Matching Your Money to Your World
By Ron Brown
©2001, Ron Brown
Issue #1: 01/01/01
There has been discussion in many places concerning money in speculative fiction. Many people adhere to the common currencies of gold, silver, and bronze. Others, especially science fiction writers, will use the ubiquitous credit system. Each of these has its place, but any system must be matched to the appropriate world atmosphere.
If your world is very young, doesnt have established governments, and survives on individual farming and small towns, you will likely want to rely on a barter system. It is not an easy system to deal with from a writing standpoint because you will need to make the trading difficult in order to capture the flavor of that system. It was not luck that drove civilization away from bartering.
Traditional medieval settings fit well with hard money. Hard currency must have some intrinsic value, like gold. Trading within a single rulers land could be carried out according to numbers of coins, while trade outside the fiefdom would probably be carried out according to weight. That would account for the differences in coins. In fact, coins are not needed at all if you wish to rely on weight as an alternative.
A dominant government system allows for certificates of deposit (paper money that represents hard currency deposits) or fiat money (money that has no hard deposit backing it). Certificates of deposit would be common in prosperous areas due to the difficulty in transporting large quantities of valuable metals or goods. If the nation is powerful or stable enough, the money need not have any backing, as the authority of the nation backs its value.
Future, non-apocalyptic worlds will likely also rely on fiat money. The different nations or planets will exchange based on the perceived stability of the governments and economies. A planet or group of worlds that holds a key to commerce will likely develop a dominant currency. It is possible that it could be so dominant that interplanetary trade would be required to be transacted in the dominant currency while local commerce could use the native currency. By the way, this could also occur in other settings, such as Roman domination of smaller countries. Roman coin was used for all commerce throughout the kingdom, while local trade used the native currency of the conquered land.
Post-apocalyptic worlds will fall into one of the categories above depending on the level of government surviving. The main difference will likely be in what is valued. Rather than a precious metal such as gold, the currency may become electronics, or fuel, or ammunition. The key to hard currency is that it is intrinsically valuable, not that it is gold.
The setting of your world will determine what money you use. Once that is determined, you just need to be consistent. For example, dont set up a barter economy and then have villagers borrowing from a bank (there would be no deposits to borrow). Likewise, you wouldnt have highly specialized labor in that setting due to the uncertainty of trade.
Money and trade will appear throughout a novel- length story, whether it was intended to play a major role or not. Taking a little time in the beginning to match the commerce to the world will prevent headaches later on, and will add depth to the setting that could bring the reader into the story.
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