Classic Vonnegut still resonates

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte, 1969)

Thanks to a friend’s American Author Reading Challenge (read at least one book by a specific author in each month of 2014), I finally tackled this classic novel that has been on my shelves forever. It’s hard for me to understand how I didn’t know much about it beyond the fact that the main character was named Billy Pilgrim and the bombing of Dresden in World War II featured prominently, but so it goes. It was a surprise and a delight to discover the way Vonnegut used farcical situations and humor to illuminate some deadly serious events.

The central conceit of the novel, if that’s the right term for it, is that Billy Pilgrim has the unsettling habit of becoming “unstuck in time”, wherein he travels backwards and forwards in the timeline of his own life, experiencing and re-experiencing the things that have happened or will happen to him. Pilgrim himself is convinced that the catalyst is a race of extraterrestrials who at one point kidnap him and put him on display in a sort of human zoo on their home planet. Vonnegut leaves it to the reader to decide what they think is the real cause of the time traveling episodes. Is Pilgrim mentally ill? Did his traumatic experiences as a prisoner of war during WWII unhinge his brain? Are the Tralfmadorians real, with their non-linear understanding of what time is? Billy tries to explain their sense of time:

It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’.

It’s easy to see how such a philosophy might comfort a man who has seen unimaginable death and destruction, in the war and back home in upstate New York.

I found myself marking many passages as I read Slaughterhouse-Five and I could fill a review with them. But I’ll end with just one more quote, which though written in 1969 could as easily have been penned in some non-linear today or tomorrow:

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive truth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

So it goes.

‘The Martian’ is an out-of-this-world good read

The Martian, Andy Weir. (Random House, 2014)

This book, the story of an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars who gets left for dead when his crewmates evacuate in a crisis, has a lot of the elements that made me think for so long I didn’t like science fiction. Primarily, it has techno-babble. Lots and lots of techno-babble. And chemistry. And math (“I’ll spare you the math,” narrator Mark Watney says at one point, after having already devoted three long paragraphs to math, and just before devoting the rest of the chapter to … you guessed it, math ). And acronyms galore, from MDV and MAV to EVA and AREC.

So of course I hated it, right? Wrong! The Martian is one of the best books I’ve read this year, with a protagonist who is witty and smart and arctic chill under pressure. And he gets lots of practice being cool and unflappable, as crisis after crisis threaten to end his Mars castaway gig quicker than a barefoot jackrabbit on a hot greasy griddle in August. Even after Watney is able to make contact with NASA to let them know he isn’t dead yet, he faces a real puzzle: how can he survive four years until the rescue mission can reach him, with food that will only last for about a year?

How Watney and NASA tackle that problem, and the other half-dozen that threaten to fulfill Watney’s missed destiny as the first late great Martian, kept me turning pages right to the end. Andy Weir tells the story with breezy blasts of profane humor that will almost have you believing that being stranded on Mars wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Chaos Walking trilogy: ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’, ‘The Ask and the Answer’, ‘Monsters of Men’

      
This young-adult trilogy is set on the planet New World, where settlers from Old World (presumably Earth) headed looking for a new start after ruining their original home. The initial landing went badly, resulting in a native species of intelligent beings (known as the Spackle) being slaughtered and then subdued as slaves, all the men being infected with a virus that makes every inner thought audible to everyone (the Noise), and all the women being killed in one of the original settlements, Prentisstown.

Out of Prentisstown comes Todd, a young teen who is forced to flee when the mayor, who is plotting a war to take over the planet, turns against him. He soon meets up with young Viola, a girl who crash-landed with a scout ship from an incoming group of new settlers. Todd and Viola travel across the planet to try to warn the incoming settlers before Mayor Prentiss can start his war. Along the way, they encounter other settlers from other towns, including a renowned woman healer who sets herself up as the leader of an armed resistance to now-President Prentiss.

I thought this trilogy (plus The New World, the very slight short story that showcases Viola’s life on the scout ship just before it lands) was really well done. The writing is certainly on a young-adult level (sensible since all three novels are narrated in turns by Todd and Viola), but the themes that it tackles are far from simplistic: What is war? Is it ever OK to kill someone? Do the ends ever justify the means? Is it possible to do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Is redemption ever really possible? Time and again I braced myself for a pat answer, and time and again I was pleasantly surprised. Ness takes pains to present the good and bad sides of both heroes and villains, to the point where readers will find themselves questioning which is which.

Partway through the series, I expressed the opinion that this is a better YA trilogy than The Hunger Games. After finishing the third book, I stand by that opinion. While I enjoyed both series quite a bit, I think Ness does a better job of presenting and exploring the larger themes that lie behind the narrative.