Monday, April 25, 2011

Worldbuilding: The New Yorker's Prophet Motive

Stephen Watkins is currently running a series (part 1, part2) on what he learned at the JordanCon 2011 writing track. I've only attended one Con, BayCon, and my favorite panel was one on world building. Keith Baker, lead author of the Eberron D&D campaign setting, opened my eyes to the beauty of a well-planned world.

Recently, I've encountered several blog posts advocating reading inside and outside your genre (Literary Lab, Magical Words). I subscribe to a number of magazines. Recently, The New Yorker has an article (Prophet Motive by John Cassidy) discussing the lagging economies of the Arab world and whether Islam might be the cause. I found the article fascinating because of specific things that cause non-obvious effects.

They discussed particular effects the Koran has on business:
  • it prohibits Usury (riba), or the lending of money at unreasonably high interest rates;
  • required two-thirds of a Muslim's estate be split amongst his heirs;
  • and encouraged trade.
The first and last points don't have a significant effect on business. I originally thought that usury caused problems for business, but that is because I thought it out ruled borrowing not unreasonably high interest. The item that has the most effect is the middle bullet. Dividing two-thirds of one's business among one's heirs places constraints on the types of businesses. Because of this inheritance, it is difficult to create a company that requires significant amounts of capital. Imagine a woman who owns a merchant boat with a husband and six children. Instead of continuing the business after her death, the boat is sold and therefore the company ceases with her death.

However, the article explains that political governance this curious business more than religion. The Ottoman Empire expanded few resources in provincial areas to invest in the future and therefore discouraged development. Islamic countries have had economic success. Turkey is the 15th largest economy and Egypt and Tunisia -- where there has been political upheaval -- have seen steady increases in their GDP. This latter point is curious since I thought economics was part of the problem in the Arab world.

Some of the complaints in the Arab world include: high food prices, unemployment, and corruption. The interesting point is that infant mortality has declined significantly in the last thirty years and has caused the high unemployment.

From the standpoint of world building, I'm really intrigued by two parts of this article. The first is the unintended consequences of inheritance. I doubt it was introduced to discourage industry, especially, at the time there was probably few businesses where this would matter. Effectively, religions and governments create rules and and then the world changes. Not all of these rules will necessarily fit well once the world has changed. Also, I seem to recall having read something about England or Europe and how the Industrial Revolution was partially powered by having too many children to inherit from their parents and therefore being forced to find other ways to make a living. However, I can't recall the exact situation but it's interesting in the way it plays with the same type of rules.

The second intriguing aspect was the effect of an increase in population on the economy. In particular, a swelling of youth resulted in fewer jobs being available for them. Ironically, the unemployment for college-educated twenty-year-olds is much higher than less skilled workers.

I've written one short story that explores economics and population and the effects this has on the world. Have you read or written stories that play with these themes?


  1. Very interesting. I, also, would've thought the first rule would have had a negative effect on business, but I see what you're saying.

    I have not written something that specifically explores the themes you mention, but it's funny that you bring it up now, because I am worldbuilding at the moment, and this has come to the forefront of my thoughts. I want it to be a realistic set-up, and I've been approaching it from different angles.

  2. @Rebecca, Good luck with your world-building. Your strategy of investigating different angles sounds like a good one. I probably over-hit the economic angle, but reading this article I'm definitely going to be looking at beliefs and other aspects that lead to complexities and try to imagine the way that they work out. And of course, I'm wondering whether I can scope a story about inheritance as a short story.

  3. I've written one short story that explores economics and population and the effects this has on the world. Have you read or written stories that play with these themes?

    Not many, although I'd like to. Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics is filled with jumpstarters for interesting stories, particularly when he talks about the economics of black markets. Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl may have some economic heft to it, but I haven't read it yet.

    Regarding Islam, I just got done with a flawed but fascinating book that incorporated various aspects of the religion in its worldbuilding -- George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails.

  4. @Loren, When Gravity Falls is on my toread sample list, so I'm sure I will eventually get to it. (I download samples of books that sound interesting so that I don't forget them and then if I get through the sample I continue through the rest of the book.)

    Interesting range of economics areas covered by Thomas Sowell. I'm absolutely sure it would prime a number of stories. I've read The Windup Girl, I loved that book for it's setting and enjoyed the way Paolo managed to create the feel of the world (it's language & imagery). I'm sure a solid sense of economics helped support that world feel.

  5. One of the bits of world-building related advice we got during the Jordancon writing track was this: Find the conflict; worldbuild around the conflict. This way you can narrow your worldbuilding focus on the things that are going to matter to make the story interesting.

    That said, economics and population upheaval and all that jazz are certainly areas rife with the potential for conflict. In fantasy, at least, too few stories really dig into the conflict potential inherrent in these themes. In fact, doing so would be more realistic. Big massive world-rattling wars? Usually have as their base cause some economic imbalance.

    You can even tie this to the Dark Lord trope. Why does the Dark Lord want to destroy the world? Because he has some economic need that the world in its present form is not supplying, and he believes he must destroy that world in order to meet his economic need.

    Exploring those economics can provide a fuller and reacher understanding of the conflicts in our stories.

  6. @Stephen, excellent piece of advice. The story I wrote involving economics was the principle conflict (it explained why the headman in one of the villages acted the way he did) and hopefully it is part of what makes it work.