Newman, Peter. The Vagrant

Peter Newman's dark science fantasy The Vagrant (2015) takes place in a sort of war-torn, post-apocalyptic dystopia. A development economist might say: there is no banking infrastructure, governance structures are weak, and life is corrupted by demon magic.

So it is the kind of setting where you would not be surprised to find the typical crapsack economics of scavenging and primitive accumulation, and a "reversion to barter" (about this phrase, and about some common misconceptions around barter, see David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years).

That is more-or-less what we get, but there is some intriguing nuance. First, bodies (and selves) are fairly permeable and porous in the world of The Vagrant, so there is a sense that words like "scavenging / looting" and "recycling / reusing / repurposing / upcycling" don't quite capture the micro, macro, and necroeconomics of it all:
Stick-like people and bloated flies gather in the twilight, both drawn to the still warm corpse of the Dogspawn. By morning they have picked the bones clean. By afternoon half of the people have died, their stomachs unable to accept the rich meat. By evening their skeletons are bartered over by Necrotraders. 
In New Horizon nothing is wasted.
Second there is apparently, on a literal level, a coin money economy functioning alongside ad hoc spot trades and what-have-you. The representation of this money is quite intriguing. People always seem at least a little amazed, and maybe even a bit mesmerized, when the Vagrant brandishes his coinage. Psychologically speaking, perhaps that's just because: what's this ragtag hobo doing flashing that kind of cash?

But it's also a little more numinous than that. The coins have the depth of Tolkienian artefacts, fragments from a lost epoch. It is almost as if, instead of the passage of time sapping the coins of their purchasing power as we'd expect -- you try paying for your Wispa in Nisa with a Roman antoninianus coin, it is hard -- the longevity of this medium-of-exchange is testament to the cunning and wisdom of their artificers.

Ancient forces stir, ancient presences awake. It is almost as if each coin emanates a little enchanted bubble of civil society and a liberal social order, sustaining itself against reason within the brutal Hobbesian state of nature:
The Hammer leans over him. ‘More?’
He nods.
The coin dances three times, then stops.
The Hammer’s small eyes narrow. ‘More?’
He beckons her closer. She comes.
He points to her coin. Puzzled, she lifts her hand to him, open, disc shining on her outstretched fingers. He nods and taps his own coin against it.
Reunited, the silver sisters sing. The duet haunts the ears, stirring regrets and things lost.
When it ends the Vagrant puts his coin into her other hand.
Her eyes glisten, water growing at their edges. ‘Mine?’
The Vagrant nods.
Perhaps it's also worth briefly noting the most distinctive thing about The Vagrant: it doesn't really give us a lone badass and his entourage, or a party of badasses, so much as a badass nuclear family. Of course the hard military power and the economic power are concentrated in the Vagrant himself, but the baby and the goat -- and Harm and (mild spoiler!) the Hammer -- exercise significant agency whenever they're present.

And just because I mentioned Tolkien: might it be interesting to think about the relationship of the baby figure and the figure of Bilbo Baggins? Bilbo is in part a surrogate for a young reader of The Hobbit, rosy-cheeked and beardless among the oppressively bearded endeavours of the adult world. Bilbo is also someone who is rather unaccountably allowed to participate in a dangerous and crucial and highly technical project, and discovers to their delight that they're more than able to prove their worth. There is usually a smug elusiveness about what makes hobbits so important, which reminds me more than a little of the smug elusiveness about the value added by the "enterprise" factor of production, a value which is significant enough that a top CEO totally deserves 200 times the salary of a machinist. We could think of Bilbo, perhaps, as the young nephew of Gandalf the CEO -- or, more subtly, as someone who is pliable to the interests of capital, whatever the specifics of their sociological class background -- whom the dwarves have to be nice to ("yes yes, you're uh, the Ringbearer ... no we totally can't see you at all, sir ... I mean Bilbo. Sir") because he'll be their boss one day.

And of course, he'll get to write the history of it. (I can just see There And Back Again on the rack in the airport next to The 10% Adventurer: How to Fulfill the Ancient Legends WITHOUT Quitting Your Day Job! or The Seven Dwarves of Highly Effective People or the latest in NLP from Ed Wormtongue or whatever).

Of course, that's probably putting it a bit strongly. But it is nice for a change to see a kid in a tale of high adventure who is just pretty much in practical terms a hassle and a risk.

One more snippet:
The Vagrant stares at the coins in his hand, each with the power to buy and sell life. Only five remain now. They have been spent on necessities such as food and medicine as well as indulgences, acts of charity that do little to pay off the debt of conscience. 
The last few coins have bought a boy’s freedom, a goat and a modicum of privacy for the journey. Of the three, only the goat can be classed as a necessity.