The Big Idea: Alexandra Rowland
Posted on September 10, 2019 Posted by John Scalzi 15 Comments
Tulips, bitcoin, fantasy worlds — how to each relate to the other? Alexandra Rowland knows, and in their Big Idea for A Choir of Lies, they are happy to lay it all out for you.
Do you like coincidences? Here’s a cool one:
From November of 1636 to February of 1637, the Netherlands was gripped by the climax of tulip mania, the world’s first-ever economic bubble, and then a sudden crash of the market. At the height of the mania, a single bulb of the Viceroy tulip (which was not even the most expensive variety) sold for 2500 florins, more than $34,000 in today’s money.
From November of 2017 to February of 2018, the internet watched the rise and fall of the bitcoin bubble. There were rumors of people making their fortune because they’d bought into bitcoin years ago for pennies, and of people taking out mortgages to buy-in once the boom hit, then losing their homes when the bust followed.
And in November of 2017, I blithely started writing A Choir of Lies, a novel about fantasy tulip mania, thinking that it was going to be about something very obscure and difficult to explain to people. I wrote the fictional boom during the real boom, and the bust during the bust. To my enormous chagrin, I delivered the first draft to my editor at the beginning of February, 2018.
Yeah, I got nothin’.
Economics is a funny thing. Most people don’t understand it, so they think that it’s dull and boring. It’s supposedly about money and numbers and rules, and we hear a lot of pompous people using terms like “trickle-down” and talking about “the free market” with the same hushed reverence that some people use to talk about their god: An abstract and unknowable force to be worshiped and revered, which moves in mysterious ways and demands that we behave according to certain laws and principles or else.
But, like all the rest of our religions, economics is more about people than anything else. It’s just humans being human really, really hard at each other. We came up with “rules” of the “free market” based on simple observations of how people tend to behave in certain situations, and then we sort of… forgot that it was about them. We talk about the movements of money without thinking enough about who is moving it and why. This causes a ripple which turns into a tidal wave, and before you can think better of the whole sorry affair, you end up with late-stage capitalism and a bunch of CEOs who sweat and agonize about profit margins and, every decade, forget a little more that at the end of the day, it’s still just about people, and that people are important.
A Choir of Lies is narrated by Ylfing – if you’ve read A Conspiracy of Truths, you already know him: the sweet apprentice storyteller with a heart as big as the world. In the wake of the events of the first book (which you don’t need to have read to understand this next one), Ylfing is struggling with his relationship to his calling. He has seen stories used destructively, and he’s lost his connection to his audience. To escape having to tell stories, he takes a job as a translator to a wealthy merchant, Sterre de Wayer. However, as soon as she finds out the real extent of his skills, she persuades him to use those skills for her own ends and fan up a mania for her most recent import: bulbs of stars-in-the-marsh, an exotic bioluminescent flower. Ylfing can do what he does because he knows people. He knows that they will devour stories like a pack of ravening wolves. That’s all that marketing is—feeding your audience a story that whets their hunger instead of sating it.
The big idea for this book might seem fairly dry at first glance—a fantasy novel about economics? Really? YAWN—except that when I say that this is a book about economics, I mean that it’s a book about hunger and desire, about floods and famines, about how we determine our values (in every sense of the word—our worth, our cost, our morals). And, of course, woven through every line of it, it’s a book about… people. Just people being people as hard as they possibly can, with everything that that entails—the capacity for great kindness and self-sacrifice, the capacity for great greed and selfishness, and for the ability to hold those two contradictory impulses simultaneously in one hand.
Economics isn’t boring at all, it’s fascinating. It is as fascinating as political intrigue or comedies-of-manners or religious persecution or war, because all those things too are just people-being-people, coming up with intricate rules of a game that they’ve decided is terribly, terribly important, and then forgetting that that they can make new games with new rules, if the old ones no longer suit.
At the heart of the game of Economics (Late-Stage Capitalism Expansion Pack) is the idea that money is the most important resource. The big idea of A Choir of Lies, in one sentence, is just a question asked very softly: “But what if it isn’t?”
A Choir of Lies: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
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I like it – makes me hopeful that maybe *we* can decide to change the rules if we don’t like the game we’re playing.
It’s easy to get sucked into the framing of economics as if it were the interplay of abstract, nonhuman entities. (I’ve gone along with it by quipping that the Invisible Hand has no Heart or Brain, so the Hand needs to be kicked in the Ass periodically by the Long Arm of the Law.)
One of the best things we can do (I think) in science fiction and fantasy is to take apart real-world unquestioned assumptions and see whether they make any sense. This really is a Big Idea, and I look forward to reading it.
Economists generally do not think of money as a “resource” whatsoever, although ordinary people usually do so. This “mistake” is known as the “money illusion”.
The invisible hand is what it looks like when man makes god in his own image.
I enjoy seeing someone else propose the notion of economics-as-religion. It can be a hard sell in some circles.
Well-published PhD economist (from a top program) here– not to accuse anyone in the comments of mansplaining… but… Of COURSE economists generally think of money as a resource. So much so that we translate everything that we can into dollar values.
The money illusion, IIRC, is just that people conflate nominal money values with real money values because they don’t understand inflation. And yes, money is just a fiat… but so long as we believe in the government to back it, that’s irrelevant. We can use it to buy goods and services. It’s the ultimate resource.
If economics is a religion, then it is a pantheon and the invisible hand is the god of war.
I don’t think we are using “resource” in the same sense. Classical microeconomics does not even have money except as an afterthought. Treating some good as the numeraire is, to me, the oppose of treating it as a “resource”. When Soviet rubles became absolutely worthless as money, then they became a resource: wallpaper and toilet paper.
And yes, I meant the money illusion. Someone who thinks his $1000 has some absolute value is in for surprises in his life. It doesn’t have utility in its own right, unlike food or copper or Scalzi books.
“It doesn’t have utility in its own right…”
Nonsense. You just pointed out two utilities in the paragraph above. Toilet paper and wallpaper.
But seriously, yes, agreed. Money is not a economic resource for production. It’s a “resource” for getting resources, arguably, but it is not in itself a factor of production.
For instance, a builder doesn’t *need* money to build a house. A builder *needs* materials and tools and labor.
What matters is how the author was using resource. It seems to me that she’s saying it’s usually used as a resource, but when markets break down it’s problematic. ‘At the heart of the game of Economics (Late-Stage Capitalism Expansion Pack) is the idea that money is the most important resource. The big idea of A Choir of Lies, in one sentence, is just a question asked very softly: “But what if it isn’t?”’
Most economists don’t live in an econ 101 world– we live in the real world. In the real world, money is a resource used to purchase goods and services. 17th century Netherlands had well-developed financial markets. (If it didn’t, tulip mania couldn’t have happened!) I would hope that economists are not “generally” pedants dropping into a fiction-writer’s interesting book-write-up to explain to them that they’re using a term incorrectly when in fact they are not.
I thought the big idea was saying
When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.
I.e. when the last of our real resources are gone, money becomes worthless. Therefore money is not a resource itself, just a standin.
Isnt that the whole point of bubbles? That you can only have them because money doesnt have any inate value? Resources have value based on utility. The food value of a pound of chicken is about the same as a pound of pork. But if everything is measured in dollars and dollars dont have any inate meaning or value, a pound of turkey is worth as many dollars as someone will pay for it. But its still only worth about a pound of chicken.
Do barter systems see bubbles as often as money systems? I cant imagine it happening unless the item undergoes some form of change in scarcity or monopolization.
And how does the government “back” money anyway? Theres no gold standard. You cant give 100 dollars to the state and get back any functional resource. Isnt the only government influence on money a function of the interest rates for loans from the federal reseeve which just makes money itself more or less scarce? So it kinda looks like a resource you barter with, chickens, lumber, potatos, but the scarcity is artificial.
The author’s description of the Big Idea behind the book has piqued my interest in a way few recent works of fiction have done. I’ll add this to the “read immediately” Kindle list.
“The big idea for this book might seem fairly dry at first glance—a fantasy novel about economics?”
There are six Max Gladstone Craft Sequence novels in my bookcases ready and willing to contest that notion… 8-)
I am perfectly happy with an author misusing technical terminology. Except when I’m not. That’s how it goes when I read science fiction and fantasy. I can make no judgment about what I would think of this book, in toto or regarding the economic subthreads. I’m intrigued or not intrigued by a Big Idea. But I usually assume that authors’ Big Idea comments are part of the hidden 90% “iceberg” that goes into their writing. I probably loathe every last Big Idea that Philip K Dick put into his novels, but I’ve read them all and think they are incredibly fantastic.
In this case, my reaction to this Big Idea was This Author Gets It!! Fantastic!! Economics, both classical and modern, is ultimately about people. Pretty much all economists know this. Even those who depersonify people as much as possible, homogenizing them into Homo economicus and worse, claiming markets are always perfect, the Great Depression was the Great Vacation, are still studying people. Of a sort. It’s the non-economists, as a whole, who think economics is all about money. That’s what the point of my nitpick was. (And, yes, I know about Animal Economics. And I’ve worked in Wall Street Finance.)
Frankly, “resource” is not a standard term of art within Economics. (The New Palgrave Dictionary is online. Good luck finding a definition.) The way some people are using the term here is what most economists would use the word “asset” for. I’ve only seen “resource” used in the sense that some countries are rich with resources, others are poor. This can refer to minerals, agriculture, fisheries, vistas, weather, culture, inventiveness, and so on. But never to how much money Big Government is printing.
Douglas Adams had the Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B members declare the leaf to be their unit of currency because they were hilariously stupid, not because doing so supplied a much-needed “resource”. (And that’s where the “money illusion” connection comes from. Money is the necessary grease, not the wheel or even the handle.)
In the usage I’m most familiar with, and I’ve seen used by economists, money is a resource when it is repurposed, and not before. As an additional example, (US-illegally) melting US wheat pennies for their copper content, or selling your 1909-S-VDB.
While it is 99% true that economists are not stuck in the field as it was 100 years ago, it is also true that contemporary modellers are almost entirely elaborating on the shortcomings of past models, not burning them to the ground and starting over. Walras introduced prices with his numeraire, but he emphasized that particular good was not money. The classical equilibrium analyses assumed an utterly fantastic exchange of goods and labor and the like, and gave it a fantastic name. But no cash. Getting money into such models is done, but not by treating cash as just another good. (Well, the original monetarists tried to do so, but they still had to model the Central Bank.)
Yes, I am well aware of heterodox economics. I believe some of it myself.
Fantasy and economics are combined, or at least there’s an unusual economic system in place, in:
The Cambist and Lord Iron was a Hugo/WFA nominated fantasy novelette/short story
Tom Holt The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice and The Good, the Bad and the Smug, books #3 and #4 of the YouSpace series. Writing as K J Parker, Holt has paid close attention to medieval-style technology and its disruptive effects, while not being blatant about economics.
Charles Stross The Family Trade series (YMMV: retconned from fantasy into science fiction)
Terry Pratchett Making Money (well, duh!)
J. Zachary Pike Orconomics
Isuna Hasekura, Spice and Wolf series, also adapted to manga and anime.
Josiah Bancroft The Books of Babel tetralogy (#4 is forthcoming)
Karina Sumner-Smith The Towers trilogy
Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders of Pern trilogy
Daniel Abraham The Dagger and the Coin series
There’s a world of online fan commentary on the “economics” of Harry Potter.