New Worlds: Papers, Please

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Travel has rarely been free.

I don’t just mean the monetary costs. I mean that for nearly as long as there have been state-level societies with borders to defend, there have been efforts to control who’s allowed to travel across them and when. There’s a Biblical reference to something like a passport all the way back in the fifth century BCE; both India and China had travel controls since about the third century CE.

This isn’t surprising. There are plenty of reasons to limit and track people’s movements, from national security to economic regulation to the prevention of epidemics. Not just at borders, either: internal travel can be restricted, too. In a highly controlled society, leaving your home village or parish without proper clearance is suspicious or even criminal. Enforcing that requires a certain amount of bureaucracy, which not every land has had the capacity or will to implement — but it’s an obstacle often overlooked by quest fantasies that take their cues from Tolkien or Dungeons and Dragons. You can’t always roam at will, looking for adventure.

Permits can take a number of forms. Informally, they might just be letters from authority figures saying “do me a favor and let this person pass through.” Like modern visas, these tended to be issued by local officials, granting an outsider permission to enter or move around. A passport, by contrast, is issued by the traveler’s home officials — though the term “passport” in its original form was applied to something more like a visa, and literally allowed you to “pass the porte,” i.e. the gate. As government apparatus got more complex, those informal letters became standardized documents, which might record things like the appearance of the bearer (to prevent them from being handed off to other people), certification that the bearer has paid necessary taxes or fees, or a list of the places the traveler has visited or is permitted to visit.

Of course these documents don’t mean much if someone doesn’t inspect them. That might be the responsibility of gate guards, or travelers might be required to report in at local offices along their journey; magistrates or other officials might have the right to stop any outsider and demand to see their papers. The more authoritarian the society, the more widespread the latter becomes — and the more severe the penalties for those who disobey. The game Papers, Please dramatizes this to all-too-vivid effect.

How do they know who’s an outsider? It depends on the situation. Obviously in a mostly homogenous culture, any differences of physical appearance (skin color, hair color, features, clothing) or behavior (language, food, religious habits) will draw attention. And in a small enough community, it doesn’t matter how well you blend in; you can’t overcome the fact that everybody there knows everybody else, and a stranger is going to stick out like a sore thumb. In larger and more diverse communities, like cities, officials are more likely to focus on people who cause problems, meaning that outsiders can slide under the radar more easily if they keep quiet. But even there, people in a given neighborhood are more likely to know one another; the places where that isn’t true, because there are a large number of travelers and transients, are also more likely to see regular inspections of papers.

Then and now, governments tend to give the side-eye to people who are too mobile. They want you to have a fixed residence so they can record you and tax you and track you down when needed. Slipping through that net incurs suspicion — what are you running from? What are you trying to hide? It’s a feedback loop; if being transient makes you a questionable person, you’re going to have a harder time acquiring respectable work, which increases the chance that you’ll have to turn to petty (or not so petty) crime, which puts you even further outside the bounds of society.

But what of people whose whole culture is nomadic? In ages past this sometimes referred to pastoral cultures, i.e. those based on herding, which necessitates regular relocation to fresh pastures. Sedentary societies have generally considered those people “barbarians” and traveling through their lands a dangerous proposition, because there wasn’t the same kind of settled bureaucracy to grant official permission for passage. Even if the first band waves you along, the second one might disagree.

Most of the time, though, what people mean when they bring this up is an ethnic group like the Romani. There’s a profound misconception here, which is that wandering is just something inherent to them and their culture — they’re free spirits, preferring a romantic life on the road to the dull routine of stationary life.

To the extent that such people prefer not to settle down, it’s because they know they’re all too often the first scapegoat blamed whenever anything goes wrong. Being able to pull up stakes and move on at the drop of a hat is a defensive adaptation. But in many cases it isn’t even a choice: the lands they move through forbid them to stop in one place for more than a certain amount of time, or forbid them stopping at all. Or they’re allowed to settle for a time . . . until something goes wrong, at which point the locals turn on them as the cause of every woe.

Because outsiders have always been liminal figures, and therefore seen as dangerous. We see this around the world and throughout time: in times of crisis, people want someone to blame, and it’s psychologically easier to blame strangers and minorities than the neighbor who’s like yourself. In Europe, this has often meant Romani and/or Jews, though bigotry of that kind has also turned against other targets. On the level of individual targets rather than communities, it might be the wandering beggar, the merchant, anybody who’s intruding from without. And if those are a source of danger, then of course it’s in society’s best interests to control and limit that as much as possible, right?

It can be hard to grasp how deep that mindset used to run — and still does, in other parts of the world. We haven’t shaken off bigotry by any means . . . but especially in the United States, where it’s common for people to move to other cities or states during the course of their lives, where you can live for years on a street or in an apartment complex and not know the names of your neighbors, we don’t realize how tightly-woven the fabric of a community can be, and how “foreign” somebody from the next village over can seem. These days, we’re used to being surrounded by strangers. That hasn’t always been the case.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean everyone everywhere has always been xenophobic and suspicious of anybody they don’t recognize. Hospitality is also a major force in people’s behavior. But that’s a topic for a future essay.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Papers, Please — 11 Comments

  1. During the first wave of settlement of the west coast of what is now the U.S. anyone going to Oregon (in 1825 the borders were Alaska to California, the crest of the Rockies to the Pacific ocean) the earliest cross country travelers, usually missionaries and fur trappers, needed a passport to travel from the Mississippi to Oregon because they passed through Indian Territory. In other words the vast unknown akin to “Here there be dragons.” This included the first wagon train in 1843. By the end of the Civil War (there was nothing civil about it) the U. S. claimed all those lands and the need for a passport no longer required.

    • I wasn’t aware of that! It surprises me a little only because “the vast unknown” usually doesn’t get that kind of bureaucracy applied to it — that implies some kind of acknowledgment of the sovereignty or self-governance of the intervening territory that I just assumed the U.S. never bothered with where the tribes were concerned. (But then, my knowledge of history declines the closer you get to the present.)

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  3. The game Papers, Please dramatizes this to all-too-vivid effect.

    I had no idea this game existed. I appear to have a bristlingly negative reaction to thought of playing it. I think it is because all of my family stories are about being the people who needed the papers to get through, not the people who checked or stamped or chose who to turn away.

    • As I understand it, the effect of the game is to not to valorize the people who process the papers: instead it’s to show exactly how problematic that whole process is, and to repeatedly hit the player with scenarios where they have to consciously decide whether they’re going to be a compassionate human being (which carries consequences for them and their families) or a bureaucratic cog (which carries consequences for these strangers at the gate).

      Which doesn’t mean the negative reaction isn’t justified, of course. I don’t actually want to play Papers, Please, because it sounds crushingly depressing to me. But there’s a category of game design these days that’s about confronting crushingly depressing stuff, and for some people, that seems to be very effective.

      • But there’s a category of game design these days that’s about confronting crushingly depressing stuff, and for some people, that seems to be very effective.

        I’m not offended that it exists! I understand that games are, like other modes of narrative, an effective way of exploring ideas. It was just notable to me how absolutely wow, nope, thanks my reaction was.

  4. Don’t forget, either, that large swathes of people were never going to get “travel papers” of any kind… because they were property. Usually, that meant “tied to the land” — the stereotypical serf, in all varieties, let alone outright slaves. But it wasn’t just the countryside; pre-Industrial Era apprentices were also unable to travel without their Master’s presence (or, on occasion, just written approval — but that was restricted to just a few guilds, and mostly Hansa if I recall correctly).

    Of course, there’s also the greatest single exception to needing papers: Armed conflict, both offensively and defensively. Which has problems of its own for determining “who’s in the army this week, anyway?” And the less said about sailors, the better.

    • Class systems, servants and slaves, education (including apprenticeships) . . . all things on the List to Talk About Someday. 🙂 (The travel bone’s connected to the caste bone . . .)