Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Book #110: Breakfast of Champions

I’ve loved Kurt Vonnegut for years, even though I’d only read Slaughterhouse-Five. But now I’ve read Breakfast of Champions, and I can say that I love Kurt Vonnegut for something other than Slaughterhouse-Five.

Breakfast of Champions is one of Vonnegut’s later works. He describes it as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. In some ways it feels a bit thrown-together. Things don’t always fit together nicely, often story ideas or concepts are laid out and half-written and left hanging with the words “and so on. . .” Don’t think this is a bad thing, though. Somehow it feels natural that Vonnegut should do this.

Breakfast of Champions is very hard to describe. Two characters drive the novel. One is Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy businessman and entrepreneur in the midwestern Midland City. Dwayne, we learn within the first page or so of the book, comes unhinged and goes crazy after reading a story by the famed science fiction reader Kilgore Trout.

Trout is the other driving force of the novel – he’s been featured in several other Vonnegut novels as well. In Breakfast of Champions we see him old and destitute. He’s written prolifically but has not been recognized, until he gets invited to Midland City to be the keynote speaker at a festival.

If there is a defined plot to Breakfast of Champions, you could say that it’s the events leading up to when Trout and Dwayne meet, and the moment not long after that Dwayne goes crazy and attacks people after Trout’s story makes him think that he is the only human in the world and everyone else is a robot programmed to interact with him.

However, this “plot” is thin and muddied. While the book traces Trout’s journey and hints at Dwayne’s mental state the whole way through, Vonnegut often diverges into summarizing plots of Kilgore Trout stories – this is where most random plot outlines are done and left with “and so on…” or drawing pictures – the book is filled with illustrations – and describing and commenting on the world.

It’s a little bit like if you were reading a twisted and political children’s history book. For example, after mentioning Vietnam, Vonnegut writes, “Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.” He also describes the European settlers as sea pirates:

“1492. The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.

[. . .]

The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.”

Vonnegut often steps out of the narrative to explain things like this. It’s weird, but you like it and it makes you think about the world differently.

Then, of course, Vonnegut inserts himself, as the writer, into the story. He interacts with his characters and Trout eventually becomes suspicious that he’s not like the rest of the people in the world of the novel.

Overall, Breakfast of Champions is beautifully all over the place. At one point Vonnegut writes, “Let others bring order to chaos, I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.” The book is a chaotic, semi-organized hodge-podge of themes and ideas that are loosely held together. I feel like it’s something that only Vonnegut can get away with, because the writing is so good and he’s just Vonnegut. It’s what he does.

Breakfast of Champions is filled with lots of pithy sayings, clever turns of phrase, and poignant passages. The end made me tear up. I enjoyed it.

Rating: *****

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Book #105: The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul

One of my favorite things about reading Douglas Adams is trying to explain it to other people. One night my dad and I were both reading and, probably inspired by my giggling over The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul from the love seat, he asked what my book was about.

“Thor is taking this girl to Valhalla to challenge Odin to a fight, because Odin made him count all the rocks in Scotland.”

“…that’s probably a metaphor for some deep thought, though, right?” he asked.

“Nope,” I said gleefully, and returned to the book.

It’s hilarious to think about the different things you can try to explain to people. Throughout the evening I’d occasionally say stuff like, “Oh my god, the guy got turned into a Coke machine!” or, “He turned the fighter pilot into an eagle!” or “The sofa can’t exist in that space because of time travel!” It sounds insane, because it is.

Another thing I love about Adams is the way he plays with language and turns sentences on their head. Dirk views the world in such a unique way, and you can tell by the way he thinks of things and says things. Immediately upon hearing about an “act of god” that destroyed an airport, Dirk wonders which god is responsible for this “act of god.” Things like that make me giddy.

I also appreciated this quote, which is a good example of how Adams can play with language in such a fun way:

“Let us think the unthinkable. Let us do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable, and see if we might eff it after all!”

Hilarious.

As a whole I didn’t enjoy The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul quite as much as Dirk Gently, however. It’s still Douglas Adams, so it’s still a zany romp through time, space, and dimensions. The pacing was just a bit off in this one, however. The crazy plots built and built, and then they were resolved a bit too quickly, which left me a tad unsatisfied. I was left happy, but also wanting more.

Douglas Adams is still Douglas Adams, however, and I still adored this book.

Rating: *****
Up Next: The Girls of Slender Means

Book #98: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Wow. Wow, wow, WOW.

I’m not entirely sure what I just read. My overwhelming first impression is Arthur C. Clarke > Isaac Asimov. By like ten billion. WOW.

Believe it or not, I haven’t seen the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and while I’ve picked up a bit on the general story just from existing in the world and hearing pop culture references, I didn’t really know too much about it. All I’d really heard about was that HAL went crazy and tried to take over the ship and that then the end was mind-blowing and no one really understood it.

I sort of thought that HAL was really the only plot. And I figured that the ending of the book couldn’t possibly be hard to understand. After all, words are easier to understand than when movies get all artsy and abstract. Unless, of course, you’re reading Ulysses, in which case nevermind. But I digress.

To be honest, I’ve written and rewritten this post several times over the course of about four days. I’d love to say more about 2001, but I’m just having trouble processing it and finding anything to say about it. It was so crazy and I’m not quite sure what happened at the end. I want to talk about it but I dont’ know how to put it into words.

This book was just so different from what I was expecting. The whole thing was also so well-done and so well-written and well-executed and just so different from anything I’ve ever read before that I’m still processing and trying to react to it. I think I might need to read it at least one more time to try and make sense of it. I also want to read the sequels, too.

I guess this is all I’m really going to say about 2001 for now, because whenever I try to think about it or formulate anything resembling an intelligent, coherent thought about it, my brain turns to mush. I will say that this is going to be one of those books I keep going back to and re-reading. I’m also definitely going to watch the movie. Someday I will figure it out.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Embers

Book #96: The War of the Worlds

This group is really heavy on the H.G. Wells, and the science fiction in general (I just finished 2001: A Space Odyssey). I’m told that The War of the Worlds is really the book that started the whole science fiction, alien invaders genre. I suppose we maybe should thank him for it? I’m not usually a huge fan of this type of sci-fi. I’m much more into the stories where humans actually get to go to outer space and travel around.

I’d never read The War of the Worlds before, but I knew quite a bit about it. I saw that weird movie adaptation they made a few years back. You know, the one that should really have been called “The War of the Worlds, or Dakota Fanning Screaming.” I also knew all about how they tried to make it into a radio drama and people freaked out because they thought it was actually happening. I knew the general story: Martians invade and wreak havoc and destruction because the people of Earth don’t have the technology or knowledge to fend them off.

I didn’t realize that that was sort of all the book was. I thought that was the general plot but that there’d be more to it. Except there wasn’t, really. It was actually surprisingly technical. The narrator describes everything relatively calmly and clinically, like he’s writing for some sort of science journal about what happened. There’s surprisingly little emotion to it.

I’m glad I read The War of the Worlds, I suppose, but I think I liked The Time Machine much better. It seemed less clinical or detached. Also, I tend to like time travel more than space invaders if given the choice.

Rating: **
Up Next: The Pit and the Pendulum

Book #92: The Time Machine

I read The Time Machine I was in sixth grade. All I remembered of it was that he went to the future and there was this girl thing called Weena and she died. My memory was pretty accurate, I guess.

If there’s anyone out there who somehow doesn’t know, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is the original science fiction time traveling story. You’re welcome, Doctor Who fans. Basically, during the Victorian Era, this crazy scientist dude builds a time machine and is all excited to go to the future and see how awesome everything is. He gets there and finds out that humans have essentially evolved to be unrecognizable. There are two distinct groups – the pudgy, friendly Eloi, descended from the genteel, leisure class, and the dark and ominous Morlocks, who live underground and at one time worked the factories and machines that kept life on the surface going.

While 11-year-old me got the basic plot of The Time Machine, she totally missed the social commentary. I suppose that’s to be expected though. It’s not like I knew a ton about the social order of Industrial Revolution-era England. I’ve re-read several books now that I read when I was younger, but this is the first time that I’ve really been shocked at how much I really missed when I read them the first time around.

There is a clear, “Um, this utopia we think we’re working towards with all these machines is not going to work out very well in the end” vibe here. That, I suppose, is nothing that modern readers aren’t used to now. I did think it’s interesting that Wells wrote an almost evolutionary divide between the working class and the leisure class. The Morlocks are literally a different, darker, and more dangerous thing than the Eloi. And at this point, the Eloi have become useless and the Morlocks dangerous and able to literally feed on the Eloi – the tables have totally turned.

Interesting to think about, even today. I can’t say I’m surprised that I missed out on this aspect of the book when I was a kid, I guess it just goes to show that maybe you should re-read the “classics” you read when you were way younger; you never know what you’ll discover this time around.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Devil and Miss Prym

Book #84: The Glass Bead Game

Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was a really interesting read.

It’s written as an academic retelling of the life of Joseph Knecht, the greatest master of a purely academic society’s greatest achievement – the Glass Bead Game. The plot is almost as hard to describe as the society and Game it involves.

In the future, society has been divided into two classes – the academic-minded who devote their lives to learning and philosophy, and the ‘laypeople’ involved in politics, medicine, and the rest of society. The division is reminiscent of the monastic societies of medieval Europe. Gifted children are chosen at a young age to enter these special schools in Castalia, the academic society.

Joseph Knecht is was a peasant boy who was very gifted in music who entered Castalia and wound up working his way through the strictly regimented learning regime up the strict hierarchical ladder to become Magister Ludi – Master of the Glass Bead Game – the highest rank in Castalia.

The Game is, essentially an exercise in thought and philosophy which tries to synthesize all human learning into one game. The game mirrors the early abacuses used by mathematicians. Everything is boiled down to beads and symbols – an idea, generally philosophical or musical in theme, is introduced as the opening problem to the Game. Then players, using the beads in some undescribed way, state associations and variations on the opening theme, much like musicians alter the main theme of music in compositions.

The rules and mechanics of the Game are never explained throughout the novel, only the Game’s importance in bringing nuance, delicacy, and beauty to the forefront of thought during the annual tournament of the Glass Bead Game that brings together players from all over Castalia.

The story is told in the form of Knecht’s biography. Hesse never loses the academic tone, which fits nicely with the intense, isolating academia that permeates Castalia. It’s hard even to write about the Game and plot of the book without lapsing into the academic vernacular I was used to in college.

This, actually, is part of the point of the book. I got the sense throughout The Glass Bead Game that Hesse was mocking the academic world. In his analysis of a life and the importance placed on the Game and learning as an almost monastic pursuit, rejecting worldly pleasures in favor of strict learning and hierarchy, there is something almost mocking in the tone. Knecht’s life could be (and is!) a great story. But something is lost, a little, with the academic tone. It doesn’t read like an awesome dystopian novel, but instead like a cumbersome biography.

For some people, I think, this could take away from the book. However, I didn’t think so. I enjoyed it and thought it was a bit of a clever commentary on academia, and it was interesting to read this cool story through the academic lens.

Rating: *****
Up Next: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Book #70: The Island of Doctor Moreau

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. I knew it would be science-fictiony, but I wasn’t prepared for brutal genetic mutation and human experimentation.

It was definitely creepier than I expected, and much closer to something that could happen in real life than I typically prefer my creepy science fiction to be. A shipwrecked Edward Prendick winds up being rescued and brought to an island inhabited by Doctors Montgomery and Moreau.

Doctor Moreau is a vivisectionist trying to form animals into humans, complete with coherent thoughts and humanlike features. He has been largely successful, except for one thing – he can’t stop the half-men he’s created from reverting back to their natural, beastly state, no matter how hard he tries. Some will become “civilized” for a short amount of time, even able to speak and communicate, before reverting.

The island is a scary in-between place, with creatures struggling to remain men and men struggling to control and manipulate the creatures they have created. The pseudo-society on the island places Moreau as a malevolent god, ready to shoot any beasts who break his strict rules and revert back to their natural states, breaking with civilization.

The “civilized” society on the island is in a constant state of near-collapse; at any point, something could break, and all the Beast Folk, as they’re called, could revert to their animal state and overrun the island.

In a way, The Island of Doctor Moreau reminds me a little of a creepier, more unreal Lord of the Flies. In both, you can have a society that can easily degenerate into anarchy, with humans throwing off the mores of civilization and becoming like animals. The civilizations in both of these books ultimately do fall apart. The difference is that in Moreau, it’s animals becoming animals again. The trouble is that in the middle, those animals looked an awful lot like men.

For the scientific-minded, Wells’ book can call into question many moral questions about genetic manipulation, as well as the nature of humanity and science’s impact on society.

Rating: ****

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