Why Debt is creeping into so many science fiction discussions

On Tor.com, author and reviewer Jo Walton has an insightful look at why so many science fiction readers and writers are discussing David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a book that is already a darling of the Occupy movement:

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.

For a more academic discussion of Debt among political scientists and economists, see this Crooked Timber seminar on the book, and the author's reply. I liked Debt, but was also frustrated by the amount of circling back and meandering the author engages in. That said, it was one of my more thought-provoking reads of 2011.

The Best Science Fiction Ideas in any Non-Fiction Ever: David Graeber’s Debt: The First Five Thousand Years


  1. Economics of all kinds is one area most SF is lacking in. Given that economics is a system for dealing allocating resources in an environment of scarcity and that we are rapidly heading towards having systems that can significantly reduce scarcity how that will affect the worlds SF writers create should be something that more writers are considering.

    1. It’s rare, but I think it does exist as a device in some SF. Super Sad True Love Story is the first dystopia I’ve read where economic crisis acts as the catalyst for the setting and the events of the novel. And Cory’s own Down and Out deals with the post-scarcity world but mostly *after* the point at which the problems have been largely solved. I think there is an opportunity for sf/speculative fiction to deal with the nearer-term implications of structural economic problems–the fact that post-scarcity is tied to post-employment (and that the latter is the one that we are experiencing/will experience first) means there are all sorts of dark places our society could go before getting to anything like spendable whuffie.

    2. Almost all of CJ Cherryh’s books have strong economic themes.  In the Foreigner series, one of the first three people to ride the first space shuttle is a rep from the Dept. of Commerce, and half that book is about figuring out trade agreements.

      1. But the story doesn’t deal with changes in economics. I’ve known CJ for years and love her work but her stories mainly assume at least the level of scarcity we currently have if not more so.


  2. Um, because it is (bad) SF:


    Quote from the book:
    “Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages.”

    Which is about as incoherent as:
    “Playboy magazine is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly lesbian) women who broke from the Knights Templar in the 6th century, forming little fantasy football leagues over Twitter.” -real ffeJ annaH

    1.  The Apple thing is a mistake, but it’s a tiny one in a really good book.  It’s the sort of mistake that looks enormous to internet geeks because they’re internet geeks.

      The author’s reply is somewhat insane though…

  3. News flash: Flawed human beings sometimes turn out to have written really good books. In a related development, the set “really good books” often includes books with mistakes and flaws in them!
    Perhaps some future society of mental supermen will figure out how to reconcile these obviously impossible and contradictory truths without forcing the computer to explode. We can dream.

    1. We aren’t exactly talking about a typo here. Anyone who can write a paragraph so wrong and yet so easily fact-checked can hardly be trusted on more obscure things like debt in the ancient world.

      1. If you look at the author’s reply you can see that he acknowledges it as a fuck-up and sets out the circumstances behind it.  Just because you like computers doesn’t make knowing about them a test every author must live or die on and IT IS A MINISCULE PART OF THE BOOK.  And Greedo shot first.

        1. It’s not a very convincing reply. It’s not about computers but about general competence, and his handwaving that the details of Apple don’t really matter is channeling Mike Daisey. He also claims that it doesn’t matter because classicists haven’t complained about the ancient parts. This would be rather more convincing if he could actually point to any published reviews by classicists. Do any of them take it seriously as a work of history?

          1. A better link for the post would probably be this one which assembles a bunch of articles.

            The historian asked to contribute to the seminar is Neville Morley; follow that link for what he thinks about it.  (I’d post it but wanna avoid triggering a spam trap.)

  4. And just to reiterate:

    his handwaving that the details of Apple don’t really matter is channeling Mike Daisey

    It really isn’t:  no arguments depend on the Apple business (and I have to say there are a bunch of strange arrangements of text in the book – particularly in the footnotes – that seem like obvious electronic-document screw-ups).  It is a distraction rather than a fundamental flaw:  if it was simply erased from every copy of the book all the book’s assertions would remain.  Whether you wanna take issue with those is a separate business, and good for you if you do:  the substance of the book is worth arguing over.

  5. There’s a question about debt and money I’ve never been able to answer.

    In our fractional reserve/central banking system, the principal (only) way of creating new money is the creation of new debt.

    I take out a loan of 100,000 from the bank (or the government takes out a loan of 1,000,000 dollars). For ease of math, let’s assume an interest rate of 10%. Let’s also forget the multiplier effect, and assume that a loan of X dollars creates X dollars of new money (it’s really more like 10X).

    So, in depositing the money in my account, 100,000 is created. It is 

    However, at the same time, an obligation is also created, an obligation to pay back 110,000 to the bank.

    Now, maybe you can scrape together the extra cash; but on a societal level, where this is the only means of generating new money, eventually there simply won’t be enough money circulating in society to pay back all the debts in society. As a result, over time, the banks will end up owning all the real assets.

    Maybe I am just dumb or mis-thinking this. But what is the flaw in that line of reasoning? Is it not correct that our current monetary system has baked into the dough the recipe for debt crisis and widespread foreclosure?

    Has anyone else thought about this paradox?

    1. yep, and it is flawed. As a certain engineer turned economist would say, it is a stock/flow confusion issue.


      There is also the issue that down payments on the debt do not just vanish into thin air. So once the money has gotten out there, it will stay out there in the sense that it will flow thru various banks balance sheets, onto various employee account and then back out into the economy.

      This crash course by Steve Keen may provide some more insight into the (non-)issue:

      1.  Your first link has no relevant information. Your second link is a video series that runs over an hour – please find a text source  to respect your readers’ time.

        Your argument seems to be that continued inflation and debasement of the currency is necessary under the fractional reserve system. It does not show that other systems would not work better, nor does it refute the idea that the current system favors the bankers and their cronies.

        1. If you can’t take a hour of to learn, especially about something as crucial as the workings of the economy, i do not see the point of showing any respect.

          Still, part two may be the most important right now.

          As for the first link, the guy the article is about once stated that economics was the science of confusing stocks with flows.

          edit: hell, try this:


          1. Good link.
            However, Keen strongly supports the point of the original poster that: “our current monetary system has baked into the dough the recipe for debt crisis and widespread foreclosure”, though admittedly through much more involved reasoning.

            For instance, he says: “Debt acceleration is the main factor in determining asset prices. Asset bubbles therefore have to burst, because debt acceleration cannot remain positive forever.”

            His prescriptions for fixing the system are truly radical:  direct government payments to debtors to reduce private debt by an amount equal to 1.5x-2x GDP, cutting the FIRE sector share of GDP in half, making stock shares expire 50 years after they have changed hands three times, and limiting real estate loans to 10x the property’s yearly rental income potential at market rental rates.

          2.  @boingboing-dc452e51dc22fbc2670d8ba24be75da4:disqus yep, the potential for crisis is there. But so is it every time we ride a car, plane or train. Thing is that debt can work, it just needs to be managed correctly. If managed correctly, there is nothing that says that it will automatically drain the economy dry (the stock/flow confusion i mentioned earlier). Problem is that mainstream economists do not even care about debt as they see it as simply moving money from one pocket to another, so they do not even bother consider the issue of debt management. And that is how we get problems like the crisis that has Europe and USA by the balls.

  6. here’s my idea: lend me a dollar. 

    if millions of you do then i’ll put it all in a bank, earn enough interest in a day or so to live off of for a while, pay you back and then lend you a dollar. later, y’all can lend me a dollar again. and around we go.

    do the math. population of planet. population of planet that can afford to miss a dollar for a day or two. we may even end up with a surplus to help those who can’t currently afford a dollar. but soon they will. and around we go.

    pass it on. problem solved.

    1.  Ah, that’s the old “money laser”. Keep bouncing the loans back and forth and money comes out of nowhere. It works even better with a chain or network, if only to obfuscate the accounting. It’s really the foundation of our current financial system.

      Unfortunately, unless you and your friends are banks it doesn’t work as well as it otherwise would – the banks have that racket pretty much sewn up.

  7. The movie “in time” with Timberlake was a good example of this as money=time and the poor live in a constant need to get more money to survive another day.

  8. The problem is too many people do not pay attention to REALLY GOOD science fiction.  They just want shallow escapism.

    Cost of Living (1952) by Sheckley Robert
    Subversive (1962)  by Reynolds Mack
    The Space Merchants (1952) Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth

    We created the problems by ignoring them when they were small in most people’s minds.  We let the marketing people brainwash us, now we are stuck with the results of their stupidity. 

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