Doomsday Economics and the Ubiquitous Raiders

This post covers material in Beneath an Azure Sky chapters 1-3.

We’ll start with a topic that seems to stymie a lot of writers – economics in a world radically different from our own. It’s not hard to understand why, as the system we have today hasn’t changed all that much in the modern age (on the street level, anyway). Unfortunately, any massive societal change is bound to throw that system for a loop, and most of us don’t know how to handle that. The good news is that you don’t need to know too much – your readers are the same as you, expecting to see something familiar. Even so, it might not be such a bad idea to examine some of those more alien systems.

The key concept here is the gift economy, the system that most anthropologists believe humans operated under prior to the development of currency and trade. In a gift economy, people contribute goods to a common store, from which anyone can take what they need. Within small groups, this system makes a lot more sense than more complex systems – the priority is survival, so competition within the group is unnecessary and counterproductive, and crime really isn’t an issue with so few people. Most of the encampments in the Rudra novels operate under these principles. There is still a concept of private ownership, but only in a limited sense – everyone in those villages is prepared to share for their mutual survival.

However, there is still an element of trade, one that’s going to come into play more and more in Azure Sky. In the larger encampments, there is a much more robust trading system, coupled with a lot more competition. These trades tend to be for either luxury goods or specialized items needed by the more developed areas (i.e. building materials). The barter system used in the wastes is a bit unrealistic – currency develops naturally out of trade, so pure barter systems weren’t as common as you’d think. The reason they exist in fiction is that there are dramatic possibilities that can’t be explored in a currency-based economy (First Rule of Fiction: Given a choice between being realistic and being interesting, pick interesting). The scouts, salvagers and mercenaries are all paid in vital necessities – food and shelter – and encouraged by the opportunity to move up in society and enjoy a higher standard of living. Basically, the Rudra economy is a blend of ancient and Euro-medieval systems – common in dystopian fiction, in my opinion.

Which brings me to a related element – crime. Badland raider gangs are a common trope in post-apocalyptic fiction. It makes sense – desperate times call for desperate measures. When employing raiders, however, it’s worth making sure that they make sense. Many works of fiction depict gigantic raider gangs, dozens or even hundreds strong. It’s not just the genre, either – fantasy and historical fiction titles are also known to feature enormous criminal gangs. These groups don’t make a lot of sense, if you think about it. How plausible is it that a one-hundred man strong raider gang can hit enough traders to keep them all fed? Real life bands of desperate criminals – be they bandits, pirates, bank robbers, or whatever else – were no bigger than they had to be.

In a sense, I can understand the appeal behind the huge gang, as a group of hundreds of killers can be truly terrifying. But unless your lead character has an army at his disposal, he’s going to be just as threatened by a tight, well-organized group of, say, ten raiders. Once a group hits the hundreds, it’s passed a threshold and become something else entirely. It’s a society – a really messed up society, but then that’s what we’re writing about, isn’t it? Of course, all that aside, if your story requires a gang of hundreds to work, by all means include it (First Rule of Fiction, remember?).

On Dystopian Literature

So now that Beneath an Azure Sky is up and running, I’d like to do something a little different.

One of the more paradoxically popular posts on my old blog was one entitled Dystopian Literature: Two Simple Tips. I wish I could say it was popular because of the quality, but it was mainly due to the title. Apparently, there weren’t that many people writing about the art and craft of describing nightmare future scenarios, and as a result I turned up on the first page of a lot of search results – still do, in fact. Unfortunately, the post isn’t really writing tips. The title is sardonic; the post is actually about bad writers trying to ham-fistedly cram their politics into novels, creating something more akin to clumsy propaganda than anything you’d call literature.

That post came out well before The Fabulist, so it’s not like I had anything to say, really. Well, now I do – and over the next few months, I’d like to lay out my philosophy of writing in handy, blog-sized chunks for your enjoyment. The plan is to get one post out every Wednesday, using Beneath an Azure Sky and The Fabulist (to a lesser extent) as examples.

I’d like to start with a warning of sorts, however. I realize that a lot of you are only interested in writing dystopian literature because you’ve heard that it’s very trendy and you imagine that this is the easiest way to get published. Sixteen months ago, when I wrote that post, this was undeniably true – publishers and agents were greedily snapping up every Hunger Games ripoff they could find, sure that it would sell to the same audience. Such is the nature of publishing. That’s changed, though. Over the past couple years, agents have been so inundated with dystopian stories that many of them are now rejecting them out of hand. The market is saturated, and there’s just not much room for new novels of that type. So if you’re planning to write this kind of fiction, I hope you’re doing it for the love of writing because publishing is going to be a struggle.

This also goes without saying given how this started, but I also hope you haven’t selected this genre simply because you have a message to put across. Yes, I know that there have been many famous novels and films that used desolate futuristic settings to make a point about what was then the modern world. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for you to do it. Orwell was a novelist first and a politico second, and unless you can say the same then you should steer clear. There’s more to writing in this genre than creating a world where all the policies you don’t like arbitrarily make the economy collapse. You have to build the world first.

One last thing: For the purposes of this series, “dystopia” includes the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic categories. This isn’t really my choice – I’ve always considered these to be distinct and separate subgenres of science fiction. I’m in the minority on this, though – most people consider the dystopian category to include any bad future, whether that’s a repressive society or a collapsed society. I’ll go ahead and roll with it – the Rudra novels elements of both, anyway.

In Search of a Blue Sky

BAZTempBeen enjoying The Fabulist? Then I have some news for you. Beneath an Azure Sky, the next story in the Rudra series, is now available on JukePop Serials. Keep an eye out for behind-the-scenes material right here on Wednesdays. Oh, and they also set up a Pinterest board for The Fabulist, if you’re in to that sort of thing. Check that one out here for trivia and story notes.

The Fabulist #12

Pinnacle was something of a legend in the wasteland. Every traveler spoke in hushed tones of the empire in the middle of the Shivan Desert, the land that nature had long ago abandoned to the iron rule of death. Somewhere in this lifeless expanse, there was said to be a city – a great city, like the ones that had dotted the landscape before the disaster. But no one knew anything about this city, for there were few with the fortitude to reach it, and none who entered ever returned. It was said that any man who walked through the gates of Pinnacle became the subject of its ruler – the Conqueror of the Southern Wastes, an almost mythical figure whose ambition and brutality were without limit.

And suddenly, Storyteller found himself before those gates, before that city, with that myth awaiting his arrival.

“I was instructed to bring you directly to Conqueror’s palace,” said Captain. “Come, let’s not waste his time.”

Storyteller was led into the city by the retinue of guards. From inside, the city was an even greater wonder than it appeared from the desert. The buildings were not repurposed ruins, as in most wasteland settlements, but were completely new structures built from recovered stone and concrete that had been shaped into blocks for easy use. The main thoroughfare was wide and clean, decorated with clay sculptures and lined with shops and stalls. The whole area was packed with people, all going about their business in a casual manner that Storyteller could not recall seeing anywhere else. And at the end of the street, looming above the city, stood a great multistory citadel, ornamented with precious metals and carvings of terrifying beasts.

As the group moved through the streets, the people stopped and stared at Storyteller, gathering as closely as the guards would allow. Storyteller could hear chatter from the crowd:

“Is that him?”

“Amazing! The lord has found him!”

“He doesn’t look like a wastelander, does he?”

Captain swept them aside. “You’ll have time to speak with him after our lord has met him.”

Suddenly, there was a voice from the palace: “Is this Captain of the North, returning with our most honored guest?” Storyteller looked up, spotting a single figure standing on the palace dais, his features obscured by the long shadow cast by the structure.

Captain looked up at the figure. “Yes, lord. He stands now in our presence.”

“Excellent!” replied the voice. “Lead him into the welcoming hall and see to his comfort. I shall meet him shortly.”

Captain rested his hand on Storyteller’s shoulder. “Let’s proceed. Our lord has been waiting for this moment.”

Leaving the rest of the guards to manage the crowd, Storyteller and Captain walked into the palace. The inside was dimly lit, the narrow corridors illuminated by narrow windows and the occasional ensconced lantern. The walls and floors were polished stone and, judging by the lack of wasteland dust and grime, had recently been given a thorough cleaning. The hallway bent at the end, opening onto a spacious room with a long table and chairs, all of which looked as though they had been crafted by hand in the very recent past.

“Conqueror will arrive shortly. Please make yourself comfortable.” Captain knocked on the wall next to an almost invisible hatch. A moment later, the hatch slid open and Captain removed a tray with a clay jug and several cups, moving it to the table. “From our internal well. It is cleaner than the water you would find in the wastes.”

“Thanks, but I’m fine,” said Storyteller, exploring the room.

“Then, do you desire food?” Captain walked back to the hatch. “Our stores contain a more diverse assortment than you may be accustomed to.”

Storyteller shook his head. “Again, I’m fine. When do you think your lord will arrive?”

“Conqueror appears in his own due time,” answered Captain. “However, I trust he will not be long. He has been awaiting your appearance for a long time now.”

“Might you explain that to me?” asked Storyteller. “I am not an powerful man. Why is my presence so vital?”

“Any explanations will come from Conqueror. I am but his servant.” Just then, the sound of footsteps echoed down another corridor. Captain immediately sprang to attention. “The lord arrives.” Continue reading

Nerd World #1 (Paul)

My name is Paul Liston. Seventeen years old. Senior at Northwestern High, an insignificant school in a town that’s just big enough to make the atlases. There are tens of thousands of people just like me. I sit across from a few hundred of them, in fact.

Of course, most of those people aren’t presently speeding towards school hours before they actually have to be there, all to participate in a ritual they despise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

High school is strange in many ways. No matter how much society mutates, no matter how the trends change, high school remains more or less the same. It hasn’t changed all that much since my parents were my age, and I imagine it’ll be the same when I’m well into senility. There’s a certain hierarchy in high school that resists all attempts at change or reform. No one acknowledges it, but everyone who grew up in this country recognizes it. It’s like a cross between feudal Europe and some sort of sci-fi dystopian novel – we all have our place, and we are powerless to resist.

There’s a myth about people not fitting in during adolescence. We all fit in somewhere, it’s just that most of us don’t like where we fit in. The people at the top – the popular kids, the rich kids, the trendsetters – are perfectly happy, of course. So are the entertainers – the athletes, musicians, and pranksters – all of whom have their own special roles to fill. Far beneath them are the misfits, the poor bastards who look different or act different, who come from the wrong families, have the wrong friends or just have rotten luck. They have a place too, it’s just not a happy one.

But I’m not the cool kid, or the funny kid, or the bad kid. I’m the smart kid. I’ve always been the smart kid, as long as I can remember. That’s what they used to call me – There goes that smart Liston kid, I’d hear in the hallways. Sometimes, it wasn’t so nice. There goes that Liston nerd. Yeah, I heard that one a few times, too. It’s cool, though. As the smart kid, I fill a somewhat privileged position in the high school pecking order. You see, I’m very useful. Someone needs to pass a test to keep peace with his parents? He comes to me. Some official wants the school to look good to his superiors? No better way than finding a pack of smart kids and putting them to work doing smart kid stuff.

So it’s a role that comes with some perks, but there is one big downside. Most of the time, I’m effectively invisible. The high school nerd is not a pariah, but he’s not a champion, either. He’s just there, inscrutable and solitary.

There is one exception, though.

Northwest, like most other high schools, participates in the national Scholar’s Bowl. You’ve heard about that, I’m sure – find a couple smart kids with nothing better to do over the weekend, then send them to other schools to compete in trivia contests with other teams of smart kids. Now, most schools just pick their teams out of the gifted program. The administration of Northwest High has a bit more flair than that. A few weeks before the start of trivia season, they have a special school-wide event. It’s called “Trivia Master” and it’s basically a scaled-down version of the Scholar’s Bowl that’s open to all students of Northwest High. The matches are held in front of the assembled student body, and the winning team goes on to represent Northwest.

God, do I love Trivia Master.

Most people look at Trivia Master and see just another sawed-off game show, not even worth consideration. However, if you’re one of those invisible smart kids, this is the one chance you get to shine. You see, I’m not the only person who loves Trivia Master. This event is a big deal. I’m not sure I can even begin to describe how big a deal. Attendance at the matches is up there with homecoming pep rallies, and the behavior of the audience is equally raucous. It sounds bizarre, but it’s the absolute truth.

For the two weeks of Trivia Master, everything changes. For those two weeks, I am an important man. When I walk through the halls, people greet me with open arms. They discuss me over lunch – hell, they fight to sit next to me, just so they can get an inside track on the matches before everything goes public. For two weeks, I am not only visible, I am a damn beacon for the whole school. It’s an awesome time, for me and everyone like me. Of course, there are always a few people who take things too far.

That’s the dark side of Trivia Master, the part that no one ever discusses. Everyone likes to imagine that this event is a scholarly competition between mild-mannered dorks. People who believe this have never spent any time amongst the greater North American nerd. Yes, we go to great lengths to get along, but push one of us even a little bit too far and the claws come out. And with dozens of smart kids vying for attention, there’s always someone pushing.

That’s the real reason I’m hauling ass towards Northwest. It’s not because I really care about the rules of the competition, the changes since last year. It’s because I’m worried about the people whe are eyeballing those rules for weaknesses.

Yes, friends, people cheat. They try and sabotage each other in ways that might shock you. I could tell you stories – the rumor mill at Northwest is as robust as it is in any other high school. But here’s all you really need to know: For the two weeks of Trivia Master, those smart kids who are being treated like the popular kids start to act like the popular kids – and then they get worse.

For my part, I try to avoid that sort of cloak-and-dagger madness. It’s not always easy, however, and with my particular friends it’s often impossible. That’s why I’ve decided to chronicle this, my final Trivia Master competition. I think the world deserves to know just how our kind behaves when the social structures that keep us in check are broken down. I’m not trying to tear anyone down, I just want to dispel some of the creaky old myths that people still hold.

Okay, maybe I do want to tear a few people down. Sue me, I’m not immune. And maybe this wasn’t the best day to start this. I’m a little cranky. After all, Ken Greevey – my perennial teammate – called me at an absurd hour this morning to remind me that trivia season was upon us.

Actually, that’s a good place to start, because Ken falls squarely inside the “takes it too seriously” camp. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great guy and we’ve been friends for years. We teamed up in three consecutive competitions, after all. Thing is, we fell short each year. Every time we lost, Ken responded by redoubling his efforts the following year. I’m honestly a little afraid of what he might be planning this time.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, though. Ken doesn’t play dirty or anything like that. He’s just a touch obsessive. This isn’t the first time I’ve received a wake-up call because he wanted to discuss some insignificant change in the rules on team registry or read me a long list of stats on the other teams. That’s Ken’s nature. He puts 200% of himself into everything he does. Lord knows he could be worse. A lot worse.

Yes, I’m thinking of someone in particular, but I’m not prepared to start slinging mud just yet. Besides, I know that Ken is waiting for me, and he’ll have a conniption if I don’t talk to him soon. You think I’m exaggerating? You have no idea.

To summarize: Trivia Master is a fantastic competition that displays the best in us but brings out the worst in us. It’s my favorite time of the year, but I also dread it every time it comes around. It’s a simple game, but it’s also deadly serious.

Well, I’m sure Ken is losing his shit waiting for me, so I guess I’d better get moving. Just remember that whatever happens, it wasn’t my idea. I swear.

My name is Paul Liston. Welcome to my world.