Money Can Move a Fantasy World Just as Readily as a God

Come closer. I’m about to violate cardinal rules of polite society, but, hell, this is the internet. Let’s talk gods and money.

Consider if you will an ostensibly immortal personage with vast power and a devoted priesthood bound by a common code of dress and behavior, distributed through the world by a network of temples and monasteries. This entity gathers strength from the fervor of its faithful, and grows stronger by converting new worshippers to its cause.

That’s a god, yes—especially an old-school pagan god, the kind that shows up in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and Terry Pratchett—but it’s also a decent model of a corporation. I’m not the first to make this comparison. David Graeber’s book Debt: the First 3000 Years points out that comparisons between corporations and angels were being made from the instant the concept of legal personhood intruded onto Western law.

Brand- and lifestyle-based marketing makes the comparison even more apt. Adidas doesn’t sell the quality of their shoes so much as the notion that “Impossible is nothing” (so long as you put your money in the dish when it comes by). American Apparel clothing is fine, as clothing—but the company’s defined not by their product but by those vestal virgins(?) with the thousand-yard-stares in their ads. Whatever you buy from Apple, you’re also buying the identity of a young, affluent creative type. (Cut in B-roll joke about Apple product prices, or possibly Heartbleed, here.)

We’ve named the days of the modern week after gods and astrological entities—one of the few holdouts of old myth in common parlance: Monday for the Moon, Tuesday for Tyr (or Tiw), Wednesday for Wotan, Thursday for Thor, Friday for Freya. Each has a corporate echo: Black Monday, the day of the 1987 world stock market crash; Black Tuesday, the climax of the 1929 crash; Black Wednesday, the day the British government had to withdraw the pound sterling from the ERM after its value tanked. There are so many possible referents for Black Thursday that the term has its own disambiguation page, with the earliest listed use dating from 1851. And of course, Black Friday is the sacred holiday of Our Lady of Deep Discount Retailers—which fits pretty well, to my mind, with Freya’s role as goddess of love and fertility.

These Black Days are an echo of holy week, four crashes and a resurrection—but then we shouldn’t be surprised: faith’s crucial to the operation of a stock exchange after all. What is a market crash if not a theomachy? Gods drown as faith drains out; fear seizes them and they scramble one on top of the other for air. I grew up in the States, and the vision of the Great Depression I internalized as a kid was bound up with the Dust Bowl, ecological and financial catastrophe married in some mad Fisher King mystery play as if Balan ran out of the NYSE in October 1929, sword red with the blood of the King-Who-Is-The-Land. Dramatic license? Maybe. But back in 2008, when the US economy stumbled into a wood chipper and dragged the rest of the world with it, the most dramatic terms seemed suddenly appropriate. News anchors and law professors alike struggled to comprehend or express the magnitude of the change.

Yours truly lived through the whole thing with a rapidly fluctuating employment differential—let’s not put too fine a point on it, it was scramble-for-cash-and-do-all-those-crazy-jobs-you’ll-put-in-your-writer-bio-later time—and when I looked for language to capture what I saw, nothing fit the truth so much as the language of epic fantasy: of gods that war and die. And, if a bankrupt corporation’s a dead god of sorts, what’s the bankruptcy process but necromancy conducted by attorney-wizard—law, that most epic-fantastical of modern professions, the domain of speech act and nonverbal contract, of power drawn from argument and terms of art in languages long dead, the profession where, in training, you actually take a class called “Corpse”? (Okay, Corps, fine, but still.) So, necromantic bankruptcy attorneys carving up dead gods to re-make them as shambling revenants of their former selves. Seems logical enough.

I’ll admit this is a weird vision of the world—but then, we live in a weird world of product evangelists and Papal Twitter accounts, and as we move we trail information and bank statements and clicks like Phillip Pullman’s Dust. Better, I think, to be aware of the weirdness, and capture it in language that gives it credit.

Max Gladstone writes books about the cutthroat world of international necromancy: wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders’ committees. You can follow him on Twitter.


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