Charlie Stross: May 2021 Archives

(I need to blog more often, so here's one of hopefully a series of shorter, more frequent, opinions ...)

NOTICE (as of comment 322): the discussion is about the book, not the Verhoeven movie, which I have not seen. Stop with the movie discussion or I will start to delete comments. I run this blog for my amusement and I have zero interest in movies/TV adaptations of this novel.

Anent the "Heinlein was a fascist" accusations that are a hardy perennial on the internet, especially in discussions of Starship Troopers (the book, not the movie, which I have not seen because it's a movie): I'd like to offer a nuanced opinion.

In the 1930s, Heinlein was a soft socialist—he was considered sufficiently left wing and "unreliable" that he was not recalled for active duty in the US Navy during the second world war. After he married Virginia Gerstenfeld, his third and last wife, his views gradually shifted to the right—however he tended towards the libertarian right rather than the religious/paleoconservative right. (These distinctions do not mean in 2021 what they might have meant in 1971; today's libertarian/neo-nazi nexus has mostly emerged in the 21st century, and Heinlein was a vehement opponent of Nazism.) So the surface picture is your stereotype of a socially liberal centrist/soft leftist who moved to the right as he grew older.

But to muddy the waters, Heinlein was always happy to pick up a bonkers ideological shibboleth and run with it in his fiction. He was sufficiently flexible to write from the first person viewpoint of unreliable/misguided narrators, to juxtapose their beliefs against a background that highlighted their weaknesses, and even to end the story with the narrator—but not the reader—unaware of this.

In Starship Troopers Heinlein was again playing unreliable narrator games. On the surface, ST appears to be a war novel loosely based on WW2 ("bugs" are Nazis; "skinnies" are either Italian or Japanese Axis forces), but each element of the subtext relates to the ideological awakening of his protagonist, everyman Johnny Rico (note: not many white American SF writers would have picked a Filipino hero for a novel in the 1950s). And the moral impetus is a discussion of how to exist in a universe populated by existential threats with which peaceful coexistence is impossible. The political framework Heinlein dreamed up for his human population—voting rights as a quid pro quo for military (or civilian public) service—isn't that far from the early Roman Republic, although in Rico's eyes it's presented as something new, a post-war settlement. Heinlein, as opposed to his protagonist, is demonstrating it as a solution to how to run a polity in a state of total war without losing democratic accountability. (Even his presentation of corporal and capital punishment is consistent with the early Roman Republic as a model.) The totalizing nature of the war in ST isn't at odds with the Roman interpretation: Carthago delenda est, anyone?

It seems to me that using the Roman Republic as a model is exactly the sort of cheat that Heinlein would employ. But then Starship Troopers became the type specimen for an entire subgenre of SF, namely Military-SF. It's not that MilSF wasn't written prior to Starship Troopers: merely that ST was compellingly written by the standards of SF circa 1959. And it was published against the creeping onset of the US involvement in the Vietnam War, and the early days of the New Wave in SF, so it was wildly influential beyond its author's expectations.

The annoying right wing Heinlein Mil-SF stans that came along in later decades—mostly from the 1970s onwards—embraced Starship Troopers as an idealized fascist utopia with the permanent war of All against All that is fundamental to fascist thought. In doing so they missed the point completely. It's no accident that fascist movements from Mussolini onwards appropriated Roman iconography (such as the Fasces ): insecure imperialists often claim legitimacy by claiming they're restoring an imagined golden age of empire. Indeed, this was the common design language of the British Empire's architecture, and just about every other European imperialist program of the past millennium. By picking the Roman Republic as a model for a beleagured polity, Heinlein plugged into the underlying mythos of western imperialism. But by doing so he inadvertently obscured the moral lesson he was trying to deliver.

... And then Verhoeven came along and produced a movie that riffs off the wank fantasies of the Mil-SF stans and their barely-concealed fascist misinterpretation: famously, he claimed to have never read the book. I pass no judgement on whether Starship Troopers the move is good or bad: as I said, I haven't seen it. But movies have a cultural reach far greater than any book can hope to achieve, so that's the image of Starship Troopers that became indelibly embedded in the zeitgeist.

PS: I just want to leave you wondering: what would Starship Troopers have looked like if it had been directed by Fritz Lang, with Leni Reifenstahl in charge of the cameras?

PPS: I don't agree with Heinlein's moral framework, although I think I can see what he was getting at.

While Bitcoin was originally proposed as a currency, it has most of the attributes of a commodity bubble, including a huge halo of swindlers and scam artists working to exploit it. It's also horribly energy-inefficient and contributes to the current global semiconductor shortage, neither of which are desirable. Even worse: attempts at fixing Bitcoin mostly revolve around tweaking the "proof of work" required to add a transaction to the blockchain. Currently, BtC and relatives are computation-intensive. Other paradigms exist, including the new fad for Chiacoin, currently big in China, which is storage intensive — this is what happens when the designer of Bittorrent brings his own personal obsessions to bear on the problem of manufacturing scarcity, and if you want to upgrade your SSD or hard drive in the near future you'd better get right to it before this catches on.

(And about NFTs, the less said the better. Grift, 100% grift, and exploitation of artists as well. Oh, and it appears to be mostly used for money laundering. So fuck off and die if you own any, and especially if you thought pirating some of my work and turning it into NFTs would be a good way to milk the gullible.)

However, these aren't the only options.

It occurs to me that if you want a blockchain secured by scarcity and diminishing returns, you might consider other options that don't totally fuck our lived environment and that can't be gamed trivially by, say, running Chiacoin (the storage-space coin protocol) as part of the burn-in for new consumer grade drives your employer has you shoving in racks at Amazon S3 or maybe Arsebook. (Who totally have a first-mover advantage on that brain-damaged currency in the "phone my customer account manager at Western Digital, tell him I want another ten million terabytes of non-shingled platters" stakes.)

For example, to Elon Musk, a modest proposal:

Hork up a bunch of space probes going somewhere of interest to JPL or NASA or ESA, as both a tax write-off and an apology to the international astronomical community whose night skies you just vandalized with Starlink. Order, say, a dozen. For energy where they're going and for what's coming next they're definitely going to need RTGs, but you're not as fussy about maximum launch weight as the US government (you have Falcon Heavy and, soon, Starship to launch them with) so you can order up something running on, say, Strontium-90: it'll be heavier, but who cares. You're also going to use some of the power from it to run ion rockets for positioning and slow long-term acceleration (hint: Starlink uses ion propulsion for station keeping/reboost: presumably SpaceX have got quite a bit of experience with this tech by now).

So, you kindly donated a couple of dozen probes to Neptune, Uranus, Pluto, Eris, Makemake, Haumea, and the rest of the gang (and the dwarf planet wonks are ecstatic).

But you're not going to be using much bandwidth for sending back data, most of the time. So what to do with those radio transmitters you just kicked out at something above solar escape velocity?

Code signing, that's what you do.

Each probe has a dedicated crypto processor and a very VERY private key. It receives a constant uplink from the ground, and replies by signing and echoing back to Earth the blockchain transactions it receives. The further away from Earth it gets, the longer the delay. Also, the higher demand for the currency rises, the longer the delay to get your transaction into the queue for uplink and signing via the big dishes. You might be able to make an end run around the queue by bribing someone, but gambits based on building hardware are going to run into the wee problem that Deep Space Tracking Networks aren't off-the-shelf commodities and even if they were, you couldn't force the receding space probe to listen to your transmitter and reply (presumably the uplink is secured by the coin owner's own PKI system).

Upshot: it's a cryptocoin system with a big up-front setup cost (as in, billions), which is good (it deters low-end me-too systems), guaranteed scarcity of signing resources, and absolutely no advantage accruing to anyone buying up earthly power or material resources. So it shouldn't drive scarcity in hard disks/GPUs or unreasonable power demands. Flip side: there's a centralized chokepoint (the deep space network) that can be throttled by governments. But some might see this as an advantage ...

PS: my preferred solution to the problems created by cryptocurrencies is to treat them all like child pornography: totally illegal, possession a strict liability offense, choke off interoperability with real currencies at the credit agency/bank interchange level, and make them useless for non-criminals, at which point only criminals will bother with them. And India is going down this route. Let's hope other governments follow suit rapidly and we can say goodbye to this Trump-grade lunatical grift before it degrades our lived environment any more.

PPS: I despise libertarianism. Just in case you were wondering ...

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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in May 2021.

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