Cavendish, Margaret. The Blazing World.

Margaret Cavendish. The Description of a New World, called The Blazing-World (1668).
None was allowed to use or wear Gold but those of the Imperial Race, which were the onely Nobles of the State; nor durst any one wear Jewels but the Emperor, the Empress and their Eldest Son; notwithstanding that they had an infinite quantity both of Gold and precious Stones in that World; for they had larger extents of Gold, then our Arabian Sands; their precious Stones were Rocks, and their Diamonds of several Colours; they used no Coyn, but all their Traffick was by exchange of several Commodities.
Full text.

Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014). A gentle, fluent, very cozy space opera with an ensemble cast of chirpy quasi-millennial misfits, with shades of Firefly, Star Trek, Mass Effect, Redshirts, Karen Lord, Ursula le Guin, and Naomi Mitchison.

Here's a snippet about shopping:
“I’ll take it.” Kizzy handed the Harmagian the soap. He took hold of it with two of his smaller tentacles, each covered in a sheath-like glove to protect his delicate skin. He zipped behind the counter and busied himself with foil and ribbon.
   “There you go, dear guest,” said the Harmagian, handing her the attractively wrapped bundle. “Just chip off a little piece of it at a time, it’ll last longer that way.”
Kizzy stuck her nose to the wrapper again. “Mmph, that smells good. Check it out, Rosemary.”
    Rosemary couldn’t help but inhale as Kizzy shoved the block of soap into her face. The scent was thickly sweet and sugary, like a cake. She imagined using it would be like bathing in a meringue.
    “That’s eight hundred sixty credits, if you please, thank you,” the Harmagian said. Kizzy stuck out her hand to Rosemary.
    “Can I have the chip?”
    Rosemary blinked, not sure if she had understood. “You want the company chip?”
    “Yeah, it’s soap,” Kizzy said. “Soap is cool, right?”
    Rosemary cleared her throat and looked down at her scrib. No, soap wasn’t cool, not fancy soap, but how could she tell Kizzy that? She had come onto Kizzy’s ship, been welcomed by Kizzy with open arms, let Kizzy buy her too many drinks, had vastly less experience than Kizzy in things like tunneling and shopping in neutral ports. But even so —
    “I’m sorry, Kizzy, but, um, we can only use the chip for common-use soap. If you want special soap, you have to get it yourself.” She felt the words come out of her mouth, and she hated them. She sounded like a killjoy.
    “But —” Kizzy started. Without a word, Sissix grabbed Kizzy’s wrist and pressed it to the merchant’s scanner. There was a corresponding chirp, indicating her account had been accepted.
    “Hey!” Kizzy said.
    “You can afford it,” Sissix said.
And here's one about getting space-mugged by pirates:
Captain Big tapped xyr chin within xyr mech suit. “If we take ten barrels, will you have enough to reach your next destination?”
    Rosemary asked Corbin the question. He nodded sullenly. “Yes, ten barrels will not be a problem,” she said.
    The conversation had gone from frightening to bizarre. The inflections that Captain Big was using didn’t have a parallel in Klip, but in Hanto, they were downright polite. She would expect to hear this kind of talk in a shop or a restaurant, not while standing at gunpoint. It was as if the Akaraks thought of her as a merchant, with the threat of violence serving as currency.
    “We will require technical supplies as well,” Captain Big said. “Our engines are in need of repair.”

Chamisso, Adelbert von. Peter Schlemihl

Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso (1814). Peter Schlemihl exchanges his shadow for the purse of Fortunatus, which produces everlasting riches. But he finds himself shunned by society and unable to marry the woman he loves. The Devil offers to return him his shadow in exchange for his soul but Schlemihl chooses to go shadowless.

Some snippets (trans. Leopold von Lowenstein-Wertheim):
"I only crave for your permission to lift up your noble shadow right here and to put it into my pocket; how I do it is my own affair. In return, and as a token of my profound gratitude to the gentleman, I will leave him to make his choice among all the treasures which I carry in my pocket. The genuine mandrake root, magic pennies, robber's ducat, the magic napkin of Roland's Knights, the gallows mandrake; but all this may not be of sufficient interest to you. I have something much better: Fortunatus' wishing cap restored as new and also a lucky purse exactly like the one he possessed."
As soon as I found myself alone in the cab, I burst into tears. It was already beginning to dawn on me that even as gold on this earth is more highly esteemed than merit and virtue, so the shadow might be more highly esteemed than gold; and that as I had previously held my conscience higher than wealth, I had now given up my shadow for the sake of gold [...]
I dismissed the driver with gold, selected the best front room and shut myself up in it immediately.
     And what do you think I did? Oh, my dear Chamisso, it makes me blush to confess it even to you. I pulled out the cursed purse from underneath my coat and in a kind of frenzy, which burned me up like a conflagration, I extracted gold from it; more and more gold, which I scattered over the floor. I trampled on it, making it tinkle and feasting my senses on its glitter and sound; I piled gold upon gold till I sank exhausted onto my luxurious bed, wallowing in a yellow flood. Thus the day went by and the evening. I did not open my door, and when night finally came, I fell asleep embedded in gold.
"It seems to me rather a weighty matter to give my soul in exchange for my shadow."
"Weighty!" he repeated after me and burst out laughing. "And what, may I ask, do you imagine your soul is? Have you ever seen it? And what do you intend doing with it once you are dead? Thank you stars that you have found a collector sufficiently interested to wish to buy, even during your lifetime, the reversion of this quantity X, this galvanic force, this polarized potential, or whatever we may like to call this illusive something.; and to be willing to pay for it with something really tangible -- your very own shadow, which will give you the hand of your sweetheart and the fulfilment of everything you want. Or would you rather hand over the innocent young girl to that despicable schemer, Mr Rascal? [...]"
"[...] But enough of this -- you possess me while you possess my gold. [...]"
Remember, my friend, while you live in the world to treasure first your shadow and then your money.

Chapman, Stepan. How Alex Became a Machine

Stepan Chapman, "How Alex Became a Machine" (1996?).

Here's a brief mention by Tobias Carroll.

Cisco, Michael. Animal Money.

Michael Cisco, Animal Money (2016).

Animal Money at the ISFDB.
Reviewed by Tobias Carroll.

De Abaitua, Matthew. If Then

Matthew De Abaitua, If Then (2015).

An algorithm called The Process makes all economic decisions (although this also means that there is no well-defined "economic" realm). It does so supposedly in pursuit of "fairness." Here is a short snippet from early in the book.
He walked the orderly line of repairmen with individual placards detailing skills offered and services required. This was residual behaviour, rendered unnecessary by the Process. Their skills and availability would be sorted algorithmically and bartered accordingly with other townspeople and their labour; that was how the Process generated the core work schedule for the town, and gave meaning to labour that had become meaningless. But the market had a role to play that was more than trade. It was a social occasion, a chance to get out, to see and be seen. The metrics of happiness required old rituals, old ways of doing things, and so time was set aside within the work schedule for the townspeople to make their own trades.

Dick, Philip K. Ubik

Philip K. Dick, Ubik (1969)

A snippet:
The door refused to open. It said, "Five cents, please." 
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. 
"I'll pay you tomorrow," he told the door. Again it remained locked tight. "What I pay you," he informed it, "is in the nature of a gratuity; I don't have to pay you." 
"I think otherwise," the door said. "Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt." 
...he found the contract. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip. 
"You discover I'm right," the door said. It sounded smug.

Doctorow, Cory. Chicken Little

Cory Doctorow, 'Chicken Little' (2010). A novella originally appearing in Gateways, ed. Elizabeth Anne Hull, an anthology inspired by Frederik Pohl, and now pretty widely available.

Leon works for Ate, a corporation whose opulent fortunes are entirely based on one previous sale, and are now looking to make their second. Nobody at Ate knows what they sold last time. It's a well-kept secret. Better than well-kept: deliberately lost, forever. They do have a general idea of the type of customer they sold it to:
The normal megarich got offered experiences [...] The people in the vat had done plenty of those things before they’d ended up in the vats. Now they were metastatic, these hyperrich, lumps of curdling meat in the pickling solution of a hundred vast machines that laboriously kept them alive amid their cancer blooms and myriad failures. Somewhere in that tangle of hoses and wires was something that was technically a person, and also technically a corporation, and, in many cases, technically a sovereign state. (p.535)

Doctorow, Cory. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003).

If you're doing an economics and science fiction reading list, this should be pretty near the top.

I talked a bit about this book and its quasi-magical reputation currency, Whuffie, in my review of Doctorow's Pirate Cinema.

The TL;DR version is: maybe it's interesting to compare Whuffie and DRM (or at least, the things DRM would imagine itself doing in the best of all possible worlds). Why quasi-magical? Nowadays it's difficult not to see Whuffie through the lens of algorithmic governmentality, Uber, platform capitalism, Peeple, etc. But it may also be worth drilling down to the conceit that underlies Whuffie: a  system that can evaluate feelings and work out exactly what they're about and the ways in which they're good or bad (hence 'reality'-based currency).

Also see this interview at the Adjacent Possible, toward the end. Also see under Paul Graham Raven below. For other exotic currencies that are perhaps made out of trust or reputation, see entries for Iain M. Banks, Karen Lord, and Michael Swanwick.


Doctorow, Cory. Makers

Cory Doctorow, Makers (2009).

Anil Menon writes in a review of Makers for Strange Horizons:

[...] His fragments on how litigation venture funding works, on how the iced-coffee cans Sammy likes to chug contain embedded CO2 canisters, on the structure of "New Work," on what the ride is about, on how roomware will change how people live together, on whether great groups are hard to put together because flaws are multiplicative while virtues are additive, etc. etc. constitute the book's brilliant mind. These fragments are not infodumps because their purpose is not to reveal essential, tedious information. They are futuristic riffs in the best tradition of speculative thinking. I think the fragments are the real reason why Doctorow wrote the book. His ability to think up these fragments is the reason people love his blog articles, the reason why Boing Boing is such a major watering hole and the reason why this book will be read, despite its literary shortcomings.  
It is unfair to criticize a book for what it does not try to be. In this case however, I will, because it points to the possibility of a new kind of writing. I think Makers would have worked better as speculative non-fiction. Ideally, speculation in a SF novel should be a means to an end, but when it becomes the end itself, then it is time to jettison the novel format. We've begun to see some early signs of such ejections. Emerging disciplines like "speculative economics" and "speculative biology" encourage speculative ideas to be worked out carefully, even elegantly, without having to invoke the clumsy paraphernalia of fiction. Is Schrödinger's "What Is Life" any less literary because it doesn't have family drama and existential angst? If an economist wants to discuss how interstellar trade would work, does she really need a space opera? If a finance theorist wishes to explore whether the theory of interest rates rules out time travel does he need to bring in a Romantic Love Interest to spoon feed us the speculation? No. Modern readers have no need of such semantic sugar. Aldous Huxley called for a fictional form that would be "a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay, a novel in which one can put all one's ideas, a novel like a hold-all." Perhaps it's possible. Speculation is independent of fiction though, and this work illustrates both positively and negatively why it's an independence worth encouraging. Sometimes the best representation of a pipe is the pipe itself.

Full review here.

Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway.

Cory Doctorow, Walkaway (2017).

Doctorow's Walkaway is a book centrally concerned with political economy. It deserves places on pretty much any reading list of economic SF, and many a list of utopian/dystopian SF, alongside classics such as Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Juliet E. McKenna offers an excellent summary in Interzone #270:
In this near-future, the rich have got much, much richer while those further down the social order desperately cling to exploitative jobs, fearful of becoming a surplus labour unit. Elites ensure this default state of affairs for the blinkered majority by controlling the only meaningful careers left: financial engineering, and politics.  
When computer access is ubiquitous, survival knowledge is free for the taking. Ultimately, people can simply walk away from a society they’re no longer invested in. So Hubert, Seth and Natalie head north into the Canadian wilderness where Limpopo and like-minded folk have set up a community where everyone can have what they want or need without even having to contribute from their own means. Limpopo isn’t the leader because there’s no such role. There is no obligation to even work for the common good unless one chooses to. 
Some are always determined to keep score. Some demand a pecking order. What happens when they turn up and try to remake this community to suit themselves? Walking away from conventional society means walking away from its protections, in a world where anyone can arm themselves with an AK-3DP gun. Conflict is the essence of drama, right? Not so much, as it turns out, when Limpopo and the others simply walk away again. 
Walkaway philosophy says the only way to win is not to play. But what if the other side insists? Well, then it’s time to change the rules of the game, more than once if you need to, and always trying to stay one move ahead.

Falk, Lee. Time Is Money

Lee Falk, 'Time Is Money' (1975). Fairly short and to the point, and online. A potential inspiration (idk) for Stephen Tolkin's The Price of Life (1987), which could very well have been an inspiration for Andrew Niccol's In Time (2011).

Compare Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘2 B R 0 2 B’ (1962): not a currency exactly, but an exchange relation. Also compare the Days currency in Terry Pratchett's Strata (1975), and the Oubliette's currency in Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief (2011). Also compare real-life LETS currencies and the Economy of Hours, which can in principle use demurrage (naturally dwindling value) to encourage circulation. None of them have yet adopted the idea of killing you if you run out.


Gladstone, Max. The Craft Sequence

Series notable in particular for its soulstuff economy. Some excerpts from a Reddit AMA on

Excerpt from the excerpts:
Mundanername: Most of the wealth we see in the novels comes from complex investment schemes. If creative action grows the soul does that mean some occupations in the world do not just pay the workers a salary but the very act of performing the job generates wealth for the workers? 
MG: Depends—most employment contracts are structured so that added value goes to the Concern. It’d be a very special (and possibly doomed) Concern that didn’t work this way.  
Mundanername: Do people actually spend themselves to death in this world? 
MG: Yep. Though “death” is a bit of a misnomer—most of the time what happens is people spend themselves into zombiehood, and end up shambling about at the mercy of their creditors (depending on the structure of the debt). If they accumulate enough soulstuff by the terms of their contract they can come back to life, but apperception’s broken, and the psychological damage lasts a long time. Crafty folk are “better” at expending their soul—they can straight up spend themselves to dust if they’re not careful.
See also a post by Max Gladstone about writing Last First Snow.

Goder, Beth. 'How to Identify an Alien Shark'

Beth Goder, 'How to Identify an Alien Shark' (2018)

A short, shark shock. Read it at Fireside Fiction. In the background there appears to be a satire of the use of structural adjustment programmes, and neoliberal economics in general, as an instrument of imperialism and colonialism.

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years

David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). Not strictly speculative fiction, but a representative of all that "the truth is stranger (albeit less rigorously extrapolated) than fiction" anthropology out there.

Jo Walton remarks in her review ("The Best Science Fiction Ideas in Any Non-Fiction Ever: David Graeber's Debt: The First Five Thousand Years") that a problem with writing SF 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." Cory Doctorow says he found it thought-provoking but frustrating, and names it in the acknowledgements to Walkaway. Charles Stross draws the epigraph of Neptune's Brood from it.

Graeber's book is also a great reminder that many well-known facts (such as the fact that  money was invented as an improvement over barter, solving the double coincidence of wants problem) are liable to reveal themselves as rather wild and far-fetched speculative fiction. You can also check out Graeber's 2009 article for Mute which condenses a few of his book's major arguments. And also see Graeber's On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, which talks about something that several speculative fiction writers have noticed (Douglas Adams is one of them).

Still the best book about money I've read.


Heinlein, Robert A. Farnham's Freehold

Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold (1964). This somewhat-relevant post originally appeared on the main Aargh blog.
"Every once in a while you find yourself in a lifeboat where a single stupid move can kill everyone. But a science fiction writer whose story’s boundary extends to the boat’s gunwales, and no further – not to the poleconomy that convinced a nation to build backyard bunkers rather than rising up en masse against Mutually Assured Destruction, say – is a science fiction writer who has considered the car and the movie and invented the drive-in without ever thinking about the sexual revolution or the database-nation [...] Every time someone tells you that the environment is important, sure, but we can’t afford to take a bite out of the economy to mitigate global warming, ask yourself what’s out of the frame on this cold equation. [...] Every time someone tells you that the environment is important, sure, but we can’t afford to take a bite out of the economy to mitigate global warming, ask yourself what’s out of the frame on this cold equation."
Cory Doctorow at Locus Online on Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold and Tom Godwin and John W. Campbell's classic of hard science fiction, "The Cold Equations."
"Ender's Game is effectively a series of literary thought experiments designed to generate a particular moral outcome: each act plunges Ender into a savage new environment that can only be mastered with a clear mind and a cold heart."
Jonathan McCalmont at VideoVista on "The Cold Equations" and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. (And a note on his blog).

Two great articles, which also feed my sense that hard science fiction can still be a useful normative idea, not just a sort of historical and descriptive one -- but that it would need a little updating. And perhaps that update would have to do with the rigor with which you select what is and isn't in your narrative, not just the rigor with which you work with whatever is in your story?

Instead of Ender's Game, watch Starship Troopers:

Also see this bit from my review of Doctorow's Pirate Cinema:
I’ve also grumbled a bit about realism too. But literary realism always has twin obligations – (a) correspondence and (b) contradiction. It’s not enough to reflect reality. Realism needs also to be able to fight whatever is suppressing the self-evidence of that reality. It has to energetically contradict falsehood -- that could mean false representation, seductive cliche, distraction, and even the “intrinsically” wearisome or finnicky or bathetic nature of some topic or other. On these counts, Pirate Cinema scores highly. 
Or to put it crudely: you may lose a couple of Realism Points if you plump for a streamlined, fabulist London replete with intuitively laid-out resource nodes for the merry runaway. "What fun." #quote But you will gain many hatfuls of Realism Points when you give weight in your writing to what has weight in the world. When ynou give mimesis priority over imitatio, you could say. By my somewhat eccentric standard of realism, Pirate Cinema is an unusually realistic book.
PS:  Just found a great essay by Farah Mendlesohn which also talks about "The Cold Equations," & about Iain M. Banks, singularities, etc.; coins full science fiction, and feels like it has a far more supple conceptual vocabulary for what often gets construed as axioms (the "one tooth fairy" of even hard SF), and extrapolative worldbuilding, not least because it (a) brings in a sense of the interdisciplinary but not totalising knowledge which underpin the legitimacy of SF extrapolation; and (b) doesn't kind of hypostasise extrapolative worldbuilding as something which happens prior to and/or separate from worldtelling -- i.e., the start of the story.

I also like the note to the editor. A peek behind the scenes!
Yet the question-narrative of the sf tale can be enormously powerful. The basic question of the sf narrative is “What if….?” It can be about engineering: what if you need to build a railway on a planet which has miniature volcanoes erupting every couple of hundred yards? It can be philosophical: what happens if you introduce Christianity to a culture with no belief in original sin? Or introduce Christianity to three species who already share a trinitarian symbiosis and in which the death of one member of the trinity is supposed to lead to the suicide of the other two? Or wonder how five intelligent species stranded on a single planet might get on? Or it can question the impact of new physics on social relations, “What happens if a quantum event opens up a new universe on your doorstep, and the things coming through are doing strange things to your society and your body?” In each case, there is an assumption, not that human beings can fix anything, but that the relationship between humanity and the universe is that between engineer and environment. It is a fierce, dialectical relationship and it is conducted through a four-note strategy that I have (impertinently) called Full Sf.  
This strategy can be summed up as: Dissonance, Rupture, Resolution, Consequence. (this is an indented statement so it is set apart. Centre it please?)
PPS: What would fantasies egregiously loaded to demonstrate the rightness of dogmatic versions of other co-ordinates on the political compass look like? (Don't say West Wing).

Hopkinson, Nalo. Brown Girl in the Ring.

Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring (1998). Entry at ISFDB. Nalo Hopkinson's entry at SFE.

Review by Dan Hartland at Strange Horizons.

Hopkinson, Nalo. Money Tree

Nalo Hopkinson, "Money Tree" (1997), collected in Skin Folk (2002).  "In Jamaica it was the other way around; the costly refined sugar was for guests, and the everyday brown sugar was cheap. Mummy would have been horrified at how expensive Demerara sugar was in Toronto." An unsettling, layered little allegory about value, liquidity, inheritance and family resemblance. There is the relievingly straightforward nugget of allegory if you want it: some people love money more than anything, even life. But though that's definitely there, I think it might have been plopped there for the sake of the twisting, Ovidian ripples it radiates, filled with glimpsables. For other money trees, see Douglas Adams, Adam Roberts, and Clifford D. Simak.


Jemisin, N.K. The Fifth Season.

There is economics woven into Jemisin's worldbuilding, although perhaps what's more interesting is the allegorical exploration of cycles and stability, social, economic, and ecological.

The hereditary "use-castes" also offer a somewhat usefully estranging division of labour. It is not always precisely clear whether an attribution is a whole use-caste, or rather a specialism within a use-caste. For example, Strongback, Resistant, Breeder, Innovator, and Leadership are definitely use-castes (the first four mentioned as being among the seven most common), but I'm a bit less sure about Hunter, Knapper, Geomest, and Geneer, and even Guardian and Orogene. Here's

"Those who distinguish themselves may be permitted to bear their mother’s use-caste at comm-naming" -- this is open to interpretation. Is it perhaps describing a limited form of social mobility, whereby by default every child is of their father's caste, but those who demonstrate potential in their mother's caste may switch?

The Broken Earth sequence shows resonance with and/or the influence of political theory around the state of the exception (Agamben, Schmitt, Mouffe, etc.). There are also strong (neo-)Malthussian currents running through it.

Review at Strange Horizons. A few scattered notes at Argh.


Kriss, Sam. Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space

Sam Kriss, "Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space" (2015). I first came across this via the recommendation of Ethan Robinson, who's always worth perking your ears to. Maybe it was raised expectations, but I came away a little disappointed: it felt like it participated in a tradition of dialectic, perhaps aporetic, analysis and polemic, but instead of taking me to several unlikely and contradictory places, it ended up just reiterating (albeit forcefully and hilariously) a well-rehearsed argument about Space Exploration, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

But that's okay. And there are good bits! One of its more intriguing moves is creating a vision of paradoxical life-in-death not via a zoom-in to concrete particulars (as you might expect from work in this tradition), but via a zoom-out to a grand scale on which all human experience slips below the threshold of materiality, in the audit and accountancy sense of materiality, and simply gets rounded down to zero. The core proposal is obviously worth serious consideration. I am fairly certain that calls to abolish gravity are around a century old now (although admittedly I am unable to locate the quotation I am thinking of), why haven't such ideas got off the ground? Maybe a properly dialectical approach would be to twin abolition with projection; in which case, what should we replace space with? Another possibility is not to abolish outer space but to take revenge on it. Story online at The New Inquiry. 

Elsewhere: Kriss is an excellent essayist. Some of his other writing.


Le Guin, Ursula. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)Le Guin's fairly brilliant imagining of a well-established revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist society. Demonstrates why it makes sense to save your hardest criticisms for your own prescriptions. Books like these are really carrying the whole SFF team.

There has been a huge amount written about it, and because of it. And for now at least I won't try to add anything to that.


Levine, David D. Tk'tk'tk

David D. Levine, Tk'tk'tk (2005).

David D. Levine’s Hugo-winning short story ‘Tk’tk’tk’ focuses on the tribulations of Walker, an interstellar salesman, as he struggles to understand local market conditions.

Walker trips up over a variety of linguistic and cultural caltrops. He does not realise that the deepest and darkest room in the hotel is the most desirable and expensive (duh). He falls for the extrastellar equivalent of downing a local liquor he really can’t handle (more literally, his shoulders are sprinkled with strange green rings, but the principle is the same, and even the chanting “Rings, dance! Rings, dance!” (p. 170) faintly echoes a frattish ‘Drink! Drink! Drink!’). He has difficulty distinguishing high and low denomination currency boluses, since figures are written in fragrances (p.162). Numbers have qualitative associations he is frequently forgets: one buyer is mortified at the idea of paying seventy for an item, but will happily pay seventy-three (p.162). Potential customers profess themselves, with elaborate humility, to be unworthy to take ownership of Walker’s exalted merchandise, calling it “beyond price” (p.161). They do hint at the possibility of compensating him for an “indefinite loan” (p.173, cf. p. 161), but seem to prefer endless, aimless, chinwagging (“did you come through Pthshksthpt or by way of Sthktpth” (p.163)) to talking turkey.

Detail by detail, Levine conjures an amusing and convincingly exotic setting, and only a heartless reader would blame Walker for his bewilderment. Nonetheless, at bottom, Walker’s experiences are just exaggerated versions of what a naive and insensitive late C20th North American (or "Westerner," maybe) might encounter, trying to hock their merch in Asia and East Asia, and perhaps particularly, in Japan.

That is: compared to Walker, the aliens belong to what the anthropologist Edward T. Hall influentially described as a “high-context culture” (Beyond Culture, 1976), in which comparatively greater emphasis is placed on implicature, supported by shared context and experience. Walker’s frustration with meandering chit-chat – what he at best justify as “building rapport” (p.163) – recalls the reactions of some North Americans to a more informal style of decision-making common in Japanese organisations. That is, a style which exhibits a more flexible understanding of what might constitute ‘on-topic’ and ‘off-topic’ conversation, and which closely links the legitimacy of decisions to the social intimacy which has led up to them (cf. e.g. Haru Yamada Snr., Different Games, Different Rules, pp.55-59).

We must be wary of stereotyping, of course -- I'm pretty sure that golfing and drinking is part of work for London City bankers, every bit as much as it is for Tokyo salarymen -- but the broad distinctions are there, at least in the Business Studies and Linguistics literature. And in light of these connections, Walker’s eventual spiritual transformation, which sees him reforming his earlier striving attitudes, is not particularly difficult to understand – he is simply one more tourist-turned-Western Buddhist. Which is still good.

Is the story colonialist, orientalist? When I first wrote this post, I pussyfooted around the question a bit, because I like the story -- and also because I also think I need to try to take an author seriously when they tell me that somebody is a giant alien insect, or an orc, or whatever: and not simply unscramble the story in some way which suits me, and then critique the cleartext as if the ciphertext had never existed. But. The use of insect and swarm imagery, in the depiction of an inscrutable, indirect and exotic people? A people whose ways are a little more collectivist than our narrator's, and who offer him a mystical path to self-transcendence? This is definitely horrible territory.

Should no more pussyfooting. Levine should have used squidbears. And/or France.

This was originally part of a blog post that was also about Cory Doctorow's 'Chicken Little.' The two stories are both about making sales, and they both appear in Hartwell and Hayden's 21st Century Science Fiction anthology.