The myth of autarky

Personally I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life.

—George Orwell, ‘Boys’ Weeklies’

Fantasyland, as the late Diana Wynne Jones showed in her seminal Tough Guide thereto, is an irksome place. It irks me, at any rate, because it is not a world but something more like a film-set; it does not have the working parts to do what it pretends to do. Tolkien was confessedly ignorant of economics, but he at least tried to make sure (for instance) that the Shire was in a naturally fertile clime that could support a large population of hungry hobbits, and that the ‘townlands’ surrounding Minas Tirith were adequate to feed the people of the city. He even threw in a sentence or two about slave plantations in the South of Mordor, around the Sea of Núrnen, to show how Sauron supplied his horde of evil minions. Many fantasy writers don’t even take that much trouble.

Whenever I read about a Glorious Imperial City of Gold™ on top of a high mountain, or a Decadent Palace of the Evil Sultan™ in the midst of a trackless desert, I always find myself asking: ‘But what do these people live on?’ A writer could, by mere fiat, say that they get their food by magic; yet the magic is never there. Not only do we not see it onstage, we also do not see any of the probable consequences and (as fools and mortals say) ‘side-effects’ that such magic would have on all other areas of life. One day I shall probably write a snarky and contumacious tract on the economics of Faërie, but for now I want to leave most of that subject on one side and tackle one particular issue. That is the attitude of almost religious awe that fantasy writers have for societies based on subsistence agriculture — an attitude that, in my wide experience, only occurs among people who know nothing about agriculture and precious little about subsistence.

This attitude is not only prevalent in fantasy; some people hold it in real life as well. Among these we must number the ‘locavores’, the well-meaning fools who think it somehow unethical to eat any food grown more than, say, 100 miles away. This is nonense, and easily proved to be nonsense; but a hundred proofs are not worth as much as one plausible story. That is why it is so dangerous that so many of our storytellers don’t know the facts of the case and do not seem interested in learning them. People, consciously or not, are forming their views of life from stories that are not based on life at all.

I hope you will bear with me, then, while I tell a little story, and if it is not a hundred-proof story, I hope it may be strong enough drink for the occasion. And if it is drink that we want, I had better put wine in the story, since wine is the drink of the storyteller, except in those far Northern climes where the skalds sing in mead-halls. I have simplified the details, but everything I say about the simple diet of Eucharia applies to our own more complex society as well.

No foreigner could ever quite pronounce the name the locals give to their country in their own language. The most striking thing about the country is its people, and the most striking thing about the people is that they have the world’s simplest diet; they live on nothing but bread and wine. It is for this reason that the country is called Eucharia by everyone but the natives; and even they use that name when they speak to us tongue-tied outlanders.

The geography of Eucharia is almost as simple as the food. Apart from a few mountains and forests, the country consists of a single broad river valley, very fertile and arable, bordered on either side by a range of sandy hills. The valley land has the perfect soil and climate for wheat, and the hill-country is ideal for grapes. It would seem that a diet of bread and wine is only logical in such a place. But in ancient times, the country was divided amongst scores of hostile clans, and things were not so easy.

In those days, each village had to feed itself entirely on its own produce. There was a mort of trade between clans, when they were not busy killing each other, but basic foodstuffs were not traded, because nobody could trust the neighbouring clans to deal honestly in something as vital as food. Each clan numbered about a hundred people, all living together in a village. Our story concerns two villages in particular — one in the valley, one in the hills; they were only a few miles apart, but there was no road between them, and because the clans hated each other, each village was to the other as inaccessible as the moon.

In the valley, so rich was the soil, an acre of ground could grow enough wheat to supply five people with bread; but vines did so poorly that an acre of vineyard would only yield enough grapes to supply one person with wine. To keep the hundred members of the clan fed, then, took 100 acres of vineyards and 20 acres planted in wheat.

Up in the hills the soil was poorer, so that the yield of wheat was very low. In a very bad year, the land did not grow enough wheat to replace the seed; the average was only about two bushels of wheat for a bushel of seed. Taking the good years with the bad, it took two acres of land to grow enough wheat for one person. On the other hand, the sandy soil and excellent drainage meant that grapes grew very well indeed; an acre of vines produced enough wine for ten. So that clan required 200 acres of wheat fields and 10 acres of vineyards to sustain it.

One year there was a war between foreign kings, and the army of a distant Empire marched through Eucharia on its way to the battleground. The Empire put military efficiency above everything else; that was how it had got to be an Empire in the first place. In a place like Eucharia, military efficiency meant building roads. The Empire built a magnificent highway right across the country, cutting through the hills and the valley in a straight line with haughty indifference, for the passage of its troops. And since the highway had to be protected and maintained, the Empire sent a Procurator and a garrison to keep order in Eucharia. Even when the war is over, the Procurator and the garrison stayed on, because that is what Empires do.

As it happened, the highway ran straight through the lands of our two villages. For the first time, there was a road between them that could bear heavy loads; for the first time, they could trade together in bulky goods like wheat and wine. Not only that, but the Procurator made it his business to judge disputes between the clans, and if necessary, call out the garrison to enforce his judgements. It was no part of the Empire’s plans to have the country boiling over with continual squabbles amongst the natives. What the Procurator dealt out was not exactly justice, but it was at least decision. Whether he ruled for you or against you, that was an end of the matter and you could get on with your business. In the old days, a dispute between clans generally ended in twenty years of blood feud.

So while, at first, the people of the hill village still did not trust the people of the valley village to make an honest bargain, both sides trusted the Procurator to break heads when necessary. They began to trade food with one another. The wine from the hill-country tasted so much better than the sour vintages of the valley, the valley people were very glad to trade their wheat for hill-country wine; they even ploughed up some of their vineyards to grow extra wheat for the purpose. The hill-people, for their part, were happy to let someone else grow wheat for them, and be spared the dreadful drudgery of slogging up hill and down dale to plant a crop that was more likely to fail than grow. They even planted new vines on some of their old fields.

After a few years, when the new vines had begun to produce and the new fields had been properly cleared, the people of the two villages noticed a curious thing. All the wine that the valley people drank was being imported from the hills; the wine-growers in the valley were all out of work, and calling down the curses of the gods on the hateful heathens up yonder who took away their livelihood. On the other hand, all the wheat that the hill people ate came from the valley, and the hill farmers were cursing the valley just as loudly. All the wheat that fed both villages came from 40 acres of ploughland in the valley; all the wine came from 20 acres in the hills. The rest of the land lay fallow — 270 acres in all. Yet everybody was fed just as well as before.

A few more years, and they began to notice something else. Every year, there were more children being born than old people dying. Every time there was a bad year for either wheat or grapes, Mother Nature came in and audited her books with a sharp red pencil — and the surplus children starved. It used to be quite as common to die of starvation as to live to old age. But that did not seem to happen anymore. When the population grew, the villagers simply used the extra hands to plant some of the idle acres. In time, all the valley land was planted in wheat — 120 acres — and 60 acres of the hills were planted with vines; and this was enough to feed, not 200 people as before, but 600. They could even pay a tenth of their crops to the Procurator and still feed all the villagers.

Another of the valley villages began trading with the hill-people for wine, and then another and another. In time all the territory of the hill village — 210 acres altogether — was planted in vines, and 420 acres of valley land in wheat; and the five villages, which used to support 100 people each, had a combined population of nearly 2,000, with enough surplus to pay the Procurator’s taxes.

Other clans all over Eucharia began to hear of the district’s success. They began to build roads of their own, and in the blink of an eye, as it seemed, the whole country had trebled its population; yet nobody was going hungry. In fact, they were less likely to suffer famine than before. If one village lost its wheat to a swarm of locusts, or its vines to a blight, some other village had a surplus that it could not get rid of, and was only too happy to give to the stricken community. A family’s bread and wine might travel the whole length and breadth of the land to reach their table, but reach them it did. Starvation became a legend of the bad old days. The people began to trust one another. They began to settle their own disputes, and not go crying to the Procurator about every squabble. In the fulness of time, they became so numerous, so used to managing their own affairs, and so mutually friendly from helping one another through lean years, that they were able to raise their own army and chase the Procurator’s troops right out of the country.

When the Emperor heard that he had lost this rich and valuable province (as it now was), he thundered, ‘Send in my legions! What was mine must be mine again, though the rivers run with blood!’

But the last of the Procurators had not risen to his high office for nothing. He was an observing man. ‘Majesty,’ he said, ‘it is not your legions that you must send.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Majesty, there is good land yet in Eucharia, in hill and valley both, but they use it to pasture their sheep. There is a certain plant that grows well in your provinces across the sea, but the Eucharians have never seen it; it gives no edible fruit, but grows white fluff like a kind of vegetable wool. You must send in your cotton; they will trade you their bread and wine, and you can run their sheep out of business. Then they will be yours for ever.’ And so it proved.

All that was many centuries ago. The Empire has passed away into history and legend, and Eucharia is a kingdom in its own right. But to this day it sends wheat and wine to every country where the Empire built its roads; and the Eucharians wear nothing but clean white cotton, and call those people unclean barbarians who still dress in wool.

This is a simplification, to be sure; but in essence, that is what happened, not in Eucharia but in our own world, in the basin of the Mediterranean. It was trade, as much as the legions, that built the Roman Empire; and when the Empire fell, trade fell with it, and the nations were ruined by famine and desperate war.

In the early stages, the smallholding farmers of Italy were ruined by the rise of Empire, because their poor crops of wheat could not compete with cheap grain from Sicily and Africa. For a time, under the late Republic, their abandoned lands were taken up into huge cattle ranches, not so much because the Romans wanted beef or even leather, but because these latifundia were a handy place for Roman senators to invest their wealth. Still later, the ranches were parcelled out and rented to tenant farmers, who chiefly grew vines and olives for export. Italian wine and Italian olive oil were staples throughout the Empire until the crisis of the third century AD, when pirates returned to the seas and trade began to decline.

In the East, the process continued much longer. In Palestine, for instance, archaeologists have found proofs of a large and growing population, increasing wealth and improving culture, right down to 600 AD, the eve of the Persian and Arab invasions. The wines and oil of Palestine took the place of Italian products after Italy fell to the barbarians, and the country prospered mightily — until the conquerors came and the trade routes were disrupted.

In all, it has been calculated, the Roman Empire at its peak, about 150 AD, supported about three times the population that the same territories, broken up into barbarian kingdoms with little trade between them, could support about 750, when the collapse was complete. (The Byzantine Empire still struggled on, a tiny fragment that remained under Roman law, but it, too, suffered from the loss of its old trading partners.)

The Roman Empire was not the first case of its kind, or the last. The wealth of classical Athens was largely founded on its navy, which kept open the shipping lanes of the Aegean and the Black Sea. Those shipping lanes brought wheat from what is now Ukraine to Athens, which paid for it with home-grown wine and olive oil — and with Syrian dyes, Arabian incense, Egyptian papyrus, and all the other foreign goods that were freely traded on the docks of the Piraeus. When Athens was defeated, first by Sparta, then by Thebes, and compelled to dismantle its ships, the wealth and trade of the Greek world passed to Rhodes and Alexandria.

Carthage was another maritime power. The Romans were far more numerous and warlike than the Carthaginians, but at that early date, they were not traders. It took them three great wars to defeat all the mercenaries that the wealth of Carthage could hire, and at one point Rome itself appeared certain to be destroyed.

In modern times, England played the role of Carthage or Athens, except that instead of hiring mercenaries, it tended to buy alliances with entire foreign kingdoms, and sometimes bought the kingdoms themselves. The United States built a continental empire chiefly through trade on the rivers and railroads; the settlers would never have gone West if there had been no transport to carry off their crops in exchange for the products of industry. Yankee clippers on the high seas built up a maritime trade to rival the domestic one; and in the end, the U.S.A. took over from Britain the job of keeping the sea-lanes open. (That partly accounts for the ruinous cost of the American defence budget. A navy is far more expensive to build and maintain than an army of the same numbers.)

Curiously enough, it seems to be precisely the American writers who are most often enamoured of the idea of autarky, the romance of the subsistence farmer; perhaps because it appeals to the ‘born in a log cabin’ bit of the American national myth. Then, too, the actual ways that preindustrial societies were usually organized were much more hierarchical than Americans like, and had a nasty tendency to incorporate features like serfdom, slavery, and absolute monarchy. A pioneer family alone in the wilderness, or a little village democracy that takes no orders from the outside world: these are archetypes that an American can accept imaginatively, without calling up the ghosts of George III or Jefferson Davis, and without having to reflect on the extraordinary good fortune that allowed his country to develop in its unprecedented way.

Lloyd Alexander, in his Chronicles of Prydain, gives a fair example of the tendency I am talking about. His imaginary country is filled with kings and high kings and princesses, mediaeval castles and bickering cantrev lords; some of them are likable, and many of them are lovable, as one would expect from fairy-tale heroes lifted from the Mabinogion; but as soon as any of the common people appear, there is no doubt where his sympathies lie. He gives you the impression that his whole country would be the better off for a round of Jacqueries.

Then he strays into what he calls the Free Commots, self-governing villages that pay only a token of lip service to the High King, and otherwise rule themselves in peace and harmony, without any hierarchy at all. It is a mediaeval answer to the self-image of small-town America. Naturally these villagers, who have never fought even among themselves, make heroic soldiers when the final battle comes. And they live in a smug, isolated comfort that seems more Swiss than Welsh. The Valley Cantrevs are impoverished and the Hill Cantrevs are almost depopulated, but the Free Commots are quietly prosperous, though there is no hint that they do any kind of trade except with one another. It is the fantasy of the locavore, plopped down incongruously in the midst of a story steeped in Celtic clan law and early British feudalism.

But the real dream-image of our Eucharian villages, before they were ‘spoilt’ by trade — the myth of autarky in its most naked form — is to be found in Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, with his Stonedowns and Woodhelvens. These are essentially self-contained hippie communes, nearly indistinguishable, except that Stonedownors are short and can do nearly anything with stone, and Woodhelvennin are tall and can do nearly anything with wood. The Stonedownors introduce Covenant to graveling, a stone that burns like fire but is never consumed — kind of a cross between coal and the burning bush, presumably without any carbon emissions. Then he travels on to a Woodhelven, where he finds that even the knives are made out of wood. He is gravely informed by his guide that there is trade between the two kinds of villages, but ‘stone and wood are not traded’. In other words, they trade the things that are found in both places, but not the things in which each kind of village has a unique advantage. It is reminiscent of the Flainian Pobble Beads in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which, we are mock-solemnly informed, are only exchanged for other Flainian Pobble Beads. It is a curious kind of culture that limits its trade precisely to those things which neither party benefits by trading.

But this, I am afraid, is part of the myth. Writers as a class are notoriously inept at business; this may be why they have been so easily exploited by publishers, a group of people who would be hard pressed to exploit anybody with ordinary horse sense. Writers also, not coincidentally, have a greater than chance tendency to believe in Marxism and other forms of economic nonsense. In Marx, Flainian Pobble Beads would make a kind of topsy-turvy sense; for in Marx, there is no such thing as a mutually beneficial trade. The only thing that produces value is labour; as soon as anybody exchanges the products of that labour, whoever ends up better off is exploiting the other party. Nobody gains anything by trading Flainian Pobble Beads, so there can be no exploitation: only a silly waste of time.

But in real life, that is not how trades happen, or why; and in this matter, fantasy has no reason to differ from reality. A wooden knife is not as good as a stone knife; a magic wooden knife is not as plausible as a magic stone knife. (I am sure there have been countless magic stone knives in human history, whether the magic was real or not; they would be the very thing for a Stone Age culture to conduct sacrifices with.) Mutatis mutandis, a wood fire that burns but is never consumed feels right; it does not offend our sense of the fitness of things. A stone fire, we feel, would never be consumed, but it would never burn either.

If Donaldson had not been so committed to the myth of autarky — at bottom, to the Marxist fallacy that all trade is exploitation — he might have let the Woodhelvennin use Stonedownor knives, and the Stonedownors use Woodhelvennin firewood. His characters explain that the stone-people lack the lore to make wood-magic work, and vice versa; but in almost the same breath, they say that this was not true in former times, when both kinds of lore were practised all over the Land. It has the odour of special pleading — a rule of magic invented on the spot to shore up the idea that these people are more virtuous than we are because they do not trade for mutual gain. Even a child, we learn, can keep a Woodhelvennin fire burning; surely a Stonedownor could learn that much, without learning all the magic that went into making it.

It is a tribute to Donaldson’s skill that we can slide through his books for some time without ever thinking about these problems; they fall into the realm of what is called ‘fridge logic’. Once examined in the cold light of reason, the myth of autarky falls apart; we can see that the people of the Land are impoverishing themselves for nothing. Yet even this setup is a model of economic wisdom compared to some of the assumptions one often finds in fantasy. Young and inexperienced readers are liable to take those assumptions as truths, commonplaces, things that everyone knows and no sane person would question. As I said, a story is worth a hundred proofs. Before we ladle our notions into the minds of the young, it might perhaps behove us to make sure that we are not filling them up with lies.



  1. Sherwood says

    Excellent essay. And yet I look at what is popular and ask myself what the host of readers are reading for. At this point I can either slang readers for their lack of taste–their ignorance of history, grammar, etc–or I can think of fantasy of all kinds as parables. In a parable, the sky can be green, a farmer on a tiny bit of land can have raised ten strapping sons, etc, because the story’s thrust is in another direction.

    • That’s true enough; but when you see story after story taking the same bogus assumptions for granted, the bogus develops a thrust all of its own. Probably the second-best way to get a false idea accepted is to repeat it again and again in such different ways and contexts that you are never seen to be propagandizing. The best way is to get other people to repeat it for you.

      • Sherwood says

        This is true. It’s true in the large sense, as well as the small, that we humans repeat patterns of all kinds. But a pattern gradually shifts by a kind of mutual agreement (like your two villages) or something comes along to break it by convincing readers there is something false here, or something better.

        • Yes, indeed; and what I’m arguing for is not to whip out the Ban Truncheon against the offending trope, but to make an effort to offer something better. I hope to have more to say about this later.

    • I would be happier with a parable explanation if they were more like parables in other ways. When GRIMDARK gets defended on grounds of “realism” we have left the realm of the parable.

      • Sherwood says

        But nobody said anything about realism. I think grimdarks are postmodern parables, anti-eucatasrophic, which is a paradigm I don’t particularly have much interest in, but others obviously do.

  2. Admittedly, A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t offering hope of any kind so far, but does Martin get points because the clans north of the Wall are at least as bad as the nobles south of the Wall?

  3. To be sure, there is the little question of how much of your economic infrastructure would be visible. In one work of mine, the farmers are driving lambs to the city before Easter, the upper-class finds matrimony muchly a matter of money, and poor students have to get their pocket money by copying, but that’s not much in an entire novel. Still, the POV characters would probably not notice more.

    • houseboatonstyx says

      Yes. What will the POV character notice and care about (or get in trouble for not) — and what will the reader care about? IE — what is this story about?

      And how much boring non-story infrastructure must be laid out in detail — or how few clever telling phrases can carry it, instead?

      (Iirc, Niven did well with clever phrases. “A spoken contract is as binding as the tape it’s recorded on” … “sentenced to the organ banks”….)

  4. I rather like the stories that will have, oh, Elves-Of-The-Forest who have this great knife that they traded a large amount of (thing that’s very valuable to the POV character) to get their hands on– it would be kind of nice to have someone’s story-required funds be based on that kind of thing!

  5. Stephen J. says

    Just out of curiosity, in what tales have you actually read of a huge imperial city atop an impossibly-remote-from-any-farms mountain, or a Glorious Caliph’s Palace in a trackless desert? My memory’s getting worse as I get older, but I’m hard put to think of actual examples of these images, myself.

    For the villages of the Land, while your observations are correct as far as they go, I think they miss the point of the story somewhat. The whole point of the Land is that the Earthpower of the place obviates the conditions of scarcity which make trade profitable enough to be worth the effort. The Land is meant to feel like an impossible, fairy-tale wish-fulfillment; that’s precisely why Thomas Covenant is so paralyzingly caught between his desire to believe in it and his terror of dying by giving into that belief. Whether Donaldson sees trade as a Marxist boogeyman of exploitation I can’t say, but it is certainly true that it’s a much harder thing to depict with the romanticism the rest of the Land can enjoy. Will the Forestals serenely allow traders to clear-cut roads through the woods for wagon trains? Who not a Cave-wight or ur-vile would dare carve tunnels through the living rock of Kiril Threndor? Who shall adopt the skepticism required to haggle for a better price, to test the weight of coins and purses, to arrange for loans and interest rates? These things are not evil nor do they necessitate evil, but they are gravely contrary to the spirit of the Land; they are simply too mundane and self-centered to ring true in the story.

    Correspondingly, it should be noted that one of the aspects of the American independent town myth is also a lack of scarcity — but it’s a lack of scarcity of skill; the deliberately founded and self-assembled towns and communities of American imagery are always assumed to have somebody who knows how to do anything you might need to do, and who bring a deliberately and comprehensively assembled knowledge and training with them that their ancestors had to teach themselves, and the products of which they had to trade with each other to obtain. (It’s worth noting that nothing like the guild system of mediaeval Europe ever evolved in North America, until Marxist politics got over into the industrializing economy to produce unions.) The Free Commots share this non-scarcity of skill; while Taran only studies with four examples, Llonio the recycler (what? It’s a trade!), Hevydd the smith, Dwyvach the weaver and Annlaw the potter, it seems fairly strongly implied that there is at least one of any other craft you might require as well, and that all of them do business with every community within the Commots.

    For myself I think the disservice done by fantasy literature when it comes to fairly representing pre-industrial economies is not its skepticism towards trade (and while trade done well is everything you praise it for, trade can be done evilly and exploitatively; the Christian prohibition against usury did not come out of nowhere), but its lack of skepticism towards the brute business of actually making a living by farming. David Eddings is one of the worst offenders here — the pastoral childhood he describes for his hero in the Belgariad never once mentions plague in the countryside, the hunger that comes from two or three bad harvests in a row or from a missed harvest when the men are drafted for war, people getting bones broken or actually killed by a horse’s kick, a bull’s horn, or a wolf’s teeth when trying to protect the stock…. James Herriot tells stories of farm life with an equal pastoral beauty, but never lets the reader forget how tough such a life actually is. I have never seen a fantasy writer, with the possible exception of Tolkien himself, hit the same balance so deftly.

    • David Eddings had several examples in his series, most obviously the Evil God’s City; I can remember more in the Forgotten Realms books I read (not the ones with Drizzt, I can’t remember the authors– I read every one the dang library had, and only a few even considered the amount of food you’d need for Waterdeep), and Tamora Pierce had several examples in her Page followup books and…oh, the series-group that included “The Circle Opens.” Mercedes Lackey is a little iffy, she gets better or worse depending on if she’s thinking about food supplies or not, and it gets pretty obvious what hobby she’s thinking of when she does get into it. (The advantage of being fuzzy on details outside of the house, this problem is avoided.)
      Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books like to drive you insane with their notion of agriculture– thankfully, it’s mostly set-dressing.

      I’m having trouble thinking of a story that has characters working in the fields that doesn’t act like they can and should make everything they’d need on the manor grounds, other than fripperies, and they don’t design the landscape so that they carefully picked land that would actually support such a notion….

      • Suburbanbanshee says

        David Drake’s Isles books start with a fairly extensive portrait of what it means to be a shepherd, farmer, weaver, or innkeeper in his world, including some very heartfelt observations/complaints about dealing with certain kinds of animal. Throughout the rest of the series, his protagonists make observations on the places and people they visit that are based on their training in these jobs.

    • Another good example off the top of my head is the shared city of Sanctuary, where the “Thieves’ World” stories take place.

      In at least one of the forewords, one of the editors flat out admits that Sanctuary as a city is a complete and total load and could never ever work. But the stories are fun!

    • David Eddings is pretty much the worst example of a fantasy author by any measure, not just agriculture. 🙂

      • Potato chip writing. I find the stuff that’s half as bad and not even enjoyable much worse– like technical skill in a TV series that is still a slog to watch.

      • Stephen J. says

        Spoken like a man who hasn’t read the Brothers Hildebrandt. 🙂

    • Just started re-reading Robin McK’s Beauty and was reminded that she does really well on the scarcity of skill stuff.

    • Like Oz, awash in color and prosperity to contrast with Kansas.

    • Plague and such like Acts of God can be prevented by the good will of the god in question. 0:)

  6. Ilíon says

    Please forgive me that the examples I proffer are drawn from TV or movies …

    Along the same lines as the unworkable economy and/or food production of “Fantasyland” ….

    1) “marketplaces” (distribution of the food and other economic goods) – unless they’re a Fair, “markets” are generally some desultory affair of some half-dozen “shopkeepers” offering one or two wilted lettuces or spongy turnips or second- or third-hand twice-mended objects — and they’re always outside, you know, where the weather is.

    Whether we’re talking about ‘Babylon 5’ (only the fact that “outside” was the inside of a spacestation saved the “marketplace” from being exposed to the weather) or ‘Revolution’ or ‘Terra Nova’ or some setting with a more “medieval” feel, such as the ‘away’ worlds in the StarGate series, the “marketplace” is some urban fantasy of the “romance” of rural-town life that couldn’t serve to keep body and soul together for the merchants, much less the customers.

    2) candles, or more generally, open fire – again, urban fantasy about the “romance” of the flame – never mind that open fire is dangerous, and candles are *expensive* in a pre-industrial setting (and pointless in an industrial or high-tech setting), candles, and lots of them, and open flame seems to be de rigueur.

    Thus, in an early scene of ‘Revolution’, we see the inside of the family home – with candles everywhere. Thus, in the StarGate series, we see braziers of open flame in space ships. Thus, we see super-masculine Teal’c or Spock surrounding themselves with candles … like a modern urban woman taking a bubble-bath.

    3) how wealth is generated and earned, in general – in a scene of StarHunter 3000 (as I think it was called), Our Heroes, who are bounty-hunters, running around the mid-to-outer Solar System in an old (and expensive-to-maintain) luxury cruiser, are commiserating about how they can’t afford the spiffy uniforms and regular maintenance to their spaceship that some competing ship of bounty-hunters has, because the others have “corporate sponsors” – as though “corporate sponsors” are just going to throw wealth at the crew of the other ship, irrespective of profit or loss.

  7. L.E. Modesitt does a good job of this in his Recluce novels. A couple of points from it that I remember:

    1) Recluce itself (an island off the main continent) is a barren desert early (chronologically) in the series. When his protagonists are forced off the mainland and start to settle it, they use weather magic to change the climate and turn it into something that can actually grow food. This is the only case I remember reading of whether weather mages actually do something practical for agriculture.

    2) The initial order settlers (crash-landed from a sci-fi setting) crash down in a highland plateau without much food, little labor, and hardly any arable land. They’re depicted as coming within a week or two of starving to death during the long winter, and they only survive in the long term by setting up trade networks and selling their services as mercenaries.

  8. I think Marion Zimmer Bradley did this very well in “Darkover Landfall” — we see the colonists, we see them nearly starve to death, and we see a number of challenges for them before they start to slowly adapt to their new world.

    In general, though, you’re right that too many people have written books where the underpinnings are not solid. Including some giants in the field (but fortunately not all).

  9. BTW, another set of books that does very well with ecological disaster are the three books in Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s Nualan Chronicles (“Fires of Nuala,” “Hidden Fires,” and “Fire Sanctuary”). There, its a high amount of radiation that’s very problematic for agriculture, and the reasons Ms. Kimbriel gives for such are compelling and well thought out.

    In fantasy, I actually prefer to see magic used to light and heat homes if at all possible, because it’s obviously (for the most part) safer.

    On the other end of the spectrum (and albeit in a quasi-medieval world without recognizable magic outside of religion), George R.R. Martin has lower class characters using rush dips (at least some of the time). He’s also pointed out in various places in his Song of Ice and Fire that candles can be a luxury (however, the only people who seem to truly understand that are folks like Tyrion Lannister or Varys the Councilor, who’ve seen a great deal of life and know well enough not to get too class-bound for words).

  10. I agree with Stephen J., but I don’t think he goes far enough. The Land is living not merely in post-Roman but in post-Holocaust conditions. Economically speaking, it makes me think most of the world of A Canticle for Leibowitz, where a church (the Lords) is trying to keep knowledge alive and to rediscover more of it to help the Land return to the high civilizations it has seen in the past (at least two: the Old Lords and the monarchy at Doriendor Corishev) without having to undergo the resulting horrible collapses when things go wrong. They fail eventually (“It is ever so with the things that men begin: there is a frost in Spring or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise”), and the corrupted Lords become a more hideous tyranny than any seen before. But as Anderson says, victories like Lord Mhoram’s make space (and time) for people to live in.

    Why is it, after all, that empires fall in the real word and the dark ages return? If the advantages of trade are so compelling, why is there so little of it? Part of the reason, I think, is that we have no test of truth.

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