The thing that best sums up the experience of reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First Five Thousand Years is something that isn’t really in the book at all. I’ve mentioned here before that it’s my habit to read at night until I am asleep and then put the book down and take off my glasses and turn off the light. I did this one night while reading Debt, and the last couple of pages I read (while actually asleep) were about two races of aliens with really different ideas about debt and obligations, and how this affected their relationships with each other and with humanity. Needless to say, in the morning it turned out that these pages had disappeared, but it made the book only very slightly less science fictional.
Graeber is an anthropolologist and social activist, and he wrote Debt in an attempt to look at historical economies and ideas about debt and what people owe and to whom. To do this, he examines the whole planet across the whole of recorded civilization. It’s a fascinating journey, and full of strange customs and beliefs and re-examinations of familiar ones. Who would have guessed that there are people for whom saying “Thank you” is an insult because it suggests that you might not have done it? Who could have imagined the Tiv people and their terrifying beliefs about magical cannibalism? This is one of those books where you want to read bits aloud to everyone around you.
One of the problems with writing science fiction and fantasy is creating truly different societies. We tend to change things but keep other things at societal defaults. It’s really easy to see this in older SF, where we have moved on from those societal defaults and can thus laugh at seeing people in the future behaving like people in the fifties. But it’s very difficult to create genuinely innovative societies, and in genuinely different directions. As a British reader coming to SF there were a lot of things I thought were people’s amazing imagination that turned out to be normal American things and cultural defaults. And no matter how much research you do, it’s always easier in the anglosphere to find books and primary sources in English and about our own history and the history of people who have interacted with us. And both history and anthropology tend to be focused on one period, one place, so it’s possible to research a specific society you know you want to know about, but hard to find things that are about the range of options different societies have chosen.
What Debt does is to focus on a question of morality, first by framing the question, and then by examining how a really large number of human societies over a huge geographical and historical range have dealt with this issue, and how they have interacted with other people who have very different ideas about it. It’s a huge issue of the kind that shapes societies and cultures, so in reading it you encounter a whole lot of contrasting cultures. Graeber has some very interesting ideas about it, and lots of fascinating details, and lots of thought provoking connections.
It doesn’t matter at all if you agree with any of Graeber’s points, the experience of reading the book is to widen your perspective. It’s also bursting with story ideas. I think I’m going to be recommending this book to people who want to write SF for years. And whether or not you write SF, if you read it and if you like reading about strange societies and people who do things for reasons that are not like modern western reasons, you’re going to enjoy this book.
I picked it up because I read Graeber’s piece talking about the origins of money and the myth of barter, linked to from a blog I was reading:
Economists always ask us to ‘imagine’ how things must have worked before the advent of money. What such examples bring home more than anything else is just how limited their imaginations really are. When one is dealing with a world unfamiliar with money and markets, even on those rare occasions when strangers did meet explicitly in order to exchange goods, they are rarely thinking exclusively about the value of the goods. This not only demonstrates that the Homo Oeconomicus which lies at the basis of all the theorems and equations that purports to render economics a science, is not only an almost impossibly boring person—basically, a monomaniacal sociopath who can wander through an orgy thinking only about marginal rates of return—but that what economists are basically doing in telling the myth of barter, is taking a kind of behavior that is only really possible after the invention of money and markets and then projecting it backwards as the purported reason for the invention of money and markets themselves. Logically, this makes about as much sense as saying that the game of chess was invented to allow people to fulfill a pre-existing desire to checkmate their opponent’s king.
I’ve always felt like this about economics. And it’s a fun fluid read. As soon as I finished reading that article I ordered Debt from the library.
There are certain non-fiction books that often come up in conversations among fans. Debt is already one of them, and I think it’s only going to become more so. It doesn’t reach any staggering conclusions, but it’s hard to see how it could have any answers that are as interesting as its questions and illustrations about how people live.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.