Saturday, April 9, 2011

#58: The Sirens of Titan, #34: The Man in the High Castle

The Sirens of Titan:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” 
“There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.”  
“The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart.” 
“His response was to fight it with the only weapons at hand—passive resistance and open displays of contempt.”  
“. . . but the Universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.” 
The Sirens of Titan is a perfect example of some good old Vonnegut weirdness. Coincidentally, it is probably the most science- fiction-y of the Vonnegut books I have reviewed as of right now (the other two being Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle).
One criticism I have is that Sirens of Titan is a little slow, and it can be all over the place, but interesting and hilarious parts of the book outshine this initial criticism. Sirens is certainly a novel in which general weirdness permeates throughout. In fact, Douglas Adams cite Sirens as an influence for his excellent Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
The Sirens of Titan is set in 22nd century America, and also Titan, the moon of Saturn. It has several plotlines, including one concerning a Martian invasion, and another concerning Winston Niles Rumfoord, a rich, Newport, R.I man who has figured out how to travel across time and space on strange points in the universe called chrono-synclastic infundibulum, and does so with his dog, Kazak. Rumfoord can thus predict the future, and starts his owns religion, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, a name I've always found hilarious and one of the many clever small parts of this book.
 Sirens of Titan addresses the meaninglessness of life throughout, and it is helped in this endeavor by the use of a casual tone, that seems very 1950s-ish. The other main character is another rich guy, Malachi Constant, who has a son with Rumfoord's ex-wife, and eventually travels to Titan with a robot from Tralfamadore (the planet where the aliens who imprison Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five and keep him as a zoo animal, are from). He lives on Titan with his son, Chrono, while trying to repair Salo, the robot, who has dismantled himself.
As for the cover image, it's a duplicate of the Taj Mahal has been constructed on Titan... Sound weird enough yet? The Sirens of Titan has a very strange, somewhat disjointed plot, but it does get down to addressing serious philosophical issues, and does so with biting wit and black, sarcastic humor, that is a trademark of Vonnegut. The weirdness of the Sirens of Titan is undeniable, but its status as a novel of SF ideas is also quite legitimate. The parts of the novel near the end that take place on Titan with Salo, Malachi, and Chrono are the best, most thought-provoking parts of this novel, ones centered on the meaninglessness of life as we know it.
The Sirens of Titan is an a darky humorous, philosophical book, that addresses religion and how it works, and how life in general can be for different kinds of people. It's a strange read, in a different way from any other strange SF author, uniquely Vonnegut. As a work of Science Fiction, it is an often thought-provoking, funny classic.

The Man in the High Castle:

“Truth, she thought. As terrible as death. But harder to find.” 
“A weird time in which we are alive. We can travel anywhere we want, even to other planets. And for what? To sit day after day, declining in morale and hope.”  
“They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God's power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archtype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off. It is not hubris, not pride; it is inflation of the ego to its ultimate — confusion between him who worships and that which is worshipped. Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man.” 
“Can anyone alter fate? All of us combined... or one great figure... or someone strategically placed, who happens to be in the right spot. Chance. Accident. And our lives, our world, hanging on it.” 
This is one of the greatest and most famous alternate histories ever written. The Man in the High Castle remains to this day, THE World War Two alternate history, one that spawned legions of imitators. It is on the same level, and perhaps even above, greats of the sub-genre such as Pavane, Bring the Jubilee, and Lest Darkness Fall.
The Man in the High Castle is set in 1962, after the Axis forces have won World War II, and Germany controls the East Coast of the United States, while Japan controls the West Coast, and the Rocky Mountains remain a neutral zone in which rebels, such as Abendsen, the author of an alternate history novel (within this alternate history novel), called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a blasphemous books that hypothesizes what would've happened if the Allies had won World War II. And, mind you, this is one of Dick's less mind-bending works...As with most of PKD's novels, there are a plethora of main characters who go about daily life in this novel, from average Americans working under Japanese and German bosses, to the Japanese and Germans themselves. Characters such as Frank Frink, and his unfaithful wife, Juliana, are excellent examples of interesting, yet seemingly average and normal characters in the novel. They are as normal (but with dark sides) as PKD is "out there" --and this fact is vintage PKD.
Frank tries to sabotage another American, Robert Childan's, antique shop, and things escalate from there. As usual, Dick does not let this be just any normal alternate history novel; he throws in a hell of a lot of typical, mind-bending Dickian twists that make the novel all the more interesting. The plotlines are very engaging, all with a Dickian spin to them. Many characters use the I-Ching, a Japanese form of divination to decide their actions, and apparently PKD used the I-Ching to write the book himself, which is why the ending ends up so open-ended --with the characters' revelation that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is...true (although it is not exactly like our world, as one critic put it, this novel within the novel is like holding up a mirror to another mirror and having the image within not be identical to the reality. Weird, huh?) . The characters in the scene (Abendsen and Juliana) are left with the realization (the reader must assume), that they are inside an alternate history novel... Yeah it's crazy alright. Just a little more background before you go read this book, which I strongly recommend as an introduction to both PKD and alternate history: The Mediterranean Sea has been drained to make more farmland, and the Axis Powers appear to be more efficient that the Allies in many ways, besides of course humanitarian efforts; they already have rocket ships in 1962 (some accused Dick of being a Nazi sympathizer because of this fact, but I don't think so). All Jews are dead or living under false names, but still, normal life goes on under occupation. Also noteworthy is the fact that Abendsen, the "man in the high castle" who wrote the banned yet popular book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, supposedly lives in an armored, protected fort, or castle. In fact, he simply lives with his family in an average suburban house.
A seminal work of SF, and the cornerstone of the entire alternate history sub-genre. A must-read for SF fans. (I've also included a graphic that shows how the fictional world of The Man in the High Castle works --pretty cool, take a look).

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