Friday, April 2, 2010

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

The Andromeda Strain

“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.” 
“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.” 
“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.

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

“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.” 
“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.” 
“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?”  
“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.” 
“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.”  
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.

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