Or: God Bless You, Mr. Musk
This is a question I keep asking myself: what would Kurt Vonnegut think of Bitcoin? Would he prefer Ethereum? Would he see the humor in Dogecoin? Would he invest in any of it?
This raises another question: should I be asking this question? Does anyone care what Kurt Vonnegut would say about cryptocurrency?
I ask this question for two primary reasons: Kurt Vonnegut often wrote about the future, and Kurt Vonnegut often wrote about money. Cryptocurrency combines these two things.
In particular, there’s one Vonnegut moment that I am constantly reminded of. A moment from the early chapters of Breakfast of Champions.
That novel, if you haven’t read it, has many chapters written in a faux ethnographic style, including referencing Christopher Columbus as a “sea pirate” and the national anthem as “balderdash.” He also describes pornography in this section, immediately before tackling currency with this sentence:
There was also a madness about a soft, weak metal, an element, which had somehow been declared the most desirable of all elements, which was gold.-Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
This sentence, this brief moment in one of my favorite novels, often comes back to me. I had never thought very hard about gold until the first time I read Breakfast of Champions. I read it in high school and immediately started to wonder why gold was considered valuable. I have never found an answer to that other than the very simple answer: gold is valuable because it is perceived as having value. The same answer Vonnegut provided. Value derived from the madness. Value derived from the desire.
The parallels are obvious. I don’t know that I need to overstate them. Cryptocurrency, whatever exactly it is, is valued because it is perceived as having value. It’s surrounded by mania, madness, obsession, speculation. It’s gold if gold were something unseen, held in our minds and our devices.
And what of the other things Vonnegut said about currency?
Then I think about the other things Vonnegut said about money. Like this line from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:
“The Money River, where the wealth of the nation flows… We can slurp from that mighty river to our hearts’ content. And we can even take slurping lessons, so we can slurp more efficiently.”
Or this one:
“Why throw money at problems? That is what money is for. Should the nation’s wealth be redistributed? It has been and continues to be redistributed to a few people in a manner strikingly unhelpful.”
A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.
Or, back to Breakfast of Champions, that ethnographic satire, in which he says this about the disenfranchised Americans who seek answers from their government:
“If they studied their paper money for clues as to what their country was all about, they found, among a lot of other baroque trash, a picture of a truncated pyramid with a radiant eye on top of it…”
So how does this tie back into crypto?
What does all of this have to do with Bitcoin? With Dogecoin? With Ethereum, Litecoin, Chainlink and Tron? It’s that I often wonder if we live in a world conjured up by Kurt Vonnegut. He told tales of suicide parlors, ethical birth control, becoming unstuck in time. Of men flinging themselves like stones into the universe.
He also wrote about loneliness, sadness, depression, and suicide. Themes that many humans started experiencing on a deeper level than ever in this pandemic era.
He wrote about materialism—something that, as far as I can tell, was a sin in his era but has stopped being one in ours.
He wrote about truth and the nature of it. In Mother Night, the protagonist is an American Nazi, or a Nazi posing as an America, or a Nazi posing as an American posing as a Nazi.
Is Elon Musk Your Favorite Vonnegut Character?
He also wrote about confused and wealthy men who chase quixotic dreams, chief among them Eliot Rosewater and Malachi Constant. And this is what makes the entire cryptocurrency scenario so fully something Vonnegut would have dreamt up. Because while Vonnegut gave us Constant and Rosewater and Rumfoord and Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, our universe gave us Elon Musk.
(This seems like a good moment to also mention that the character Adam Moonborn in my novel The Moonborn also owes a great deal to both real life figures like Elon Musk and Kurt Vonnegut’s various fictional characters.)
Elon Musk, the richest man on Earth. Consider him alongside Malachi Constant, the protagonist of The Sirens of Titan—who, in that novel, is the richest man in North America and finds himself flung into space on a confusing quest.
Consider the impact his words and behavior have on this imagined cryptocurrency. The rises and falls, spurred by the words he writes about the value of this imagined coin.
Musk has some Howard Campbell, Jr. in him too, particularly in his unclear, seemingly satirical endorsements of the arguably even-more-ficticious-than-Bitcoin-cryptocurrency Dogecoin. Vonnegut told us, in Mother Night, that the story of Howard Campbell, Jr. is the only book whose moral he knows. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Is Musk who he pretends to be? Does he know who he pretends to be?
Is this how Vonnegut would have penned this moment?
There was also a madness about Bitcoin, an imaginary, invisible currency, which had somehow been declared the most desirable of all currencies. A sum of Bitcoin is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees. This sum of Bitcoin caught the eye of Elon Musk, who dreamt of moving to Mars and bringing as many other Earthlings with him—as long as they, like him, had enough Bitcoin to pay for the voyage.
I do not suggest, as Elon Musk himself has suggested, that we live in a simulation.
But I do sometimes wonder if we live in a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
Looking for more Vonnegut? Consider What Would Kurt Vonnegut Say About the 2016 Election?