The Best Panel of FantasyCon 2017 – Economics. No, Seriously…

I attended several great panels at this year’s FantasyCon. But the best was on a subject I never expected to be so engaging – fantasy economics. Chaired by Peter McLean, the panel also featured authors Jeannette Ng, Shona Kinsella, Vic James, who’s also a political journalist, and Stewart Hotston, who’s an investment banker with a degree in economics.

Going Wrong

Peter’s first question was what economic pitfalls people found in their writing and how they got around them.

Stewart talked about how wars have to be paid for – this was something that constantly stopped Henry VIII going to war. Wars have economic consequences for hundreds of miles around, as horses are taken and farms burned.

Shona pointed out that, in a prehistoric setting like the one she writes about, everyone has to work to support the community. The value is in time, not money, and if someone doesn’t pull their weight that has consequences for everyone.

For Vic, the inspiration for her writing came from looking at the failures of an economic elite. If you have a magical aristocracy, that will shape the economy. It can lead to things like indentured servitude.

Jeannette pointed out the difference between building a plausible fantasy economy and using fantasy as allegory. The allegory doesn’t necessarily need to be economically convincing, but you have to know where it’s going.

This also led to some reflections on the reality of economics. Stewart argued that all economists are essentially fantasy writers, as they assume that people behave like rational actors to maximise economic utility.  Vic pointed out that a plausible, functional economy isn’t always a sustainable one.


Peter asked how we define an economy, given that it can be built on things other than money, like barter. One definition Stewart gave was that money is a way of storing desire and allowing access to value, and this is how an economy works.

This led to a discussion of debt and how it can work if there’s no cash. Jeannette suggested favours and Vic said labour, which raises the question of when to pay that debt – get it out of the way when young, or enjoy your youth and work later?

Jeannette discussed the case of gift giving cultures, where giving increases your status and places obligations on others. This is something that has appeared in various places around the world, including in medieval Europe. Debt, obligation, and economic dominance don’t have to work in the way we’re used to.

The Elite

Next on Peter’s question list was whether the magically powerful in a society would automatically become the super-rich.

As Stewart explained, the social elite and the most wealthy aren’t always the same in reality. Historically, merchants have tended to be a separate class from the aristocracy, who didn’t dirty their hands with trade. The wealth of the aristocracy came from debts and giving opportunities to merchants. So in a fantasy world, the powerful could channel magic where they want it to go and this would affect wealth distribution, but magic, wealth, and rank wouldn’t necessarily match.


In a question that would have got him burned at the stake five hundred years ago, Peter asked how we get to a point, as with medieval monasteries, where one of the wealthiest groups aren’t doing anything useful but are essentially a luxury. This led to a wider conversation about luxuries. Jeannette pointed out that we don’t appreciate what a luxury most clothes once were, as we get them so easily. Giving cloth had real symbolic power. Shona talked about how, in a society that doesn’t take excess resources from the earth, luxuries can take a different form – things made for each other.

This idea of the changing nature of luxury came up again as Jeannette discussed more egalitarian societies, in which anthropologists have seen people mocking the excessively successful. Stewart said that this fits a social difference between the UK and the US – in the US, people are more hierarchical and concerned with economic success, while in the UK we are more egalitarian in our outlook and celebrate heroic failures.

Vic described the aristocracy as a wealth-preserving mechanism – most early laws emerged to decide where property went.

Specialist skills are also important in directing wealth – Stewart explained how the creation of the specialist skill of double-entry book-keeping added to the wealth of book-keepers and their patrons.

Wacky Stuff

Someone in the audience asked the panel about the most out there economic ideas they’d seen.

Stewart said basic minimum income. Evidence is starting to show that it generates wealth and doesn’t create inflation, completely contradicting dominant economic theories. Its day is coming, but many economists, shaped by Hayek and American puritanism, will fight this.

Jeannette said China’s gift-giving culture, where it’s scandalous to game the gifting system for profit but this can be done.

As Vic said at the end, economics is a codification of human relationships. This was what the panel drew out – how economics ties to other relationships, how it is shaped by them, and how it can be used to build more interesting worlds.

Seriously. Best panel of the whole convention.

Histories of Violence – the FantasyCon 2017 Fighting Panel

Fighting features a lot in fantasy literature. And so it makes sense that almost every FantasyCon has a panel about writing combat. This year’s featured:

What Makes a Good Fight?

Adrian talked about how a well-written fight scene has a clear perspective. The fight should be seen from a specific point of view but the writer should also know what’s happening beyond that viewpoint. Anna said she focuses on sensations and emotions, bringing the fight to life. Stewart went more specific on this, saying that as a reader he likes to feel breathless.

Stewart also said that the fight should fuel what else is going on for the character. Related to this, Simon said that there needs to be a reason for the fight, something to care about.

The Influence of Other Media

Discussing the influence of other media on their work, Stewart said that good computer games are an influence for him, but not films, as none of them live up to his experience from HEMA.

The panellists picked out a few examples that have good lessons – the meaningful action of Sam Peckinpah, the sensory richness of costume dramas, the mess and chaos of Saving Private Ryan. But as Adrian pointed out, trying to replicate a good scene from a film wouldn’t make a good written fight – they work differently.

This led into an interesting discussion of the aesthetics of violence in fiction. Simon said that it should be simultaneously appealing and appalling. Stewart said that the tunnel vision that comes in a fight creates a sense of intimacy and even camaraderie between opponents. Anna described it as something that can be deeply mindful.

As Adrian pointed out, if the reader knows more about the fight and its consequences than the participants then this can add to its power and emotion. There is, as Anna brilliantly described it, a moment of human tragedy as you see the mistake unfolding.

Accuracy Versus Entertainment

As David pointed out, most real fights are short, ugly, and not cool. This raised a question – is accuracy not a good thing?

Stewart discussed how, in late medieval and renaissance fighting manuals, most moves have only three steps – by then you’ve won, lost, or backed off. If you don’t hit first and you don’t back off, you might get hit back. If you’re writing something grim, there’s a place for that harsh realism.

Anna said that it depends on what you want to write. This is fantasy, and there’s a place for the gorgeous romance of Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling. As Adrian said, fights with pezazz are part of what readers expect from fantasy.

Final Points

A couple of interesting points came out near the end.

Adrian discussed how there are three levels of fights, each requiring different skills from both combatants and writers – the duel, the skirmish between a few people, and the mass battle. He considers the skirmish the hardest to write, as you’ve got multiple combatants but can’t just treat them as a chaotic mass.

Stewart said that, historically, battles with melee weapons tended to have surprisingly low casualties. Victory came through intimidation and breaking the enemy’s will, not through killing.

Overall, this was an excellent panel with a lot of useful insights. There’s a reason why the fighting panel is a staple of conventions.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Nothing brings out the impostor syndrome in me like a convention. There I am, sitting on panels with authors I’ve heard of, making out like I have something relevant to say. Telling people that I’m a writer when they’ll never find my books in Waterstones. Seldom do I feel so much like I’m faking it.

Or at least that was the case until last weekend and FantasyCon 2017.

Two things at this convention made me feel more like I was, on some level, the real deal.

One was seeing the successes of my friends. Two people I’ve known since university had book launches. Adrian Tchaikovsky, who I’ve got to know since moving to Leeds, won the annual best fantasy novel award for The Tiger and the Wolf. Though I’ve had moments like this before, this somehow became a tipping point, the moment when “these writers are just people like me” became a solid, emotional reality instead of something I would mutter as a mantra as I hunched over my poor battered manuscripts.

The other was people’s responses to me talking about my work. I was on panels about history, ghostwriting, and steampunk. In between, I had numerous conversations in which I talked about the writing I do for a living.  And people’s responses, the way they treated me like I knew what I was talking about, the occasional impressed reaction at how many books I’ve ghostwritten over the past few years, that made me realise that what I do isn’t a sideshow. Sure, it’s not the same as what the big name authors are doing. It’s not where I want to be eventually. But it’s providing me with experience and expertise that’s actually pretty impressive. I am a writer, even a professional one. And the fact that it’s not what people dream of when they say “I’m a writer”, the reality of it is still pretty cool.