Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Economics in my Fiction

A correspondent points me at a blog post with the intriguing title "Sci-fi needs economists." Neither of my novels is science fiction, but both of them are speculative fiction—sf, of which sci-fi is a subset. And both of them reflect, in varying ways, the fact that they were written by an economist. It occurred to me that some readers of this blog might be interested in how.

The protagonist of Harald is a leading figure in the Vales, a semi-stateless society loosely based on saga period Iceland. The Vales are allied with the kingdom of Kaerlia, from which they were settled a few centuries back, and with a third, non-geographical polity, the Order, a female military order very loosely based on the Templars. I do not find an order of women warriors terribly plausible from a historical standpoint, but I like it as a plot device. The three are allied against the Empire, a larger, expansionist power loosely based on Roman, Byzantine, and Abbasid models.

One form in which economics appears is the central problem that Harald faces—how to raise and support an army without either taxation to hire troops or a feudal system with liegemen obliged to fight for him. Although his purpose is defensive warfare, the model I was thinking of was offensive—the Norse armies that ravaged Britain. As best I can tell they were, in large part, not national armies but entrepreneurial projects. Harald is not in a position to offer his people land, but he can offer them loot—loot captured from Imperial forces he defeats and, more important, ransom paid by the Empire to get back their captive soldiers. That, plus excitement, glory, the opportunity to train under the best general around, and a patriotic desire not to have their homeland conquered, have to suffice.

One implication is that Harald has to be very stingy with the lives of his men; if too many of them get killed or injured in this campaign, nobody may show up for the next one. Hence he specializes in what his daughter refers to as "Father's set piece battles—everything important settled five minutes before it starts." The objective, always, is to put the opposing force in a position where it will have to surrender; his favorite method is logistical, creating a situation where if the enemy do not surrender they will die of hunger or thirst.

The same issues arise on the other side, although not quite as obviously. The Emperor has legionaries who are professional soldiers paid by taxes, and auxilia, mercenary forces from inside or outside the empire to fill roles that the legionaries do not. From the standpoint of each individual commander, it is the legions, the elite heavy infantry, that really matter. While losing auxilia is a bad thing, you can always hire more; as long as the legions get safely home, the army has not been defeated.

The problem, as becomes clear in the final campaign, is that you cannot always hire more. Having gotten quite a lot of auxilia killed in earlier campaigns, the Empire finds mercenaries in short supply, not because most of them have been killed but because the ones who are alive would prefer to stay that way. The economic constraint.

My second novel, unlike the first, is an actual fantasy with magic. Its initial theme was the fantasy equivalent of the central planning fallacy. If readers are interested, let me know and I will be happy to expand on that. I am a little worried that, like many authors, I may be more interested in talking about my books than other people are in hearing about them.


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14 Comments:

At 9:34 PM, January 31, 2012, Anonymous PoliteEdward said...

I am definitely interested in hearing you expand upon Salamander.

 
At 11:25 PM, January 31, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

I think it's interesting for people who've read the books to read some background discussion. I can't speak for people who haven't read them.

 
At 3:39 AM, February 01, 2012, Blogger sconzey said...

On the subject of Salamander, I'm a lot more interested in how your knowledge of physics influenced your portrayal of magic

 
At 4:25 AM, February 01, 2012, Anonymous TJIC said...

> Science fiction needs economists

Hey, I'm working on the rewrite of my first novel as fast as I can!

http://morlockpublishing.com/?page_id=5

The Powers of the Earth: a novel about anarchocapitalism, economics, corporate finance, antigravity, lunar colonization, genetically modified dogs and AI

 
At 4:49 AM, February 01, 2012, Anonymous ASD said...

Speaking as someone who have not read either book, I'd be happy to read more.

If it's sufficiently interesting it might also be enough to motivate people to buy/download/read the books, which seems like a pretty good motivation.

 
At 6:29 AM, February 01, 2012, Anonymous albatross said...

In Harald, there was one bit of chemistry/physics which seemed a little off to me. There's a point where a huge swimming pool has been built as a water storage tank for an invading army, and some characters use a catapult to throw chunks of salt into it. Did you work out the proportions, there? It seemed intuitively to me like a pool big enough to provide water for an invading army would also be too big to entirely ruin with the amount of salt you could toss into it with a few catapult shots. But maybe my intuitions are wrong here.

 
At 7:00 AM, February 01, 2012, Blogger sconzey said...

Back of the envelope calculations: you'd have to throw 1.07 metric tonnes of salt into an olympic swimming pool for the concentration of chlorine to rise above EPA-acceptable levels for drinking water of 250 ppm (by mass).

1 trebuchet shot can lob about 140kg, so ten shots?

The most expensive part is I guess getting hold of all that salt. It might be cheaper to hire some mercenaries and pay them with it...

 
At 7:01 AM, February 01, 2012, Blogger sconzey said...

A couple of dead animals might be a cheaper and more effective contaminant.

 
At 7:57 AM, February 01, 2012, Blogger Matt said...

"I may be more interested in talking about my books than other people are in hearing about them."

Not being psychic, I cannot speak to precisely how interested you are in talking about your books. Nor, obviously, to any comparison of this unknown quantity with the known quantity of how much I want to hear about your books.

I can, however, say that the amount of time you've already spent talking about your books does not, to me anyway, seem excessive. Indeed, it has not even completely satiated my own desire to learn about your thoughts on the subject.

HTH. HAND.

 
At 10:10 AM, February 01, 2012, Blogger David Friedman said...

Re salt and swimming pools.

Yes, I did the calculations at the time.

wrt Sconzey's calculations. You may be thinking of a counterweighted trebuchet--the "monsters" that the Empire is using at another point in the story. This is a traction trebuchet--a much smaller machine, powered by humans pulling on ropes, not by a counterweight.

On the other hand, I doubt the Prince's pool is anything close to olympic size.

So far as the cost is concerned, the text mentions the existence of a convenient salt mine. I suspect that the cost of salt in the middle ages was largely transport cost.

 
At 11:41 AM, February 01, 2012, Blogger William B Swift said...

>A couple of dead animals might be a cheaper and more effective contaminant.

Dead people even more so. Especially if you can find some that are good and rotten, so that they can't be fished out before they fall apart. Of course, this is only a variation on the Medieval tactic of throwing corpses into besieged cities to spread disease.

 
At 1:35 PM, February 01, 2012, Blogger David Friedman said...

My original idea for dealing with the water supply was some sort of poison. I abandoned it in part because I didn't find anything that looked particularly suitable for the purpose, but also because it didn't fit the feel of the story, in particular my protagonist's personality.

Harald is a nice man. He is willing to kill enemies if he has to, but he would much rather capture them, or convert them into friends, or, as in the case of the king of Kaerlia, do both. His default attitude is to treat everyone as a friend, and one result is that he is very good at making friends with people, a useful talent in his situation. As Kiron comments in the partly written sequel, describing his time as a hostage in Haraldholt, "All the time I was there, they treated me as if I was a friend of one of their sons who happened to be visiting for a while."

I should probably add that, after I finished the book, I concluded that my protagonist's personality was modeled on my father's.

 
At 3:05 PM, February 01, 2012, Anonymous PoliteEdward said...

Someone earlier said, "I'm a lot more interested in how your knowledge of physics influenced your portrayal of magic".

I really, really enjoyed the type of magic you came up with for the Salamander universe and I also would love to hear you talk about your thoughts on the way magic works in Salamander.

 
At 11:46 PM, February 01, 2012, Anonymous Gunite Pool said...

I think it's interesting for people who've read the books to read some background discussion. I can't speak for people who haven't read them.

Gunite Pool

 

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