June 18, 2003

Goblin Markets

I’m re-reading China Mieville’s rather wonderful fantasy novel, ‘The Scar,’ and noticing (as I didn’t the first time around), how much work Mieville has put into the economics of his created world. Now this is hardly surprising; he’s a committed Marxist, who has written a very interesting Ph.D. thesis on the roots and form of international law. Mieville is a historical materialist, and pays a lot of attention to the economic fundamentals underlying his created societies. But he’s very nearly unique among fantasy authors in so doing; most of them prefer to sweep the dirty business of material accumulation underneath the prettily woven carpet of chivalry, noblesse oblige &c.

Much of this can be traced back to Tolkien of course; his Middle Earth is almost entirely innocent of economics. Bits and pieces of exchange go on in the Shire and its environs but they’re more or less completely submerged in a bucolic and idealized rural yeoman society. And anyone who can guess what the aristos of Gondor and horselords of Rohan live off is a better man than me. Indeed, Tolkien is fervently opposed both to trade and industrialization. When Pippin and Merry find that Saruman has been able to import Long Leaf pipeweed to Isengard, it’s presented as a serious disillusionment, while Tolkien’s horror at nasty factories and mechanized mills that pump out steam, smoke and pollution is notorious.

Those who follow Tolkien in writing fat trilogies with Dark Lords and the like, nearly invariably wear the same blinkers. Kings, lords and earls throng the pages, without much in the way of indication as to what they live off. Or else, the author draws tortured distinctions between “good” nobles (tall, aristocratic in bearing, beloved by their forelock-tugging peasants), and “bad” ones (secretly in league with the Dark Lord, hunchbacked, get their kicks from lashing serfs to death). On all of this and more, read Dianna Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland

There’s a second line of fantasy cliche that descends more or less directly from Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. Not that Leiber himself is to blame; his Lankhmar books have a strong line in political satire (the city’s overlords and civil authorities are invariably either inept or corrupt), and the prosperity of Leiber’s imagined city is founded on the rather unromantic business of exporting grain. Yet multitudes of fantasy hacks have taken the more romantic bits of Leiber’s city (Thieves Guilds, gem merchants, exotic bazaars) and transplanted them into a bog-standard feudal-fantasy setting. The result is what might be called a romanticized mercantilism, in which gold, jewels, treasures, and their getting, are fetishized as being somehow magical in and of themselves, rather than material goods which have simple economic value. Merchants feature occasionally, and sometimes even get rich, but are more interested in the wonderful adventure of it all than in capital accumulation.

It’s this set of cliches that Mieville subverts almost as a matter of course, by reinserting them into a more realistic economic and political setting. NB - mild spoilers follow. Mieville’s city of New Crobuzon is semi-industrialized, but resembles one of the city-states of the late Renaissance; a patina of republicanism that barely conceals the real nexus of power; industrial magnates working together in a monopolistic cabal. Trade and imperial domination go hand-in-hand. Mieville has enormous fun creating outlandish societies - New Crobuzon itself, the pirate polyarchy (i.e. mix of modes of government - forget Dahl) of Armada - and strange creatures. But he never forgets the relationship between the economic, social and political. One of the key characters in The Scar, Silas Fennec, is exactly the kind of merchant-adventurer that populates hack fantasy epics in multitudes. However, unlike his literary comperes, Fennec is primarily interested in making money. In other words, he’s the real thing. One of the most important moments in the book occurs when the main protagonist, Bellis Coldwine, realizes she’s been had by Fennec. She’s been taken in by his traveller’s tales, and has failed to penetrate through to the sordid economic relations of colonial domination and exploitation that underly them. What he presents as romantic adventure, is in fact an effort to extend New Crobuzon’s economic grasp to new territories.

You may agree, or disagree with Mieville’s political analysis as you like (in any event, he never lets it get in the way of telling a good story). But one of the reasons why his fantasies are subversive is precisely because they reintroduce the economic and the political into a genre that sometimes tries to run away from them. Fantasy all too frequently harks back to a never-never land in which exploitative economic relations, clashes of interest and the like, never take place, or are airbrushed out of the picture. This isn’t an unmitigatedly awful thing; a bit of escapism here and there is quite harmless. But fiction that takes society - and the forces underlying different kinds of social organization - seriously, is fundamentally more interesting. At least to people like me, who study this stuff for a living.

Update: John Holbo responds at length with some interesting counter-arguments. Will reply when I get a chance …

Posted by Henry at June 18, 2003 11:36 AM | TrackBack

Diana Wynne Jones has two econ parody novels; Dark Lord of Derkholm and Archer’s Goon (“Shine farms crime.”)

C. J. Cherryh has economic systems that make sense, although I can’t remember a case in which trading is central to a fantasy novel instead of a space-opera one. (Also, and probably connected, her fantasy novels have a grip of some practical requirements of horse transport. “You hadn’t ought to tension-spring a mule.”)

And what about the later Pratchett? Jingo, or The Fifth Elephant? He jokes about the relation between Ankh-Morpork’s power and its trading, but the jokes aren’t stupid. However, I see that it isn’t as fun as the sense of a worked-out system behind the plot. (Or fun in a different way, although a worked-out system in the hands of a bad author is too much like a game of D&D.)

Posted by: clew at June 18, 2003 03:04 PM

Hmmm, I don’t think the works of Dunsany, Eddison, Peake, Leiber, Wolfe, Crowley would be better if the they’d paid “attention to the economic fundamentals underlying [their] created societies.”

And Perdido Street Station sux!!!!

Archer’s Goon is amazingly good though.

Posted by: David Weman at June 18, 2003 05:29 PM

Oh, and btw, welcome back to the Blogosphere! You’ve been missed.

Posted by: David Weman at June 18, 2003 05:51 PM

I love China Mieville’s work, but not only is he not the first modern fantasy writer to work at building worlds with real economics, he’s not even the first modern Marxist fantasy writer to do so.

Steven Brust’s “Vlad Taltos” novels and their spinoffs, all set in an elaborate, somewhat Leiberesque invented world, have been appearing since 1984, and while the first two are fluffy adventures, from the third onward they’re full of politics and economics—sometimes handled playfully, sometimes deployed to very serious and moving effect. One sub-sequence in the series deals with, not just a proletarian revolution (imagine Germany in 1919, but in Lankhmar), but also the tragic aftermath of its failure. Another novel in the series, Orca, is a financial thriller, quite possibly the only financial thriller in modern heroic fantasy.

As usual, there are edgy writers who get packed as edgy writers and sold into the “edgy writer” subgenre. Then there are formulaic writers whose work gets packaged to match. And finally there are writers whose work gets packaged in fairly commercial ways, but who turn out on examination to be doing surprising and wonderful things with the conventional ingredients of their genres. Back when everything published as SF or fantasy looked more or less like trash, one of the central activities of SF fandom was trading information on what stories and authors were actually good and which weren’t; it was universally understood that you can’t judge SF or fantasy by its covers. These days, now that we’ve devised packaging and publishing approaches that pre-label certain products as “quality” or “literary” or “edgy”, that common-sense understanding appears to have been lost.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at June 18, 2003 09:52 PM

I’d actually thought about talking a bit about Brust as the other key example of a politically sophisticated fantasy writer. While his political sympathies are easy enough to make out, he doesn’t get too bogged down in them - the “Phoenix Guards” sequence does a very nice job of resurrecting Dumas and Regency romance, and the edge only comes out in the sly tone of the writing. Lovely stuff. For me though, Brust’s outstanding book is the one he co-authored with Emma Bull - “Freedom and Necessity.” A really wonderful take on the Chartist revolts, although I could actually have done without the fantasy elements, which mostly got in the way of a deeply intelligent historical conspiracy thriller.

I’m a fan too of Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series, which is also packaged commercially, but quite politically and sociologically aware. Keep on giving copies of it to non-genre reading friends - they’re invariably horrified by the covers, but hooked once they begin to read. I suspect that the publisher could do a “Harry Potter” with more sober covers for grown-ups, so that they didn’t need to feel mildly ashamed reading it on the train …

Posted by: Henry at June 19, 2003 08:47 AM

Some of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, particularly Sailing to Sarantium, Lions of Al-Rasan, and Lord of Emperors, qualifies for well-developed studies of political relations in fantasy novels. Of course, Kay is doing historical fantasy, so it isn’t suprising.

What impresses me almost as much as well-developed political and economic relations, however, are novels that do a good job of handling religion and folklore (and how they relate to politics). Very few fantasy novels get beyond the requisite “god-of-this-god-of-that” or cartoonish reconstructions of Christianity. Again, this is one of Kay’s strengths, even though it is accomplished through twists on historical sources. He captures the spirit and issues of, for example, monophysitism against nestorianism or paganism against monotheism. And, what’s not to like about an author who draws on Ginsburg’s “The Night Battles” for one of his set pieces?

Posted by: dhn at June 19, 2003 02:15 PM

Ah, the odium of being seen reading downmarket literature on the train. Life is so very hard. (Said with a smile.)

Seriously, you won’t find me disagreeing about the merits of Freedom and Necessity, particularly since it’s dedicated to my wife…

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at June 19, 2003 02:16 PM

Ah. Hadn’t spotted that (I read Freedom and Necessity a year or two ago, before I had any but the vaguest awareness that the Nielsen Haydens existed). Although I did spot that she had written an intro for his new one.

dhn - Am not that keen on Gavriel Kay, although I’ve read most of his stuff. There’s something - I dunno - a bit precious and self-consciously dramatic about his work to me. And heavy on the wish fulfilment - I was profoundly unconvinced that three of the major beauties of the age would fall for a rather drab craftsman in the Sailing to Sarantium duet.

For another fantastic take on the Night Battles, see John Crowley’s Love and Sleep and Daemonomania. It isn’t entirely successful (Little, Big is still his masterpiece) but is well worth reading. My favorite Ginzburg is “The Cheese and the Worms;” he also has a nice essay on Clues, Myths and the Historical Method which is worth digging up (I think it was published in Daedalus about 10 years back).

Posted by: Henry at June 19, 2003 03:15 PM

PS - there’s another sort-of-fantastical financial thriller out there, Vance’s “The Face.” Not quite heroic fantasy I’ll grant you; but it feels like heroic fantasy.

Posted by: Henry at June 19, 2003 03:17 PM

Henry said, “I was profoundly unconvinced that three of the major beauties of the age would fall for a rather drab craftsman in the Sailing to Sarantium duet.”

I had no trouble at all believing it. I think one of the sexiest most appealing things in the world is watching a man do something he both loves and does well. (Which explains my weakness for musicians.) Excellence has always had its attractions and artists, who tend to have lively, um, lives, aren’t always physically beautiful. And I did think he was an artist.


Posted by: Mary Kay at June 19, 2003 07:01 PM


Our household has most of Ginzburg’s books. Actually, the most interesting, IMHO, is Ecstacies (some of which is simply mind blowing) although his essays on the methodology of microhistory are pretty interesting.

Last summer I participated in an extended seminar on the development of international-political thought with a group of historians. My wife, who had just finished reading Night Battles, came out to dinner with us. She started talking about microhistory with one of the historians, who turned out to be a student of Ginzburg’s and who recommended Ecstacies.

Regardless, I disagree with you about Kay. The first triology was mostly terrible, but by the Sarantine Mosaic his work is pretty brilliant, particularly if one is interested in religion and politics and reads fantasy.

By the way, I thought the knights of the Riddermark were simply more ‘civilized’ steppe nomads. They probably live off a combination of their herds and taxes collected on those passing through their territory :-).

The real problem with economic systems in fantasy is similar to the problems with writing decent politics. As you allude to above, most fantasy writers

(a) are basically incapable or uninterested in working through questions of economic extraction and exchange and/or
(b) realize that doing so would force their readers to confront the fact that life for the majority of people in agrarian, particularly feudal, societies sucks
© can’t be bothered with really getting inside the kinds of mentalities that would make sense in their created worlds.

Posted by: dhn at June 20, 2003 01:05 AM

Mary Kay

I guess I didn’t express what bothers me about Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic as well as I should. I felt that he kept on trying to hammer home how his characters were the most beautiful women in the world, the most intelligent and subtle emperors in the world, the most skilled and talented craftsmen in the world &c, so that the reader would be impressed with the grandeur and nobility and tragedy of it all. I sort of enjoyed it while I was reading it - he is a good prose stylist, and has done a lot of careful research - but frequently got so annoyed that I had to put the book down. Too often, his characters seemed to be less driven by their internal motivations, than by the need fully to appreciate the tragic inevitability and drama of the choices they had to make. In other words, they mug to the author’s camera all the time. I prefer authors who let the characters do their thing, and trust the readers to fill in the tragedy for themselves. Probably just a matter of personal preferences tho’ - de gustibus …

dhn - agree with everything you have to say in the final para. Although the really good writers - Crowley, Wolfe etc - do manage to convey the sense that their characters have a genuinely different mentality. And some of them have read the histoire des mentalites crowd.

On the religion and folklore front, of your first post, again I agree completely. Most writers have pantheons that sound as though they’ve been cobbled together from the first edition of Deities and Demigods. One nice exception is a modern fantasy, Sean Stewart’s “Resurrection Man.” One of these return-of-magic-to-the-world novels, but it transcends cliche through showing how alien gods can be to the modern mindset, and how much of a violation their return can be. The author riffs off of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in some very interesting ways.

btw - trying to put two and two together, and hopefully not getting five - I’m guessing that you’re Dan Nexon??? Surely, there aren’t that many people at Georgetown with the initials DN, and interests in political science and sf (Clyde Wilcox qualifies on the last two counts, but not the first).

Posted by: Henry at June 20, 2003 09:29 AM

Believing in God does not require believing in religion.

Posted by: Barrett Bill at December 10, 2003 10:19 PM
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