*Warning, slight spoilers ahead for the Mistborn trilogy. If you haven’t read them yet, do so before diving deep into this article.
Considering the world of ash falls, bloody skies, and meager crops that the people of the Final Empire live in, it’s amazing that any form of economy can remain stable let alone function to any form of efficiency.
Its blend of capitalistic advancement with a governing, immortal emperor at the top encourages competition and doubles the amount of effort put in.
Despite how despicable the way they treated their skaa were, from a national scale, The Lord Ruler’s reign proved to have one of the most sustainable governments and economy—even compared to the ones that exist in our own world.
There is one flaw I find with this system though. That being the amount of power a single element has over that system that, whoever controls it, can make or break the economy. That element being the rare metal, atium.
In Chapter 4 of Mistborn: The Final Empire, the master thief, Kelsier, centers his great rebellion by robbing the Lord Ruler’s secret treasury, which is said where he holds the bulk of his atium researves:
“If we manage to steal that atium, it would be a sound blow to the Lord Ruler’s financial foundation. He depends on the money that atium provides—without it, he could very well be left without the means to pay his armies.”
But is atium so valuable that the one who controls it could usurp the power of an immortal god? Would people put enough stock into it that it could unbalance the global economy?
What is Atium?
Before we get into it’s value, we need to determine what exactly atium is? Well, to put it simply, atium is an allomantic metal that, when consumed, grants the incredible power for a limited time.
For those who haven’t read Mistborn yet, an allomancer is an individual who can devour certain metals to obtain certain powers correlating with the type of metal they consumed.
For example: An allomancer who burns tin amplifies their physical senses, allowing them to see, hear, and smell things they’d otherwise not pick up.
When Atium is consumed and used, or “burned”, the allomancer obtains minimal foresight and mental processing:
“Atium lets you see just a bit into the future. Or, at least, it lets you see what people are going to do a little bit in the future. In addition, it enhances your mind, allowing you to deal with the new information, allowing you to react more quickly and collectedly.”
A person burning atium can see things coming before they happen. A fist flying at you, a bullet that would hit you in the chest, or anything else.
So in other words, when you burn atium, you’re untouchable. The only person capable of stopping you is someone else burning atium.
From that alone, it’s a obvious that the metal would have value. Someone who burns atium practically has an all knowing defender who can protect them in an instant.
But there are plenty of flaws with atium that hinder its quality in its worth.
The first problem with Atium is, while the power it bestows allomantically is incredible, it can’t do anything else. Other allomantic metals like iron and steel have other purposes beyond being burned to push away objects.
Iron can be casted and used to forge hinges for doors, horse shoes, and even weapons for war such as swords and axes. Copper is an easily accessible metal that can be manipulated with ease. Gold can be used as a conductor for electricity and won’t rust—making it ideal for jewelry.
Atium doesn’t have any other function beyond giving an allomancer power.
But what does it matter? Gasoline has one function to make an engine run, it doesn’t need another purpose than that. In that sense, you can think of atium in the same light.
There’s just one problem with that. Anyone can use an engine or drive a car. Not anyone can burn atium. Only those who are born with allomantic proficiency can use it.
From the start of the novel, we know there are two classifications of allomancers: mistings and mistborn. Mistings are allomancers who can only use one type of metal. Mistborns are allomancers who can burn them all.
We also know from the beginning that only those with noble blood in their veins can burn metal. And among their number, those who can become allomancers are rare:
The vast majority of Allomancers are Mistings, who can burn only a single metal. By the last days of the Final Empire, about one in every 100 nobles, and one in every 10,000 skaa, possessed the ability to burn each metal.
So, 1 in every 100 nobles have a chance of becoming mistings. But with mistings, they’re likely to only manifest one of the eight core metals: iron, steel, tin, pewter, brass, zinc, copper, and bronze. Even if they became mistings, they wouldn’t be able to burn atium.
Rarer still are Mistborn, who comprise about one in every 100 Allomancers (or one in every 10,000 nobles), and who can burn all Allomantic metals. These special individuals are the subjects of great awe and wonder, worshipped and feared for their versatile and deadly gift
So, thats 1 in every 10,000 nobles who are likely to become mistborn. That’s 0.01% of the population!
And that’s only the noble population, the minority in the vast Final Empire. While we can’t get an exact ratio from the books alone, we can glean from chapter 21, during a discussion between Kelsier and Ham, about the number of nobility and skaa born at a given time.
“I mean, skaa do have a lot of children, and I’ve heard that aristocrats have trouble reproducing.”
“I’ve known skaa women to have as many as a dozen children, but I can’t name a single major noble family with more than three.”
So, if we went just off that, we know that for every 12 skaa born, that’s about 3 noblemen born. 15 children born, 12 skaa, 3 noble. That’s about 80% of the population being born skaa and 20% being pure-blooded nobility.
Taking the population of Luthadel, the economic center of the Final Empire, we can glean just how much of the city’s population is made up of noble. The books describe the city, and the surrounding area, having:
“nearly a million workers in and around [it]”.
If we assume by workers they’re specifically referring to skaa, we can assume that the population can be anywhere from 500k—900k. 17th Shard writer, Phantom Monstrosity, estimated that the number was probably closer to 800k-900k
If we go with the highest ratio and break it down mathematically, we’re likely to get:
900,000 = 80% of 1,125,000 people in and around Luthadel
20% of 1,125,000 = 225,000 pure-blooded nobles.
Now, to determine how many of those noble men and women are likely to become mistborn, we take the formula listed above which states that 1 in every 10,000 nobility are likely to become mistborn, So:
1 in a 10000 of 225,000 = 22.5 mistborn born.
That’s only 23 people. 23 people who can make use of atium in and around Luthadel at any given time.
Assuming that the ten great houses held the monopoly on them and they were evenly spread between them, that is a minimum of two mistborn per house at best.
Rate of Burning
But okay, so what if you only have one mistborn. You only need one nuke to destroy a city right? As seen in the books, a single mistborn can take down an enemy stronghold all by themselves. Stack some pewter in steel, you become a one man army.
That leads us to the final problem with atium, its burn rate. Every allomantic has a burn rate in scale with the amount of metal consumed. Tin can be burned for hours while pewter burns away in 5 minutes per gram.
Atium burns the fastest. According to the Mistborn Adventure Game, an RPG made with Sanderson’s help, a single bead of atium will burn away in 30 seconds.
To help clarify, atium isn’t found in ores or nuggets, but in crystals. Those crystals are so fragile that, if one uses allomancy by them, they shatter. Not only that, it takes centuries for an atium crystal to reform.
So to be clear, 30 seconds of god-like power takes over a hundred years to even form.
Not only that, but atium crystals come from only one place: the penal colony known as the Pits of Hathsin. The slaves there have seven days to find crystals or are put to death. That’s one crystal for a week’s wages, if they were barely lucky.
With that said, by itself, atium doesn’t appear worth the effort. It costs a lot to acquire and mine, barely a fraction of the population can use it, and it only has one real use. So why do so many people put stock in it?
If I had to guess: atium acts as a deterrent.
One of the reasons we’ve yet to enter a third world war is the fear of a nuclear onslaught that may come about from it. As we know from the books, there are no laws that keep the nobility from killing one another. No police force to chase down murderers or enforce justice. There’s only the Garrison, and they exist more to put down potential rebellions.
The noble houses can’t rely on the Lord Ruler to protect them. In fact, the Lord Ruler himself encourages them killing one another. “It keeps them off balance.” So a house that buys atium is a house that can defend itself.
The fear of an atium powered mistborn who can assassinate you with ease and/or prevent any attempts you make against your rival will make you second guess the way you approach business. You aren’t going to cheat someone when they have a knife to your throat.
A house who puts stock in atium is a house that can and will use it if needed. A house with atium at their disposal can control mercantile dealings, which in turn controls the economy.
What are your guys thoughts on the issue? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below.