Review: Mousunderstanding by Carl Frederick

A while back I had a conversation with a friend about Bitcoin. She was convinced that it couldn’t have any value because it was a made up currency. Her words, not mine. So I asked her a simple question, why do dollars have any value. She tried a few different answers, but settled on because the government says it does. Which I still argue is just as made up as bitcoin. Beyond that though she argued that we should be on the gold standard because, as everyone knows gold is one of the most valuable things there are and so long as you can trade in your currency for gold it will always have value. The problem with that is one that ”Mousunderstanding” by Carl Frederick explores and cuts down to size pretty effectively.

The story of “Mousunderstanding” is that a small island nation on another world has decided to begin trading with humans from Terra. After noticing that the frames of the pictures they will trade are solid gold the traders from two different countries rush to the planet to begin negotiations. While they are talking the cultural liaison of one of those groups explores the city and learns about their culture.

The culture is based, largely accurately I think, on India’s culture. One of the main things being that they are entirely nonviolent,  so much so that they do not even kill flies and have people sweep in front of them so they don’t accidentally step on an insect. They also have a different thought the value of money. In part they have modeled their economy on that of India when it used cows as a symbol of wealth, except in their case they used mice. The reason for this choice isn’t explored all that carefully in the story, but I assume it’s because they were easier to import and breed, taking up less room than the cows.

Where the problem comes in is that at some point the enemies of the state brought in and began to breed cats and since the people are nonviolent, they can’t do anything about the cats but let them be as they devastate their mouse based economy.

Having watched Star Wars I could have been convinced that trade negotiations was the death of all joy in any narrative, but “Mousunderstanding” makes the discussion of economics and trading interesting while asking a simple question. Why is a mouse-based economy any more strange than basing an economy on a useless metal? In fact, why isn’t the mouse-based economy better. People have a natural source of economic growth and it’s hard to counterfeit a mouse. In fact, the only real issue is that people think one makes sense and that the other doesn’t but as bitcoin has proven there are plenty of people who can learn to accept a currency so long as it appears to have value.

“Mousunderstanding” by Carl Frederick is a fun and smart story that explores culture and economics in a way that is enlightening. More important, it is enjoyable to read, with enough real humor to allow you to get past the fact that it has a pun in its title. You can find it in the January 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact or you can find more on Carl Frederick at his website where you may get to learn about Crypto-Stochastic Space-Time theory, whatever that is.