Wednesday, April 21, 2010

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

Cat's Cradle:

“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.”

“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.” 
“Live by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”  
“She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative for almost all mankind.” 


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. 


“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.” 
“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.”  
“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. 

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