I’m currently reading Wise Man’s Fear, second book in Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and the ups and downs of Kvothe’s meager finances has gotten me thinking about the presence (or absence) of financial concerns in scifi/fantasy stories. More often than not, it is left out – characters are poor, but we don’t spend a lot of time counting the contents of their purses, or they’re rich, but we don’t spend a lot of time considering the state of their investments or where, precisely, they keep all that money, anyway. Readers of scifi/fantasy aren’t really in it for the in-depth analysis of microeconomics in some made up non-realm, anyway – they want adventure. So, sure, there might be a treasure at the end of the quest and there might be some social or societal pressures making this or that object more valuable, but how much time do we really want to spend counting coins and handling living expenses?
Maybe, though, we’re missing something.
Now, Rothfuss goes into exhaustive detail involving how much money Kvothe has and what he spends it on. His work serves as a pretty good example of what is both good and bad about involving money in a fantasy story on an intimate level. On the one hand, money (or the lack thereof) is a fantastic motivator for characters to do things – often desperate things – and the prospect of Kvothe being kicked out of the University for failure to pay tuition creates some real tension in the story. This makes for good storytelling. Furthermore, the details of expenses makes the world more immersive, more real – also a bonus for our fantasy world.
But then there are the drawbacks: it gets old, all this money grubbing. As I am now in the second book of Kvothe having no money and facing the same tuition problems, I’m getting less interested in them. From a meta-plot standpoint, Kvothe has weaseled his way out of poverty enough times now for me to be less invested in his continued struggles. I figure he’ll find a way or, if he doesn’t, I’m growing less invested in the constant updates on the contents of Kvothe’s purse. So he gets an extra talent here and an extra bob there – so? I’m not really keeping a logbook, so I gather it would suffice for Rothfuss to simply have Kvothe say “I didn’t have enough money for x and still be able to eat, so I didn’t buy it” or “I earned a little cash from playing corners that night, but was still far short of tuition.” The numbers are getting stripped of their meaning; they’re boring. Additionally, the ‘does Kvothe have enough money’ conflict has faded from a primary concern to a secondary one. He’s poor – we get it.
One of the best examples of taking bean-counting too far in literature is Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, in which Flanders gives us an exhaustively detailed account of exactly how much money she has and when, what she spends it on, how much it costs, and the profits she expects from the exchanges. It’s as dry as reading expense reports, except with a madam involved. Of course, Defoe was trying to pass off his novel as non-fiction, ostensibly, and the details served as a sort of con-job for the reader – why would somebody making up a story spend so much time quibbling over shillings?
I think, on the whole, I prefer how JK Rowling handled it best. Despite the wildly improbable economic model of the wizarding world (another post for another time), the fact that Ron was poor and Harry wasn’t played as important character traits without us having to spend time worrying about where, exactly, the money was coming from and/or going. Then again, Rothfuss and Defoe are telling different kinds of stories, I guess – stories that hold realism up as a guidepost, and play it accordingly. One has to ask, though, are we reading fantasy for utter realism? Shouldn’t there be a middle ground?
Now, I’m not here to bash Rothfuss, precisely (I’m enjoying the books very much so far), but I’m worried we’re about to take a turn from ‘high adventure and melodrama’ into ‘Upton Sinclair would be proud of this book’, which I really don’t want to happen. I’ve read The Jungle and Sister Carrie and Moll Flanders already; I don’t need to do it again, particularly not in a fanciful world.