I’ve been grabbing people by the arm and talking their ears off about David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years for a couple of weeks now. Putting together a few thoughts about it here has been a little daunting though. Partially because I liked it so much, but partially because it seems to be about so much.
The idea is to look at human history and how the idea of debt has been constructed. Graeber talks about societies where money is used only for the important things in life and the idea of being in debt for something like food makes little sense. He goes into the myth of barter ever existing the way Adam Smith and so many subsequent economists talked about it. He goes into a history of merchants through the world (not limiting himself to Christendom, which means his conception of the Middle Ages start off in China and India) and how religions incorporate their society’s struggle with the idea of all-purpose money. There’s stuff about the ages when Christ and Gautama and Mohammed were changing the world and how separating economics from religion is crazy.
It was an amazing book. I have my buddy who knows about economics reading it now so I can get a bit more informed opinion about it, but for now, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed/had their thoughts provoked by Guns Germs and Steel.
I have had Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt on my “To Read” list for ages. Now it isn’t there anymore, having moved to the “I must bore everyone I know talking about this because I love it” list.
The book tells the story of a number of souls. Well, they’re more Buddhist than that, like assemblages of characteristics. They encounter each other and try to make the world better. They’re Persian or Chinese or Japanese or other subjects of the great empires of the world since the 14th century. There’s one who is a dreamer and one who desires justice and one who is happy. They find themselves on opposite sides of ideologies from their previous lives and in bodies of different genders and cultures and occupations. Sometimes we see them after they have died and they’re getting their souls redistributed in the bardo where they can have a bit more meta- attitude about the point of their lives and going back again and again and how they should do better the next time.
Each section takes place at a different critical point in history when these souls (whose human names begin with the same letter every life as a mnemonic) try to live and improve the world. It’s so good, and makes me so sad that all my conversations with friends are about what kind of jobs we’ll be able to find. The scale of the story is so big, so pan-human that anything else feels so petty.
The other thing about this book is that it is an alternate history. In the 13th century plague wiped out most everyone in Europe, so all the history is different from that point on. The ancient Greeks and Romans are known, but Christians have been lost to history (much like we’d think of druids today). The whole colonization of the New World is a competition between China and the Muslim world coming at it from opposite oceans. Things are different but similar all throughout the book. The indigenous people of North America resisted colonization in different ways because being exposed to smallpox in smaller batches meant there was less genocide by germs. And feminist Islam is different and the development of nuclear power is there but different.
I’m sure that if you wanted to examine the choices Robinson made in creating this alternate history critically you could see it as its own exoticizing racist colonialist terrible thing. I read it more as a book about possibilities and loved it. The language wasn’t systematic in what it made unrecognizable but it was enough to remind you that things are different in this world even as the beings living through it feel like nothing is changing. It’s exactly what I want fiction to do so I loved this book.