Sunday, 26 April 2015

Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross AND Debt: the First 5000 Years by David Greaber

Dec-January 2015
Debt: the first 5000 years.

April 2015
Neptune's Brood
Pages: 352

What does a space opera written by one of the most prolific and popular SF authors have in common with a weighty discourse on the nature of debt written by an anthropologist (who also happened to be an active participant in the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011)?  Quite a lot actually.  In the tradition of the best SF,  Charles Stross uses Neptune's Brood both to entertain and to explore some Big Ideas -- in this case, the economic ideas explored in Debt.

So, what are those ideas? I picked up Debt in the Saskatoon airport on the way back from a visit to my Mom in late November 2014, and started reading it on the plane.  I called it weighty,  but that description doesn't really do it justice.  Debt is actually quite readable and engaging, especially in its opening chapters where it answers a fundamental question.  Where did money come from?  That is, how and why was money invented?

What do you think?

Nope, you're almost certainly wrong, particularly if you took Economics 101.

The standard account dates back to Adam Smith, who told a "just so" story to explain why money was invented.  I'm sure you're familiar with it.  The story goes something like this.  Back in some unspecified "olden times", people farmed and fished and made their own clothing.  But sometimes a farmer would need something that he didn't have himself or couldn't make  for himself.  So off to market he would go to barter for the goods he needed.  But bartering was difficult and awkward.  Farmer A had chickens, but what he really needed was leather for shoes.  Farmer B had leather.  If Farmer B needed chickens, then all was well.  He'd negotiate with Farmer A and come to an agreement on how many chickens to exchange his leather for.  But what if Farmer B didn't need chickens?  What if Farmer B needed seed corn?  Or a calf?  Conundrum.  Would Farmer A first have to find Farmer C, who had seed corn and needed chickens?  What if Farmer C hadn't chosen to go to market on that particular Saturday?  Things quickly became complicated, and money was invented as a medium of exchange to work around the obvious difficulties.

All makes sense, right?

Actually not.   Anthropologists have been telling economists an inconvenient truth for at least a hundred years.  They have never found any human society based on barter, although they have found many societies where money is either never used or is used only for ceremonial exchanges. Money as we know it seems to have been pay taxes to a strong central government that needs to raise armies or maintain temples and priests.  Societies without strong central organization and coercive institutions get along quite happily on informal systems of social debt.  Farmer A has known Farmer B all of their mutual lives because they live in the same village.  Farmer  B will "loan" Farmer A the leather until Farmer A's cow has a calf next spring, at which time Farmer B will get the calf and also owe Farmer A some overage in grain in exchange to make up the difference in agreed value between the leather and the calf.  Unless of course Farmer B hates Farmer A's guts because Farmer A's father cheated Farmer B's uncle at competitive hopscotch two seasons ago.  In which case Farmer B may well refuse to give the leather to Farmer A, who will have to resort to asking his sister (Farmer C's wife) to talk to her close friend Farmer B's wife to see if there might be some way to get Farmer B to get over his grudge....the point being that until recently, economic exchange was embedded within social exchange.  And debt was the glue that held societies together.

Why did Adam Smith invent his story about the genesis of money?  What is the impact on societies of moving away from informal debt systems into money economies?  How has the meaning and impact of debt changed over time, and how has this played out in various societies over the last 5000 years?  For all of that and more, I'd encourage you to read Debt. 

Charles Stross did.  And he was so taken with the concepts that he plays with them as he tells a story of the adventures of an inter-stellar accountant on a quest to find her missing post-human clone sister.   No, it's not A Taxing Woman (the only other piece of fiction I know that features an accountant as its protagonist), but the book is classic Stross, or at least, classic "better Stross".  There are interesting characters, interesting ideas, and a strong plot driving a lot action.  It's not as interesting as Glasshouse or Iron Sunrise, but it has more weight and is more entertaining than his Merchant Princes series.

So, could you skip Debt and read Neptune's Brood instead? No, because Debt doesn't really come together as a compelling single narrative about debt and the role of money in societies.  So even if he wanted to, Stross couldn't have made that narrative a central part of the story in Neptune's Brood.  But in a lot of ways that's okay.  Debt is sparking with ideas and will give you lots of unexpected insights into economic and social history.  Charles Stross selected the ideas that intrigued him to work into the narrative of Neptune's Brood.  Your mileage may vary.  Not to mention thatyou might not be as interested in visiting a colony of intelligent squid or travelling with bat-form pirate insurance agents as Stross assumes his readers will be. So if you're interested in debt, I'd suggest you read the non-fiction.

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