100 sf

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Vonnegut 2081

One of Vonnegut’s most famous short stories, and one of my favorite short stories period, is “Harrison Bergeron.” In HB, society has achieved equality for all...by force and by lowering people’s capabilities to the most basic level possible (the only way to achieve true “equality” in skill). The agile and strong are weighted down. The intelligent have buzzing noises forced in their ears. Those with excellent vision are given lenses to distort it. And so on. The piece can be found in many collections, including Welcome to the Monkey House. So go read it!

Vonnegut first tested out the idea of equal disability in The Sirens of Titan through his description of some believers in the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent:

Everyone wore handicaps of some sort. Most handicaps were of an obvious sort—sashweights, bags of shot, old furnace grates—meant to hamper physical advantages. But there were, among Redwine’s parishioners, several true believers who had chose handicaps of a subtler and more telling kind.

There were women who had received by dint of dumb luck the terrific advantage of beauty. They had annihilated that unfair advantage with frumpish clothes, bad posture, chewing gum, and a ghoulish use of cosmetics.

One old man, whose only advantage was excellent eyesight, had spoiled that eyesight by wearing his wife’s spectacles.

A dark young man, whose lithe, predaceous sex appeal could not be spoiled by bad clothes and bad manners, had handicapped himself with a wife who was nauseated by sex.

The dark young man’s wife, who had reason to be vain about her Phi Beta Kappa key, had handicapped herself with a husband who read nothing but comic books.

Redwine’s congregation was not unique. It wasn’t especially fanatical. There were literally billions of happily self-handicapped people on Earth.

His idea was then used as inspiration for the 1995 film Harrison Bergeron. Now, in my humble opinion, many attempts at adapting Vonnegut’s material to film have been greatly flawed. I would include the 1995 Sean-Astin-vehicle Harrison Bergeron in that category. Nonetheless, there’s a new production based on Vonnegut’s famous work in the works. This one is called 2081. And I gotta say, in all fairness, the trailer looks kind of intriguing. (Gulp!)

Labels: , , , ,

#31: The Sirens of Titan (1959) by Kurt Vonnegut

“I guess somebody up there likes me.”---Malachi Constant

“As far as I’m concerned, the Universe is a junk yard, with everything in it overpriced. I am through poking around in the junk heaps, looking for bargains. Every so-called bargain has been connected by fine wires to a dynamite bouquet.”---Malachi Constant

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody.”---Beatrice Rumfoord

The Sirens of Titan takes place between World War II and the Third Great Depression, during a time when “inward space had not yet been explored” and the famously wealthy Malachi Constant might be the luckiest person in the world. Also famously rich at this time is Winston Rumfoord, who, along with his dog Kazak, is stuck in a chrono-synclastic infundibulum--what Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) described as a meeting point of contradicting truths, a place where those truths can exist simultaneously. Being stuck there causes Rumfoord and Kazak to materialize on Earth every fifty-nine days predictably. It also affords Rumfoord the ability to see into the past, present, and future simultaneously--a skill that he both abuses and uses for good on occasion.

Rumfoord is a complex man. He has a relatively loveless marriage with his wife Beatrice--particularly so since his chrono-synclastic infundibulum problem came about--and his best friend is an intelligent machine named Salo from the planet Tralfamadore, who is stuck on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, waiting for a replacement part for his broken down space vessel. Rumfoord is deceitful, charismatic, honest, caring, and vengeful. But you don’t really find out when he’s been which until the end of the novel. Huzzah!

TSOT begins with Rumfoord inviting Malachi Constant to visit him during one of his materializations. At the meeting, Rumfoord prophesizes that Constant will marry Rumfoord’s wife Beatrice, have a son with her named Chrono, and will live on the planet Mars. Both Beatrice, who learns of the prophecies herself, and Constant try to do everything possible to make these things not come true. This, of course, only brings them to fruition.

In the second section of the narrative, we follow a dimwitted private named “Unk” in the Martian Army. Unk, like most of the soldiers in the army, is controlled by a small antenna implanted in his head, which makes even the drumbeat of a military march infectiously demanding of action.

Rented a tent, a tent, a tent;
Rented a tent, a tent, a tent.
Rented a tent!
Rented a tent!
Rented a, rented a tent.

These antennas are key to the Martian design for war with Earth. But not for Unk. Someone has other plans for him. It turns out that Unk is to be an important figure in a new, but quickly growing religion on Earth called “The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.” This religion also has much to do with Malachi Constant and Winston Rumfoord.

While only Vonnegut’s second novel, TSOT establishes several themes and characteristics of Vonnegut’s writing: his informal style, his quippy narration, and his overwhelmingly sad love of humanity. But TSOT particularly wrestles with the concept of free will, from Unk’s antenna to Rumfoord’s foresight to the mission Salo was executing for Tralfamadore when he was stranded on Titan. Since Rumfoord can see into the future and the past, can he change it? When he reveals the future to others, can they change it? More importantly, does any of it really matter? I mean, would knowing that life is predetermined stop you from living it? But what if that predetermination is actually controlled by someone? Well, so it goes.

As long as there are young people, Vonnegut’s writing will never go out of print. So it is with The Sirens of Titan.

PS Rest in Peace, Mr. Vonnegut. You will always be one of my favorite writers.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

#30: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

“But there was in that time a man whose name was Leibowitz, who, in his youth like the holy Augustine, had loved the wisdom of the world more than the wisdom of God. But now seeing that great knowledge, while good, had not saved the world, he turned in penance to the Lord.”

“If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.”

Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is basically three interconnected novellas that jump six hundred years in time between each story. The constants between the three are a Catholic monastic order called the Albertian Order of St. Leibowitz (well, sort of--Leibowitz isn’t actually canonized until the end of section one), a “Wandering Jew” character, the theme of cyclical history, and the tension between church and state. ACFL is Miller’s only novel...again, sort of. He did work for years on a sequel to ACFL called Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, but he committed suicide before finishing it. That book is in publication, however, because Terry Bisson completed the novel for him. I still haven’t read it. Anyone else?

The philosophical undercurrent of ACFL is that there are cyclical patterns in human society. The novel begins six hundred years after a massive nuclear war, which is referred to as the “Flame Deluge.” Human society has returned to a period akin to the early Middle Ages. Most knowledge has been lost or forgotten, in part because of a violent rebellion against learning and the learned in the period of “Simplification” that followed near nuclear annihilation. Scientists were lynched, books were burned, and the Catholic Church became a refuge to those persecuted. One of those refugees was an engineer named I.E. Leibowitz, a Jewish scientist who converted to the religion after the “Flame Deluge.” Leibowitz went on to start his own order, named in part for Albertus Magnus, a 13th-century saint associated with science. Leibowitz’s Order took to smuggling books (“booklegging”) and hiding them in the desert. Others in the Order put books to memory (a la Fahrenheit 451) or copied them. Leibowitz himself was martyred for the cause. And now six hundred years later, books are still being copied and knowledge is still being preserved by this Order at an abbey located in the desert. Among these monastics is a sympathetic, if not all that bright, character named Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, who unwittingly discovers the cache of a lifetime...a store of Leibowitz’s writings, as well as mechanical blueprints, in a fallout shelter revealed to him by a Jewish pilgrim (perhaps Leibowitz himself?). A lengthy period of authentification follows, and Francis finds himself a key player in the safety of the documents.

Six hundred years later, in section two, a Renaissance period is unfolding, and the Order is still a major center of knowledge. But now the secular world has turned to the Order for its holdings. In particular, a well-connected scholar named Thon Taddeo comes to the Leibowitz abbey to examine the documents Brother Francis found and discern their wealth. This situation does not come without its tension and repercussions for scientific and societal advancement.

And finally, after another six hundred years has passed, section three takes place in a time when the world has advanced to the point of interstellar travel, and off-Earth colonies have been formed. But a Cold War is in place, and the tension between humanity’s two superpowers, the Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy, is beginning to escalate. The Church begins to make plans for the worst-case scenario by assembling a team of capable believers, clergy, and monastics that will take a microfilm copy of “the Memorabilia” (the collection of writings and documents from St. Francis’ find) safely off planet.

While clearly a positive portrayal of the Catholic Church (and it’s unusual for sf literature from this time being positive about religion at all), there are few moments of outright apologism in the book. Though perhaps the most blatant comes in the third section when the Abbot of the Leibowitz abbey physically advances the belief that euthanasia for nuclear fallout victims is abominable. And as for myself, I find the suggestion that the Catholic Church is a vessel of scientific knowledge--whether in the future or the real past of the Middle Ages and Western Renaissance--more complex than Miller portrays in this novel. Nonetheless, this is one of the great books of speculative fiction--I believe this is the fourth time I’ve read it--and it deserves to be read by everyone. Everyone! So get to it.

Should be in print for a long, long time to come.

PS There's a couple of good guides to the Latin found in the book. Here's one.

Labels: , , , ,