Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Sirens of Titan

A friend read my post about cult comedy books, and took me to task over listing Douglas Adams' books, which he maintains are overrated. (I personally think that good comedy can never be overrated.) But I decided to read Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan again. I hadn't read it for thirty years, and had forgotten that the book is not only ingenious and funny, it is also very moving. One of the many concepts that the novel riffs on is a universal religion for earth, known as The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. This religion puts an end to war, but a great sacrifice is made in order for it to established. (I can't tell you what the sacrifice is, but you might even cry.) The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent decrees that for people to be truly equal, it is necessary for them to limit the advantages with which they are born, since these are purely arbitrary. It is unfair that, through no fault of their own, a person is born ugly or uncoordinated. Therefore, out of consideration for the rest of humanity, beautiful people must hide their beauty and athletes must wear cumbersome weights that impede their movement, to bring themselves in line with the universal average.

Spacecraft are powered by a force known as The Universal Will to Become.  Earth has evolved in the bizarre way it has, solely to -

- I have to stop there. I really want to tell you why The Great Wall of China exists, but I can't. The book is full of moments that leave you gasping. It's perfect plotting, and it does rather put Douglas Adams in the shade. (Adams himself admitted what a huge influence Vonnegut was, and clearly much of his work has its roots in Vonnegut.) The difference with Adams is, of course, that he is funnier and more easily enjoyed, even if you don't like science fiction. For that reason, I nominated Adams' first two books as my 'cult books'. I didn't mean to do Vonnegut a disservice. The Sirens of Titan is a better work. The story it tells is remarkable, moving and also funny - just not riotously so. And the moments of sadness are so potent that I challenge you to read the book without getting the occasional lump in your throat. Vonnegut continued to write well for most of his life. He tailed off a little when he became embittered with the world, but Galapagos and Bluebeard, both published in the eighties, are definitely worth a read.

So is Cat's Cradle, one of the really early ones, and I mention it here because it is about yet another new world religion called Bokononism. This religion introduces new words into the vocabulary, to describe things that were unnamed before Bokononism. One of the many utterances of Bokononists is 'Busy busy busy ...' which is used whenever they witness the universal interconnectedness of things. This happens quite a lot. After all, we're all connected. I read the book on a flight to New York. On my first day in The Big Apple, I had a Bokononist experience. Because it was Christmas, the streets were teeming with people in a bad mood desperately trying to buy stuff for friends and relatives; things that would most likely never be used. (Did you ever visit your mum and discover in a cupboard all those unused Body Shop hampers you bought her, year after year?) Anyway, the first familiar face I saw was Kurt Vonnegut's. He wasn't anywhere special, just pacing the sidewalk and carrying bags, like everyone else. He too looked swept up in the Christmas commercial nightmare, so I refrained from interrupting him and gushing that he was one of my favourite authors. It probably would have annoyed him. I'm sure people were always stopping him and telling him that.

Still, I was happy to see him. As the Bokononists say, 'Busy, busy, busy ...'

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