The Buck Stops Where?

“Ten thousand? We could almost buy our own ship for that!” Clearly, Luke thought Han Solo was ripping them off, but what I want to know is, ten thousand what? Dollars? Rupees? Turkey feathers? Just what currency were they using?

One of the things that I angst over in my writing far more than seems reasonable is what to call the currency in a science fiction setting. If I call them dollars, it feels too pedestrian. If I call them looshanks, no one knows what I’m talking about. And so, more often than not, I settle on the boring currency name that has spread through our SF universes like kudzu: credits.

But I hate credits. I hate credits with the passion usually reserved for Einsteinian purists railing against warp drives or hyperspace. Credits are boring. They are completely bland. They have no national flavor. You expect their coins to be brightly colored plastic, like gaudy chips from a cheap casino. “Remember, the fuchsias are worth twenty.” They make the value of currency seem even that much more of an illusion.

Of course, currency is an illusion and has been for a long time. The silver and gold standards started to collapse during World War I, and they officially ended in 1971. Dollars are effectively “credits” in that they are not backed by a specific commodity but rather by their mutually agreed upon purchasing power. I don’t want to get too deep into the monetary policies or mechanisms except to say that when they operate well, they preserve that purchasing power. In that sense, our currency is backed by the economy, not by gold.

But dollars still sound better than credits.

In fantasy settings, we can fall back on commodity-based currencies like the silver pound, but I have a hard time carrying that forward. Star Trek made an attempt with that via “gold pressed latinum”, but that always fell flat for me. Supposedly latinum could not be replicated, and so it had real scarcity, but again that fell flat. If you can beam it over on the transporter, you can replicate it. That was the deal. Still, I have to give them… uh, credit for not falling back on credits.

I confess, though, that I like the sound of using some mass-based currency. Sure, you’d still be using paper bills and electronic swipe cards, but using some mass amount for the denominations sounds cool. “I handed him a twenty-gram note, knowing full well I could have gotten it for ten back on Earth.” But twenty grams of what?

About the only thing I’ve thought of that would make for a good mass based commodity is anti-matter. It’s effectively an energy-store, small, difficult to acquire or produce, and useful in a variety of energy-hungry applications. However, it’s extraordinarily dangerous and difficult to store. And given how rare it would likely be, even when mass-produced in industrial settings, the example above would be far more likely using nanogram or even picogram notes. Hell, they might even be denominated in individual anti-protons. Clearly, in a system like that, individuals would not carry the anti-matter commodity with them, relying instead on the anti-matter equivalent of Fort Knox. I’d hate to live near there in case of a containment loss.

But even then, I suspect that the same economic forces that drove us off the silver and gold standards would drive us off an anti-matter or even gold-pressed latinum standard. And I think that’s OK. Once we’ve accepted the value of paper currency as being backed by our mutual agreement to use it, it doesn’t really need a specific commodity to back it. We’re already using the bland plastic credits in fact if not in name.

I just wish we could have a better name. Looshanks anyone?