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This is going to require some explanation to set up, as I have been working on this world for a while.

The world is an isolated alternate dimension (no stars in the sky) that contains a bizarre feature called 'The Rift.' The true nature of The Rift is unknown, but it is a 2km diameter feature that most people describe as some sort of opaque pit (it looks different to everyone). The only thing that is absolutely known about The Rift is that it expels things from itself that seem to come from a myriad of different universes. There is no set in stone rules as to what comes out of the Rift; organic, inorganic, magical, scientific, or mundane. However, there are some general guidelines for what it spits out.

It generally expels 'whole' objects, so you don't end up with only half of a cat, and it doesn't tend to produce things that are pre-damaged. While larger things come out sometimes, roughly cow-sized and smaller is much more common. Yes, it also expels people. Although not always the case, it tends to expel useful things (so random rocks are uncommon). Everything that comes out of The Rift lands on the 50m wide, desolate 'Rim' that surrounds The Rift, and is undamaged by landing. It is believed that everything in the world can trace its ultimate origins back to The Rift.

The rate at which things are expelled from The Rift is inconsistent, but high enough that several hundred people can make a living salvaging along The Rim. Despite the comparative rarity of life in the multiverse compared to inorganic materials, living things (including sentients) are still fairly common. The town of Edge is the treaty-enforced hub for all Rift-based trade, and is a Plutocracy (ruled by the wealthy). Edge maintains a small amount of food production, but is primarily focused on Rift-salvage. It has no real industry to speak of. There are systems in place to allow for magical translation (so language barriers aren't a big deal). Slavery is legal in Edge, though technically, entering slavery must be voluntary.

Rapid-growth flora (has to be driven back daily) has restricted the development of the world, but trade is still common, especially from Edge to the rest of the world. For now, I'm going to ignore the cultural Charlie Foxtrot that results from the population of the world originating from all across the multiverse (at all tech levels), that may come up in a later question.

The general tech level across the world is wildly inconsistent, but there are a few cities capable of industrial-level production on a roughly modern level, and at least one at a futuristic level.

So my question is this:

The Rift is a potential source of pretty much anything, but cannot be counted on to be predictable. With access to a random (and unpredictable) grab-bag of stuff from all across the multiverse, what would the economy of Edge look like? What sorts of things would they need to import to remain stable? Would having such unpredictable exports be a strength for their economy, or would the lack of consistency be a weakness? Would the Plutocracy need to build a backstock of valuables to trade, in case The Rift goes through a bit of a dry spell, or would the fluctuating value of their trade goods roughly balance out, as long as they were smart with their money?

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    $\begingroup$ Is there any statistical distribution of spawned instances? For example, 6% rare mineral rock, 26% sentient life, etc. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 14 '15 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ Not that I have nailed down yet...the idea was that it is that it is fairly random, just weighted towards spitting out useful things that are the size of a cow or smaller. If 'random' makes the question unanswerable, I can try to nail down some guidelines for it. $\endgroup$ – guildsbounty May 14 '15 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ So this treaty keeps the other nations from taking over the rift for themselves? $\endgroup$ – James May 14 '15 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ Why would it look different to everyone? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 14 '15 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ @James The future tech civ is run by a functional immortal who has no interest in controlling The Rift for his own (unknown to the public) reasons. In fact, he was the one who proposed the treaty in the first place, and is the biggest enforcer in protecting that neutrality. He does get preferential treatment in his dealing with Edge for this. Part of why he doesn't want to be too close to The Rift is because it is entirely possible for it to spit up an antimatter bomb some day, and obliterate everything anywhere near The Rift. $\endgroup$ – guildsbounty May 14 '15 at 15:41
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The rift is going to be the primary source of wealth on this world even if only occasionally a high-tech artifact or person with novel knowledge is produced.

After all: If a cell phone had dropped into the laps of 1940's era humanity it would have accelerated technology worldwide by a decade or more. The rift is going to have this happening regularly and sometimes artifacts which were thought to be junk will turn out to be advanced technology as their understanding advances.

You mention a treaty so the governments have come to some kind of agreement to allow them all access but they're going to have highly regimented systems around access to things produced by the rift.

Societies with more access are going to be more advanced and more wealthy. collecting artifacts isn't going to be a job for homeless drifters. every item that comes out is going to go through a production line style inspection to assess it for value no matter what it is. Every new person is going to be interrogated to see if they know anything of value and living things are going to be assessed for economic value.

Unpredictability will be a very small problem. If those given the right to assess items only rarely find items of value then a futures market will develop where they simply auction off the future rights to anything found between certain time periods in certain areas which will make their income utterly predictable. They'd need to import pretty much any mundane things but Edge will be a wealthy place with a rich smuggling market. (after all if something a little too good turns up in a time and zone that's been sold to futures traders people will want to steal it and smuggle it out). There will also be a rich trade in fakes.

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    $\begingroup$ And here come the Kaiju! $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat May 14 '15 at 18:10
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The Rift is going to be an incredible source of contention and conflict which is going to destabilize the economy, disincentivize all non-Rift-scavenging activities, flatline the rate of technological growth, and probably won't result in a plutocracy being able to maintain control of it without extreme secrecy, group loyalty, or liberal applications of Plotonium.

If, once a year, or even once a decade, century, or millenium, some kind of game-changing, balance-breaking item (or person with such knowledge) pops into existence, the hole it comes out of is going to be fought for and fought over--forever. It doesn't matter whether what comes out is a self-powered projected energy cannon, a machine gun, a lightsaber, an AI-controlled nanoassembling molecular factory, a cyborg supersoldier, a potion of immortality, a T-1000, a bioweapon-armed cruise missile, a Philosopher's Stone, an Astra, a Wand of Teleportation, a personal forcefield, an Amulet of Mind-Control, a necromancer, or any of a thousand other things. All it would take is one massive force multiplier to tip huge amounts of power into the hands of whoever found it, and he or she would guard the source of that power jealously. Just as everyone else would covet it, band together, and try to take it from him.

Everybody has to sleep sometime (except for that guy who found a Potion of Everwakefulness), and even if your newly-found Unobtainium Sword of Force Multiplication allows you to fight 1000 soldiers and win, the 1001st member of the newly formed Stealing-Stuff Expeditionary Force is going to kill you and take it.

The Rift itself would be valued just as highly, and contested just as hotly. After all, it's where the next game-changer will come from.

Technological development—at least, non-Rift-powered, incremental tech development—would stall; what's the point of spending a lifetime honing your smithcraft and developing a slightly better steel alloy to make stronger swords or armor when a crate of monomolecular blades or an Avada Kedavra-caster might fall out of the Rift next week?

Economic activity is going to fare similarly. Who's going to want to waste their time stockpiling more grain than it takes to survive winter when they could spend that effort making sure they become the proud owner of the next infinite, food-generating cornucopia to pop into existence?

The Rift will be the source of your economy, and access to it will provide unmatchable economic power and wealth. Price is just a measure of how valued or desired something is, so what price can you put on a Heal-o-matic 5000 nanotech medical droid that provides functional immortality?

Which brings us to the power dynamics problem that the Rift will necessarily create. It's not enough to be a member of the Plutocracy that currently wields most of the previously Rift-emitted game-changers and ruthlessly defends salvage rights. They've got to have a system in place that makes certain they get the next one, too. Otherwise some lucky minimum-wage scavenger in their employ is going to find a Ring of Gyges, seduce their wives, murder them, and become king.

At the same time, 85% of what comes out of the Rift is going to be unmatched left socks (that's what happens to them!) and unskilled laborers. 1% is going to be plague rats, fatally radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods, psychotic stab-happy mass murderers. 0.01% is going to be adamantium armor, antigravity belts, and Jedi knights. You didn't usurp and kill off the previous Plutocracy to spend your life sorting through junk, hoping not to be killed by what you find, just to maintain your present position of power, did you?

Whether that system involves highly-paid, well-armed, loyal guards (all cousins and sons-in-law and best friends of yours) that patrol the rift, a religion you've set yourself up as the Pope of, or something even more interesting, possibly relying on something that came through the Rift itself like a Potion of Loyalty or metacognitive reprogramming module is up to you. But there has got to be a system.

The people that come out of the Rift present a different set of problems. Like most of the items that come out of the Rift, most of them are going to be useless to you, but they'll have their own wildly varying desires. A very small percentage are going to be benevolent nanotech experts who believe in freedom of information, and a similarly small percentage are going to be immortal liche sorcerers dead-set on world domination. Most of them are going to outright contradict any religion you set up to control access to the Rift. Some are going to start their own competing religions.

The ones with advanced scientific knowledge are actually going to be less useful than you'd think--and that's assuming physics in their originating universe works the same as it does on Riftworld. The reason is infrastructure. Just because you know every intimate detail about how to construct a planet-destroying superlaser, hyperspace stardrive, positronic brain, or nonlocality engine doesn't mean you can do it starting from a Medieval technology base. It's going to take a long time and a lot of effort to get from Iron Age smithing to a modern silicon chip fab plant to nanoformers even if you know exactly how. And you'll need a lot of help to do it.

The mages and wizards, assuming their magic works the same on Riftworld as it did back home, are probably going to be a bigger deal, at least until the cyborg who may as well be from 20000 years in the future manages to bootstrap some serious high tech. If they can teach their own magic systems to others, they will charge for it and become serious economic powers in their own rights. As will the ones who just bag it, claim to be gods, toss off a few miracles, and start their own religions.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your juxtapositions of various types of item and person are extremely amusing. $\endgroup$ – recognizer May 15 '15 at 15:58
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This scenario reminds me of the position of certain Melanesian societies when US airbases were set up on their Pacific islands during World War II. Suddenly there is an influx of new stuff, some of it valuable, some of it apparently meaningless, placed there according to a pattern the islanders did not understand. That analogy suggests that the Plutocracy is going to have to work very hard to maintain its existing economy, let alone benefit from the Rift. The things that arrive will be extremely disruptive to anyone's long term plans. Yes, as a whole the Plutocracy should certainly stockpile trade goods in case the Rift goes through a dry spell - but people as individuals are going to be demotivated to engage in any long term economic activity when it could happen at any moment that your carefully maintained stockpile becomes valueless due to the arrival of a new gizmo.

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You're forgetting that politics is going to have a huge influence, trumping even the economy. Assuming the people in this world think like us, most would be engulfed by a religion that everything that they know came from the rift. Religion in our world has a strong hold and we don't have some gigantic supernatural gateway shooting random objects from it. Imagine how many people would follow this religion with such a phenomenon in this world?

As such, you would see cathedrals or places of worship near the rift mostly, but also in other places in this world. Those with the most power would be those who head the religion, like say the pope, except that given that most people belong to this religion, he would be like the absolute king. The world would pivot around this religion, and most cities would try to show how devote they are to the religion, because this too is a form of power to those who wield it.

You would not see scavengers picking up what comes out but rather highly religious and sacred men and women raised from birth whose only purpose in life is to be the first to see the wonders coming out of the rift. A wall would be built around the rift keeping everyone else out. The area itself would be considered holy ground. To be such a person would be a position of priviledge. On that note, the poorer people would likely only be able to view these objects (or at least the more spectacular objects) from a distance. If normal everyday objects can shoot out of the rift like apples or fishing rods, these sacred men and women would likely destroy it, since it doesn't purvey the idea that only wondrous things leave the rift. In this sense, most common folk would likely be kept in the dark about this particular aspect, instead seeing only the more brilliant things that leave the rift which would commonly be put on display.

The wealthy and those in power would only have direct access to these objects, and only those which have ties in the religion. They in turn may sell to more common folk, but more likely that they'll use it for favors or a form of currency.

And to make things interesting, you could form several religions. One religion that says the rift is a god and another that thinks the rift is a gateway to a new world that they must go through. Obviously the idea of passing through the rift if you think the rift is a god is rather horrifying, so these two religions would be at complete ends with each other, and most people would clearly be on one side or the other (and perhaps a few which don't care, but practically nobody who is athiest and believes in neither). Wars would likely be fought to control the area near the rift.

If several civilizations are more advanced technologically, then they will clearly dominate control. Wars may still be fought, but it would always end in favor of the more technologically advanced civilization and whatever side they pick.

It would be interesting to know what happens if someone were to pass through the rift. Could make for an interesting story.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ah, I did forget to mention this. People that come out of The Rift come with memories from their 'old world.' No one knows if they were pulled out of their original world, copied from their original world, or created wholecloth by The Rift with artificial memories. Yes, there are religions that worship The Rift. As for going back into The Rift...well, nothing that goes in comes back out. So no one knows what happens if someone jumps back in. Maybe they go home (some people try it), maybe they are simply annihilated, maybe they go somewhere else entirely. $\endgroup$ – guildsbounty May 14 '15 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ @guildsbounty These people would likely be glorified and considered holy figures. Maybe these sacred people guarding the entrance to the rift would be composed only of men and women who have passed through. My main point was that religion is going to be a big deal in this world, unlike here. $\endgroup$ – Neil May 14 '15 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ I think I have to disagree with this. If the Rift has always been there, then it's just a thing. A magnificent thing, sure, but no different than the Grand Canyon in that regard. You don't have people worshipping the Grand Canyon, and I don't think you'd have people worshipping the Rift, at least not in so obvious a manner as you think. If anything it seems to me it'd be more like a tribal religion than any grand organized one, worshipping something ever-present like the Rift or the sun or the moon. $\endgroup$ – Michael May 14 '15 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael Plenty of people have and probably still do worship the sun and the moon. $\endgroup$ – Michael McGriff May 14 '15 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelMcGriff Which is exactly what I said....."If anything it seems to me it'd be more like a tribal religion than any grand organized one, worshipping something ever-present like the Rift or the sun or the moon" Most of those religions, to my knowledge however, are, as I stated, largely tribal and not very organized as this answer is describing. $\endgroup$ – Michael May 14 '15 at 17:09
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My opinion would be that it's likely going to primarily serve people that pass for wealthy in your universe. Because the things are so varied, and presumably there will be many one of a kind things, the rich (and famous?) will often visit trying to get the next thing that will set them apart and show their status: exotic pets, alien art, surreal objects, weapons and items of exceeding craftsmanship, etc.

In addition, there would likely be a/several group of scientists/mages/intellectuals based at or very near to Edge. They'd want to be close so as to have the best chance of claiming anything particularly powerful or promising for technological advancement before it could be bought or spirited away.

Likely there is also a fairly successful black market where more dangerous "products" can be bought/sold, and presumably less than willing slaves as well.

The question of security would probably need to be addressed. I don't think you mentioned, in particular, any reason why dangerous creatures/people/items couldn't pass through and wreak serious havoc on the area/people near the Rift.

As far as imports, it seems to me that a government or plutocracy or whatever else could probably simply arrange to trade for anything it needs. They'd likely have treaties in place offering something along the wording lines of "goods to amount to a total of X {currency} for y amount of {food}", etc. This way, even if it is inconsistent, they might be trading one ultra valuable item one month, and a bulk of more generic goods the rest. Presumably, however, if most of its inhabitants are risking themselves near the Rift where things could be quite dangerous they probably import specialty tools found to be useful over the years by "veteran Rifters" (filler name, sorry). Anything from carts/wagons to move bulkier objects, to specialized kits for dealing with magic items, hazards that are possibly radioactive, or dangerous creatures/people.

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    $\begingroup$ Good catch with the danger level. Yes, Rift scavenging, and living near the Rift, is an exceedingly dangerous endeavor. It is entirely possible that The Rift could spit out a live bomb, or an angry monster. This is why Edge is the only real established town near The Rift, and is heavily fortified. $\endgroup$ – guildsbounty May 14 '15 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ In that case, there are probably at least a few "professional" scavengers who use the profits they gain to hire guards and possibly even mages/sorcerors/hi-tech handwavium technicians to protect them and harness the more dangerous but likely valuable goods. They probably also end up establishing small businesses with lower-ranked laborers or slaves paid little to nothing to gather more mundane things in bulk while they go after the big finds. $\endgroup$ – Michael May 14 '15 at 14:30
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It will be a rich place. Blooming trade. A monopoly on out of this world stuff! As it just appears it is like free money. Everyone who can will have a stake in it, like the very very profitable oil trade in this universe.

This will also be a patched together place, utilizing everything not worth the effort to transport. I can also see the immense junk-yards where scrap is recycled and the leftovers are gathering dust.

But to get to the main point, how do you determine what is a priceless artefact and what is junk, and how do you avoid damage while doing so?

I can see a pivotal profession emerge of detecting useful properties at several levels: First Picker, Secondary Picker, Two-bit Picker, Dead.

The best stuff will be divided among the ruling class and/or auctioned off regularly. Certified Rift products will be traded at a premium. Lesser, mundane stuff will be in regular shops and caravans. The stuff nobody can make sense of will enter the junk-yards. Loads of gold-diggers will be sure their big break is around the corner any moment now. The older they get, the more limbs will be missing.

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  • $\begingroup$ Agree. There will even be armed conflicts for control of the rift. $\endgroup$ – Turion May 14 '15 at 17:07
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The effects of the rift depend on the level of development. I'll break it down to sub-conditions.

Whether the society has developed organized education such as universities or the great Hellenistic or Islamic libraries. Basically corresponds to having a mature urbanized society with common literacy and an established upper class with idle time. Such system is required to effectively study whatever comes from the rift and collate and organize the data gained.

Your setting was said to be industrial, so at some safe distance from the rift there would be large universities that compete and collaborate in collecting and studying what comes from the rift. The steady flow of objects would imply some sort of stable arrangement regarding the collection of objects and people, probably with an illegal, profitable, and violent black market. There might be a single institution managing the collection of objects. Another to handle people. Third to handle potentially dangerous creatures. Objects could be distributed to other institutions based on quotas or auctions with specific organizations or people only eligible for objects of certain level of rarity or risk.

Whether private people can legally buy objects would depend on the rate of collection and social system. In a class based society, royalty and high nobility would certainly be able to buy objects or even get them by quota. They'd then probably loan interesting objects to researchers. Regardless there would be a black market available for the wealthy.

Whether there is mass production. Before industrialization the rift might be a significant source of items. With mass production the volume of items produced by the rift would be too low to have major direct economic effect.

Since the society would have industrialization, we can assume the latter. The main effect of the rift would be as a source of information, both directly in form of people and indirectly in the form of objects and creatures to study. This would be the core the rest of economy would be built around.

They would presumably have relatively high level of knowledge albeit possibly with large and weird gaps. It is reasonable to assume their available knowledge would be larger than their ability to understand and organize it. They might lack both the kinds of polymaths that used to be common before the 20th century and the kinds of specialized areas of study that characterize modern science. The effects are difficult to predict.

When you say that tech level varies that kind of implies that technology and economy are restricted by the available population, resources, and infrastructure. Basically they would know how to built more advance technology but do not have the industrial base needed.

Possible reasons are the world not supporting agriculture well enough to allow large population, the rift constantly introducing new disease which makes large populations vulnerable to epidemics or the world being poor in easily accessible metals. All three actually make sense for your setting. Fast growing local flora would make agriculture difficult, people and creatures coming from the rift would carry lots of germs with them and an isolated dimension might well have limited mineral wealth.

That fast growing flora would make for a good source of biogas, if collected and placed into a bioreactor. And the locals could have realistically heard of the concept. This also would also produce fertile soil for agriculture, so the agriculture would be highly productive, they just would have issues having large areas in production.

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Techno-Military Dystopia

Only 80 years after its first colonization, all of the people of Edge spontaneously and mysteriously fell dead -- an event now known as The First Cataclysm, largely suspected to be some sort of rabidly infectious disease which failed to spread further in the world and instead exhausted itself by too-rapid expansion. There have been seven more cataclysms since, sometimes resolved by international cooperation, sometimes simply resolved by the phenomena working themselves out (e.g. advanced predators being unable to yield offspring).

In the wake of the Third Cataclysm, the nations of the world united in fighting off the beast and then joined together in a massive effort to wall off the Rift, with only a couple major gateways into the interstitial region. Of the different companies to survive in the interstices, three were tough enough to survive the Fifth Cataclysm. In the wake of the Sixth Cataclysm, two were sufficiently damaged that all three combined together into the Alliance. There are still remnants of the three-fold division in Alliance culture, much as there is still a division between England, Scotland, and Wales even though all three are part of one geopolitical entity on the island of Great Britain.

Together they isolate anything new that comes out of the Rift, and they potentially run many-century-long projects to analyze new technology that is not so risky as to be immediately destroyed.

The Alliance relates to the rest of the world as a high-tech manufacturer with no solid political ties; it is its own geopolitical entity with a technologically sophisticated military. Since technology is its central advantage over other cultures, it is as paranoid about spy infiltration and information leaving the Borderlands as, say, the CIA. Expect rigid hierarchies of authority, ubiquitous surveillance, and a complicated manufacturing economy where raw materials are imported and advanced items are exported, but the secrets of the manufacturing plants are guarded by automatic laser turrets.

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  • $\begingroup$ What will happen to the people spawned by the Rift? Will they be happy? $\endgroup$ – Vi. May 22 '15 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Vi. I hope so. Supposing that a scientist falls through, you want the information that she carries around, and that means that she needs to be cooperative. Obviously you start off with an intimidating isolation procedure just in case the person is hostile, but then you ease way off when you understand that they're safe. $\endgroup$ – CR Drost May 25 '15 at 0:33

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