Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review: Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut wrote his most well-known works less than two decades after George Orwell published 1984, yet the themes between Orwell's work and Cat's Cradle are very similar: the consequences of the existence of nuclear weaponry. Orwell's biggest fear was that nuclear war would pave the way for authoritarian governments to rule the world. Vonnegut's biggest fear, however, was that nuclear war would lead to the annihilation of the human race. In the face of complete devastation, what is the meaning of life? Vonnegut's characters, and perhaps even Vonnegut himself, struggles with this nihilistic attitude. They, like all of us, would like to believe life has a greater meaning.

The story is told by John, in the first person, as he attempts to write a novel titled The Day the World Ended. The novel's opening line establishes its struggle with nihilism: "Call me Jonah." This is an obvious reference to Moby-Dick's opening line, "Call me Ishmael." Except in this case, the main character isn't really named Jonah, but John, suggesting he has a desire for a name fraught with Biblical meaning instead of a common name with no meaning.

John's quest is to learn everything he can about the father of the atom bomb, Felix Hoenikker. Felix is dead, but he has left behind three children: Frank, who has disappeared; Angela, who was forced to live much of her life as a caretaker of her father; and Newt, who was born a dwarf and has artistic aspirations. John writes letters to Newt in order to learn what it was like at the Hoenikker house the day the bomb was dropped. Turns out it was just an ordinary day. John also visits Dr. Breed, Felix's supervisor, and from him learns about a mythical weapon Felix imagined called Ice-Nine. Ice-Nine would be capable of freezing all bodies of water at once, depriving the world of what it needs to sustain life. What Dr. Breed didn't know was that Felix actually did create Ice-Nine.

Just as Vonnegut makes up an alien species in Slaughterhouse-Five, he makes up a religion in Cat's Cradle. This religion is Bokononism, founded by Bokonon, whose purpose is to show that people can be made to feel good by a religion based on lies. The Book of Bokonon warns that its teachings and writings are nothing but lies, but John, much like the rest of the followers of Bokonon, glaze over that part. Bokonon teaches that all people have a karass, which is a group of people connected by some force, and that each karass is driven by two wampeters, one waxing and one waning. The supreme act of Bokononist love and peaceful meditation is to touch the naked soles of your feet to those of another person, and this is called boko-maru. Vonnegut makes up many other Bokononist words as well, and defines them, though they sound meaningless. Perhaps that's the point.

Also made up is the island of San Lorenzo, which serves as the setting for the novel's second, and most entertaining, half. San Lorenzo is where Bokonon developed Bokononism, and it's also perhaps the only place in the world the religion is simultaneously outlawed yet practiced by all the people. Most of the important action happens on San Lorenzo, as it's the place where John meets the majority of the important characters. There's Mona, daughter of San Lorenzo's president, whose beauty was a huge inspiration for John's visit. Other very interesting events occur there, but I don't want to spoil the novel.

Cat's Cradle is a book that perhaps sometime in the near future I will have to visit again. I was not too impressed by the first half of the novel. There's a lot of background story, and then John happens to randomly run into people related to those he is interested in. When he comes upon Dr. Breed's son at a graveyard, it feels too much like Vonnegut is pulling the strings rather than letting the pieces fall naturally together. Maybe a second reading will change what I think of this first half, especially because the second half is so wonderful. It's where the book truly comes to life, making me laugh and feel depressed all at once.

There is a subtle undertone of anger reverberating through the novel. Many of the characters seem angry about something. Newt is angry about his small stature, and Angela is angry about her tall, unattractive stature. Dr. Breed is angry about John's seeming inability to truly understand science. John seems angry about the mass destruction that has been carried out with the aid of advanced science. Only the Bokononists on San Lorenzo aren't angry. They seem at peace, though they also seem apathetic. Vonnegut turns some surprising events on the island into great use as satire of a people's apathy towards governmental affairs. This is sad, funny, and scary all at once.

The title itself is the biggest clue regarding the novel's nihilism. Felix Hoenikker loved to make a cat's cradle out of a piece of string, but as Newt points out in one of the novel's most passionate lines, "There is no cat. There is no cradle." The cat's cradle is just a big fib. It's name has absolutely no connection with the design it creates - so why call it the cat's cradle? Newt has grown disillusioned by the magic of the world. Perhaps that's why religion is important, even the lies of Bokononism (and the rest of them, as Vonnegut seems to be suggesting), because it keeps magic alive in people's hearts. The atom bomb may have destroyed much of this magic because it portends the end of a world that humans have spent hundreds of thousands of years surviving and making meaning out of. All of it threatens to come crashing down by a single weapon that is the product of the knowledge passed down through humanity's history. Instead, let's follow the example of Bokonon: let's remove our shoes, sit down, and press the soles of our feet together in peaceful boko-maru.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Review: 1984, by George Orwell

These days the popular dystopias are written for teenagers. With the exception of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the dystopias getting the most attention (and movie deals) are the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent. These teen stories tend to focus much more on romance issues than they do on the larger social issues. Not that romance is irrelevant in a dystopia, but what should make it compelling is how such a romance is affected, or made dangerous by, the oppressive society the people live in. The Hunger Games only takes a shallow look at this, with poor Katniss moping over whether she should show more affection to Gale or Peeta. Despite being over 60 years old, George Orwell's 1984 manages to top the teen dystopias both in terms of social criticism and romance. It offers plenty of lessons not only for modern authors jumping into the genre, but also to modern society, as technology has advanced to the point of potentially making Orwell's warnings come true.

Where Suzanne Collins chooses her heroine, Katniss Everdeen, to have extraordinary athletic ability and Legolas-like skills with a bow and arrow, George Orwell provides his hero, Winston Smith, with varicose ulcers in his ankle. Winston has spent his adult life as a member of the Outer Party in London, in the nation of Oceania, which consists of the Americas and Britain. Under the watching eyes of Big Brother, Winston, like the rest of the party members, lives under constant fear that he will be accused of harboring thoughts against Big Brother. Telescreens keep an eye on citizens even in the comfort of their own homes. Thought Police detect rebellious thoughts by reading facial expressions. People often disappear without warning. Those who remain are left in terror.

Language itself has even undergone serious changes. This language is called Newspeak. Its purpose is to make speech more efficient by cutting out unnecessary words. Why have ten ways to say something is good when one will suffice? If you think your food is excellent, you would say it is plusgood or doubleplusgood. The purpose is to prevent thoughtcrime by eradicating the vocabulary required to think against the party. As one of the party mottoes goes, "Ignorance is Strength:" it is better that citizens are stupid in order that Big Brother stay in power. And as our government continues to make cuts to education spending, one must wonder whether some of our politicians haven't adopted this motto for themselves

Winston, as is required of heroes in the genre, despises the oppressive system he lives under. Nonetheless, he sees no choice but to continue to act as a tool of Big Brother in order to stay alive. He works in the Ministry of Truth, where, instead of truth, lies are told. And, ironically, Winston enjoys his work. He rewrites history to always make Big Brother look good. If Big Brother had made a prediction that turned out to be inaccurate, it's Winston's job to rewrite old articles so Big Brother was actually right. The ability to control history is a powerful one. One can turn the tide of opinion for or against a person by erasing a mistake or creating a narrative of horror. History, really, is only what is written and what is passed down, not what really happened. Nobody can go back and prove what really happened because the past no longer exists. It can easily be changed if everyone is convinced of an alternate version. Even in our internet era of surplus information, truth and fiction can easily become mixed up.

The novel's first third sets up much of the background on the society. It establishes characters, none of whom Winston is very close to. It's dangerous to be close friends with somebody because that person could just as easily turn you in. However, the novel turns to romance after the initial introductions, exciting romance because it is dangerous. It is also an adult romance. Winston and his love interest are physically attracted to one another, and they do more than just make out. Sex for pleasure is an act of rebellion in a world where scientists are working to abolish the orgasm. The portrayals of attraction in The Hunger Games are less realistic because they remove the element of sex. In its PG-13 world, the kiss is the major payoff. Humans have a biological need to act out on sexual urges, and in times of oppression that urge can become stronger because it is repressed.

While 1984 is certainly more for adults than The Hunger Games, it is, nonetheless, still widely taught in high schools. Part of me wonders whether its inclusion in the curriculum is due to a continuing influence of anti-communist thought from the Cold War era. It has some important ideas to consider, to be sure, and is very imaginative and frightening, but at the same time it's not particularly great writing. Orwell spends large chunks of time wading through dull ideology, much of it anti-communist, particularly as we read the sections from the book of Emanuel Goldstein, the leader of the rebellion against Big Brother. If Orwell had reduced or removed a lot of these passages, the book would be vastly improved. I'm also concerned by the way the book is taught in schools. It seems less importance is placed on the ideas in the book and more on minute details. When a test question asks how old Winston and Julia are, our literature education is sadly missing the mark.

1984 truly stands out in its feeling of hopelessness. In this world created by atomic destruction, power was taken by those who most wanted to hold onto it, at any cost. There's a sense that this lone man, Winston, can do nothing against such a power as Big Brother and the Thought Police. The reader has hope, to be sure, that he can. There's a belief that he can. Our culture perceives that the hero always wins. In movies, in books, in video games, the good guy wins the day, no matter how grim the situation. That's why 1984 is so terrifying. The best hero it can come up with is a man with varicose ulcers in his vein. As it begins to hurtle towards its conclusion the terror grows greater. While I do have some misgivings about the book, I can't help but admire the way Orwell mercilessly crushes our hopes. If society does go the way of 1984 (a big "if," admittedly), there's no guarantee somebody will be able rise up and do the right thing. That's what's frightening. The heroism of the individual is merely a myth.