In real life, we are always part of an economy. We exchange currency for goods and services, and we work in exchange for currency. Most of us understand the basics of economics, but even so, it’s easy get the details wrong in our worldbuilding. When that happens, audiences realize something isn’t right, even if they can’t quite name what it is. Let’s take a look at some fictional worlds that didn’t do a great job so that we can avoid similar mistakes in our own work.
1. Worthless Central Currency, Star Wars
As you may remember, in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace* the main characters end up stranded on Tatooine because a vital piece of their hyperdrive is damaged. Qui-Gon Jinn* goes into town to buy a replacement part and says he’ll pay for it with Republic credits. Watto the parts dealer then declares, “Republic credits are no good out here,” and that he needs “something more real.” This necessitates the zany plan involving podracing that we all know and love.*
The logic here is that Tatooine is at the ass end of the galaxy, outside the Republic’s borders, and so the central currency is worthless. Except that’s the exact opposite of how it should have worked. Currency from a strong, stable nation is worth more in impoverished or developing nations, not less. In real life, dollars and euros are often preferred over the local currency because the US and the EU are stable enough to always ensure their money has value.
Even if we ignore that Watto should have been salivating at the chance to get his hands on that stable central currency, it still doesn’t make any sense. Money changers always exist, even if they’re just freighter captains who sometimes fly into Republic space. They’d be happy to change out Qui-Gon’s money,* taking a healthy profit for themselves of course.
This would be bad enough if it were contained in the Phantom Menace, but the idea of credits as worthless has spread throughout the Star Wars canon. Though never mentioned in a film again, it’s common enough in books and video games to have its own section on Wookieepedia. And all this because Lucas couldn’t figure out a real reason for his characters to be trapped on Tatooine.
2. Universal Bottle Caps, Fallout
In Fallout 1, the protagonist makes their way into the post-apocalyptic wasteland only to find people using old bottle caps as currency. That’s kind of strange, but there’s actually a good explanation. The merchants of a California town called the Hub needed something light to facilitate their trade, and so they went with bottle caps because there were lots around and they weren’t being used for anything else. Bottle caps don’t make great currency since they’re easy to forge and can suffer massive inflation if someone discovers a hidden cache, but the Hub’s merchants couldn’t afford to be choosy.
By the time of Fallout 2, the powerful New California Republic has started minting its own currency. Currency backed by a strong government will be far more stable than an ad hoc system by a collection of merchants, so this makes sense.
Fallout 3 is where things fall apart. This game takes place several years later and across the country in the ruins of Washington DC, but for some reason everyone is using bottle caps as their currency. This is really puzzling, because the people living in the DC Ruins had no contact with the Hub or anyone on the West Coast, so how did the idea spread that far?
More importantly, bottle caps would never work as a currency in the DC Ruins. Most currencies work because they’re intrinsically valuable, like gold and silver, or because a powerful authority declares them valuable, like paper dollars. In Fallout 1, the Hub was economically powerful enough to get others to use bottle caps. There’s no equivalent to that in the DC Ruins. Even the largest settlement, Rivet City, doesn’t work because it’s tucked away in a corner of the map and really difficult to reach.*
Since the DC Ruins have no central authority to speak of, currency would need to have some intrinsic value, or wastelanders would never hand over their hard-earned salvage. Bottle caps are worthless on their own, so no one would use them.
As if this wasn’t weird enough, when we return to the West Coast in Fallout: New Vegas, the New California Republic is also using bottle caps. There’s no immediate explanation for why, but the deep canon explanation for this* is that the Hub merchants intentionally brought the bottle cap back because they didn’t like how the NCR was handling its fiat currency. That’s nonsense. Even a badly devalued fiat currency would be better than bottle caps. Bottle caps become worthless the moment someone learns how to make a metal press!
3. Zero Transfer of Goods, Harry Potter
Harry Potter takes place in a world where magic people and non-magic people* live side by side and yet in separate worlds. The exact relationship is unclear, but we know that magic people can cross over to interact with and occasionally marry non-magic people and that the reverse occurs when a magic child is born to non-magic parents.
Despite this, there seems to be almost no transfer of goods between magic and non-magic societies. Arthur Weasley is the only native of the magic world we see who’s interested in non-magic stuff, and he’s considered an extreme oddball. This makes sense at first, since magic society is supposed to be so advanced that there’s nothing it could want from non-magic society, but that falls apart the moment fighting breaks out.
Simply put, guns are better for killing an enemy than any wand. Guns can be used by anyone, are impossible to dodge, don’t require years of study, and don’t announce the name of their attack before firing. That’s not even considering how useful close air support would have been to Voldemort during his attack on Hogwarts. But it’s not just guns. Cell phones and computers provide services that can’t be easily replicated through magic.
At the same time, magic people can do a lot of things non-magic people can’t. Magic health care is far superior, for example, and the ability to teleport instantaneously would be of great use to non-magic travelers.* There are also raw materials to consider. We know magic people value gold and silver; why not go and get some from non-magic people in exchange for some easy spell-work?
In a rational world, there’d be all kinds of cross-society trade, but in the books there’s none. Some of this could be chalked up to the Ministry of Magic deciding to forbid any trade with non-magic people,* but that would only stamp out official trade. Black markets would be everywhere, facilitating the exchange of iPhones for polyjuice potions. Instead, we have two completely segregated societies. This is made even weirder because we know that non-magic parents of magic children can convert non-magic currency into gold Galleons at banks. What do the bankers spend that non-magic money on?
4. Scarce Post-Scarcity, Star Trek
In Star Trek, the Federation is often referred to as a post-scarcity economy. That is, the Federation’s ability to create goods outstrips demand so much that anyone can have as much as they want of almost anything. This is accomplished through matter-replicators powered by antimatter and fusion reactors. Thanks to the holodeck, services can be produced as easily as goods.*
This assertion is backed up by statements from numerous characters about how humanity* no longer seeks to acquire material possessions and how the Federation no longer uses money. This makes perfect sense. You don’t need to seek material possessions when you can replicate anything with a word, and money would have no point in a world where everyone is unimaginably wealthy.
And yet, the Federation still acts like its resources are very scarce. In the episode Ensign Ro, the Enterprise visits a world where Bajoran refugees are living in deplorable conditions. The Bajorans are so bad off that when Picard gives them some blankets, it’s a major improvement. So why are people living in such poverty right on the Federation’s doorstep? Why has Starfleet not offered some tiny fraction of its limitless output to make sure none of the Bajorans freeze to death at night?
Another example comes from the Ferengi, whose entire civilization is based on a caricature of capitalism. The Ferengi travel the quadrant looking to buy low and sell high, but that would never work with the Federation pumping out endless amounts of high-quality commodities. Why should anyone buy from the Ferengi when they can get the same product at cost from the Federation? And that’s not even considering that most spacefaring civilizations in the Alpha Quadrant seem to have roughly the same technological capabilities. Any of the Federation’s neighbors could easily reach post-scarcity themselves.
Even within the Federation, people act like they’re still in an economy of scarcity. The Enterprise is often sent on missions to secure trade deals or mining rights, but what would the Federation want with those when it can generate everything it needs internally? Perhaps there’s some vital material like dilithium that can’t be replicated, but if so, that’s all the Federation would ever need to acquire. If the Federation isn’t actually post-scarcity, in which case trade deals would still matter, how are goods and services transferred internally without money?
Economics are a tricky thing to portray in stories. Unless you’re also a world-class economist, you probably won’t get everything right, but it’s still important to look at the basics. Money is an aspect of your world that real people have far more experience with than swords, armor, or spaceships. If characters in your story spend money in a way that’s obviously illogical, audiences will notice.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.