Monday 7 December 2009

Science Fiction?

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. What an interesting man, I've just been reading his wikipedia page (I will resist the temptation to waffle and let you read it yourself.) This is another from mum's collection. Strangely in two years the price of books seems to have doubled, since in 1976 this one cost 50p. I picked it out because his name was familiar from my teenage years. I recall discussing my university application with the Head Teacher and his querying my having 'reading' listed as an interest and asking me what I was reading, so I said 'Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut' (weird how such tiny things stick in your memory).

Anyway by the time I reached the bottom of the first page I knew I had read this one as well (probably this copy), I mean you're not going to completely forget something as crazy as an invented religion called Bokononism. As a philosophical novel I think this book has got to be up there with Candide and good old Dr Pangloss, the procession of events has something of the faintly ridiculous about them. In fact I am left with the impression that Vonnegut (as a humanist) was giving the message that all religion is simply a means by which people struggle to make sense of how ridiculous life is. And Bokononism makes about as much sense as a means of looking at the world as any other religion.

The story is written by Jonah, who is writing a book about the Hiroshima bomb called 'The Day the World Ended', and finds himself caught up in the lives of others that sets him on a path towards the real day the world ended. It is funny also how, when you read and reflect (which has been partly the purpose of this blog), you find all sorts of links and themes running between books you encounter. In common with Any Human Heart this book is centred round an invented character who is part of the 'real world'. So Dr Felix Hoenikker is one of the group of scientists who created the atomic bomb, and in researching his life Jonah find himself caught up with the lives of his slightly strange children, whose decisions and actions are destined to have profound repercussions.

The book is written in retrospect, as the author looking back, not recounting things as they happen, so he is constantly referring to events and relating them to his new found belief in Bokononism. Shakespeare has his sonnets, the Bible has the psalms ... and Bokononism has Calypsos, in keeping I felt with it's Caribbean origins, like little mini songlets that expound some philosophical point. I don't think it is meant in any way to be mocking the ignorance and gullibility of the people of San Lorenzo, but more pointing out how easily human beings in general are taken in. I loved the way Johnson and McCabe take over this island, create a religion and then ban it, thus making it all the more appealing and romanticising the prophet Bokonon as a outlaw. I think the most telling and interesting term in Bokononism is the 'granfalloon'. In Bokononism the most important thing is the 'karass', a group of people with whom you are linked in some mysterious way in order to fulfil some higher purpose. A granfalloon is a false karass, where people create in their imagination a bond with other people that is not real; his prime example of this in the book is Hazel Crosby and her obsession with 'Hoosiers' (people who come from Indiana). I think it is quite a profound concept because it says so much about human nature, and the need to belong and to connected to other people in a significant way. The karass is the other side of the coin in a way, the idea that God (in whatever form) has plans for you and there is real meaning and real connections to others involved in these plans, and that is exactly what is attractive about religion.

I like the structure of the book, very short chapters, mostly only one or two pages, each with a nice helpful title giving progress to the story. The characters are quirky and occasionally slightly outrageous but totally believable. There is no waffle, everything is important, with snippets of information and details scattered throughout that add authenticity to the tale. I am not sure why it is labelled as Science Fiction. It is not futuristic nor is it set in outer space, and the 'ice nine', although it is mentioned regularly through the book, feels merely like a vehicle for precipitating the ultimate ending that ensures life really is ridiculous and meaningless. So if I were to catalogue it by subject it would be put with the philosophy books, a really thought provoking 'what is the meaning of life' book; at the end of the book you finally meet Bokonon, smiling and "thumbing my nose at You Know Who."

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