#57 – The Sirens of Titan Review – Kurt Vonnegut

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As I mentioned before in my review of Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan is probably my favorite novel that Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote. If this were my list (and I may make one someday), I would surely have this book a lot higher up, maybe even in the top 5. But since this isn’t just about my favorite books, I’ll have to settle for giving it a glowing review in the #57 spot. This book contains all of the various elements that are usually associated with Vonnegut: dark humor, wry observations, a sad-sack protagonist who is swept up in an adventure of galactic importance, discussions of free will and destiny, and nothing less than the revealing of the ultimate purpose of the entire human race. With a description like that you’d think the book was a thousand word treatise on philosophy (or something equally as boring). Instead, what we get is a brightly colored carnival ride through time, space and the solar system in which we meet a host of characters whose seemingly insignificant actions end up having an effect on the course of human civilization.

Sirens of Titan Summary: As far as Vonnegut main characters go, Malachi Constant is a bit more upwardly mobile than most. As the richest man in the 22nd century, Malachi has lived a playboy’s life due to being born into wealth and then having tremendous good fortune to turn that money into even more money. But like most wealthy gadabouts in literature, he hasn’t really done anything meaningful with his life outside of make and spend a lot of money. That soon changes when he is invited to witness the reappearance of one Winston Niles Rumfoord, a wealthy inter-planetary space explorer who came into contact with a strange phenomenon known as the chrono-synclastic infundibulum – causing him (and his dog Kazak) to appear and disappear at regular intervals on a variety of planets, including Earth. Besides being stretched as thin as a wavelength across the vastness of space, Rumfoord is also able to view the past, present and future – making him an oracle of sorts (albeit a mischievous one). While it’s not immediately apparent, Rumfoord has a very peculiar plan for Malachi which includes, in part, in being a major figure in his newly formed “Church of the God of the Utterly Indifferent”.

To give a full account of the events that follow would be an almost impossible task and would rob the book of it’s unique charm and novelty. Let’s just say that it includes a stop on Mars (where an invasion of Earth is being planned), a brief period on Mercury (where kite-like creatures known as Harmoniums live on soundwaves), a number of trips to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and the only place in the universe that Rumfoord can exist as a solid form, and even a brief description of the Vonnegut staple Tralfamadore, a planet whose residents (and one messenger in particular) are responsible for the entire course of human history.

Sirens of Titan Review: Where some might see Vonnegut’s ultimate revelation of civilization’s purpose as an absurdist slap in the face to those who want to believe in humanity’s central place in the cosmos, I tend to think of the final reveal as less important to the true aim of the book, which is to poke fun at all of the things we take too seriously in our lives – whether it’s religion, money, patriotism, beauty, or even love to some extent. Vonnegut is the eternal court jester of Science Fiction, poking fun at everyone and everything in ways that not only serve to make us laugh, but also to ponder why the things we hold sacred are even sacred at all. Although searching for meaning and order in the universe is a hobby as old as time, the rituals and stories that we come up with to make sense of it all can be as detrimental to our personal well being and spiritual evolution as the emptiness and meaninglessness that they serve to mask. Vonnegut isn’t telling us that our lives have no meaning. Instead he is trying to warn us to be skeptical about the things that we assign meaning to and the conclusions that we draw from the meanings we give them.

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August 12, 2010

#51 – The Diamond Age Summary – Neal Stephenson

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While it’s not as groundbreaking or as instantly gripping as his breakthrough novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is nevertheless a fascinating tale that melds a tender coming-of-age story to a future in which nanotechnology has altered virtually every aspect of society.

In many ways, The Diamond Age is a much more accessible book than Snow Crash. While the speculative aspects are no less astounding and inventive, they require less technical exposition and seem to have a more solid grounding in the real world (as opposed to the virtual reality of the Metaverse). In addition, the novel has a more traditional protagonist whose struggle to learn and thrive as a member of a lower class tribe (or “Phyle”) makes her almost immediately sympathetic. Throw in some subtle examinations of culture, class structure, ethnicity and education (as well as some nifty “Nano” advancements) and you have a masterful novel that careens effortlessly between being a whimsical adventure tale and a satirical take on cultural and moral relativism.

The Diamond Age Summary

The story centers around a young girl named Nell, a lower class “Thete” being raised by her single mother and protective older brother in the slums of the “Leased Territories” (a floating landmass off the coast of Asia controlled by the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis phyle).

By a twist of fate, Nell comes into possession of an interactive book called the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer – a book which turns out to have been intended for the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat. Intended to teach its owner the skills necessary to become a productive and fully realized member of “Neo-Victiorian” society, the book uses lessons and stories to help guide the reader on their journey to adulthood.

Because the book is able to respond directly to Nell’s life and environment, she becomes the heroine in the stories and the lessons are tailored specifically to her changing needs and requirements. She becomes immersed in the fantasy world of the Primer and undertakes a number of symbolic journeys and adventures that serve as life lessons towards her final goal of self-realization.

But Nell is not the only little girl who receives a copy of the primer. The book’s inventor, a nano-engineer named John Percival Hackworth, was supposed to produce just one copy of the primer for the granddaughter of a wealthy lord. In addition to the copy that falls into Nell’s hand, Hackworth also secretly produces a copy for his daughter Fiona – a crime that causes his eventual social downfall and exile from the New Atlantis phyle.

With three different copies of the Primer in the hands of girls from three different cultural backgrounds, Stephenson is able to look the interaction of culture, society and education and how they each play a role in shaping the attitudes and core beliefs of each individual. What is considered a desirable trait in one culture can be seen as a liability or hindrance to success in another. Since the book is set in a world in which cultural affiliations are more important than political ones, the desire to train children in the culture of their phyle is of utmost importance.

The Diamond Age Review

As is Stephenson’s style, there are also numerous subplots that surround the main action. Some of them have to do with the nanotechnology advances that populate this world (such as the Matter Compilers that are able to synthesize food but are controlled by the Neo-Victorians).

Another has to do with the way in which Nell interacts with a Mother-like character in the Primer (a role that is actually being remotely played by an actor named Miranda who comes to care for Nell and think of her as a daughter). And an even more bizarre sub-plot involves a group (or hivemind) that is able to connect subconsciously through drumming. While these digressions are interesting for a while, they unfortunately take the focus off of the more compelling main story.

To me, Stephenson seems like someone with such an abundance of ideas that he often tries to stuff too many of them into each novel. I would have liked a bit more of Nell and a little less of the random plot threads and diversions from the main storyline. But hey, with so much great stuff in this book it’s hard to complain about a few half baked ideas making their way in as well. Overall, The Diamond Age is well worth reading.

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August 17, 2010

#37 – Cat’s Cradle Summary – Kurt Vonnegut

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Cat’s Cradle is the second Kurt Vonnegut novel on this list and, although I personally would have put The Siren’s of Titan (#57) ahead of this one, I can still see why this book is so highly regarded and is often thought of as one of his best novels. Vonnegut is known for taking on issues of social importance in a humorous and satirical way, and this book is no exception.

The target this time is modern science and the way in which it exists almost as a game for scientists to play, irregardless of the devastating outcomes that their discoveries can have. Through the use of a fictional atomic scientist and a well-meaning but catastrophic invention, Vonnegut is able to show us the irony of a situation in which science tries to improve the quality of life for mankind, yet ultimately helps bring about its destruction.

Cat’s Cradle Summary

The aforementioned scientist is one Felix Hoenikker, preeminent physicist and co-creator of the atomic bomb. The narrator of the book is a man named John who has been researching Hoenikker as part of a book on the bombing of Hiroshima. Although Hoenikker is now dead, John comes into contact with his children while doing research from the book and learns a great deal about the reclusive scientist, including the rumored existence of a substance called “Ice-9” which has the ability to rearrange the molecular structure of water so that it is solid at room temperature.

Originally developed for the military in order to help soldiers navigate easier over muddy terrain, it also has the side affect of converting every drop of water it comes into contact with into this new solid state – something that could have tragic consequences for the world’s water supply. To make matters even more complicated, Hoenikker left the substance to his children (Frank, Angela and Newt) after his death, after which they each traded their shares of the substance away for their own personal gain.

Eventually John, as well as the Hoenikker children (in separate circumstances), find themselves on the poor island nation of San Lorenzo under the watchful eye of the ailing dictator “Papa” Monzano. The residents of the island all practice a peculiar form of religion called Bokononism – characterized by cynical (almost nihilistic) observations about god and life in general (as well as a ritual in which people place the soles of their feet together in order to achieve inner harmony and communion).

It is eventually revealed that Bokononism was originally invented by the island’s previous rulers as a way to control the populace and keep peace in the country. While the practice of Bokononism is officially outlawed in the country, it is also explained that this is merely a way to add the religion an added aura of danger and mystique.

Cat’s Cradle Review

As usual, Vonnegut brings his unique sense of humor and absurdity to the proceedings, making for a deliciously whacked out exploration of the foibles of scientific progress in the modern age. And while he roots his story in the real life fears of the atomic age (the book was published at a time in which the threat of nuclear war was all too real), he also provides a more sinister (and seemingly innocuous) threat to mankind in the form of the substance Ice-9.

In Vonnegut’s mind, it is not only the creation and the existence of the substance that dooms mankind to total destruction, it is the disregard that its creator had for the inevitable consequences that his actions would have – as well as the selfish nature of those entrusted to protect it. Although Vonnegut’s humor livens the story up somewhat, this is ultimately a supremely pessimistic book about the inevitability of mankind’s eventual self-sabotage.

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August 24, 2010

#23 – Slaughterhouse Five Review – Kurt Vonnegut

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I should probably be clear about this from the very start: Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers of all time and Slaughterhouse Five is probably the best book he’s ever written in my humble opinion – and if that clouds my review in any way, well…so it goes. Blending equal amounts humor, history and absurdist fantasy, the book amounts to nothing less than a treatise on free will, the nature of the universe and the inevitability of human conflict. It is thought provoking, side-splittingly funny and eminently readable, while also being an unflinching look at one of the most horrific tragedies of the 20th century. Not many authors can juggle this many themes and topics together in one book (all while using a non-linear narrative), but Vonnegut is definitely one who can. Now that I think about it, Slaughterhouse-Five is probably the first book to get me interested in Science Fiction – and to make me realize that events in a novel don’t necessarily have to be realistic to make profound statements about the realities of the human condition.

Slaughterhouse-Five Summary: Slaughterhouse-Five (or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death) recounts various moments in the life of Billy Pilgrim, a reluctant soldier during World War II. As I mentioned before, the novel is told in a non-linear fashion, meaning that the narrative skips around to various moments in Billy’s life out of chronological order. Vonnegut describes him as being “unstuck in time,” uncertain as to which moment in his life he will be “re-living” next. During the course of the novel, we see Billy as a German prisoner being held in a slaughterhouse in the city of Dresden (during the Bombing of Dresden), as a captive of an alien race from the planet Tralfamadore who exhibit him as part of their zoo along with a porn actress, as a married man in post-war America, and even during his death. The totality of his experiences, along with a revelation by the Tralfamadorians about the 4 dimensional nature of the universe, eventually leads Billy to accept the predetermined nature of his own life (and that of a humanity that believes foolishly in free-will). While the book may be consider an “Anti-War” novel, it could just as easily be classified as an “Inevitability of War” book, as Billy’s reaction to some of the novels most disturbing revelations about death and the nature of mortality is the oft-repeated phrase…so it goes.

The pivotal event in the novel is the now-infamous firebombing of the city of Dresden by the British Royal Air Force in 1945. Vonnegut himself was actually a German prisoner of war during the bombing and was forced to help dispose of the bodies after the attack was over. The profound meaninglessness of the bombing in the overall scheme of the war along with the astronomically high number of civilian casualties had a profound affect on him, and the reality of that experience can be felt distinctly throughout the book. It is inevitable that Billy Pilgrim is often seen as an extension of Vonnegut himself, even though the voice of “Vonnegut” the narrator also makes brief appearances at various points in the novel. One of his other alter-egos, struggling Science Fiction writer Kilgore Trout, also makes a cameo, along with a few other characters that would become or had been characters in other of his novels, including Howard W. Campbell, Jr. and Eliot Rosewater.

Slaughterhouse-Five Review: While Slaughterhouse-Five is often accused of being “Fatalistic” and that Vonnegut seems resigned to the atrocities of man as pre-determined and inevitable (as well as being frequently censored due to its “obscene” content and irreverence when talking about issues that are often cloaked in solemnity and reverence), it is also one of the best examples of how post-modern novelists often try to examine the absurdity of our search for meaning and transcendence in the face of such blatant assaults on our notions of decency and human compassion. To me, Vonnegut isn’t telling us that war is a fact of life that we should just accept. Instead, he is showing us the ways in which we attempt to rationalize and normalize these experiences so as not to be overcome by their inherent meaninglessness. And the fact that he is able to do this while at the same time being a ruthlessly funny and compelling storyteller is a testament to his ability as a writer and social satirist. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, whether you are a fan of Science Fiction or not.

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September 8, 2010

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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While the genre of Science Fiction isn’t particularly known for its sense of humor, the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams is a prime example of how the format’s unique characteristics can be used for humorous effect.

With droll British humor and an absurdist streak to match anyone in the Galaxy, Adams is able to bring us a thrilling adventure through time and space that not only provides some genuine chuckles (maybe even guffaws) along the way, but also presents us with an awe inspiring picture of the universe (as well as an Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything).

Hitchhiker’s Guide Summary

Following the adventures of Arthur Dent as he tries to survive (and comprehend) the strange vastness of the universe after Earth is unceremoniously destroyed to make way for an interstellar expressway, the first novel in the series also introduces the reader to a motley cast of characters, including Ford Prefect (a humanoid looking alien who accompanies Arthur on most of his travels), Tricia McMillan (Arthur’s love interest and a fellow earthling who was also able to escape Earth’s destruction), Zaphod Beeblebrox (the two-headed President of the Galaxy) and the super computer Deep Thought (who is tasked with discovering the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life).

While the first book deals primarily with Dent accompanying Zaphod and the others on a quest to find the legendary planet of Magrathea, subsequent books (and plays, movies and comic books) help to expand the universe even further.

Hitchhiker’s Guide Review

Although most fans probably identify the series most closely with the 6 main books, the Guide originally started off as a comedy radio series that was broadcast by the BBC, the first parts of which eventually became the novel. That makes sense, as the book does have a slightly episodic feel to it. Besides the books and

radio series, it has also been adapted as a series of comic books, a TV series, a computer game, and even a 2005 movie starring Martin Freeman.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the book (and even the sequel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe), I couldn’t seem to muster up the energy or enthusiasm to keep going any further. Maybe I just got a little tired of the increasingly fantastical, tongue in cheek nature of the plot and characters. Maybe I just have a hard time appreciating British humor (wait, that can’t be it…Red Dwarf is one of my favorite shows of all time). Either way, if you’re a fan of science fiction or humor or absurdist farce, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a must read. Just remember two things: Don’t forget your towel…..and Don’t Panic!

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Quotes

“This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”

“In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy | The Restaurant at the End of the Universe | Life, The Universe and Everything | Mostly Harmless

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September 27, 2010

#71 The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Review – Philip K Dick

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Very few science fiction writers have the ability to merge so many different themes and ideas together in a single novel as Philip K Dick. With its exploration of drug addiction, precognition, marketing, enhanced evolution, religious belief and the nature of reality, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is one of the most striking examples of Dick’s restless ingenuity and unparalleled imagination. With a novel so stuffed to the brim with complex ontological questions and spiritual provocations, you’d expect it to be a tough read. But in reality, Dick is able to keep the action brisk, the characters intriguing and the implications mind-boggling, all while infusing the entire thing with an unsettling mix of illusion and fantasy.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Summary

Set in a near future in which mankind has colonized most of the planets and moons of our solar system (mainly by the use of forced conscripts unlucky enough to have been selected in a lottery), a drug called Can-D is widely used by the exiled colonists in order to escape reality and experience a brief but hyper-realistic simulation of their previous lives on earth. Using a manufactured physical “Layout” as a vessel for their hallucinations (produced by Earth based P.P. Layouts, Inc.), users of Can-D are “translated” into the bodies of Barbie like dolls and allowed live and play in an idealized version of Earth – albeit for a short amount of time. The process of translation takes on religious overtones as well – with some of the colonists believing that this idealized world that they are transported to is actually real and that they are having a genuine spiritual experience.

Not only does P.P. Layouts control most of the market for the Layouts (as well as the illegal supply of Can-D that the colonists use), they also design and sell accessories for the layouts in order to make them seem even more realistic (i.e. dishwashers, ceramic pots, etc.). In order to gain an advantage over other accessory manufacturers, they employ a team of pre-cog marketers to look into the future to determine which products will be the most successful. However, their virtual monopoly over the illusory lives of the colonists is put in jeopardy by the return of the explorer Palmer Eldritch from a decades long trip to the Proxima system.

Leo Bulero, head of P.P. Layouts, rightly suspects that Eldritch has brought back a new type of Hallucinogen from the Proxima system that will rival Can-D and effectively put him out of business. Marketed under the slogan “God promises eternal life, We can deliver it,” Eldritch’s new drug (Chew-Z) is frighteningly powerful – especially since it seems as if Eldritch maintains some sort of control over the environment and experiences of those under the influence. With the approval of the U.N., Eldritch is poised to set up a distribution network for the drug in order to start muscling in on the “Translation” drug trade. In a last ditch effort to save his business, Bulero hires his former top precog marketer, Barney Mayerson (now a colonist on Mars), to serve as a double agent in order to question the safety of Chew-Z. Instead, Barney is pulled even further into the fantasy worlds of both men, leading to an ultimate confrontation in which the very nature of individual reality and existence comes into question.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Review

Once you get past the sheer brilliance of the initial setup, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the masterful way that Dick weaves the story in and out of the various levels of reality and hallucinatory states. The idea that the only salvation that these exiled colonists can achieve is through a drug that projects them onto someone else’s existence is both powerful and profoundly sad. And as the actions and motives of Palmer Eldritch become even more sinister (and Dick’s allusions to the suffering of Christ which the three Stigmata signify become even clearer), we are left with a disturbing picture of god-like forces at war to control the human race.

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January 14, 2011