Eye-popping stuff here. So, and the author nails his colours to the mast fairly early on, but this is a critical look at some of the theories that underpin the current financial system, based on the notion that everyone must pay their debts as a matter of honour, except for the US, who don’t actually have any intention of paying back their public debt (also various other governments).
Graeber is an anthropologist, and fills the first half of the book with examples of how trade and debts work away from the developed world, and examples of how it worked in history and pre-history. The surprising thing, for me at least, was that “barter” as a system never really happened before money was invented (although it was used when currencies collapsed from time to time). This is counter to just about every explanation of how trade used to work (blame Adam Smith for this), and kind of broke my mind. But it makes sense. Why would you trade chairs for pigs? How could you decide what a reasonable rate of exchange would be? So you just share stuff around the community. If you’re going to see everyone you might trade with every day for your entire life, you can’t really cheat for long.
Money tends to be invented to pay soldiers, who need portable payment, and don’t necessarily spend their time in friendly society. And then you make your taxes payable in the same coin, and it becomes the default way of trading between people. When the metal dries up – sometimes melted down into religious artefacts, sometimes stored as bullion, depending on the mores in favour in that place at that time – virtual money tends to become the norm.
This process swings through cycles, with materialism and hard cash being associated with periods of violence, and virtual money tending to be less so, although virtual money periods tend to build up resentment due to debtors being exploited by creditors, to the point where violent revolution becomes almost inevitable, unless the ruling class issues a debt-cancelling jubilee.
There’s also a lot about slavery, both physical chains and whips slavery and virtual debt-peonage/wage slavery, starting as the point where value is established – a human life is the ultimate price from which everything else is derived. Apparently. I’m not sure I fully understood this. There’s also a lot about the morality of debt, and religious pronouncements on the subject of interest-bearing loans.
All of which leads to the conclusion that capitalism cannot stand, and the debts should be cancelled, and the tables reset. We’re in a relatively new period of virtual money, since Nixon cancelled the gold standard, and it’s hard to see how it will develop, but violent revolution would be a decent guess.
I couldn’t help comparing this treatment of the origin of public debt with the way it’s dealt with in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle – the celebration of the new world order of rational scientific thinking spills over into admiration for a system that allows governments to make more war – at least that’s how I remember it. I will need to read that again (any excuse). Also interesting to compare it with another far-reaching history of humanity – Why The West Rules – For Now with its energy/literacy/war-making scoring explanation for the cycles of history in China and the West -which puts a more positive spin on “progress” but also allows that we might be about to tip over into apocalyptic terror.
So you may have guessed from the title, or from the amount of time it’s taken since I last blogged a book, but this is not 900-page literary work of fiction translated from the Japanese. It is, in fact, the first novel by webcomic author Scott Meyer, who does Basic Instructions.
There are varieties of webcomics. Some are mostly boobs, or crude jokes (OK, lots of them are). Some are arty and mysterious. Some re-use the same images every day. Some are “minimalist” in their artwork. Basic Instructions sits at the same image/minimalist end of that spectrum, in that a lot of the images are re-used, and, with all due respect, you wouldn’t mistake any of them for Rembrandts. The thing about doing comics this way is that it means if you want people to read, the words have to be pretty good. Basic Instructions schtick is a couple of parts geeky pop-culture references, a healthy dollop of socio-workplace observation and the occasional spoonful of comedy violence.
So you’ll probably have guessed that Off to Be the Wizard contains boobs, crude jokes and mysterious arty stuff. No, no, I’m just fooling. It contains some geeky pop-culture references, a healthy dollop of socio-workplace observation and a spoonful or two of comedy violence. Just in medieval England. Kind of. Look, it makes sense – kind of – when you read it. It borrows a bit (well, quite a lot) from The Matrix, but replaces all of the pseudo-metaphysical nonsense with a Tom Holt/Terry Pratchett/Douglas Adams style sense of humour. I’m operating a machine-gun catapult in my glass house here, given this, but it could probably have done with a proper edit – some of the pacing felt a bit off, somehow (you can tell I’m not a proper editor from that), but overall it was a good fun read.
I’ve mentioned before that I was reading this. It is a long book.
I also mentioned that I was enjoying it. I did enjoy it, thoroughly. It tells the story of a woman and man, which immediately makes it a bit different from most Murakami. They go to a strange world, which they don’t fully understand, and do things for reasons that aren’t really clear, a lot of the time. They never meet, but are in love from when they were children. There’s a creepy religious cult with some very dubious practices, into which’s orbit both Tengo and Aomame get loosely drawn. There’s a book with some things in it that don’t make any sense and then exist in the world and start doing stuff.
It can be very difficult to express why you’d want to read over 900 pages of this.
I saw a quote somewhere – turns out it’s by Bill Evans: ”jazz is a process”. Murakami writes jazz. The song is standard, perhaps (the plot of 1Q84 could describe the plot of most of his books). But the notes and the sounds are new every time, and it’s never entirely clear where it’s all going, or what it all means; you have to listen closely.
And Murakami is just masterful with words. The similes knocked me out. Most mortals would be happy to write just one sentence half as good as “The kind of clouds watercolor artists like lingered in the sky” but there are dozens of examples in this book, and the rest of the writing barely dips below that.
One thing I didn’t like (besides the size of the book – it’s not comfortable to hold; perhaps I would have been better with 3 separate volumes) was the keming around the apostrophes. How petty is this? But every can’t or won’t read to me as cant and wont and it just bugged me every time.
This is not strictly related to the other thing, because it was all written a while ago, but I have been putting bits of my half-written novel up on another blog, which is An accurate history of the twenty-first century. Currently, we’ve met some students, Thor and some dead vikings, but it’s definitely on its way somewhere… publishing three times a week.
OK, so I still haven’t finished 1Q84. I am getting a bit closer – I’m on book 3 now. That’s not what this is about, though.
All of a sudden, I’m feeling really creative. I can’t say exactly why this should be, although I’m tentatively assigning it to working like a dervish last week then doing nothing much except drink and run at the weekend. Anyway, yesterday an idea came to me, which I think could possibly make billions, if only I had any idea how to implement it. I’ve recently (OK, one other thing at the weekend) taken up The Simpsons: Tapped Out, which you may know is a Farmville (or whatever) style grinding game starring that yellow lot. Then I was watching football (if the Wigan-Newcastle match yesterday counts as football) and it struck me that you could do the same thing with fantasy football: you start with a ridiculously small budget to pick your fantasy team, ending up with, let’s say, that McManaman kid and Peter Odemwingie or whatever. When there’s a football game on, they earn points in much the same way as your average fantasy football game… goals, assists, clean sheets and so forth. These feed back into XP and in-game money. When there aren’t games on, you can set your players tasks like fitness training, doing keepie-ups, I don’t know; banter, merking each other, whatever footballers do. And that earns XP and in-game money too. And you can use the in-game money to buy better players, better training facilities (subject to whatever level you get to) and so on.
Isn’t that something you can see 20 million people spending their time doing? Well, maybe not 20 million. Anyway, it might already exist, but never mind. I think it would be ACE. Someone build it and then send me the money (real money, please)…
I’m currently reading 1Q84, by Murakami. Which is another 1,000-page thing, so it’s taking me a while. I’m thoroughly enjoying it – much better than Kafka on the Shore. Reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Jacob de Zoet book (which might be a bit ironic, given how heavily Murakami-influenced Mitchell’s early work is).
This is another book that I found because of a blog, although unlike the beer book it was about 3 or 4 years ago that I first found Snarkmarket. It doesn’t update much any more. Possibly because Robin has been writing a book. He wrote one before, although it was a bit shorter. It was called Annabel Scheme, and it had quantum stuff and a giant tower over San Francisco and was really good fun.
This is an expansion of a short story which I had previously read. The short story takes up about the first third of the book. I loved that story, about a lad who goes to work in a crazy bookstore and finds out that it’s visited by a collection of loosely wound folks who will burst into the shop at all hours of the night (it is a 24-hour bookstore) desperate for the next volume from the vertiginously-stacked shelves. In the short story version, the whole thing finishes when our hero solves the puzzle with some computer hackery.
The novel adds more characters – our hero gets a flatmate or two, a romantic interest, and some old friends, all of whom he enlists as allies on the deeper quest that is revealed after the solution of the same original puzzle.
It wears its influences on its sleeve (and I’m not talking about the brilliant glow-in-the-dark dustjacket) – there are references to Murakami and Neal Stephenson on the shelves in the store – and also to something that is so clearly Dungeons and Dragons, although it’s called something else. It has a young, slightly lost, male protagonist who ends up in a world not quite the same as the one we all think we know. It has a cast of characters who each have a specific strength to contribute to the successful completion of the quest. It’s not quite as offbeat as Murakami though. And not anything like as long as Stephenson.
What’s best about it is the deep love of reading as a collaborative activity that pours out of every page, and the excitement about the possibilities that internet technologies have opened up to explore that world. I’m pretty sure if you set out to write me a book just for me, this would be it.