Five Unconventional Economic Systems as Imagined in SFF

The modern world runs on money: No matter one’s opinions of capitalism, in our reality, that is an unavoidable fact. Fiction, though—particularly speculative fiction like SF and fantasy—is perfect for exploration, imagination, and escapism, helping us set aside the drearier aspects of reality and envisioning other systems, other sorts of economies…


Contract Economy: Written in Red by Anne Bishop

Capitalism certainly plays a role in Anne Bishop’s The Others series—but only insofar as human civilization exists in the background. The terra indigene, sentient non-humans who take various elemental and shapeshifting forms, have only just begun to make direct purchases with currency at the time the books are set. The terra indigene have set out to understand humans better and build a better relationship with humanity, which very much exists on sufferance in the terra indigene territory.

Technically, terra indigene lease land to humans in exchange for manufactured goods. Human communities provide these luxuries on a recurring basis—for example, leaving boxes of supplies at the edges of terra indigene settlements. Humans pay for water rights, they pay for right-of-way access to the roads, they pay for the land they build their cities on—in perpetuity. The land belongs to the terra indigene, who accumulate wealth via contract because they have no other reason to permit humans onto land they control. As Frank Herbert notes in Dune, the ability to destroy something is the ability to control it absolutely. No matter what the “Humans First and Last” organizations believe, Bishop’s terra indigene are exponentially more powerful than the human governments and have demonstrated the ability to wipe out human civilization entirely.

They definitely have the ability to enforce their contracts—and other transactions are treated as little more than a curiosity.


Balanced Reciprocity: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

In Anne Bishop’s more widely known Black Jewels series (which also features an excellent example of tithing), there is an oft-repeated phrase, “Everything has a price.” A similar sentiment shows up in the Goblin Market of In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire—an economic system known as balanced reciprocity.

Though the Incan state controlled the economy on the macro level, on the interpersonal level, balanced reciprocity was key.  A member of the community might ask for help plowing a field of potatoes and then, in a later season, be expected to pay back that favor by helping someone else shear their llama. The Quechua concepts of mit’a (mandatory public service—the Egyptians used something similar for public infrastructure projects) and minka (asking for help by promising something) were critical to the social stability of the Inca.

In an Absent Dream offers a much darker example of this system. It’s balanced reciprocity enforced by the magic of the Market itself. In the Goblin Market, it is unwise to ask for anything at all unless you can offer fair value, and if you cannot, well, then you go into debt. As in the Black Jewels series, costs can be tangible or intangible—or both. The Market is fair in its way, distinguishing between those who are deliberately cheating and someone working as hard as they can to settle a debt; it appears to deal more gently with those who cannot yet be expected to know all the nuances of its rules.

But it’s best to stay sharp and be careful of what you ask for… in the world of Goblin Market, the debt you incur slowly turns you into a bird.


Hunting & Herding Economy: The Borderland of Sol by Larry Niven

Animals can represent their own sort of economy. The ability to vastly increase the size of a pastoral herd, such as cattle or sheep or horses, has an enormous impact on a society’s economy—especially when you consider that pastoral economies are often less about coinage or currency and more concerned with herd sizes. Around 3300 BCE, the Yamnaya herders of the Pontic steppe began to increase their herd sizes, thanks to the invention of the wheel allowing for a mobile pastoral economy.

In the early centuries of the first millennium CE, when high-value goods were still rare in cattle-keeping parts of Africa, being a clan chief had relatively little practical effect. But during the Nuer expansion, chiefs were able to use their position as community judges to build up their own herds and redistribute cattle to their followers. This economy, centered around control of cattle rather than currency or coinage, led to enormous social changes.

Most science fiction and fantasy books involving pastoral herders tend to depict a regular, coin-based economy, but that’s not always the case. The nightsheep herders of L. E. Modesitt’s Corean Chronicles must buy equipment for processing the nightsilk, plus barrels, guns, and other goods. They used money just as ranchers in the American West would have. The Shin’a’in of Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar series consider their horses as part of the family, but sales of culled horses to outsiders nonetheless represent a major source of wealth for the Clans. A “purely” pastoral economy is something different; a pastoral economy in the Bronze Age sense of the term uses the number of animals in one’s herd as the measure of wealth itself.

But what if the animals themselves are the ones engaging in economic activity? Larry Niven’s Known Space setting shows an example of just that in Borderland of Sol, which won the 1976 Hugo Award for best novelette.

Hearkening back to ancient traditions in which clan chiefs were entitled to half a hunter’s trophy in acknowledgment of their work as adjudicators of disputes in the clan, the sentient Bandersnatchi of the Jinx system allow themselves to be hunted by humans in exchange for specialized tools.


Barter Economy: Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Speaking of specialized tools, Ilona Andrews’ Dina Demille relied on barter economy to get the specialty items she needed to defend her inn in Clean Sweep. She visits Baha-char, a grand bazaar that is a great crossroads like the Swahili Coast or Syria were in their heyday. It is a place where you can find anything you are looking for. The person she goes to, Nuan Cee, is a cut above a regular trader; he’s a powerful Merchant who deals in rare goods. Simple currency means nothing to someone like Nuan Cee—uniqueness and rarity are prized.

Dina manages to barter a jar of specialty honey from Yemen—worth about $250—for an exotic item she desperately needs to defend her inn. When her partner is concerned about the perceived value disparity—she never could have bought the thing she needed for $250!—Dina reassures him by pointing out that value is in the eye of the beholder, and that to Nuan Cee, the honey is worth far more than $250 because of the story she wove about it.

The thing about barter economies, though? Pre-money ones might be just as fictional as Baha-char. Adam Smith’s idea that primitive people would have bartered for goods before the invention of currency has been thoroughly debunked by anthropologists like David Graeber—evidence suggestions that barter economies came after the invention of money—similar to how Ilona Andrews’ popular Kate Daniels series uses ammunition in lieu of dollars after the U.S. federal government crumbles.


Contribution / Status Economy: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

In the pre-Columbian era, the Inca were able to construct one of the greatest imperial states in human history without money or marketplaces. The state economy functioned via “supply on demand” and the concept of mit’a. The state might demand labor from a family, but they would give equal value in return. As mentioned above, a similar system was used by the Egyptians for their public infrastructure projects. For most of Egypt’s history, particularly during the Bronze Age, international trade was sponsored by the Pharaoh. There was no merchant class; Bronze Age rulers in the Levant gained status through a complex web of luxury gifts, diplomacy, and war.

In Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, female spiders function as the nobility—they are the warrior class, the priestesses, the scholars. Males are typically expected to follow one of two paths to earn their food: An industrious male might make himself useful performing maintenance or engage in the easier (but more dangerous) work of courtship and flattery. The young are provided for by the “state” until they are old enough to be useful, but then they must work to earn food, learning trades, and gaining specialties. The spider metropolises are run as a functional anarchy with social hierarchies determined by contribution. Favors and gifts are determined by power, gained through contribution to the whole, and females collect into peer groups of friends that essentially work together to pool their resources and status.

Of course, at the elite levels of any human society, status starts to matter more than money—but what makes the spiders of Children of Time so unique is that this philosophy was pervasive throughout the whole society—if it weren’t for the spiders (and the extreme sexual dimorphism) I might even consider it a utopia!

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Have you come across any other unusual economic systems in science fiction or fantasy? Please consider yourself invited to share more examples in the comments.

Eleanor Konik studied philosophy and religion before graduating law school in 2011. These days, she teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history—and magic—to life. You can find more articles about worldbuilding, ancient civilizations, and mythology at her website.



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