Let me begin by saying that before last week I had not read a single word written by Kurt Vonnegut. This is strange considering how much I love science fiction, time travel and well written prose.
But after I completed reading the horrible "novel that must not be named", I was desperately browsing iBooks for something decent and came across Slaughterhouse Five. It's a short novel, maybe 250 pages, published in 1969, which means as it was being created at the typewriter of Mr. V, I was being created in the womb of Mrs. F. That seems about right.
I ate this novel like the last pastry at a big-boned convention. The structure and style were simple without being mundane. The story wove almost chaotically, yet purposefully about through time and place.
While I was fairly positive I knew the sci-fi portion of the story - time travel and aliens - was all supposed to be in the head of the main character, one Billy Pilgrim, there left a slight shadow of doubt, just enough to want to discover the truth.
I think I knew I was in a good, safe place when he used the word flibbertigibbet. And yes, that is a real word. So is golliwog. Beowulf be damned.
Now for some short observations: (If you have not read this book and plan to, you might want to stop now, although I am going to avoid the main theme, the Dresden bombing during WWII.)
ODD ALIENS (is that an oxymoron?)
There's something consistently weird regarding the aliens written about in the 60's and 70's, something absurd. Asimov does it. Clarke, Niven, Pohl, Harrison. Actually I have no idea, but it is my impression from my vague, porous memory that as I read these novelists years ago they did what Kurt did.
Check out this description: "...they were two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm." No purpose, no function, no design. Just look at what's in the corner of Vonnegut's apartment and turn that into an alien.
And these creatures speak (telepathically of course) as if they are instructors at a university, or maybe a dorm mate, or a know-it-all neighbor. Like this: "If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." Would a completely alien species evolving on another planet really talk like this? No, it would not.
AND SO IT GOES
After every mention of someone or some animal dying would come the sentence "And so it goes." I suppose this is a commentary about the inevitability and unpredictability of our own demise. I suppose. The effect of this though is one of comfort. The repetition, though morbid, soothed me and I was glad each time I read it. I wonder if that was his intention.
Written in 1969, the book predicts in one sentence that we'd be using laser rifles by 1976. Is that what Kurt actually thought or was he supporting the insanity of the character. Eight years seems like an awfully short period of time to develop death rays. But by 2,000 we were all supposed to be riding around strapped to our own personal jet packs, so I guess it's not that out of this world.
At one point Billy sees a bumper sticker that says, "Reagan for President!", twelve years before Reagan became president. He was California's governor in 1969, but isn't that fairly prophetic of him? I wonder if the popularity of this novel helped Reagan get elected.
Fifty years ago (in the story) a group was gathered to discuss whether or not the novel was a dead medium. That's reassuring because people get together now (mostly online) and have those conversations. Couldn't kill it in 50 years, maybe it'll never go away.
According to this novel, in the 60's the (fictional?) Population Reference Bureau predicted that the world's population would double to seven billion by the year 2,000. According to my online search we were at 6.06 billion at that point. Does that mean our world population growth velocity has slowed a bit? I can't help but hope.
All in all, I loved this book and despite getting to the party extremely late, I'm so glad I showed up. Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle is next, I think.