Sunday, June 23, 2013

Classic military SF week

I'm presently rereading Neuromancer and came across a section in which two hackers deploy a black market military-grade cyberwarfare weapon against a corporate system.

The Chinese program was face to face with the target ice...

"How's it go, Dixie?"

"Fine. Too slick. Thing's amazing...Should'a had one that time in Singapore. Did the old Bank of New Asia for a fiftieth of what they were worth. But that's ancient history. This baby takes all the drudgery out of it. Makes you wonder what a real war would be like now..."

With all of the state-sponsored malware packages that have turned up online in recent years - Stuxnet, GhostNet, Flame, Shamoon - and reading about government hackers purchasing zero-day exploits from hackers, it feels very much like we're living in a future close to the one imagined in Neuromancer. Or at least that aspect of it. And yeah, I too am curious what a "real war" would be like nowadays with these kinds of weapons lurking out there on the Internet.

But let's not find out, please.

Starship Troopers

I also recently reread Heinlein's Starship Troopers for the first time in several years. I can see why I liked it as a kid. It's very direct and honest and it flows well.

I can also appreciate as an adult that the fictional Mobile Infantry depicted in it was very a much a product of the 1950s.

I know: Wait, what? An all powered armor forces is very 50s?

OK, not necessarily the armor, but the fighting style and deployment of the MI in the books is laid out very much along the lines of what many military thinkers at the time saw in their near future - a nuclear battlefield with highly mobile ground forces that arrived by air, were armed with both conventional and cataclysmically powerful un-conventional weapons, and that survived by staying widely dispersed and constantly on the move.

Troopers was written before scientists and military officers had figured out just how toxic nuclear weapons were and how long the fallout would stick around for. That and just how easy it might be to tip over from the use of small nukes on the battlefield to city killers in an apocalyptic spiral of escalation. As a result, both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces went more than a little crazy fielding tactical nukes during the 50s and then in the 60s. Everything from atomic artillery shells and nuclear land mines, to a nuke mortar system.

Yeah, imagine trying to lob a mortar shell far enough to stay out of the blast radius. No thanks.

It was also a time when helicopters and air assaults (infantry deployed from helicopters) were first coming into use, with the Marines having conducted the first successful vertical envelopments, landing behind North Korea troops to good effect. Even airborne parachute operations were still new and shiny at that point, with the first major drops being made just a few years earlier during World War II.

Troopers and its discontents 

There are readers who either hate Starship Troopers with a passion or who find it chilling. Particularly individuals whose first exposure to the story was the 1997 Verhoeven film that took its name but little else from the novel.

The criticisms are a mixed bag in my opinion. Charges that Starship Troopers is Fascist because only military veterans are allowed to vote in the book's Federation stem from not paying attention. Heinlein is explicit in the text that military veterans make up only a small percentage of the enfranchised, and that most citizens earn their vote through a semi-stressful two year period of civil service work. On the other hand, there is a section that implies that population pressures invariably leads to war, with the strong implication that co-existence with alien species is impossible. Which pretty much only leaves genocide. may be verified by observation that any breed which stops its own increase gets crowded out by breeds which expand. Some human populations did so, in Terran history, and other breeds--moved in and engulfed them. 

Nevertheless, let's assume that the human race manages to balance birth and death, just right to fit its own planets, and thereby becomes peaceful. What happens?

Soon (about next Wednesday) the Bugs move in, kill off this breed which "ain'ta gonna study war no more" and the universe forgets us. Which still may happen. Either we spread and wipe out the Bugs, or they spread and wipe us out...

There are some unfortunate and very close echos of Hitler's stated concept of Lebensraum in those words. I've wondered several times if Heinlein - a former socialist and newly minted libertarian - thought through that section of the book and realized the implications of what he was writing, or if the similarities to Hitler's writings and speeches were lost on him. It wouldn't have been the first time that Heinlein demanded a frighteningly drastic and final action. In one of his non-fiction essays (collected in his Expanded Universe) he called for the United States in the late 40s to immediately nuke the Soviet Union before the USSR could also develop nuclear weapons. This was premised on the idea that co-existence between two powers armed with the ability to annihilate each other at short notice was impossible.

Fortunately history proved Heinlein wrong on that and on population pressure as an inevitable driver of war. Overpopulation does contribute to conflicts, and some of the participants in the attempted Rwandan genocide during the 90s have stated that overcrowding and the struggle for resources was a trigger for the mass violence that played out there. But at the same time there are alternatives. Other means and the people who develop them, such as an American scientist during the 1950s who invented a new strain of wheat that doubled yields, sparked an agricultural revolution, ended famines in Central Asia, and fed the rest of the world for decades after. A feat that won him a much deserved Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course Heinlein, being Heinlein, was a complex individual, and went on to write the decidedly Un-Fascist Stranger in a Strange Land. Then there's the fact that several of his earlier and later works also feature benevolent world governments or transnational organizations that effectively manage to end war or at least prevent major overt wars between humans. With that in mind, I'd place the scary statements in Starship Troopers within that larger canon of Heinlein's writing when it comes to an overall interpretation of the author and his works.

Geek Note 

As a closing aside, I'm the proud owner of the original 1977 edition of the Avalon Hill Starship Troopers wargame that Heinlein authorized, complete with all its glorious and goofy 50s-style art, and a very 1970s long-haired, bell-bottomed photograph of Johnny Rico and his hippy classmates on the day of their enlistment. 

If that won't land me some hardcore nerd cred, I'm not sure what will. 

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