Friday, December 3, 2010

The role of economics in good writing.

I think one of the key factors that puts good, believable world-design above the sort of stuff that barely makes into Saturday morning cartoons, is, in fact, economics. And I don’t mean a fictional in-world economy, I mean thinking with economics.


I, like many of you, know something about economics. Not a lot, I took a basic, general econ class in high school and an even more basic, general class in college. It was fun watching some of my fellow classmates miss the boat entirely, but it’s not as though I did particularly well in either class.

However, what I took away(aside from all those pesky skills that are only useful in real life), is the concept of cost-benefit thinking, and the understanding the economics flows through all things.

Much like the Force, every single thing in the real world is driven by economics. And I don’t mean the actual, functional, money-changing-hands, stock-market-that-always-crashes “economy” that you think of when you hear the term “economics”. Money plays a key factor in a lot of decisions, but economics does as well.

Take economies of scale, for example. The longest suspension bridge in the world is the Akashi Kaiky┼Ź Bridge in Japan. More than 90% of the bridge’s mass goes to just supporting itself, with only 10% holding up the six lanes of traffic that drive across it. It’s going to be the longest bridge for a while, because we’ve officially reached the limits of what can be done with steel.

There are other areas here on earth where long bridged would be neat. The Bearing Straight between Alaska and Russia could be bridged with relative east, or the Red Sea down where Africa meets Asia. Why are there no massive, record-shattering suspension bridged there?

Economics. It’s not that no one has the money to build them(bridges are expensive, but there are some rich people), it’s that there’s no good reason to build them there. The bridge between America and Russia would need to be built in a place where there are hundreds of miles of endless wilderness on either side. Thousands of miles of rail line, road, electrical lines, phone cables—all would have to be built to reach the site, all so we could built a bridge that in all likelihood would be primarily used by moose.

Same goes for the Red Sea bridge; sure it takes a few hundred miles to go around it, but there just aren’t all that many people or goods that could really benefit by going across. So yeah, mostly camels over there.

In Europe thousands of people and tens of thousands of tons of cargo cross the English Channel every day. This was enough traffic to necessitate the construction of a tunnel beneath it. This was a massive construction project that took several years and a whole lot of money.

Now, this is not to say that people don’t ever just build big things for giggles. The pyramids of Egypt proof of that. But here’s the thing: when the Great Pyramid of Kufu(or Cheops, or his other 5 names…) was built, Egypt was at it’s height of wealth and prosperity. They had a huge surplus of food, and were organized enough to use it to feed the massive labor force that built what would be the tallest structure on earth for 4500 years.

The Great Pyramid wasn’t entirely a waste of time. It was hugely symbolic, the angle of the sides intended to mimic the rays of the sun. Pyramids were giant resurrection machines, sacred, and magical to the ancient Egyptians. Everything about the pyramid had a purpose, a careful plan.

The point is, people don’t just build massive things when more important concerns like not starving to death take precedence(unless you’re North Korea). So as you plot out your fictional world, take into account that your world needs a working, functional economy, and your people need to employ some level of cost-benefit thinking.

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