Wednesday, April 21, 2010

#44: Cat's Cradle, #1: Dune

Cat's Cradle:





















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“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?'
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

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“Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.” 
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“Live by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”  
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“She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative for almost all mankind.” 

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Ice-Nine! Midgets! Tropical paradises! Religion! Philosophy! Calypso music! These are just a few of the topics covered in Vonnegut's great novel, Cat's Cradle. This novel isn't really very science fiction-y, excepting only the events at its conclusion, and the sections concerning ice-nine, a substance which has the power to freeze all water on the earth whenever it touches water. (Since all the water on Earth is interconnected in some way; waterways, atmosphere, etc. if you drop ice-nine into water, that means that in a matter of weeks, all life on Earth will eventually cease to exist.)
The novel follows a pretty normal guy named Jonah, or John, as he researches the life of Felix Hoenikker, to write a book about the atomic bomb. Ice-nine is in fact a metaphor for the destruction the bomb caused. This novel deals with the atomic bomb, and the ethicality of using more and more increasingly powerful weapons in warfare. It also deals with religion, as Jonah is a Bokononist, a member of a strange religion created by a black Calypso singer. We learn much throughout the novel about the religion, and the concepts of Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons (some interesting Bokononist terminology). I won't give much away about the religion, because its pretty original and very interesting to read about.
I still can't for the life of me decide whether this, or Vonnegut's other great novel, Slaughterhouse Five is superior to the other. The story, at the beginning, follows Jonah going around interviewing people about the bomb, et cetera. He eventually journeys to the strange island nation of San Lorenzo, where the rest of the novel takes place, with Mona, his wife, and Newt Hoenikker, Felix's not-much-talked about midget son. San Lorenzo is a strange place, a Christian nation in which anyone caught practicing Bokononism will be executed...but it is eventually evident that everyone on the island is secretly a Bokononist!
Cat's Cradle is full of great philosophy and lots of weirdness. Vonnegut stresses nonviolence and peace, while also imparting cynical wisdom and doubt-filled observations on the existence of God. This strange, spacey, literary novel gives a comedic view of the world with  a tone of resigned amusement at the state of things. It's got all the trademark Vonnegut stuff, and definitely deserves its title as a classic of the 20th century. Harold Bloom even placed it above Slaughterhouse Five on his Western Canon list, and in my opinion it is on par with that novel, maybe better, although they are so hard to compare.
This is vintage Vonnegut at his best, and a must read for any fan of literature. And, any SF fans who may have missed it; it's definitely got SF elements, and is a great read that could really change the way how you see things. Bokononism teaches us to chill out, and enjoy life, but its tenants include so much more than that. I'd recommend Cat's Cradle to anybody: it is certainly an eccentric piece of literature, but it is doubtlessly an intellectual, sarcastic, hilarious, bittersweet classic. 

Dune:

___________________________________________
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” 
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“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”  
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“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong - faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it's too late.” 
______________________________________________ 
“The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.” 
________________________________________________
Here it is, the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, and the novel many fans consider to be the greatest single work of SF. Dune has spawned many sequels, a few movies, and a franchise --not to mention that both Star Wars and Star Trek have shamelessly ripped off of it (George Lucas basically changed names around from Dune, and ripped entire plots lines out of Dune to get Star Wars aspects that have been canonized as indelible parts of pop culture: Jabba the Hutt, the Jedi, the fact that the villain is secretly the Hero's father, the Force, desert planets, gigantic space-worms). It is even widely respected outside of the SF field. Take any space opera TV show you can think of --any science fiction novel of the past decade; they all have roots in Frank Herbert's 1965 masterpiece Dune.
 Dune tells the tale of a desert planet called Arrakis --a hot, arid, lifeless hellhole where it has never rained, a planet where giant 100-400 meter long sandworms devour dozens of  people at a time with ease. However, Arrakis is the only source in the universe of the priceless spice melange, which produces 300 year lifespans for the humans who eat it. Melange also makes interstellar travel possible, via Guild Navigators, who ingest so much spice that they can see into the future to guide ships through fields of stars or other space junk at faster than light speeds.
There is a lot of background knowledge that one must be aware of when reading Dune, and it can doubtlessly get confusing at times. I'd recommend a look through the encyclopedic appendices in the back for first-time readers.
In Dune, House Atreides comes to take over spice-mining operations on Arrakis, after the royal House Corrino has delegated them the task. In this feudal space empire, however, treachery is always afoot, and the House which previously ran spice-mining operations on Arrakis, House Harkonnen, has a devious plan to overthrow the Atreides. In doing so, they plan to gain more of Emperor Shaddam Corrino's favor. The novel centers around the young Atreides nobleman, Paul Atreides, a possible Kwisatz Haderach, or genetic superman, and his survival of the Harkonnen coup, and his flight into the deep desert, where he becomes a messiah for the sandworm-riding desert-dwelling Fremen. And the conclusion is nothing short of epic.
Dune is a novel which covers facets of ecology, religious fanaticism, philosophy, and so much more. It's thoughtful, interesting, and breath-takingly descriptive, and just all around a great, complete novel. This story is never short on interesting details, philosophizing, or action. A must-read for any Sci-Fi fan. If you haven't read this novel, and you're even just a fledgling SF fan, drop whatever you're reading and prepare to be engrossed. Every conversation is a battle, and every battle has dozens of implications. Herbert never gives you any reason to disbelieve that what is is writing is really weird or strange, you remain spellbound and engrossed. Sure, the writing can be a bit stilted at times, but I found that its Shakespearean dramatics made it even more enthralling. People who complain that it is slow at the beginning need to read it more carefully. There's no doubt that this is a SF masterpiece. 

#56: The Dispossessed, #29: The Caves of Steel

The Dispossessed:

____________________________________
“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.” 
______________________________________
“Change is freedom, change is life.
It's always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don't make changes, don't risk disapproval, don't upset your syndics. It's always easiest to let yourself be governed.
There's a point, around age twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.
Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I'm going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I'm going to go unbuild walls.”  

________________________________________

“The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.” 
__________________________________________
The Dispossessed is a novel of ideas. This novel, like The Left Hand of Darkness, is less focused on plot, than ideas, philosophizing, and paradoxes for the reader. Don't get me wrong, there is a plot, much more than say, Star Maker, but The Dispossessed is full of frequent intellectual discourse.
To be honest, I find this book to be very underrated. It is a hidden classic, very literary, and some scenes approach SF greatness that is only found in novels like Dune. In my opinion, it is superior to The Left Hand of Darkness, which is of course, excellent, and widely considered to be Le Guin's best novel. That novel of gender-roles is perhaps more famous and widely recognized only because of its politically correct topic.
The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is a tale of two worlds, the anarchist, socialist Anarres, and the more structured Urras. Both planets seem to be striving towards utopia, and both have fundamental problems, as well as strong points to their respective systems. Urras is a much more Earth-like planet, with countries like A-Io, Thu, and Benbili allegorical for the U.S, Russia, and Vietnam. Urras' governmental system is much more traditional and familiar than Anarres'. Anarres is a strange world in which nobody owns anything permanently, and all names are assigned by computer, and the State raises kids, rather than the parents.
It is presented in an unbiased manner , because Le Guin wants to let the reader get to their own conclusion, "Is it a utopia or a dystopia?" --in contrast to works like 1984, which obviously portrays a dystopia, or Thomas More's Utopia, which obviously displays a positive utopia (at least from More's perspective!) The book is written in a non-linear fashion, featuring many flashbacks into the life of Shevek, the protagonist, a brilliant Anarresti physicist who has come to Urras for the first time to work with their physicists to try a develop a unified theory. The stranger exploring a strange land is a theme also found in Left Hand of Darkness, and Shevek is, throughout the novel, confronted with facets of society he perceives to be alien throughout his journey on Urras. We are given flash-backs to Shevek's life, mainly to show different aspects of society in Anarres, and the cruelty of some of it as well as its triumphs. These sections highlight some of the problems in building a perfect socialist society. Le Guin even throws in some feminism into this novel, although more subtly than in The Left Hand of Darkness. Odo, the founder of the philosophy which governs Anarres, is a radical female philosopher. Even the title of the book is in reference to women.
All in all, the Dispossessed is an excellent work of SF, and an important utopian novel of ideas. The scene in which time is discussed at a Urrasti ball with Shevek and other scientists will make you love this book. Beneath its surface, it also contains a feminist message, just like Left Hand of Darkness, although its feminism is not as "on the surface" as Left Hand's. This is a great book, very literary, and verrrrry under-rated throughout the sci-fi, and regular literature community. This book should not be in the shadow of A Wizard of Earthsea, which it is superior to, or The Left Hand of Darkness, which it is on par with, if not superior to. A great, thought-provoking read, and definitely one of the hundred best novels the genre has produced.

The Caves of Steel:

____________________________________
“We're forever teetering on the brink of the unknowable, and trying to understand what can't be understood.” 
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“Even as a youngster, though, I could not bring myself to believe that if knowledge presented danger, the solution was ignorance.”  
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“The robot said, 'I have been trying, friend Julius, to understand some remarks Elijah made to me earlier. Perhaps I am beginning to, for it suddenly seems to me that the destruction of what should not be, that is, the destruction of what you people call evil, is less just and desirable than the conversion of this evil into what you call good.'
He hesitated, then, almost as though he were surprised at his own words, he said, 'Go, and sin no more!” 

_______________________________________
The Caves of Steel is a rather light, fun Sci-fi mystery from Isaac Asimov. It isn't as philosophical or deep as most of the novels on this list, but I can confirm that it is still a good, albeit quick, read. The slang is a bit dated, and quite 1950s-ish ("Golly Gee, Jumpin' Jahosafatts!"), but the story is still a classic.
The plot goes something like this: In the future, Earth is overpopulated, and most of humanity lives inside giant cities incased in domes of steel, with no outside light. (The novel even  explores some of the implications of living ones entire life indoors) After some nicely done Sci-Fi world-building, Asimov gives us a straight forward murder mystery: a high ranking "Spacer" named Sarton has been killed. Grizzled detective Lije Baley is put on the case, and, much to his chagrin, he is joined by a robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, made in the exact likeness of the dead man. Lije is old-fashioned, and he takes some getting used to his robot partner, but the two soon make a fine team.
Baley is at first tense around the robot because of the growing influence of robots on the world. At the police station, one of Baley's friends has his job taken by a robot named R. Sammy. Baley's gruff attitude and wariness of the robot slowly change throughout the novel. The two travel and encounter smaller mysteries and anti-robot riots throughout the city while they are on their hunt for the killer, which make for lively subplots . Interestingly enough, the robots in The Caves of Steel are portrayed in an innocent, almost sweet light. While reading, I couldn't help but like R. Daneel Olivaw, with his endearingly blunt, child-like innocence.
All in all, this novel may not be as powerful as novels like 1984 or Solaris, but it's a short, light, entertaining page turner that is among the best when you're talking about the specific niche of science fiction mysteries. It's a simple book and a good introduction to Golden Age/1940s and '50s sci-fi. It's certainly an excellent introduction to the world of science fiction -- and it isn't half-bad as a mystery novel either! Check out The Caves of Steel if you like light mysteries, page turners, golden age science fiction, or simply anything written by Isaac Asimov. This novel may not be Iain M. Banks in terms of writing skill either, as Asimov was quite young when he wrote it. Immensely significant to the genre of science fiction --just like hundreds of other works by Isaac Asimov. 

#20: Childhood's End, #67: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Childhood's End:

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“Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now.” 
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"No utopia can ever give satisfaction to everyone, all the time. As their material conditions improve, men raise their sights and become discontented with power and possessions that once would have seemed beyond their wildest dreams. And even when the external world has granted all it can, there still remain the searchings of the mind and the longings of the heart.” 
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“In this single galaxy of ours there are eighty-seven thousand million suns. [...] In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the deserts of the world. [...] It is a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man.”  
_____________________________________
Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke is often cited as one of the best SF novels of all time. Understandably so, because it certainly deserves that distinction. Childhood's End is a classic tale of an invasion by aliens with technology and intelligence beyond that of humans. Clarke however, adds a twist to the alien invasion subgenre, invented by Wells' War of the Worlds.
The aliens are seemingly benign, they come not to make war or conquer Earth, but to instill peace, end world hunger, end hatred, and make all peoples equal and happy. These alien "Overlords" come in ships over every major city on Earth to solve all of mankind's problems. Since these overlords are so powerful and mysterious, they meet less resistance than expected. The Overlords themselves are rarely seen, they remain mostly in the background throughout this entire novel, and their leader, Karellan, is one of the few Overlords given more than a brief mention as an individual. As the Golden Age of humanity starts, society stagnants, no new art, literature, or radical method of thinking is produced. Clarke presents the reader with the paradox...Is this enforced taming of the human race good for us, or bad?
 Throughout the novel, the reader is always once again drawn back into this paradox, somewhat akin to the world of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which the people are happy and have everything they want, but things like art and real human emotion go to the dogs. In Childhood's End, however, there is no savage reservation. All of humanity is peaceful and apparently enjoying themselves. This is when Clarke brings into the picture why the Overlords felt they had to confine the humans to a peaceful, perfect life on Earth, just as mankind seemed poised to reach the stars. The theme of benevolent aliens doing Earth supposed good, but possibly going through their own agendas has been used countless times since this novel was published, but this will always trump them all.
Childhood's End is a fantastic novel, and definitely one of the twenty best SF novels ever written, as well as one of the twenty most significant to the genre. The paradox at the end of humanity joined together as something better, but no longer individuals, members of the Overmind is also an extremely interesting one that will get debate going and get the reader thinking.
An excellent SF novel, a tale of mass minds and human evolution (into something greater, rather than Vonnegut's Galapagos, where we evolve into unintelligent aquatic mammals) is not to be missed by any fan of the genre. A seminal, serious piece of SF literature.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch:





















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“I mean, after all, you have to consider we're only made out of dust. That's admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn't forget that. But even considering, I mean it's sort of a bad beginning, we're not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we're faced with we can make it. You get me?” 
______________________________________
“The time, then, had come for him to poison himself so that an economic monopoly could be kept alive, a sprawling, interplan empire from which he now derived nothing.” 
______________________________________
“No one, it appeared to Barney, had anything to do now; the weight of empty time hung over them all.” 
___________________________________
"You can't die in a hallucination...any more than you can be born again"
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This is your typical Philip K. Dick novel --filled with reality bending, psychedelic experiences, crazy drugs, visions, and corporations violently battling with each other for control of the human mind. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is one of Dick's more well-known novels, and considered by many to be one of his masterpieces. I prefer works like Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and lesser known mind-benders like Now Wait For Last Year, but Three Stigmata, for me, remains an enjoyable read. 
The Earth is used up in the near future, and the average temperature in New York City is 180 degrees Fahrenheit. People carry around portable AC units to cool themselves off, as well as portable robot psychiatrists in suitcases. Telepaths are available for hire, and large companies often offer their services for large fees. The Solar System has been colonized, although the colonies are not very productive, essentially hell-holes in which colonists are confined to their living quarters all the time because of the blistering harsh conditions. These colonists get by through a drug called "Can-D", manufactured by a large corporation, which "translates" their bodies into young attractive, sexy people...Meaning that they have hallucinations that they are inside the heads of either a young woman or a young man in a tropical paradise, having ecstatic sexual experiences and just an all around fantastic time. To make the experiences even better, the people can buy extra small dolls and furniture for them, which will also appear in the hallucinations (some have argued that PKD predicted the phenomenon of reality TV with this interesting concept). The people whose experiences these drug-users are feeling don't really exist... the drug users lie in trance while it all happens in their heads. If you've read any PKD, you know the usual motifs -- it's dark, ingenious, and filled with mayhem. 
The main plot of the novel revolves around a conman named Palmer Eldritch, who has mysteriously traveled out of the Solar System, and returned (possibly still human or possibly an alien masquerading as such) with a new drug he has discovered called Chew-Z. This drug promises immortality, although with a hitch he doesn't mention. While under Chew-Z's influence, time stands still, while the user experiences bizarre, and sometimes unpleasant, visions. They are essentially transported to another universe in their minds. Oh yeah and one more thing: Palmer Eldritch acts as a god is all of these private Chew-Z universes. 
This is certainly an insanity laced mad-man's novel. Not to be missed for any PKD fan --its got all your typical Dick mayhem, and might be a good start for those unfamiliar with the legendary SF author. A truly excellent, mind-bending read. You'll hurt your brain wondering what's real and what's not. But of course that phrase applies to almost all of PKD's novels!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

#27: The Left Hand of Darkness, #4 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Left Hand of Darkness:

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“Truth is a matter of the imagination.” 
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“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry? Then it's not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That's a good thing, but one mustn't make a virtue of it, or a profession... Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”  
______________________________________
“It is a terrible thing, this kindess that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give. ” 
______________________________________
This novel has one of the most interesting concepts of any novel on this list. The Left Hand of Darkness is known as a classic of feminist literature, and, although I don't quite consider myself a radical feminist, I found it to be quite interesting and enjoyable.
The novel chronicles a representative of the Hainish worlds (basically a confederation of a few dozen planets with human inhabitants) and his visit to a world called Gethen, or Winter. Genly Ai is the man who has come to observe the Gethenians and request them to join the Ekumen of Known Worlds. The people of Gethen, however, are unlike any other humans. They are all of the same gender. (This novel is really only feminist because of how a person from today's time would read it, so they could see how the two genders are more alike than one might assume; there are no female characters, only Genly and the Gethenians).
Once a month, for a few days, a Gethenian will go into kemmer, a sexually active stage in which they must go to special enclaves in which they will find others in kemmer that they can mate with. During kemmer, one Gethenian will randomly sprout one type of sexual organ, while the other will sprout the opposite, and they will have sex. Because of this, one Gethenian can be the father of a few children and the mother of a few others. Le Guin shows the reader the quirks of Gethenian society- of course there are no gender roles, so everyone is treated equally in that respect. Le Guin also shows how certain elements of society have stayed the same, when on Earth, they would've changed, specifically a model of truck which has not been changed for quite a while, simply because the Gethenians did not see a reason to make a better model, because the one they had was fine.
That being said, the Gethenians are not perfect... This novel is the story of how Genly Ai interacts with the two nations of Gethen; how he clashes with the king Argavan, of the monarchy Karhide, and how he flees and seeks refuge in the socialistic Orgoreyn. The story also follows Estraven, a Gethenian from Karhide who sympathized with Genly and his plea for Gethen to join the Ekumen, and was banished from Karhide because of it. Le Guin's descriptions of the Gobrin Ice, and the snowy darkness of the world of Gethen are excellent parts of the novel, the cold and eerie dark feel show in her descriptions of Genly walking in the open air.
Some excellent scenes include the telepathic connection of Estraven and Genly on the Gobrin Ice, and the scene inside the truck in which Genly is held for a few days. All in all, The Left Hand of Darkness is a powerful, dark classic of SF. Some complain that it is slow in parts and the Gobrin Ice episode is a little dragged out. These complaints are not without merit, but I don't think that they detract too much from the novel as a whole. This novel is certainly a classic of SF, and one that fans of literature, SF, and feminism alike should take a look at.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy:

____________________________________
“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.” 
____________________________________
“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.” 
_____________________________________
“This planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” 
_____________________________________
This book is as fun and funny as hell, and you don't get to say that too often when reviewing Sci-Fi. Vonnegut's SF works like Cat's Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, and Slaughter House Five, and W.M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz can be darkly humorous at times, but I don't think any of those books are real feel-good tales. Hitchhikers lampoons all the SF stereotypes and pulls it off brilliantly, originally, and hilariously.
This is THE SF comedy, nothing else can come close, Hitchhikers has consumed the territory. Of course, this is the first book in the series, and although I hear that by about book four the jokes start to get old, I haven't read the series save this one, and I know it's one of the funniest books I've ever read. It's over waaay too soon, as well. Hitchhiker's humor is offbeat, quirky, and uproariously funny. I didn't think it was possible for a book to be more than maybe a few chuckles per hundred pages, but this book proved me wrong. I'm recommending it to any SF fan, or anyone who likes a good laugh, and/or loves to read. You'll love Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, no matter what your genre preference.
This book is the story of how Earth is destroyed to make way for a giant Galactic freeway, and how Arthur Dent escapes with the help of his friend Ford Prefect to a nearby spaceship. Arthur and Ford use the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (which apparently outsells the Encyclopedia Galactica, a nod to Asimov's Foundation Trilogy), a guidebook to the Galaxy with witty entries and bits of advice on almost everything in the cosmos. Ford and Arthur soon join Zaphod Beeblebrox, the president of the Galaxy, and his girlfriend and depressed robot servant, Marvin, on a quest to the planet Magrathea. There is plenty of mayhem and absurdity throughout, and Douglas Adams' very real talent often shines through, with his excellent humor and originality (The Improbability Drive is a gem, and the Hooloovoo are some of the most creative kinds of aliens I've read about in any SF, superintelligent shades of the color blue which are refracted into prisms to stand still) he makes a great, entertaining, and hard-to-put-down book.
This is a laugh-out-loud work of science fiction, a very rare breed by my estimation. If you're just finished reading a work of SF that is depressing and has a dim view of humanity in general (and there are many), give this book a whirl to get you cheered up. A great, short read, which I can't recommend enough!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

#23: Speaker For the Dead, #15 The Time Machine

Speaker For The Dead:

_____________________________________
“This is how humans are: We question all our beliefs, except for the ones that we really believe in, and those we never think to question.” 
_____________________________________
“No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one's life is nothing. Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins.”  
_____________________________________
“It's the most charming thing about humans. You are all so sure that the lesser animals are bleeding with envy because they didn't have the good fortune to be born Homo sapiens.” 
______________________________________
Speaker for the Dead is the original sequel to Ender's Game, and it takes place about 3,000 years after the events of Ender's Game have occurred. In fact, Orson Scott Card intended this novel to be his magnum opus, a true masterpiece of Science Fiction and philosophy, while Ender's Game (originally actually a short story or novella) was slated as a simple lead-in to Speaker for the Dead. However, Speaker for the Dead actually has very little to do with the plot of the original novel in the Ender sequence; the Hive Queen, Ender Wiggin, and his sister Valentine are still alive due to all the almost-light-speed traveling they've been doing, but everyone else has died of natural causes, including Peter, Ender's brother, who became leader of the Hegemony of Earth after the events of Ender's Game. In this time period, humans have begun to colonize planets outside the Solar System, and a few dozen planets have been begun to be colonized. Ender and his sister travel all over space, with Ender performing "Speakings" for the dead. Many other speakers for the dead crop up, but he is the original one.
What a Speaker does is this: he uncovers many facts about the deceased and presents them all honestly and factually, stressing the good things that person has done in their life and how they lived it, but also not leaving out the bad parts or the crimes they may have gotten away with. Thus, the Speaker creates a more poignant, powerful atmosphere at the deceased's funeral while truly illuminating their character for all to see and appreciate. Speaker for the Dead has become a sacred task, and in fact it was all invented by Ender Wiggin at the end of Ender's Game. Ender's unintentional murdering of an entire race of aliens, the Buggers, or the Formic people, is another theme in this novel. He was a military-bred child genius, and at the end of Ender's Game he plays what the generals tell him is a very complex game, when in fact, he is controlling an Earth assault on the Formic planet (evidently his genius has been recognized). He mercilessly destroys the Formics and blows their planet to smithereens. The only Formic left is the Hive Queen, a cocoon that Ender tries to find a suitable planet for, so the race can reestablish itself.
In this novel, Ender travels to Lusitania, a colony planet of Portuguese-associated people to investigate (and Speak for the deceased) a mysterious brutal murder of Pipo, a biologist who is studying the newfound alien piggies: apparently simple, reasonably cute creatures found on Lusitania, and the only other sentient race found so far. Ender has been called by Pipo's depressed and bitter daughter, Novinha, to find answers. This book focuses on Ender's interaction with the people of Lusitania, and his solving of the mystery of Pipo's death, why these seemingly peaceful creatures would kill a man who had gained their trust and respect so viciously, with his stomach cut open and his entrails arranged neatly out of his body.
Speaker for the Dead is an interesting and stimulating novel about how alien life is never going to be easily understood by humans, and about respect and the proper treatment of the dead. Is it as interesting and engaging as Ender's Game, almost on par with it in fact, and quite a good read. Of course, read Game first, but this story does not have much to do with Game, due to the 3,000 year time separation. This novel was intended to be the big one in the series, but Game stole all of its thunder. Many people dismiss the seemingly endless Ender sequels, but this is definitely one that is well-thought out and quite different from Ender's Game-- less focused on action and more contemplative and emotion-laced ( as opposed to the sometimes disturbingly emotionless murder in Ender's Game) throughout its entirety. 

The Time Machine:

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“We should strive to welcome change and challenges, because they are what help us grow. With out them we grow weak like the Eloi in comfort and security. We need to constantly be challenging ourselves in order to strengthen our character and increase our intelligence. ” 
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“To sit among all those unknown things before a puzzle like that is hopeless. That way lies monomania. Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all.”  
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“We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existence, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave.” 
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The Time Machine by H.G Wells is the original time travel story, period. This very short novel (only about 90-120 pages depending on the font size) is still the time travel story against which all others pale. But its shortness and simplicity should not fool the reader. This book is certainly an adventure, but there is also some thought-provoking philosophy about socialism, and the ethicality of time travel itself. I have found in reading science fiction that many time travel stories introduce new dilemmas to time travel, but, after reading the Time Machine, it becomes apparent that H.G. Wells had already thought of most of them!
The plot is quite familiar to most, and fairly straightforward: The Time Traveler, set against the background of Victorian England, builds a machine with which he can travel through time. After a brief introduction to our protagonist, most of the novel focuses on his voyage to an era in which humanity has split off into two separate sub-species: the weak, peaceful, useless Eloi, and the dark, barbaric, underground-dwelling, cannabalistic Morlocks. The Morlocks apparently represent the working class, which makes the Eloi's semi-utopian existence possible. The Eloi's stagnant, peaceful, workless society thus represents the wealthy upper class. It soon becomes evident that the Morlocks hold the true power in this society --they are feared by the Eloi, and kill and eat them often.
It becomes apparent to the Time Traveler that the Eloi will probably perish as a race soon. Wells takes this opportunity to introduce the reader to some of his socialist philosophy, and it is quite convincing in places. The Time Traveler's love of the Eloi, Weena, is the central arc in this story, as the Traveler tries to stop Morlocks from killing her, as well as stealing his machine. The Traveler also briefly visits Earth in the far future, where he sees the sun swelled to enormous size, and the entire Earth as a wasteland home to strange, writhing creatures.
The novel ends rather abruptly, but the reader has been given much to think about by the time this wild ride is over. All in all, The Time Machine is an excellent introduction to Science Fiction, and it's probably the first book I'd recommend to someone starting out SF. You can get to the more complex stuff like Star Maker, Dune, Dying Inside, and The Man in the High Castle eventually, but if you are a SF fan and haven't read this, drop everything and read it; it is a pioneering, seminal work of SF.


ADDED 1/20/2016 --A BLOG POST I DID ON THE TIME MACHINE FOR A COLLEGE LITERATURE COURSE:

Reading The Time Machine: Then and Now 

When I first read Wells’ The Time Machine in sixth grade, it was a cool action-adventure story, revolving around an idea that I could really let my imagination run wild with. When I read it for a second time in high school, I remember being surprised at Wells’ insight and technical skill as a writer –he wasn’t some dusty old Brit churning out mindless popular fiction as I probably assumed when I was younger. And now, when I read The Time Machine as a college senior, I’ve done a complete 180 from my initial reading; I see it more as a fascinating catalogue of philosophical musings, covered in the disguise of an entertaining science fiction story.
As pertaining to the themes of our course on Utopia and Dystopia, I enjoyed the way that Wells gradually reveals the dystopian nature of the world of 802,701 A.D. to both the Time Traveller and to us as readers. We start off with a first impression: the sweet, serene, child-like Eloi living in a seemingly quiet, calm land. They seem not to have to work for anything, and the bare necessities of life like food and shelter are provided for. But even then, in this seeming utopia, both the Time Traveller and the reader begin to question. What do these Eloi do all day? Aren’t they bored? What do they have to strive for and to be hopeful for? And of course, there’s the fact that all of them seem so foolish and weak. It’s one of those moments that made me, as a reader, wonder if there really is such a thing as the perfect utopia after all? Even the laziest person would admit that a world with no problems, and thus, nothing to work toward fixing, could get incredibly boring, incredibly quickly. A land filled with chronic boredom, and likely depression and other mental problems resulting from such boredom, does not sound at all utopian to me.
But, on the other hand, if a society has problems that need fixing, can we still call it a utopia? It’s definitely a hard group of questions to think over, and I know that I don’t have an adequate answer quite yet.
Wells’ gradual reveal of the true dystopian nature of the world of 802,701 was well-done, and as a reader, I welcomed the conflict and the problems brought about by the Morlocks. It goes back to what we started to cover in class about why dystopias tend to appeal to readers more than utopias. We just love seeing things go wrong!
As we learn more about the Morlocks, again, Wells really got me thinking. The Morlocks as a repressed working class who have turned the tables and begun to swallow up, both figuratively and literally, their capitalist oppressors? There’s something that sixth-grade me definitely glazed over. The jab at unchecked capitalism makes a lot of sense when you consider that Wells lived in Industrial Revolution-era England, and likely saw some stunning inequality and worker abuse in his day. The way that Wells presented the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks suggests that Wells finds faults with both classes, and more accurately, with the big picture system itself. If I had to guess how Wells thought of the rich and the working class after having read this novel, I would guess that his own views are not too far off from those of the Time Traveller. He probably frowned upon rich factory owners who did little to no work themselves, and saw their actions as indicative of eventual decline and future stagnation. Concerning the poor, working class, Wells probably saw their maltreatment as dehumanizing, depicting as he did, a future where they seem more animal than human. And I’m sure Wells also recognized the fact that those who are abused, in turn, often rise up and abuse others themselves when they have gained some kind of power.
To end my blog post on The Time Machine, I’d just like to list a few quotes that especially stood out to me, and my thoughts on them. If anyone else has some thoughts on these quotes, I’d be really interested to hear them…
“We should strive to welcome change and challenges, because they are what help us grow. With out them we grow weak like the Eloi in comfort and security. We need to constantly be challenging ourselves in order to strengthen our character and increase our intelligence. ”
This quote, for me, encapsulated what Wells is trying to say about the importance of moving forward and struggling against challenges for societies as a whole. William Gibson, a great cyberpunk author whose work I enjoy, had a nice exchange in one of his short stories that expresses something similar– ” ‘Hell of a world we live in, huh? …But it could be worse, huh?’
‘That’s right,’ I said, ‘or even worse, it could be perfect.’ ”
“We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existence, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave.”
I just liked this quote on a personal level because I think a lot of people focus too much on the future, constantly stressing and all, without taking time to enjoy the present. Obviously everyone has to plan for the future to some degree, but what’s the point of being in school, constantly stressing about life, and then getting a job and constantly stressing about retirement, and then retiring and constantly stressing about death? That kind of existence sounds truly dystopian to me.

Friday, April 2, 2010

#5 Nineteen Eighty-Four, #92 VALIS

Nineteen Eighty- Four:

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“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
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“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” 
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“Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes.” 
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“In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four.” 
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George Orwell's classic of utopian satire is one of the most powerful novels I've ever read. In it, we read about a dystopian future in which Big Brother sees all, cameras are omnipresent and the nation is constantly at war to promote nationalism and suspicion within its borders. Terms like doublethink and Newspeak and thoughtcrime are part of the language now, and it's all thanks to this immensely influencial, chilling work.
1984 is definitely not a happy book, and some scenes are indeed quite brutal. The plot revolves around the protagonist, Winston Smith, a seemingly normal Englishman living in London around the year 1984. He works for the government making propaganda for "The Ministry of Truth".
Side note: 1984 has become increasely popular in the past years because of its prophetic nature. In Britain, the average person is apparently photographed hundreds of times in a day, most of the time, unknowingly.
The world of 1984 promotes ignorance, nationalism, slavery,  and the censorship of everything art. The population's wrath is centered towards a man, who, like Big Brother, may not even exist, a treacherous, greedy Jew named Emmanuel Goldstein. Goldstein is hated by all the people, exactly in accordance to the government propaganda. In 1984, propaganda comes from everywhere, molding the minds of all, especially the children, who are made into viciously loyal nationalists who often betray their parents' slightly heretical actions. People are convinced to do awful things, and convinced to believe obvious untruths (2+2=5).
Orwell's message throughout this novel is not one of the general good nature of humans. It is one of animalistic hate, manipulation to the highest level, and fear. 
Most of the population, the proles, basically live in fear and ignorance. Winston works fairly high up, and begins to stage an intellectual rebellion against Big Brother. He begins to have sex with a young women named Julia, who is somewhat of a rebel as well. They are eventually caught by the forces of the state, and Winston is "reeducated" in the Ministry of Love, which is, like the Ministry of Truth, the exact opposite of what its name suggests.
The forty page torture scene at the end of the novel is extremely powerful, one of the best written scenes in SF I've ever come across. 1984 may not be a very joyful novel, but it is very prophetic, grimly observant and a must-read for anyone living in this century. It's especially eye-opening if, like me, you were born when the technological age was already in full force. This is life-changing reading. 

VALIS:





















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“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” 
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“This is a mournful discovery.
1)Those who agree with you are insane
2)Those who do not agree with you are in power.”  

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“The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.” 

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“There exists, for everyone, a sentence - a series of words - that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If you're lucky you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first.”  
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VALIS is Philip K. Dick's most autobiographical work, and considered by many to be his last great novel. It is obvious, upon reading VALIS, that Dick was not even close to sane at the point in his life when he was writing it. Earlier in his career, around The Man in the High Castle, Dick can seem fairly level headed --undoubtedly a master author with a comparatively level attitude towards plot and characterization.
However, the many drugs Dick took eventually started taking their toll on his mind and body: VALIS is the most intimate view of an insane man I've ever read. But it's brilliant as well...in a weird, insane sort of way. With this novel, Dick takes you inside the mind of a schizophrenic named Horselover Fat ( Horselover=Philip, Fat= Dick in German) who has apparently received information about the secrets of the universe from an entity known as God, VALIS (Vast active living intelligence system), or Zebra. This information is fired into his head via a pink laser. The story only gets stranger from there.
Dick focuses on the merits of different philosophies throughout this novel, which isn't much science fictional, besides perhaps the strange experiences of Horselover, the madman who just tries to seem so earnestly sane and normal throughout the novel. Elements of Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Buddhism, Atheism, and Taoism are all addressed, debated, and rebutted in VALIS, and as a result, the novel ends up being more discourse-driven than plot-driven for most of its length.
 As one review suggested this novel is about madness, death, and delusions, yet it is truly a joy to read. The scene in which Horselover goes to see a strange movie with some friends in a prime example of this: the reader is left feeling insane and confused, not knowing what's going on. You start to feel crazy yourself as you read certain sections of the book.
 I'm not going to give away that much more of this excellent novel, because so much of it evades description. Just let Dick do the describing --I was content to sit back and be baffled while reading VALIS --oftentimes my attempts at rationalizing certain plot points had me at a complete loss. This book will really get you thinking, and I think that it is the book in which Dick really poured all of himself into; because of this, it can't really be compared to any other novel ever written...not even other PKD works. The reader can most apparently feel the author's genuine, real-life-insanity in this novel, and its a pleasure to behold simply because of how much it messes with your mind. Don't start off reading Dick's work with this book, though. Make it your fourth or fifth at least, just so you can get a feeling for his tone and style.
This could be PKD's strangest, craziest, most thought-provoking work: and I must say this even as crazy as a lot of his others are plotwise, like UBIK and Now Wait For Last Year. To clarify, the surface plot isn't actually that brazenly unorthodox in VALIS; it is simply the profile of a mentally ill man going about what is, to him, everyday life. The novel just reverberates with the insanity Horselover feels. VALIS is about how an insane man can regain his sanity, but will probably just slip back into madness again...And that the whole world is like that as well. I also saw some parallels between this novel and Silverberg's excellent Dying Inside (especially the psychedelic acid-trip section of Dying Inside which parallels the ultra-weird movie-viewing in VALIS). Read VALIS, and I guarantee that you will have a very strong opinion about it, and that it will stick in your mind long after you've closed the back cover. This quote about Dick just about sums it up: "Dick is the only author whose works literally force me to put the book down from time to time, for fear that reading one more sentence will send me to the insane asylum forever."  

#54: The Andromeda Strain, #22: Slaughterhouse Five

The Andromeda Strain

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“Human intelligence was more trouble than it was worth. It was more destructive than creative, more confusing than revealing, more discouraging than satisfying, more spiteful than charitable.” 
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“In his blackest hours, Stone doubted the utility of all thought, and all intelligence. There were times he envied the laboratory rats he worked with; their brains were so simple. Certainly, they did not have the intelligence to destroy themselves; that was a peculiar invention of man.” 
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“Already, the brain consumed more than a quarter of the body's blood supply... an organ accounting for only a small percentage of body mass. If brains grew larger, and better, then perhaps they would consume more - perhaps so much that, like an infection, they would overrun their hosts and kill the bodies that transported them. Or perhaps, in their infinite cleverness, they would find a way to destroy themselves and each other. There were times when, as he sat at State Department or Defense Department meetings, and looked around the table, he would see nothing more than a dozen gray, convoluted brains sitting on the table... Just brains, sitting around, trying to decide how to outwit other brains, at other conference tables.
Idiotic.”  

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The Andromeda Strain is Michael Crichton's first novel, the book that turned him into a global phenomenon and a major force in popular fiction as well as genre SF. It is a technological/biological thriller, definitely the kind of mainstream stuff Crichton wrote all his life.
Most of the action in this book takes place within a laboratory in which the newly discovered Andromeda Strain is being studied. Surprisingly to me, there wasn't much "thousands of people dying horrible, bloody, vomit-stained deaths and cities in mass-chaos" and that kind of stuff, which I somewhat expected from this book.  Instead, there was a lot of laboratory drama and plenty of "Oh no, time is running out" scenes.
Surprisingly enough, The Andromeda Strain delves into the realm of hard SF quite a bit. The plot mainly concerns a group of scientists in a top secret laboratory race to find a cure to the Andromeda Strain before any mass hysteria breaks out in big cities, in contrast to many disaster-type SF novels and movies.
At the beginning of the novel, a satellite from a project called Scoop mysteriously falls from the sky into the Arizona desert. The men sent to retrieve it die almost instantly; it has seemingly brought an uncurable, fast-acting virus from the upper atmosphere down to Earth. The virus takes out an entire secluded desert town, save two people, whose survival soon becomes vital to the plot of the book, and the search for the cure for the Strain. Soon researchers discover the town, and the two survivors, and start to try and unravel the virus's mysteries before its too late.
Plenty of rogue theories are put up, and Crichton makes the laboratory work exciting, fast-paced, and frantic, making for some many great scenes and overall, an exciting novel that becomes more and more hard to put down. The scientists Hall, Stone, and a few others often clash in their theories, et cetera, only furthering the frantically increasing pace as the reader is acutely aware that "time is running out".
The Andromeda Strain is definitely a fast paced, entertaining novel, and I can certainly understand its popular mass appeal. The Andromeda Strain certainly shows Michael Crichton doing what Michael Crichton does best: fast-paced thrillers with a touch of science. I enjoyed Jurassic Park slightly more than the Andromeda Strain, but this assertion is by no means an outright put-down. It's no philosophy gem, or genre-defining sci-fi classic, but still, it's a good yarn and a recommendable read. 

Slaughterhouse Five





















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“And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.” 
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“Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. It had twenty-dollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds. Its fruit was diamonds. It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer.” 
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“It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?”  
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“There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.” 
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“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber.”  
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Slaughterhouse Five is an awesome, strange, depressing, zany, literary, crazy book by Kurt Vonnegut, one of the masters of weirdness in the literary world.
Slaughterhouse Five focuses on the life of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII soldier who experiences time-fracturing journies, and extremely strange visions/supposed realities in which he is apparently a zoo animal being shown to the plunger-like Tralfamadorians; aliens. It's an extremely weird book, with a deafening, powerful central message of the madness of war. Billy is obviously very fucked up emotionally and mentally from the war.
In the scenes in which he is actually at war, he seems out of place, awkward and pathetic amongst the macho, adolescent type soldiers who are brutish and war-loving apparently. It is perhaps because of his traumatic experiences, including being capturing and put into "Slauften Hausen Fief", a German prison, and former slaughterhouse for pigs in Dresden, Germany, for American POWs.
Billy jumps around randomly through important moments in time all throughout the novel. He stays on planet Tralfamadore for a while, goes back to the war days, and goes forward to his eventual assasination, which he knows will happen and doesn't do anything about. Vonnegut dispenses with suspense in this novel, one character he introduces and promptly tells you he will die, and why he will die, although this doesn't happen until a good deal later in the novel. Every time the character is mentioned, Vonnegut reminds us he will die. It is perhaps a look into how Pilgrim lives his life, knowing everything that will happen in the future because of how he got "unstuck in time". Slaughterhouse five stresses the illogical nature of humans, and covers many other themes, like the meaninglessness of suburban life, the horror of war, etc.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this novel is its setting: the times and the places that Billy Pilgrim visits on his trips through time bring the reader into his mind, much like Philip K. Dick's VALIS, and warp reality, leaving the reader wondering whether or not these hallucinations that Pilgrim is having are real, or just that: hallucinations caused by the stress and trauma of war. Undoubtedly, Slaughterhouse Five is an excellent work of literature as well as SF, and can be haunting and sad in places, but still has that trademark black wit present in most Vonnegut novels. The phrase "So it goes", often repeated throughout the novel is just another sign of resignation and inevitability.
I'd recommend it highly. A strange book, but it makes you think, especially once you learn to appreciate and even understand Vonnegut's unique style. Just remember, it ain't light pulp or anything like that. Vonnegut's tale of aliens, World War II, and getting unstuck in time shouldn't be missed. At its heart, it is a chilling anti-war statement that will be appreciated and recognized for centuries to come.