How We Steal and How We Share: the exchange of goods vs. ideas—A recap of the legendary Fourth Street panel

[This post is a panel write-up from 4th Street Fantasy 2017. It was originally discussed by panelists Arkady Martine, Max Gladstone, John Chu, and Stella Evans, with panel leader Scott Lynch.]

The fantasy genre can make the exchange of goods seem clean and uncomplicated. This manifests as trading posts where goods have easy GP sums attached to them—exchanged without fight, ritual, or resentment—or as unlikely bartering systems highly dependent on what a character desires immediately—i.e. three chickens for a hammer. But how likely is it that a hammer-seller will desire to trade for specifically chickens?

This idea of a barter economy is a common one though it is not actually weighted in history or statistical likelihood. The inefficiency of inter-personally exchanging one specific good for another specific good means that it is much more likely that early communities had “common” properties (such as shared cattle and land) or gave their wares freely in a gift economy in which people gave each other goods by necessity (You need turnips? Take one of mine) with the assumption that when the giver was in need of something later, the taker would then reciprocate.

The Myth of the Barter Economy by Ilana E. Strauss goes into this further, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to pursue alternative routes of economic theory in their fantasies (and other genre fiction).

I also recommend this article by Elise Bungo regarding economics in Science Fiction and Fantasy
I am really into economics in SFF—can you tell?

Continuing on: It seems plausible that a community of individuals might trade assorted ground roots freely among themselves, but what about items of higher value? What about cattle? What about first-born sons? What about knives with small gods attached? And what happens when this community attempts trade with another community?

Enter Knife Town and Embroidery Town. These conceptual towns explain how trade might be much more complicated than exchanging leather for GP in a videogame-style trading post. Knife Town is a village that specializes in knives. Embroidery Town specializes in embroidery. We’re pretty up front about this.

No matter what the two communities trade, it’s important to remember that they’re separate, isolated, different communities. To the residents of Knife Town, the people of Embroidery Town are alien, and vice-versa—and when humans encounter something alien, the flight-or-fight response triggers.

When the flight-or-fight response triggers in a group against another, it can provoke, as Arkady Martine says, “apocalyptic violence.” To explain how trade can go horribly awry if all parties don’t keep their cool, she harkens to the meeting of Montezuma and Cortez. If not mollified (through ritual or otherwise), the alienness of one culture (Montezuma’s) can cause the other culture (that of Cortez) to fly into a rampage state in which they “kill everything and let God figure it out.”

This is why complex rituals have frequently accompanied trade between cultures. By supplying something that was known and predictable (the ritual), two or more cultures could come together and exchange goods without murdering the heck out of each other. Adding ritual to exchange may be something to consider when writing sci-fi and fantasy—adding ritual to any stressful scenario may be something to consider.

Let’s get back to turnips. We’ve discussed the exchange of goods, but what about the exchange of ideas? Can people exchange ideas as freely as turnips? Or are ideas more like cattle? First-born children? Knives with small gods attached?

To explore this, we will go deeper into the example of Knife Town and Embroidery Town. Embroidery is a highly skilled specialization of trade, which means that for there to be such specialized embroiderers, there must first be many others in Embroidery Town who do the survival things like food acquisition, shelter construction, and village defense.

So let’s say that Knife Town has an army of fifteen expert knife-wielders, but Embroidery Town has an army of three hundred. True, Embroidery Town might only wield scarves as their weapons—they might not be as great fighters as those from Knife Town, but they out-number them monumentally.

Let’s say that Embroidery Town has a larger army and they want some of Knife-Town’s knives. But Knife Town doesn’t want to trade because their knives are misused and misunderstood by the people of Embroidery Town.

Regardless, in exchange, the threat of force lessens the viability of choice.

Arkady Martine mentioned a king, who—when faced with the possible conquer of his people—opted to hand over the autonomy of his kingdom to the conquering empire in order to retain his people’s rights to practice their specific religion. This is an example of sacrificing political autonomy for the identity of culture. A similar example also occurs in The Traitor Baru Cormorant, in which Baru is faced with the question of how much of her identity is she willing to sacrifice to save the culture of her people. In this way, Arkady likened forced exchange to a sort of culture-level sexual assault—if the culture in question feels threatened to the point of not having a choice, it’s possible that they don’t have one at all.

So the people of Knife Town might give their knives to Embroidery Town, but there might be long-lasting resentment regarding it, if force was used to deprive them of their choice.

Years later, Knife Town is a part of the Embroidery Empire. But how do its citizens fare? When writing conquered and subjugated peoples in fantasy and science-fiction, it may be helpful to consider what varying levels of citizenship and upward mobility people of different heritage have. Would someone of Knife Town ethnicity have the same level of economic and social mobility as her Embroidery Town counterparts? Perhaps it is much harder for a member of former Knife Town to succeed.

So back to those knives—do you remember that they had small gods attached? The Knife Town members, living in Embroidery Town, are trying to keep their culture alive and trying to bring the Truth of Knives into the common sphere. But because Embroidery Town appropriated the knives and conquered Knife town, Embroidery’s cultural systems are the ones that wield control. To bring the Truth of Knives (the small gods attached) to the Embroidery Empire at large, a Knife girl would have to follow the rules and systems of Embroidery culture in order to rise in the ranks high enough to spread her message. Like in The Traitor Baru Cormorant, she would have to work within the system to bring the system down. And, notably, it is rarely a single member of a society doing this sort of work—it is often a group or collaborative effort.

So that’s a lot to think about when dealing with inter-cultural exchange. I thought this was probably the best panel of Fourth Street, because it went into so many anthropological questions. That's why I wrote it up—as a reminder for myself and as a recap for friends who weren’t able to attend. Addressing the issues of culture, trade, and hierarchy in conquered societies that the panel brought up, theoretically, should make story worlds deeper and more realistic.

Some questions to ask while writing:

  • How do cultures trade domestically? —Inter-culturally?
  • How does their system of money work, if any?
  • Do they ever provide goods and services for a delayed or hypothetical payoff, as in a gift economy?
  • Do they have any rituals interwoven in the trading process?
  • Are there items they would not trade due to societal taboos?
  • Are there leverages, or forces, that would cause them to trade these untradables (small gods)?
  • What is the community willing to risk in order to trade?
  • How much of its identity is it willing to lose in order to survive?
  • If it is a conquered culture, which elements of the conquering culture do they resent most?
  • How do they have to assimilate to survive?
  • What levels of citizenship exist within the societies?
  • Do all citizens have the same level of societal mobility?
  • Is it taboo to demonstrate elements of the conquered culture such as traditional food, dress, or language?
  • How far will individuals and groups go to protect their cultural identity