Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.46: Unusual Resources

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

Among science fiction and fantasy plot devices, the “uncommon resource” trope is common enough to almost seem cliché. Fortunately (?), the economic principle of scarcity is ubiquitous enough in real life that most of us don’t even blink when presented with the idea in fiction.

So how do we keep it fresh? How do we roll scarcities into the economies we create, and the worlds we build?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take something common and make it super-valuable.

Thing of the week: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: How do you take a fantastical resource and use it to power magic or technology, or somehow interact and change the world? What are the ramifications, how does it affect the economy, the social conventions? Pay attention to scarcity. Consider seed corn, and how do we bootstrap things. How do you assign value to a fantastical resource? Pattern it on real-world things, relative scarcity. How much labor is need to produce it? Relate it to food. Use orders of magnitude. Do you worry about a fantastical resource breaking supply and demand or economy? Yes, but… ignore it, and tell the story! Do think about supply and demand, but tell the story first. Don’t forget Realism vs. the Rule-of-Cool!

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 46.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Unusual Resources.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Margaret] I’m Margaret.

[Howard] I’m out of air.

[Brandon] Howard, you’re our unusual resource.


[Howard] Peculiar resource, at any rate.

[Brandon] This is a very common trope of science fiction and fantasy, where you make a fantastical resource of some sort, that can either be a MacGuffin to power your magic or your technology, or in other ways interact and change the world. So we’re going to talk about worldbuilding these. How we have come up with them when we’ve used them, what we think works and what we think doesn’t work? Obviously, my favorite, which I’ve talked about a lot, is the spice from Dune which kind of when I read that as a teenager changed my whole perspective on economics in science fiction and fantasy. You can see that reverberating through a lot of the books I write. Where I really, really like it when my magic has some sort of connection to an economic resource in some way. Most obviously, in Mistborn where people use rare metals to do magic. So… But even in Stormlight… This comes directly from Dune, this idea that magic has… Or the resource has an effect on the world other than just the magic. If you haven’t read the Stormlight books, people collect magical power in little pieces of gemstone inside of glass, and then use that to light their houses or to power their magic. What have you guys done? Why have you made the choices you have, and how has it worked?

[Mary Robinette] So I did this in a science fiction short story that I have on a colony world. It’s called Salt of the Earth. It’s a planet that is very low in salt. Which is something that people actually need. So it becomes… There’s entire industries around reclaiming salt. When you go to a funeral, one of the things that you do is you’ve got tissues and you catch the tears under your eyes and put them in an offering thing, so the family can reclaim the salt that you have shed on their behalf.

[Brandon] Why did I not write this story?


[Brandon] I love salt, for those who don’t know. I salt everything. Man, that is really [garbled]

[Howard] Probably because it just would have depressed you. That level of shortage.

[Mary Robinette] So one of the things that I was thinking about like what are the ramifications of having this thing that’s absolutely necessary for survival, but is incredibly rare on this planet. How does that affect all of the social conventions, how does that affect the economy? The main character’s family is from a salt-rich family. So these are the things that you kind of look at. It’s in some ways not that different from the economics of Dune, because that’s how scarcity works.

[Brandon] How did… What inspired that? Where… What made you start this story?

[Mary Robinette] Honestly, I was taking Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. Which was a great camp, all other things aside. He had us do five story seeds, one of which was a story seed based on research. I went in… He told us to go into the bookstore and find a nonfiction book. There was a book called Salt.

[Brandon] It’s quite actually a famous one, if it’s the same one.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. So one of the things that then happens to me in the real world is I start noticing all of the things from when salt was a precious resource. Like Salzburg. It’s like, “Oh, right. Salzburg is Salt City. Oh, yeah.”

[Margaret] A project that I worked on recently is the new Netflix series coming in 2019. Or perhaps already arrived in 2019. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which of course ties to the original, Dark Crystal, the film made by the Jim Henson company and Jim Henson. Where really that entire story ends up revolving around the resource of essence, which is the life force of Gelflings, which the Skeksis decide they want, they need, it’s what’s keeping them young…

[Brandon] It makes them young.

[Margaret] And alive and it’s like, “Aha! We’ve already destroyed our planet, but we can pretend we didn’t if we suck the life out of Gelflings or Podlings.” That just traumatized an entire generation of young people who went to see that film not knowing what they were in for.

[Brandon] Traumatized some of us, the rest of us, it turned into fantasy or science fiction novelists who think it’s cool.

[Mary Robinette] And then some of us became puppeteers.

[Margaret] Traumatized and inspired are not mutually exclusive conditions. But yeah, that was a really interesting thing to look at, because there is definitely that ecological side. As we’re told, the Skeksis have really done a number on Thra.

[Brandon] By the time this comes out, this episode, hopefully your series will have released.

[Margaret] Yes.

[Brandon] So we’re going to make that our book of the week, is go watch Dark Crystal: Age of…

[Margaret] Age of Resistance.

[Brandon] If it’s not out for some reason by now, then go watch the original, because it’s fantastic.

[Mary Robinette] It is fantastic.

[Margaret] It’s very exciting.

[Howard] In multiple definitions of the word.

[Brandon] Definitions of fantastic.

[Brandon] Howard, fantastical resources?

[Howard] The one that leaps to mind is the post-transuranics in the Schlock Mercenary universe. I took the concept of islands of stability, and, as other science fiction writers have done, postulated islands of super stability with massive nucleus elements, and then said that if you want to build a power plant that converts neutronium into energy in a way that gives you artificial gravity cheaply, you really have to build the whole powerplant out of post-transuranics. The best way to create post-transuranics is to have a really high density power source, like one built out of post-transuranics. So I built a system whereby the corn and the seed corn are incredibly… Well, I mean, they’re obviously related, but there is very much a resource divide here. A lot of the story, especially here in the final couple of years of the story, asks the question, “Where did we bootstrap this stuff? If it’s so difficult to make, unless you already have it, who made it the first time?” It’s a fun question to ask, it’s a fun question to answer… No, I’m not going to tell you the answer here. But it’s tied into the Fermi paradox. Why haven’t we seen aliens yet? Why, in the science-fiction universe that I’ve created, aren’t people asking, “Why wasn’t the galaxy already colonized a billion years ago? 2 billion years ago?” All of it came down to looking at the economics of this resource and what happens when it’s fought for.

[Brandon] One of my favorite other things you’ve done with fantastical resources is kind of a different take on it. You have a person who got cloned several hundred thousand times, and made… You basically…

[Howard] 900 million times.

[Brandon] 900 million times.

[Howard] 900 million Gavs.

[Brandon] So, suddenly, a very unique and scarce resource, maybe not super valuable, but still… Is suddenly… You have 900 million of them. Which is a really interesting change in a little subtle way… Of course, in a very large way.

[Howard] The economic impact… The real life person upon whom Gav was originally based, Darren Bleuel, loves Guinness. You cannot feed the existing supply… You cannot make 900 million Guinness lovers happy…


[Howard] With the existing supply of Guinness. Some’pins gotta give.

[Brandon] So let me ask this question of you guys. How do you value a fantastical resource? How do you decide what its value in the economics of your story is going to be? You’ve made it up wholesale…

[Mary Robinette] I tend to pattern it based on real-world things. So I look at the relative scarcity of the thing. When we’re talking about a resource… So far, we’ve been talking about things where it’s the item itself is scarce, but there’s also the labor involved. So sometimes, something is a scarce resource because it is difficult to produce or refine. Sometimes it’s because there’s just not… It doesn’t exist very much. But either way, what that tells me begins to tell me is how difficult it is and how expensive it is. So aluminum is a good example.

[Brandon] Yeah. It’s a great example.

[Mary Robinette] Right. Because aluminum used to be super, super expensive to refine.

[Brandon] I think we’ve mentioned it on the podcast before, like, Napoleon had his gold plates, his platinum plates, and then his aluminum plates.


[Margaret] Which were oh, super fancy.

[Mary Robinette] The top of the Washington Monument has an aluminum cap on it that the ladies of Washington DC fund raised for to put this amazingly precious thing up. Now it’s like I wrap my leftovers in aluminum. Because we’ve solved that problem. So… But what that shows me is the way something is treated when it is precious. It goes… It’s something that we layer on things to say this is special. We reserve it for special occasions.

[Brandon] Right. Aluminum’s a really interesting one, because aluminum is a way more useful metal in most cases than gold. You might say, “Oh, well. Something is valuable because it’s really useful.” But gold, a lot of times in a lot of cultures, wasn’t that useful. It was pretty, but it was not a useful metal. So different cultures have treated it differently based on who wants it and how badly they want it.

[Mary Robinette] And whether they have it in their ground.

[Brandon] Yeah. Go ahead.

[Margaret] I was about to say, another interesting variant on that is you look at a resource like diamonds. Which are not actually that rare, but they have value, because value has been attributed to them, and because there’s a monopoly on the global supply.

[Howard] Well, there’s a monopoly on the global supply of natural diamonds.

[Margaret] That’s true.

[Howard] We now have the technology to very, very easily make really, really useful and pretty… If you stick impurities in them… Diamonds. But the money generated by the original landowning diamond folk has been used to influence…

[Margaret] The market itself.

[Howard] Influence the market so that you can’t make a diamond ring out of something that came out of a press.

[Margaret] But I feel like I occasionally do see that in fantasy stories, where you’ll have the very precious resource or magic is very tightly controlled because it is very valuable. The Trill symbionts kind of fall into this mode, as well. Then you discover it is more common than we thought.

[Brandon] One of the things…

[Margaret] What happens to the people in power then?

[Brandon] That I did which was kind of a little bit of… I wouldn’t call it a cheat, but when I was looking at how to value things in the Stormlight Archive, I made it so that you could use this magic, the light that you collect in the crystals, to make food. Then I was able to price how much the food was. Of course, not everyone can do this, so there are other market supply things. But in an economy that can one-to-one translate this stuff to food, I can then value or price how much the gemstones and things go for, because of the amount of grain it creates.

[Howard] I look at orders of magnitude. The model I use is sock, shoe, bicycle, car, airplane. Where… Whatever my universe needs that are analogs for those, how much of this resource is required for each of those things. I use orders of magnitude because I don’t need to hit it on the nose, I just need to be in the right neighborhood, so… There should be something between airplane and car, I know, but…

[Margaret] As valuable as it needs to be for the story.

[Mary Robinette] Well, the other thing about this also is the narrative that attaches to the thing. So if we attach a narrative, like a shoe… You say shoe, bicycle? Okay. I have seen shoes that are priced more than any bicycle.

[Howard] Yep.

[Mary Robinette] That is because of the narrative that is attached to them. Because of the… And because of the scarcity. The Dutch tulip craze is a fine example of a resource that exists because of narrative. Because people have this love of tulips, and they venerate the tulip, and all of this. Then…

[Howard] There are automobiles that cost more than private planes.


[Howard] And there are automobiles that cost less than bicycles.

[Margaret] Thank goodness a commodity bubble like that could never happen again!

[Chuckles] [Whew!]

[Brandon] So how about this? What do you do in your story… Have you ever worried about breaking things like basic supply-demand or breaking your economy of your story with a fantastical resource, just completely in half?

[Mary Robinette] Yes. Yes, I do worry about that.

[Howard] I live in terror of that.

[Margaret] I don’t know if this applies, but it’s a funny anecdote that I would like to share. I was… In my D&D campaign, at one point, the characters had undergone a five-year gap. So we’re all coming back together. It’s like, characters are bringing each other gifts. My character had had two kids since anyone had seen her. So one of the magic using characters is like, “Okay.” Magic is new in this world. People are just figuring out how to make magic items. She’s like, “Prestidigitation is a very low-level spell. I could put this on a diaper. Oh, like, we have self-prestidigitating diapers!” Then we started thinking, like, “Why are we adventuring? Why aren’t we just billionaires making self-prestidigitating diapers? And chamber pots? Why are there sewers in our world anymore, because clearly, this is just what everyone could do?”

[Howard] No matter how expensive the spell Continual Light is, if the spell exists, the candle makers are out of business forever.

[Mary Robinette] This was ex… I had this problem in Glamorous Histories. It’s why the glamour does not cast actual light. Because then it stops being an alternate history and starts being… Or a historical fantasy and starts being something completely different… Because why candles? Why fireplaces? Why any of those? None of those things would ever exist.

[Brandon] Perpetual energy. Yeah.

[Margaret] We were all there around the table, and one guy looks like, “Yep. No, that’s true, and we’re going to totally ignore it and move on with our adventure now.”

[Brandon] Let’s add the suggestion that using game mechanics… If you played a lot of video games or pen-and-paper role-playing games, they are built to be fun. Not economically sound. So just keep in mind the different goals of the medium.

[Mary Robinette] It does depend on the game, but by and large, you cannot… You do have to think about supply and demand.

[Brandon] At some point, you do have to, with your story, do what Howard said last month, which is at some point I’m just I want to tell a story rather than be right. Rather than writing an economic simulation in book form, I want to tell a story. So that is a line to walk.

[Howard] In the Planet Mercenary book, in the sidebar comments, someone says almost exactly that.

[Brandon] Yeah. Well, we will have talked…

[Howard] “There’s the abstraction of economics. You abstracted this to the point that the economics aren’t even real.” Somebody else said, “That’s because we wanted them to play a game, not figure out that they’re not being paid enough.”

[Margaret] it’s… I think Star Trek does this with the idea that the Federation… Nobody uses money, nobody gets paid, and yet we have this gold pressed latinum economy going on, and why can’t you replicate it? Everyone’s like, “Yeah. No.” We can technobabble around it. For the most part, we just kind of hand wave past, as if we know what we’re about.

[Brandon] I’m going to have to wrap us up. If you’re really interested in more of this, two weeks ago we did a podcast, Realism Versus Rule-Of-Cool. Which I’m sure was really, really a great podcast.


[Howard] It will have been amazing.

[Mary Robinette] It will have been amazing.

[Brandon] Let’s do our homework. Howard, you have our homework.

[Howard] Yes. Take something common. Super common. Maybe you’ve got a lot of it, maybe lots of people have a lot of it. Something that is super common. Now, make it super valuable. Maybe it’s super rare. Maybe it’s superpowered. But now, whatever it is, it’s like the gold standard. It’s like currency. Then, write about how your life, the lives of the people around you, change as a result of this common thing now being either incredibly rare or incredibly valuable. Or both.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.

[Brandon] I’m sorry if you dislike the fact that I used wholesale instead of whole cloth. If you’ve already written your comment in the comments section before finishing the podcast, I still love you.