Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Economics of Magic Kingdoms

If you took a poll of all the fantasy writers you know, asking them to list the top ten useful things to know about for writing fantasy, I doubt if any of them would include economics. Come to that, I doubt if many would include it in their top hundred.

Why would they? Economics seems emblematic of all that grey mundanity we read and write fantasy to get away from. I'm no different: I have to make an effort not to switch off when the economic news comes on.

Economics, though, isn't an obscure, arcane lore known only to five and a half people (none of whom are in the government). The word actually means housekeeping, and it's part of all our lives. Every time you go into a shop or click on a buy link; every time your employer pays you for the work you've done in the past month; every time you sit down with your bank statement and work out if you'll have enough left this month for that holiday, or to buy the latest series of A Game of Thrones: that's all economics.

More than that, though: economics has been a fundamental part of human behaviour throughout the history of our species. Paleolithic man traded and even had factories *, and finds from at least one of the early Neolithic towns in the middle east have included clay chips that may have been primitive money. Come to that, towns themselves are an economic institution. They might also have a defensive function, but their main purpose is to provide a convenient nexus for crafts and trade.

All the great civilisations from which fantasy draws inspiration, from Egypt under the Pharoahs to Renaissance Europe, were built on an economy. It's no exaggeration to say that you can't have any organised society without economics.

I'm not an economist, and an expert would probably find holes in what follows big enough for a dragon to fly through. I'm not trying to give a lecture, though, merely suggest areas to think about and research further when creating your world.

Broadly speaking, economics divides into three areas. A society must be able to obtain resources, most importantly food, but also minerals, building materials and other things. It must have a system that allows it to acquire and exploit the resources in a mutually beneficial way **. And it must have a system that allows it to exchange its surplus resources for items it can't get directly — in other words, trade.

If you examine a map of the real world, you'll find that there's usually a reason for important towns and cities to be where they are. Often this will be the interface between a fertile hinterland and easy transport for trade. The prosperous civilisation that flourished in the Mississippi basin at the same time as mediaeval Europe, for instance, had its great city at the point where the Mississippi and Missouri meet. Centuries later, the European settlers built St Louis in exactly the same place. The position is ideal, both to dominate an excellent agricultural region and to access all the main waterways in the centre of the continent.

It's not always food, although a city without easy access to food would need something spectacular going for it ***. Mining is always a vital industry, and some other industries thrive in specific locations. The English cotton industry in the Industrial Revolution, for instance, was centred in east Lancashire because the climate and landscape made the area ideal for cotton mills.

Economic richness can have a downside, though. The main reason for the Roman conquest of Britain wasn't self-aggrandising empire-building, it was because Britain is (or was, at least) unusually rich in mineral resources: tin and coal especially (less glamorous than gold, but far more useful) but many others too.

In fantasy novels, empires tend to expand because the king is obsessed with matching the conquests of his forebears, or because their religion has a crusading mission, or because they believe in civilising the barbarians. All of these are certainly reasons for empire-building — for public consumption, certainly — but the underlying reason is almost always because the conquered land has something the empire needs, or at least wants.

Wars are much the same: competition either for resources or to control important trade routes. Again, these aren't the reasons given, the cause used to rouse soldiers to leave their homes and fight to the death. They believe they're fighting for civilisation, for right, for the glory of their nation or their religion. In fact, they're almost always fighting for the economy.

The economy's social contract can be difficult to define, but is perhaps the most ubiquitous aspect. The contract may be a utopian system where each gives what they can and takes what they need, but the chances are it will be very unequal. The European feudal system is often seen as oppression pure and simple — and it was sometimes, especially at the stage when it had outlived its use — but the essential point was that the peasants got to keep a little of their harvest, at least, without the nearest robber-band taking it all from them, and the knights and lords were fed and could specialise in protection. It didn't always work properly, but that was the theory, anyway.

The basic arrangement is about who does the work and who gets what out of it. Even the most wretched peasants or industrial workers get something, if not much, for the simple reason that without enough to eat they can't work. Usually, though, it's more two sided than that.

Your city or kingdom in a fantasy world will have many people living their lives, and sometimes that will impinge on even the most single-minded band of adventurers. The inn they stay at will be owned by someone who has an arrangement (normally financial) with the people who serve the drinks, prepare the food and wash the dishes afterwards. The blacksmith who reshoes the adventurers' horses will have set his prices so he can cover the cost of his materials and have enough left over to buy food for himself and his family; although in a fairly primitive society, he may simply trade his work for the food itself.

Trade is the lifeblood of any civilisation, and the people who pursue it will be important in your fantasy culture, whether they adventure into the wild to obtain something in high demand (like the trappers of North America) or run a shop or market stall to sell goods from afar to their fellow-citizens. Along with local resources, prevailing trades will affect the look and feel of your culture. All those clothes, jewellery, ornaments, weapons and rare spices must have come from somewhere, and if they aren't local, it must be feasible that they could have been brought there by merchants.

This, as I say, isn't a lesson on how it works, just an encouragement to think about an often-neglected aspect of world-making. I'm obviously not suggesting you should draw up a detailed, complex economic plan for your world, any more than I'd suggest fully creating all the languages spoken in it — unless, of course, you really, really love doing that.  But, along with the geography and history and religion and customs of your lands and peoples, it's worth giving some thought about how their economies fit together.

Because, in fact, it's intimately related to all the other aspects.

* One, in the Dordogne region of France, seems to have used a (metaphorical) conveyor-belt system with strict division of labour to make high-class, decorated clothing. Judging by the archaeological finds, they traded all over Europe.

** Of course, the benefits won't necessarily be equal, but even ground-down peasants will normally get something out of the arrangement. The exception is slave-based societies, where a section of the population gets no benefit at all.

*** The royal seat of the Hittite Empire bucks the trend. Build purely for strength, defensibility and impressiveness, it stood high in the mountains, far from any agricultural land or trade routes. However, this was after the tribute had started pouring in from the four fertile corners of the empire, enabling the capital to survive without producing.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

When Sci-Fi Met Fantasy

My last blog post was a review of Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, a classic fantasy novel written by a classic SF author, and it got me thinking about the long and complex overlap between fantasy and SF.

This lies not only in the multitude of authors from one genre who've moonlighted in the other — or have even been completely ambidextrous — but also in the many works that share traits from either side of the divide. This can be the "sword & planet" stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his successors, the epic fantasy in space of Stars Wars, or the far more complicated blends of authors such as Michael Moorcock.

The confusion starts early, partly due to the difficulty in defining what should actually count as fantasy or science fiction before a couple of centuries ago. Fantasy seems more straightforward. A large proportion of older literature, from Homer to Shakespeare, deals with magic and the supernatural, but it's not always easy to tell how much of this would have been viewed at the time as fantasy.

That's certainly not to say that all ancient cultures were naïve, but they'd certainly have viewed these matters differently from modern western civilisation. The only stories we know for certain was treated as fantasy were the mediaeval Icelandic sagas of the gods and heroes, because they had a word for them: "lying sagas", as opposed to the "true-seeming sagas", covering both biography and historical fiction. It's likely, though, that many other cultures, from Greece to China, were perfectly aware of when they were letting their fancies roam.

Early science fiction has the opposite problem, where we need to appreciate that some absurdly fanciful ideas might at the time have qualified as sophisticated science. For instance, the 2nd century AD author Lucian of Samosata wrote an adventure story where his heroes at one point visited the Moon and met its inhabitants. To us, there seems little science in this, but it should be remembered that, in Lucian's day, the mere concept of the celestial bodies being worlds that might be inhabited was pretty cutting edge.

Although it's a slight oversimplification, it could be argued that modern fantasy began in 1786 with William Beckford's Vathek and modern science fiction in 1818 with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus. The first crossover I'm aware of came in 1858, in George MacDonald's Phantastes, a strange, allegorical fantasy. In the middle of its hero's wanderings, he finds the library of a great palace where he "experiences" (rather than reads) various tales. One is set on a planet with such a long orbit around its sun that no-one experiences more than one or two seasons.

Like Lucian, MacDonald's scientific accuracy might be doubted today, but no more than some of Wells's ideas, and he was using genuine scientific speculation to create his story. Part of MacDonald's legacy was a small but interesting subgenre of allegorical science fantasy, such as David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus and C. S. Lewis's space trilogy.

One of the subgenres that most obviously combines Sf and fantasy is the Dying Earth genre. The earliest examples of this, such as Shelley's The Last Man and Wells's The Time Machine, were unmistakably SF, but starting with William Hope Hodgson's 1912 The Night Land, various dying earths (notably by Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance, and more recently Gene Wolfe) combined elements of fantasy or horror with the undeniable SF concept of the planet's days being numbered. Smith and Vance, for instance, both assumed that a decadent last civilisation would rediscover magic to replace science.

Perhaps the great era for genre-blending came with the pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. The great Weird Tales authors slipped a little SF into the mix. H. P. Lovecraft's tale Through the Gate of the Silver Key, for instance, combined horror, fantasy and SF, while Clark Ashton Smith, normally teetering between fantasy and horror, wrote a few SF stories, including the concept of time travel in which the time machine stays still and the universe moves on, allowing the time-travellers to encounter a series of planets. I suspect Einstein would beg to differ, but it's still an interesting concept.

When John W. Campbell started Unknown (also known as Unknown Worlds) he persuaded many of the science fiction authors he'd nurtured in Astounding Science Fiction to try their hand at fantasy. Perhaps the defining series in Unknown * was the Harold Shea stories of Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp. This used the developing concept of alternative worlds, which would ultimately grow into the theory of the multiverse, to assume that it was possible to travel to fictional "worlds" such as the Norse myths and The Faerie Queen. A similar concept was used later by Andre Norton (also an "ambidextrous" author) to transport her hero in the first chapter of her Witch World series.

Authors like Pratt and de Camp combined genres not only by providing a scientific framework for their fantasy tales, but also by approaching the fantasy elements with the rigour of SF. Shea and his associates, for instance, have to work out the laws by which magic and the supernatural work in the various worlds they visit. The approach is summed up by the title of one of the stories: The Mathematics of Magic.

Unknown's brief span on this earth was… well, brief, regrettably, but many of his SF authors (including Robert Heinlein, for instance) continued to write occasional fantasy. Vance and Anderson, for instance, were both too late for Unknown but wrote works very much in its tradition. The great number of later writers who've combined SF and fantasy careers (sometimes combining them in ways that can't be easily unpicked) include ** Andre Norton, Michael Moorcock, Ursula LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffery, George R. R. Martin, and my personal favourite, Mary Gentle.

Most of the time, it's easy enough to tell what's fantasy and what's science fiction. It's unlikely that anyone would mistake I, Robot for fantasy or Lord of the Rings for SF ***. There's a substantial grey area between them, though. As we've seen, authors including Pratt & de Camp, Anderson, Moorcock and Norton — arguably even C. S. Lewis — used the scientific theory of the multiverse as a mechanism to get their characters to their fantasy worlds, although in Moorcock's case it's a lot more than just a mechanism.

Science fiction can be "infected" with fantasy just as much as the reverse. McCaffery's Pern novels are ultimately SF, since we gradually learn that Pern is a colonial planet and the mysterious elements like dragons and thread-fall have scientific explanations, but for the most part the characters themselves aren't aware of any of this, and the books read more like fantasy.

Iain M Banks (whose "mainstream" novels as Iain Banks include a couple of fantasies) pulled off a similar trick in Inversions, where two characters from his technologically advanced Culture visit a planet with a Renaissance-level civilisation. The story is told entirely from the point of view of the planet's natives, so the visitors' technology appears to be magic, and it's only the reader's privileged knowledge that lets us know what's really going on.

Then again, speculative fiction can be the most glorious mash-up that shows no respect whatsoever for genre. Mary Gentle's Rats & Gargoyles is one such. Described by the author as "Hermetic Science Fiction" (in other words, suppose the laws of nature really were as the Renaissance mystics assumed them to be) it has everything from a standard fantasy Thieves Guild to trains and airships. It also has an East Pole (presumably stolen from Winnie the Pooh) and five cardinal points of the compass, each at right angles to the other. Strangely, she doesn't provide a map.

In the end, the job of a story is to entertain, excite and possibly educate, not to toe a genre line. While there's nothing at all wrong with writing a good story that stands four-square within a genre, the borderlands can often provide the most fertile territory, and natives of one land can learn from those who do things differently in another country.

Fantasy has explored excellent borders with horror, with historical fiction, and sometimes even with realism, but there's something about the combination of fantasy and science fiction that seems entirely appropriate. Perhaps that's why they almost always share a section in bookshops and libraries.


* Arguably the greatest series to appear in Unknown was Fritz Leiber's tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but this was somewhat atypical. Campbell accepted them with comments like "This is more of a Weird Tales piece than Unknown usually prints. However—" The missing sentence presumably being something along the lines of "However, who cares with a story this good?"

** Apologies if I haven't included your favourite. It really is a very great number. Feel free to add any glaring omissions below.

*** You'd think. In fact, a review in 1954 by Naomi Mitchison (who wrote fantasy herself) describes Lord of the Rings as "really super science fiction". Go figure.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Review of Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for Fantasy Faction looking at The Broken Sword, a fantasy novel by Poul Anderson, which was, if nothing else, a good excuse to reread a book I'd loved back in the seventies. Anderson is best known for SF, but from the 1970s onward he also wrote a number of fantasy novels. Besides The Broken Sword, though, he only wrote one other early in his career, and I'd somehow neglected to read that. I've now put that right and just finished Three Hearts and Three Lions.

It originated in a 1953 novella, but the full-length version wasn't published till 1961. Where The Broken Sword is a full-blooded saga-style tale, Three Hearts and Three Lions is a modern-hero-whisked-away-to-fantasy-world story, with a lot more humour (though it isn't a comic novel) and more than a touch of the moonlighting SF writer on show.

Holger Carlsen is a young Danish man with a mysterious background, whose secrets both he and the reader discover as the book proceeds. We first meet him in the US just before the Second World War, through the eyes of a nominal narrator who simply relates the tale Holger later tells him in third person. Holger ends up fighting for the Danish Resistance against the Nazis and, in the middle of a crucial fight, finds himself whisked away to a world loosely based on the Carolingian legends, complete with dragons, trolls and the Kingdom of Faerie.

At first, all Holger wants is to get home, but he seems in some way to belong in this world. He links up with various companions: the dwarf Hugi, the swan-maiden Alianora and, later, the Saracen knight Carahue — not to mention the feisty steed Papillon who seems to be his — and finds himself caught up in a great war between Law and Chaos to decide the fate of the world.

As a science fiction writer, Anderson was very much part of John W. Campbell's stable and, although he was too late to publish in Campbell's fantasy magazine Unknown Worlds, Three Hearts and Three Lions is very much in its tradition. It's slightly reminiscent of Pratt & de Camp's Harold Shea stories in its analysis of the world of legend the hero finds himself in, though less outright comic.

Holger is an engineer and scientist, and he can't help trying both to explain what's happened to him, using theories of alternative universes, and to find scientific explanation for issues like how magic works and why the fae can't touch iron. In a memorable scene, he defeats a dragon by tossing several helmets-full of water down its throat. He explains to his astounded companions:

Look, if the creature breathed fire, then it had to be even hotter inside. So I tossed half a gallon of water down its gullet. Caused a small boiler explosion.

For the first few chapters, as Holger wanders around gathering companions, the story threatens to topple over into aimlessness, although all the characters are engaging enough to maintain interest. Long before this becomes a problem, though, the pace and sense of purpose pick up, and the story builds to an exciting climax.

It's not perfect. The narrative cuts off somewhat abruptly, jumping forward to Holger meeting the unnamed narrator again after the War, and showing us nothing of the great battles we've been building up to. In a way, I can understand that — the story's really about getting him to the point where he can be the Champion of Law — but it seems incomplete without some idea of what happened next.

I also found the faux Scots dialect of both Hugi and Alianora a little annoying. It didn't distract me too much, and both are too good as characters to put me right off, but it wasn't very convincing.

One other criticism is no reflection at all on Anderson and the novel, but I couldn't resist mentioning the cover of the 1974 Sphere edition (reproduced above). The illustration shows an implausibly half-armoured, half-naked warrior on a light-coloured horse and carrying a red shield, smiting a dragon with his sword. In fact, Holger wears complete and sensible armour, which Anderson carefully describes, rides a black horse and carries a predominantly blue shield. And, while he faces a dragon, we've seen above how he actually deals with it. One more example of a cover artist neither reading the book nor being properly briefed.

Nevertheless, carps aside, Three Hearts and Three Lions is a wonderful book: exciting, funny, intriguing, romantic and clever. The characters are engaging, from Holger himself and his companions to the villains, including Morgan le Fay from the Arthurian legends, to some delightful bit-parts. The prose varies between completely serviceable and lyrical, and the story serves as a good introduction to the Carolingian legends. I must admit, I only know about these in a very general way, having concentrated more on the Matter of Britain than the Matter of France. I certainly feel motivated to read more now.

It's also a surprisingly important novel. The concept of Law and Chaos, very familiar now, seems to have originated here, although it was subsequently developed by Michael Moorcock (an Anderson fan) in his Eternal Champion cycle. It's been claimed that the original version of D&D took not only its alignments from Three Hearts and Three Lions but also elements of its trolls and its Paladin class.

It's a short novel by modern standards — a mere 156 pages in the edition I have — so there's really no excuse for not reading it. I'd include Three Hearts and Three Lions as one of the classics that any lover of the fantasy genre would do well to read.