fantasy novels, gold coins may serve as simple, flexible, generally ill-defined units of exchange, often found whenever convenient and obeying no known rules of economics. In science fiction, money is often handwaved or completely ignored (because building and maintaining a spaceship would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for the ragtag group of protagonists, probably). Sure, it’s not often you buy a novel because you’re hoping it contains several hundred pages of economic theory—but when an author manages to incorporate serious economic worldbuilding into an imagined story, it’s kind of amazing. Don’t believe us? Here are
18 19 fascinating speculative worlds in which economics plays a huge part in both the plot and worldbuilding.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson
Hearing that the protagonist of a new fantasy novel is essentially a renegade accountant might send you running, but Dickinson’s assured, confident debut novel’s main character, Baru Cormorant, is so much more than that—and so much more interesting than another anti-hero thief or sellsword. When her tiny island nation is conquered by the all-consuming Empire of Masks, Baru vows to destroy her enemy from within, assimilating outwardly and rising quickly to a position as Imperial Accountant in Aurdwynn, a troublesome out-of-the-limelight territory the empire is trying to bring to heel. Here, Baru sees her chance, and embarks on a program of economic manipulation and sabotage that sparks a revolt and sows chaos, forcing her to pick a side. The economy of the Empire of Masks is detailed and described in ways that make it seem as exciting as any magic system, setting this trilogy-launching book apart. (The fallout for Baru’s actions is explored in last year’s sequel The Monster Baru Cormorant).
The Dagger and the Coin series, by Daniel Abraham
Daniel Abraham was already known as a writer who considered economics an integral part of his fantasy worlds (the cotton trade, of all things, sparks generations of upheaval in The Long Price Quartet) when he launched The Dagger and the Coin quintet, in which he crafts a world with a deep history of civil strife (the titular Dragon’s Path); 13 specific races, each with its own socioeconomic place and culture; and plenty of warfare, battles, near-escapes, and thrills. It’s also a world where one of the five point-of-view characters runs a bank branch, and where banks are almost nations unto themselves, crossing borders and wielding incredible power. The story climaxes in an audit that is somehow as exciting as any sword fight. No one else makes realistic economics an essential part of an exciting story like Abraham.
King’s Shield, by Sherwood Smith
In King’s Shield (book three of the Inda series), there’s an oddly exciting moment of economics-as-plot-point: whereas most fantasies imagine kingdoms whose monarchs have more or less endless resources, Smith shows us one in which the kingdom absolutely broke, and the king is forced to explain that more gold won’t help, because the royal purse has nothing to do with gold—it’s all about men and horses and vital resources given to the crown by vassals, which in turn allow him to basically write IOUs. Gold is worthless because years of war have frozen trade and depressed markets. It’s a surprisingly complicated economic lecture in the middle of a fantasy series that brings the true crisis at the heart of the story into sharp focus.
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The Dragonriders of Pern series, by Anne McCaffrey
Anne McCaffrey’s lengthy Pern series has a complex, if probably unworkable, economic system of “marks”—wooden coins issued by a Hold or a Hall with their identifying mark on one side and the value of the mark on the other. Interestingly, unlike gold, the marks themselves have zero intrinsic value; their value is solely in what they can be exchanged for at the issuing Hold or Hall. The value of a mark varies no matter what number is printed on one side, because the goods and services it can be exchanged for vary in perceived value—a 100-mark coin that gets you a bolt of silk is a lot less valuable than a 5-mark coin that will pay to heal a grievous injury. McCaffrey’s economics have some foundation in the real world and are fascinating in their complexity and imagination.
The Towers trilogy, by Karina Sumner-Smith
The phrase “born into money” is usually used insultingly. In Smith’s universe, people—well, most people—are born with magical powers of varying sorts. Magic can accomplish anything, provided you have the right power, and has become the only currency that matters. Smith’s detailed examination of an economy of personal ability—people literally “born into” their social and economic status—focuses on Xhea, a woman who initially seems to lack any magic whatsoever. Struggling to earn a living and survive when you literally have nothing the world wants is a fascinating way to explore the ins and outs of an economic system.
The Books of Babel, by Josiah Bancroft
Before we dig into this one, be warned: what follows functions as something of a minor worldbuilding spoiler for at least the first novel in Josiah Bancroft’s ingenious series, set almost entirely within a truly massive structure known as the Tower of Babel (but not that one). While it doesn’t give away any plot points, per se, it doesn’t reveal a detail about how the tower functions that some readers may prefer to discover on their own. Still here? OK. So, as we first begin to explore the tower in Senlin Ascends alongside our protagonist, a stuffy schoolteacher named Thomas Senlin who visits the edifice on his his honeymoon and soon finds himself minus one wife and plus a whole heap of problems, we find it is divided into separate “ringdoms” that operate seemingly independently of one another, each with its own bizarre rituals: the rabble in the market of the “skirts” at the tower’s base; the drunken revelers in the Basement who crowd onto foot-powered merry-go-rounds that reward their physical activity with a spray of cold beer; the actors in the pantomimes of the Parlor who are given roles to play and rules to follow, chief among them: stoke the fires in every room you enter; the Baths, with their artificial beaches and warm bathing pools. Senlin soon begins to suspect that the Tower, by design, is built of subterfuge and exploitation: each higher level is powered by the suffering and labor of the masses below (the heat of the Baths comes from the Parlor’s fires, and so on), who receive in return little more than temporary distraction. There is money in this world, too—Senlin generally doesn’t have enough of it, which causes him more trouble—and a thriving black market built on piracy, slavery, and murder. It’s not unlike a fantastical analogue to the real world, cut into slivers and stacked precariously high.
Neptune’s Brood, by Charles Stross
A good number of Charles Stross’ works could find a home on this list—consider the not-so-near-future economic crisis that drives Halting State, triggered by a conspiracy involving the theft of rare items within a massive multiplayer online role playing game that extends offline into the realms of stock market manipulation; he even has an entire science fantasy series known as The Merchant Princes that uses portal fantasy tropes to explore the influence modern goods and technology might have on the politics and economies of a feudal world. But we’d be loathe not to highlight Neptune’s Brood, the second book in a loosely connected series (after Saturn’s Children) exploring a far future galaxy in which “natural” humans are extinct and androids and meta-humans carry our legacy into the year 7000—including our tendency to muck up our economies in pursuit of greater wealth. The novel hinges on the idea of how an economy of deep space colonization could possibly function across such vast distances. Stross innovates the idea of “slow money,” a cryptocurrency system in which transactions can be verified no faster than at one-third speed of light—which isn’t all that fast when you’re popping into another solar system (more day-to-day needs are taken care of with, naturally, “fast” and “medium” money). The plot, which is ostensibly about a woman’s search for her missing clone sister, hinges on a financial conspiracy that unfolds across centures and light years. We’re pretty sure we understood it.
Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear
The economics of Bear’s Eternal Sky series isn’t a main focus of the books, so readers might not realize how much thought has gone into Cory it, but the author has clearly seriously considered how her pre-modern world functions. Her story focuses, after all, on trade routes and who controls them, because trade is how empires fill their coffers, and those coffers are what pay for armies, and armies are what keep empires whole. Bear’s Celedon Highway, a Silk Road analogue, demonstrates how manipulation of trade is imperative to the story of a Khan seeking to assert his rightful claim to the throne; without the bones of economic theory implanted in the narrative, much of the plot would fall apart.
Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow is more interested in the underlying mechanisms of society than your average SFF writer, and his latest full-length novel serves as evidence enough of that fact. Set in a post-scarcity world where everything can be 3D-printed, the means of production are shared activity, with all the dangers and difficulties that come with it. The central story, involving people who use that lack of scarcity to simply step outside of society and attempt to build a true utopia—with unexpected consequences—is in itself a look at what an economy might look like when you can print your shoes and other sundries. Doctorow also gets into the effect that a reputation-based economy might have on society at large—an aspect of economics we’re just getting into today, with companies being shamed on Twitter and politically-motivated mass boycotts springing up in response.
Infomocracy, by Malka Older
Older’s debut novel—the first of a now-complete trilogy—imagines a world where the entire population is divided into groups of 100,000, known as centenals. Each centenal can vote for the government they wish to belong to—governments ranging from corporate-dominated PhilipMorris, to policy-based groups with names like Liberty, while a global organization called Information seeks to police elections and ensure that the many governments keep their promises and play by the rules. Older doesn’t skimp on the economic aspects of such a world, as each government has its own approach (including, of course, a government called Economix whose entire focus is economic policy), ranging from the economies-of-scale focus (AfricanUnity) to large-scale corporate interests (Heritage). While the economics aren’t the main focus of the story, they’re important to it, and the structure of the fictional universe allows for a lot of fascinating exploration of economic concepts.
Making Money, by Terry Pratchett
The 36th novel of Discworld is the second to feature former con man Moist von Lipwig (perhaps the greatest character name of all time), who finds himself forced into running the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork as well as the Royal Mint. This comes with a lot of disadvantages, including the fact that the chairman of the bank is a dog, and the production of coins (that no one uses) runs at a loss. Pratchett threads this in with a second story involving the retrieval of four golden golems of legend that turns out, due to translation error, to be four thousand golems, leading to the invention of fiat money in another of Discworld’s surprising leaps into the modern age. As with many of the Discworld novels, this one evidences a lot of serious and interesting thought laced into the fantasy setting, including a smart examination of the gold standard, paper money, inflation, and, of course, golems.
Gateway, by Frederik Pohl
Frederik Pohl’s most famous creation is showing some rust these days, but its central ideas still resonate—including the debate over universal healthcare and the inequities of a capitalist society, which Pohl somehow makes organic to the story. Pohl creates a believably terrible future for humanity and populates it with interestingly conflicted, often contemptible characters who slowly grow from exclusively self-interested to something greater, even as he constructs a fascinating mystery around them. Pohl explores a world facing a population crisis and a food shortage, relying on an insane sort of lottery involving the discovery of a mysterious alien station and the sacrifices of desperate souls willing to risk their lives to pilot one of the uncontrollable faster-than-light vessels it contains in exchange for a percentage of the profits derived from anything they discover (assuming they discover anything at all, or come back, for that matter). This is an examination of late-stage capitalism that combines wonder and adventure with misery and hopelessness; there’s a reason it won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards.
The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey
The Expanse builds an intricate and sprawling universe, and the two minds behind James S.A. Corey—Ty Franck and the aforementioned Daniel Abraham—do an excellent job of leaning into that complexity, including the economics of a future where mankind has moved out into the solar system but remains chained down by classic physics (for a while, anyway). The Earth is bursting at the seams with 30 billion people, most of whom aren’t simply unemployed, but are what economists would call “not in the labor force” at all—they’re surviving on Basic Assistance and have zero interest in seeking work. While the exact reasons for this severely underemployed scenario aren’t closely examined, it’s easy to guess that once automation took jobs and pushed people onto Basic Assistance, requiring resources to be shifted from things like education and training to the Basic Assistance budget, thus pushing more people onto Basic Assistance—lather, rinse, repeat. And that’s just one aspect of this deeply-imagined setting, which also ventures into space to show us what life is like for the Mars colonists and asteroid-dwelling “Belters” who have never set foot on Earth at all—and then blows it all up when alien technology hands humans the keys to the wider galaxy and a galactic gold rush ensues.
The Craft Sequence, by Max Gladstone
Max Gladstone’s brilliant fantasy series gets a lot of notice for the way he maps real-world professions and markets—lawyers and corporations—onto a magic system. But dig a bit deeper and what you’ve really got is a wildly original economic system that adheres to basic principles. The Craftspeople in this new world need souls—or portions of souls known as soulstuff—to practice their magic, making souls the main currency (although it’s really more like barter than a true currency—imagine if you owned a battery and purchased things by letting people plug in and charge their devices on it). People can trade pieces of their souls for goods and services—but Craftspeople can produce their own magical energy from starlight, so the question of what happens when they no longer need to barter for souls is a fascinating one.
Distraction, by Bruce Sterling
This 1999 novel reads like it was written yesterday. It’s set in a world that has suffered a complete collapse of the information economy and a United States ruled by chaotic “emergency committees.” Sterling sees a future where most people don’t even bother participating in the economy—and those that do manage it by glomming onto the ultra-rich as part of their staff of hangers-on. Sterling foresaw a reputation economy years before the advent of social media, with nomads living outside society using stored reputation as currency. As with all Sterling novels, there is a lot going on, but his fictional economy is the engine that drives the motivations of his characters, making this a perfect example of the narrative possibilities opened up by treating money seriously in SFF.
Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz
Annalee Newitz, a science journalist, futurist, and the co-founder of io9, delivers seriously plausible—if chilling—examination of the future of medicine in her debut, set in a world in which pharma pirates reverse-engineer prohibitively expensive drugs (of both the life-saving and the recreational variety) in order to distribute their own versions the way people jailbreak software today. In this terrifyingly plausible post-climate change future, pharma hackers—both blackhat and white—are a vital part of the healthcare system in which “better living through chemistry” is taken to terrifying extremes. Along the way, Newitz gets into a pretty thorough exploration of intellectual property rights taken to the extreme, a reinvention of indentured servitude, and a host of other dark, unintended consequences of market forces gone awry.
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenspon
Predicated on a massive economic collapse that leaves the quadrillion dollar note (a.k.a. a “gipper”) the smallest viable unit of currency, the world of Stephenson’s seminal 1992 cyberpunk thriller includes a form of cryptocurrency in its economic system, which powers a world that is best termed “anarcho-capitalist.” It’s a chaos of self-interest as a teeming multitude of forces compete with each other—often violently—for dwindling resources. Everything in this future is privately-owned by one corporate entity or another, even the federal government, and Stephenson paints it all to be precisely as terrible as you might imagine something called “anarcho-capitalism” would be. Much of Snow Crash hasn’t aged particularly well, vis a vis what the internet turned out to be, but its future economy seems more plausible every day.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Not only does Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut novel explore fictional economics, it’s also a real-world lesson in economics: when released to critical acclaim and unexpectedly huge sales in 2009, the book single-handedly put theretofore under-the-radar publisher Night Shade Books on the map, moving so many copies that the company wound up expanding too fast, and subsequently fell into bankruptcy. As for the book, it combines a fantastic, fatalistic near-future, post-climate change, resource-strapped dystopian world with terrific sci-fi ideas—including an economy based on kinetic energy and trades of calories (ingested) for calories (burned), and the use of terror, murder, and other violence to open or otherwise control markets. If you think the economics of Bacigalupi’s book are fanciful, you might need to read a bit more about how war is used in real life to influence economic conditions. (See also: the harrowing resource wars of Bacigalupi’s followup, The Water Knife.)
And a bonus entry…
Orconomics, by J. Zachary Pike
After this post was first published, a few readers called us out for the glaring omission of J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics, a humorous fantasy that seems tailor-made for inclusion here. It’s billed as a satire, as if you couldn’t tell from the premise: in short, in this world, fantasy quests are treated like investment vehicles, with backers, and risk assessors, and insurance, etc.; essentially, Pike is grafting the mundanities of economics onto the adventure you’d expect from a book about a dwarf warrior-for-hire named Gorm who runs afoul of a bad contract gig and must set out with a band of misfits to take on a mad goddess, not to mention some powerful businessmen, in an attempt to repair his rep. The book recently won the top prize in author Mark Lawrence’s 2018 Self-Published Fantasy Book-Off (the same contest that brought major attention to Josiah Bancroft, Jonathan French, and others); Lawrence called it a perfect pick for fans of Terry Pratchett and Nicholas Eames. Check and check, so now we’ve got something new to read…
What systems of speculative economics would you add to the list?