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In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, arguably his most successful novels, Philip K. Dick mastered existential science fiction and the dark and personal hell of addiction and schizophrenia. With Ubik he created a purgatory of uncertainty and horror, and The Man in the High Castle is a spiritual and captivating piece of reimagined history. I’m a huge PKD fan – yet I was indifferent to VALIS. I’m sorry Phil, but for large parts of the book I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on.

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VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the titular VALIS, an artificial satellite capable of communicating with humanity and passing on intrinsic knowledge, is drawn from Gnosticism, and is Dick’s vision of an aspect of God. Horselover Fat (a schizophrenic personality of Dick) experiences bizarre visions and with his friends, the sceptic and cynical Kevin, and the Catholic David, they attempt to make sense of the information, in the forms of pink laser beams, Fat seems receptive too.

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.

Meandering, ponderous, and at times incoherent and inconsequential, it’s a difficult read. The book is so heavy with Fat’s philosophical and theological musings, various interpretations of religious events and histories, that it can be hard to keep up. But at times, VALIS really shines. When Fat discovers a film (named VALIS) which contains imagery and references to identical revelations Fat has been exposed to, the group are stunned and for a second, the pieces fit. Amongst the thousands of words there is some semblance of shared knowledge. As the group speculate with excitement on every scene in the film, on every possible meaning and theory, it is hard not to share their enthusiasm and disbelief.

Ultimately it comes to nothing. Maybe it never was anything. Schizophrenic hallucinations or visions from a damaging addiction. As a novel it is disappointing. As a series of ideas and beliefs, as a window to Philip K. Dick’s brilliant brain, it is fevered and frenzied and strange.

Annihilation is the first part of American author Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, focusing on the mysterious region known as Area X. It’s been awhile since I’ve read any science-fiction, reviews had been mostly positive and the book was released in 2014 (it occurred to me recently that I haven’t actually read that many books from the 21st century).

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The trilogy focuses on a dystopian future in the location known as Area X, a quarantine zone cut off from the rest of the continent. Within is a wild and thriving ecosystem filled with scientific anomalies, unusual wildlife and unexplainable, almost supernatural, events. Little is known of what caused this catastrophic change in the environment, but the government has been sending expeditions to the area to document and record their findings. Each expedition has ended in disaster; one group ended up shooting each other to pieces, another came back with aggressive forms of cancer and died, another all committed suicide. The narrative focuses on the twelfth expedition, an all female group consisting of a surveyor, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a biologist. It is from the biologist that the perspective of the story is told.

It really is a fascinating premise. VanderMeer does well to create a scenario where a chunk of the world is now unchartered, due to circumstances not explained to the reader (at least, not yet), eliciting wonder and tension and unknowing. And Area X is a bizarre world. There are a few science-fiction cliches to be found, but generally I found the concept to be original and was key to drawing me towards the book in the first place.

But unfortunately I was disappointed. VanderMeer can clearly write – his descriptions of the events transpiring in Area X are creepy and suspenseful for the most part. My biggest gripe was that the protagonist, or point of view, was never particularly interesting. She is not even underdeveloped – there is a lot (maybe too much) that is spelled out to us about her as a person, about her past, the links between Area X and her husband (who was part of the previous expedition and eventually returned a changed man). Nothing about the biologist gripped me to read on. As I was reading I considered other narrative styles that may have worked better. Perhaps switching between members of the team, focusing on their increasing paranoia towards each other, but ultimately the angle VanderMeer went for could have worked so much better if the protagonist was a little more compelling.

I have absolutely no problem with the open ending, the scores of unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries of Area X; it is a trilogy after all, and some aspects are all the more intriguing the less we know of them. Overall, my desire to uncover the mysteries of Area X was undermined by a bland and meandering cast. Some highlights for sure, but I don’t think Annihilation did enough to make me want to continue with the Southern Reach Trilogy – not any time soon at least.

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In the near future, Substance D, aka Slow Death, or Death, is a highly addictive and dangerous drug which has 20% of the population of the United States hooked. It causes wild hallucinations and severe brain damage, where the two hemispheres of the brain compete with one another, causing paranoia, schizophrenia, and finally, death.

Bob Arctor is a user of Substance D, and lives with his addict friends Barris and Luckman in his suburban, rundown house in Anaheim, California. Together they spend their days under the influence of various drugs, taking part in a number of inane conversations and arguments, often escalating quickly due to the group’s shared paranoia. But Bob Arctor is living a double life, also working as an undercover narcotics officer, one of a network employed by the government, along with invasive and advanced surveillance techniques, in a desperate attempt to fight back in the failed war on drugs. When Arctor is required for reports at the police station, he must wear a “scramble suit”, a high-tech costume that constantly changes the wearer’s appearance, to keep his identity private, and is assigned a code name, “Fred”. All the narcotic informants must wear these, even Fred’s superior, Hank, keeping their identities protected even from one another.

“We’re all dreaming,” Arctor said. If the last to know he’s an addict is the addict, then maybe the last to know when a man means what he says is the man himself, he reflected. He wondered how much of the garbage that Donna had overheard he had seriously meant. He wondered how much of the insanity of the day–his insanity–had been real, or just induced as a contact lunacy, by the situation. Donna, always, was a pivot point of reality for him; for her this was the basic, natural question. He wished he could answer.

Since starting his most recent assignment, Fred/Arctor has become addicted to Substance D, and formed a strong bond with Donna, a cocaine addict and supplier of Substance D; Arctor had hoped to be introduced to her supplier, getting further up the supply chain in an attempt to gain a lead. At his next review Hank informs Fred that, due to the information from an unknown informant, his next assignment is Bob Arctor; Arctor essentially has to begin spying on himself. The narcotics division installs hidden surveillance equipment throughout Arctor’s house while the group are out, and Fred must analyse the footage for anything that could incriminate Arctor, while getting an external viewpoint of the life that he and his drug addict housemates lead.

The paranoia and uncertainty that affects Arctor and Fred is jarring as the effects of Substance D addiction loosens his sense of reality. He is even called in for medical analysis several times, where doctors coldly tell him of the damage that is taking apart his brain.

What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.

The New Path rehabilitation centre, and Arctor’s severe brain damage from coming off Substance D in the final few chapters of the book were difficult. It showed the damage withdrawing from the drug can hold, as Arctor is essentially a scrambled mess, barely able to perform simple tasks and utter short sentences.

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The film adaptation, directed by Richard Linklater, is pretty good. Its distinctive animated style perfectly captures the schizophrenic and paranoiac tone of the book.

It is revealed that Donna was also an undercover agent, like Arctor, and is aware that Arctor was used by the police. The intention all along was to get Arctor closer to Barris (the real target of the surveillance in Arctor’s house), to get him hooked on Substance D, to get him into NewPath, It is strongly suspected that NewPath themselves are behind the manufactures and distributors of the drug are NewPath themselves, growing little blue flowers on farmlands across the United States. It is hoped that eventually Arctor may regain his mental capacities and provide evidence against NewPath; but this is in no way a certainty.

Donna said, “I think, really, there is nothing more terrible than the sacrifice of someone or something, a living thing, without its ever knowing. If it knew. If it understood and volunteered. But” – she gestured. “He doesn’t know. He never did know. He didn’t volunteer-”

“Sure he did. It was his job.”

“He had no idea, and he hasn’t any idea now, because now he hasn’t any ideas. You know that as well as I do. And he will never again in his life, as long as he lives, have any ideas. Only reflexes. And this didn’t happen accidentally; it was supposed to happen. So we have this…bad karma on us. I feel it on my back. Like a corpse. I’m carrying a corpse – Bob Arctor’s corpse.

A Scanner Darkly isn’t Dick’s best work, and it isn’t my favourite book of his (that will remain Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) – but it is still a great read, for its message and the emotional impact. The poignancy of the author’s note at the end of the novel is traumatic, bringing you back into the reality of a world where addiction is a problem, and the repercussions are severe.

If there was any “sin”, it was that these people wanted to keep on having a good time forever, and were punished for that, but, as I say, I feel that, if so, the punishment was far too great, and I prefer to think of it only in a Greek or morally neutral way, as mere science, as deterministic impartial cause-and-effect. I loved them all. . .

. . . These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The “enemy” was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.

If you are unfamiliar with Philip K. Dick then you may not know that he had an amphetamine habit in the 1970s. It didn’t last long and I don’t believe he was as heavy a user as some of the characters in this book, but he did once state in an interview, “Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw.” Some of the aspects of drug culture are brilliantly realised and truthful. I have no doubt Dick saw some extraordinarily dark times.

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In the theatrical adaptation Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, Robert Downey Jr. plays Barris and Woody Harrelson plays Luckman.

Note: When I finished reading A Scanner Darkly last week I immediately sought out the film adaptation. I really enjoyed it; a much more faithful adaptation that we might be use to seeing, in terms of plot anyway. There were no jarring changes; one reveal towards the end, which wasn’t actually detailed in the book, made a lot of sense but was a nice twist. Check it out, alongside the book.

Anyone unable to understand how useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.

Like all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, Cat’s Cradle is typically difficult to nail down in terms of genre. To define his books as science-fiction is like calling Moby Dick an adventure book; there’s much more to them than that. It is science-fiction, but there’s a hearty dollop of satire. And while it’s a tragic tale, the way its written reads more like a comedy. Vonnegut’s fourth novel, the book was published in 1963.

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The narrator of this story is John, or Jonah, who is attempting to write on what Americans were doing on the day the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. We follow him on his investigation into the life of the late Felix Hoenikker, the father of the atom bomb that killed thousands in Japan and brought WWII to an end. To learn more about him he contacts thes the three Hoenikker children, still affected by their father’s life and legacy, and it is through them he stumbles across Hoenikker’s last and most deadly invention, ice-nine. A blue crystal like substance, split into three and owned by the Hoenikker children, that upon contact would crystallise every droplet of water it touched, turning the Earth into a blue frozen tundra.

After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has now known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said, ‘What is sin?’ Felix Hoenikker. The bloke who invented the atom bomb. Promising. . .

John’s investigation takes him to the republic of San Lorenzo to interview Dr Julian Castle, where he is introduced to a number of strange and interesting people, including Dr Castle’s son and the owner of the island’s only hotel, Philip Castle, ‘Papa’ Monzano the island’s old and terminally ill dictator, his daughter Mona Monzano, the most beautiful woman John has ever seen, and the three Hoenikker children, Frank, Angel and Newt. And it is through his eyes and writings we witness the end of the world.

“Self-taught, are you?” Julian Castle asked Newt.

“Isn’t everybody?” Newt inquired.

“Very good answer”.

Dialogue throughout is often funny and smart.

“And Father started giggling,” Castle continued.

“He couldn’t stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head and do you know what that marvelous man said to me?” asked Castle.

“Nope.”

‘Son,’ my father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours”.

Vonnegut goes to town creating the wacky island of San Lorenzo, with a rich cast of characters and strange traditions and the fascinating religious movement, Bokononism. Many of the most thought-provoking quotes are Bokononist teachings, and John reveals during his tale that he too has become a Bokononist through his experiences on San Lorenzo.

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To my eyes there are two main themes within Cat’s Cradle. Firstly, Ice-nine, Hoenikker’s technologically (or biochemically?) bewildering invention, clearly representing weapons of mass production (more specifically atomic warfare given the book was published a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis) and the threat their mere existence poses to humanity. The science involved is astounding. . .but ultimately the vast amount of intelligence and hard work has gone into creating something primarily to kill. And as is shown, accidents can happen – it doesn’t necessarily take an evil madman to destroy the world. What is somewhat amusing in the book, but terrifying in reality, is how easily this ensemble of inadequate and flawed characters have access to a doomsday device that can end humanity. We see how recklessly the Hoenikker children use it to get their wants. Angela, for example, gives some of her ice-nine to the Americans in exchange for a stunningly attractive toy-boy husband. Frank trades some of his ice-nine to Papa Monzano of San Lorenzo to be a Major in Papa’s shambolic army. The poor, poverty-stricken San Lorenzo where fatefully, ice-nine is allowed to be unleashed on the world.

I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same. Vonnegut perhaps warming up his war-weariness for his most renowned work, Slaughterhouse 5.

Which leads to the second major theme of Cat’s Cradle, religion. Bokononism is Vonnegut’s calypso/Carribean themed religion, and the native religion on San Lorezno. The general theme is that we are attracted to certain people and objects throughout life, and those within the same group, a karass, are linked and somehow intertwined through the will of God. Within John’s karass is Dr. Felix Hoenikker and his three children along with many of the characters he encounters in San Lorenzo. Members of the same karass often express their love in the ritual ‘boko-maru’, where the bottoms of feet are pressed against one another. Like a sole-shake.

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before,” Bokonon tells us. “He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.” Bokonon, in the Books of Bokonon, admits that it is all a lie, right off the bat. There is no deceit.

Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!

Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy. *foma = harmless untruths

Basically, Bokonon created Bokononism as a relief to those who need it. A lie can be a good thing if it promotes happiness, no? The inhabitants of San Lorezno are thin and dying, starving in poverty. They use Bokononism to make their lives more bearable.

“Papa” Monzano, he’s so very bad

But without bad “Papa” I would be so sad;

Because without “Papa’s” badness,

Tell me, if you would,

How could wicked old Bokonon

Ever, ever look good?

Bokonon’s calypso on Dynamic Tension

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.

Bokonon’s calypso on trying to understand

The very ending of the book shows Bokonon, sitting on the top of Mount McCabe, with a piece of paper containing scrawled handwriting. John approaches him and reads the final words of the Books of Bokonon;

If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who. The final sentence within the Books of Bokonon

That is how the book ends. Does this mean, upon reading this, John finishes his account and commits suicide? Is that the end? It seems likely. To discover Bokonon, contemplating his religion. To see him write like this, why did he carry on the charade of Bokononism all this time, if this was how he really felt? Or did he genuinely think he could make a difference, only for ice-nine and the end of the world caused by the events on San Lorenzo shatter his faith in (God/fate/mankind?)

Short and sweet, written simply with a rapid turnover of chapters, Cat’s Cradle is probably one of Vonnegut’s more accessible books. The warnings of humanity’s self-made destruction in ice-nine and the soothing falsities of religion as themes can be as shallow or as deep as the reader wants to take them. Or you can ignore that all together and read about a strange bunch of characters who together bring about the end of the world as we know it.

Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,

And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.

And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,

Why just go ahead and scold Him. He’ll just smile and nod.

Bokonon’s calypso on the end of the world

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Finally; Winston Niles Rumfoord has put into words his new religion, one that truly can apply to one and all, uniting humankind at last.

Of course, it took a little planning for the Earth to subscribe so willingly to this new, all-encompassing religion. To attain peace on Earth, it took a lot of travelling – but being spread throughout the universe helps. Creating colonies on Mars and leading an army to annihilate and enslave all life on Earth. Ultimately it was a mass suicide, and when the last Martian ship to reach Earth, gleefully fired upon by the Earthlings, was revealed to consist of unarmed women and children, the glorious war was over. Masterminded by Rumfoord, the Martian sacrifice was needed to prolong the horror at the end of the glorious war. A perfect time to introduce his new religion.

“All was forgiven. All living things were brothers, and all dead things were even more so.” The war between Earth and Mars resulted in bringing humanity together, closer than ever before.

It had to be done. Rumfoord should know. He has seen the past and he has seen the future.

The Sirens of Titan, written in 1959 is only Vonnegut’s second novel, yet shows astounding ambition to tackle issues of free will, the purpose of human life and history and insights into the meaning of life.

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Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog Kazak, have travelled through a phenomenon known as a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, located just off the planet Mars. As a consequence, Rumfoord and Kazak are spread throughout the solar system as ‘wave phenomena’, existing along a spiralling path between the Sun and Betelguese, and materialising whenever a planet crosses their path. On Earth for example, he materialises along with Kazak every 59 days in his home town of Newport, Rhode Island.

“Now, you can say your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, 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.” Winston Niles Rumfoord on the nature of facts and beliefs. In the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, it is not always as simple as who is right and who is wrong.

Upon entering the infundibulum Rumfoord became aware of the past and the future. Thus, when Rumfoord makes his consistent, scheduled appearances on Earth he prophesies and predicts, drawing a fanatic following and crowds that come from miles around in an attempt to witness one of Rumfoord and Kazak’s materialisations.

Malachi Constant is a billionaire playboy. Born rich with everything he ever wanted, the luckiest man on Earth. He is summoned to the Rumfoord estate, to visit and speak to Rumfoord personally; one of very few to have such an honour. Constant is told he will be sent to Mars, where he will be bred (with none other than Rumfoord’s wife, who is less than impressed by this latest prophecy), before visiting Mercury, Titan (a moon of Saturn) and finally revisiting Earth again. Clear so far?

What follows is an account of Constant’s life; a life he has no control over, where he loses his identity and memory and is forced to do terrible things. All, seemingly, to greaten the impact of Rumfoord’s new religion, The Church of God The Utterly Indifferent.

On Mars he is Unk. He is controlled by a pain-emitting antenna surgically implanted in his skull. He has no recollection of his life as Malachi Constant. He has raped Rumfoord’s wife (now known as Bea, and now similarily amnesiac like Unk/Constant) and fathered the resulting child, a German kickball prodigee named Chrono. He watches as the entire fleet of Mars launches a terribly ineffective assault on Earth, leaving thousands, almost all Martian, dead.

He is directed via spaceship to Mercury, hidden deep underground for several years with just Boaz and the harmoniums for company. Boaz used to control Unk’s mind with a device, but now they are equal and Boaz keeps his peace of mind by attending the needs of the harmoniums, simple and small, peaceful creatures that feed off vibrations.

“I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I’m doing good, and them I’m doing good for know I’m doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home.” Boaz, on Mercury and the Harmoniums.

Any clearer?

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Obviously I’m skimping on the plot, and I would dread to think that anyone reading this is getting the impression that I found The Sirens of Titan a confusing read and Vonnegut an unclear narrator, because that’s simply not true. It is so readable and accessible, as so much is when written by Vonnegut, even when dealing with some complex and heavy themes.

What I would say is that you are constantly waiting for some sort of payoff – an explanation to these events. This is not a complaint – the book builds slowly and there is a sense of epic expectation. I felt such sympathy for these characters, despite some obvious flaws. After all Constant was a greedy, lazy man, undeserving of his great wealth which he so gladly attributed to luck, he raped a woman and murdered his best friend Stony Stevenson. But, as he later says, I was a victim of a series of accidents. As are we all.

I felt for Rumfoord’s situation of being spread across the solar system, and I despised Constant for his air of superiority. Then I despised Rumfoord for his god-like status and omniscient arrogance and sympathised with Unk’s struggle. Constant is used superbly by Rumfoord…but then we realise Rumfoord himself is being used by a higher agent, which emphasises the lack of free will for these characters.

The final act which takes place on the titular moon of Saturn – Titan – is simply breathtakingly good fiction. We meet Salo, a stranded alien from Trafalmadore, who has been travelling the universe for millions of years with one mission and one mission only – to deliver an envelope containing a message to a worthy but unknown and unspecified destination far far away.

The subject of free will, which is a strong part of Slaughterhouse 5, definitely plays a big part here in Sirens. There are several wonderful ironies. Salo, a machine, has more free will than Rumfoord, a human who has seen the past and the future. Salo, a machine, is programmed to keep his message sealed until he reaches his goal. Yet he reveals it in order to appease a friend. What does that say of free will?

Even Rumfoord, the man who has seen the past and future, is distraught to realise that even he has been used – by a robot, sending out a distress call to its home planet, requesting a spare part for its broken down space ship. We learn that the purpose of human history was to communicate to the stranded Tralfamadorian on Titan. Monuments such as The Great Wall of China and Stonehenge were built by civilisations being controlled by messengers from Tralfamadore.  They were reassuring Salo – letting him know that help was on the way. He just needed to be patient.

The characters within the book are all so varied; the main differences are their beliefs and philosophies, none more valid than another. What does seem to be emphasised, is the meaningless of it all. The utter pointless nature that is life. But it is also reinforced that it does not matter, as long as one makes their own life have meaning in their own terms and values, which is of course different for us all.

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The Sirens of Titan is an intriguing and beautiful piece of science fiction. It is transformed by its final act into a grandiose work of immense scale and immaculate ambition. I found it heartbreaking and humbling but stunningly beautiful. I apologise; I don’t think this post has done the book justice. Scattered and lacking depth, it’s taken me a few weeks to finish writing on it. I loved the book, and I hope that has reflected here as I’ve found it difficult to analyse it coherently.

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.” Bea / Mrs Beatrice Rumfoord, and her thoughts and philosophies after a tiring life of confusion and hardship.

“When you get right down to it, everybody’s having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everyone. And the hell of it is, nothing seems to help much.”

“Take care of the people, and god almighty will take care of himself.”

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

And finally some thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut himself. The above quotes I found particularly moving and informative of his own views. The turbulent events in his life that could lead him to think he was a pawn, a player in a larger plan. The atrocities at Dresden of which he witnessed first hand, blended with further personal and family tragedy. He was a victim of a series of accidents, as we all are. I see this book as an attempt to give meaning to life, to answer those questions that have plagued Vonnegut and countless others over the years, the reason of our existence, the point of it all. Slaughterhouse 5 may be Vonnegut’s most important and critically acclaimed book in his bibliography, but The Sirens of Titan is my preferred out of the two.

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” Malachi Constant, The Space Traveller, on his return from space and his thoughts on the struggle that is life.

For the first time in my short writing career I have submitted a piece of work to a literary magazine.

The magazine is Lighthouse, a publication of Gatehouse Press. Submissions can include poetry, prose and articles, and is aimed at up-and-coming, unpublished authors. They aim to publish a selection of the best work later on in the year.

Check out their site. http://www.gatehousepress.com/lighthouse/

The short story is called Pynzack Magenta and the Art of Displacement. A short work of contemporary science fiction, where an eccentric space traveller struggles to give his life on Earth relevance. About 4000 words approx. Inspired by recent readings of Vonnegut and Philip K Dick.

The deadline was yesterday; the idea itself only came to me last weekend, and it was a struggle to get it written, to a point where I was happy to submit it, in just five days. There have been some late nights but I’ve sent it off, and I said to myself I wouldn’t send it if I wasn’t completely satisfied with it.

If I’m honest, I don’t think the piece I’ve written is totally suited to the magazine (although I’ve only read the sample edition available on the website). I’m not expecting anything at all, but merely submitting a piece of work feels pretty damn good.

There are a few more submissions for UK based publications coming up this summer that have caught my eye, and I look forward to writing with more purpose on a regular basis. Exhausting work but enjoyable, and with a bit of luck, rewarding.

Ubik is a dazzling science fiction novel, which is as unsettling and hard to pin down as it is ambitious and visionary. When it comes to creating worlds and futures, imaginative and brave beyond belief, Dick is right up there. His writing may be somewhat lacking in comparison to the greats. He doesn’t have a distinctive style; a relatively simplistic prose that rarely leaves the reader breathless. Rather, he lets his visions and ideas do the talking, and it is these that compel the reader to continue.

Dick describes to us another fantastic manifestation of his wild imagination. In Ubik, the year is 1992 and space travel is commonplace, with humanity capable of colonising on other planets, including the moon. The protagonist is Joe Chip – an employee of the Runciter Association. They are a ‘prudence organisation’, and Joe is a tester, whose job is to measure and verify the potency of ‘intertials’ or anti-psis. These are individuals who can negate the psychic powers of individuals with psionic abilities, who are often hired to commit acts of business sabotage. Joe’s boss and employer, Glen Runciter, runs the association with help from his deceased wife, Ella. Yes – deceased. Another aspect of the future presented in Ubik is the ability to cryonically store the dead and communicate with them, albeit in a slightly limited fashion. This suspension, known as ‘half-life’, allows the dead a limited state of consciousness and the ability to speak to former loved ones, family and friends.

It touches on, but never really investigates this new culture of psychics and inertials. It’s a fascinating subject – and the fact that Dick goes down a path where they aren’t fully explained is bold. Like I said, I would have expect this great battle between Runciter Associates’ inertials and Hollis’ psis on Luna. But on Luna, the situation changes, and the narrative begins to revolve more around the method of half-life.

Personally, there was some slight disappointment that the plot didn’t go in the direction I expected to. But whose fault is that? Certainly not Dick’s. The pieces were being arranged for a battle between Hollis’ psis, and Runciter’s inertials. And we do get that – kind of. But I expected these psychic and psionic abilities to play a much more forward role, and the half-life technology to take a backseat (as interesting and imaginative as it is).

When reading a book, the majority of the time you have an idea of what type of book it is shaping out to be. A hunch of what is going on, who the main players are, where the plot is going. Ubik is different. As a reader, moments are few and far between where you feel ‘safe’. I attribute safe to understanding. Dick is a master at pulling the rug out from under you. But in Ubik, he yanks that rug chapter after chapter. You will feel battered and bruised, and thoroughly confused.

There are a multitude of characters; the nature of the narrative means some are, not underdeveloped but perhaps underused. The focus remains on Runciter and Joe Chip throughout, with a few more key players being introduced later on. Glen Runciter is a well respected, experienced businessman who is admired by his employees. After the events on Luna there seems to be a real sense of shock at the loss of this great man. But he is resourceful and cunning – the trail of breadcrumbs he leaves for Joe and the group allows them to ‘wake up’ and realise the danger and reality of their situation. And Joe Chip – a faithful employee of the Runciter Association, he is clearly talented and rated highly by his boss and friend Glen Runciter. But he is not without his faults. There is a hint of unused potential, and his poor handling of personal finances and disorganised living quarters is a cause for some ridicule and disrespect.

From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt’s money-gulping door.

“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out. Joe Chip said, “I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.”

The Runciter Association’s main rivals are run by a man named Ray Hollis, who runs an organisation of psychics. Given a lucrative contract by the powerful businessman Stanton Mick, Runciter organises a party of 11 of his inertials, as well as Joe Chip and himself, to travel to Mick’s lunar facilities on the moon, where the anti-psis will be used to negate the telepaths ability and enforce privacy. However a trap has been set, no doubt orchestrated by Hollis to cripple his rival, and a bomb kills Runciter and leaves the rest of the employees in complete disarray. They panic and flee Luna, desperate to escape with their lives and to get the dying Runicter into ‘cold-pac’, so he can continue to advise and run the Runciter Association from half-life.

When that bomb explodes, everything changes. Runciter is killed. Or is he? What follows is a pseudo- crazy trip through time and the past. Reality is seemingly changing radically all around the group, and it becomes clear that not all is as it seems.

A bizarre state of decay and rapid ageing is following the group everywhere. Stale cigarettes that crumble when taken out the packet. And more grotesquely, dried-up and desiccated corpses of the Luna expedition.

Bizarre, existential questions then start being asked within the group. Was Runciter killed in the explosion? Is it, in fact, the group that died, and Runciter that survived? Did anyone die…or are they all dead, communicating with each other in half-life?

At the same time, it appears Runciter is attempting to contact his former employees. Joe Chip hears him through his hotel telephone. His face appears on currency. And most importantly, Joe Chip witnesses an advertisement featuring Runciter promoting a bizarre product; Ubik. At the start of each chapter, an advertising slogan is featured, praising Ubik as some sort of wonder product that can be used for anything and everything. Yet in the narrative it is not introduced until the last act.

Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavour of just-brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow! Safe when taken as directed.

My hair is so dry, so unmanageable. What’s a girl to do? Simply rub in creamy Ubik hair conditioner. In just five days you’ll discover new body in your hair, new glossiness. And Ubik hairspray, used as directed, is absolutely safe.

It appears that Ubik is an agent (most consistently found in the form of a spray can) which can ‘restore the effects of aging’, and has possibly been created by those in half-life – as a way of protecting themselves from stronger, hungrier minds that can devour others in half-life to extent their own time in this bizarre limbo.

I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, then do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.

There are several theories but the strongest comes from Dick’s wife Tessa, who in her essay ‘Ubik Explained, sort of’, she wrote “Ubik is a metaphor for God. Ubik is all-powerful and all-knowing, and Ubik is everywhere. The spray can is only a form that Ubik takes to make it easy for people to understand it and use it. It is not the substance inside the can that helps them, but rather their faith in the promise that it will help them.”

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This is a difficult book to write about. Having read some Franz Kafka recently, I would describe Ubik as incredibly kafkaesque. A spiralling sense of confusion and incoherence. The unease you will feel of an impending danger or doom.

Ubik is a book I suspect the reader would benefit from reading more than once. If I didn’t have such a huge backlog I’d probably be reading it now. But it might benefit from a few months on the shelf as my subconscious tries to figure out what the hell just happened.

We are served by organic ghosts, he thought, who, speaking and writing, pass through this our new environment. Watching, wise, physical ghosts from the full-life world, elements of which have become for us invading but agreeable splinters of a substance that pulsates like a former heart.

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.

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Slaughterhouse 5 follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII soldier who was present during the horrors of the Dresden bombing. A prisoner of war at the time, we read a rambled account of his life before, during and after this cataclysmic event. Rambled you ask? Yep. That’s because Billy Pilgrim time travels, subconsciously. This account of his life takes him from war-torn France to his eighteenth wedding anniversary, to his days in school to his enclosure at the zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, and eventually to his death. So it goes.

Not in any particular order mind you. Billy Pilgrim does not experience his life on a continuous plane, and nor does the reader. How anyone else would experience their lives, as a linear progression of events and ageing as time goes on, is declared absurd. At least, this is what Billy Pilgrim learns from the Tralfamadorians who abduct him and teach him about life, time, free will and the fourth dimension.

The Tralfamadorians are strange alien creatures. Their ideas on free-will and the fourth dimension hugely influence the Slaughterhouse 5’s unorthodox narrative. The events of the novel, zipping backwards and forwards from one of Billy Pilgrim’s life event to the next, is very much how the Tralfamadorians view time. They can see the 4th dimension, and are believers that everything that has happened, is happening or will happen, can’t be changed.

Rather than a straight line, they see time as assembled moments which can be experienced simultaneously, memories and experiences being ‘all at once’.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

The Tralfamadorian in the passage above speaks to Billy on the strange fascination that humanity has with the idea of free will. For them, and by the sounds of it all other life in the universe, all events are structured beyond the control of their participants. In other words, enjoy the ride. This applies to death too. Death is unavoidable and as such there is no fear of it. The Tralfamadorian saying “So it goes” is adopted by Billy Pilgrim and the narrator throughout the book, a casual saying that highlights the nonchalant approach to death. It is not an end, rather another moment that exists at the same time as all other moments one will experience in their life.

“Little Billy was terrified, because his father had said Billy was going to learn to swim by the method of sink-or-swim. His father was going to throw Billy into the deep end, and Billy was going to damn well swim.

It was like an execution. . . . [Billy] dimly sensed that somebody was rescuing him. Billy resented that.”

We can see why Billy Pilgrim finds it easy to believe the Tralfamadorians and refuse the notion of free will. The passage above shows that even at an early stage, Billy Pilgrim had little choice in his circumstances. He was going to learn to swim, and he had no choice in the matter. He would later be rescuing from drowning, and he had no choice in that either. Billy is slightly awkward and a very nervous individual, something which he attributes to his moving through time – he never knows which piece of his life he will have to perform next.

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”

Slaughterhouse 5 is a satirical anti-war novel, or at least that’s what it might appear to be upon first glance. Vonnegut himself was present during the Dresden atrocities, which makes the book somewhat semi-autobiographical. And so it would make sense for the novel to be anti-war. Who better to write it than Vonnegut, who was present and witness the destruction first hand? The unnamed narrator of the book, who introduces the life of Billy Pilgrim, is almost certainly a version of Vonnegut himself. And several times in the novel, he is mentioned as being present. When the American soldiers are emptying their upset stomachs into the latrines, the narrator is there with them. When the prisoners of war finally arrive in the German city of Dresden, the troops are enamoured by its beauty. The narrator pipes up, describing it as ‘Oz’. These mentions keep the book rooted in reality and make its impact more meaningful and believable.

After some time away from the novel (and a chance to let it sink in), I have more of an idea of what this book is meant to be. I’ve reached over for my copy of Slaughterhouse 5 more times than I can count in the last fortnight. Not to give it a proper re-read – not yet anyway – but I find myself skimming through random passages and chapters, much like Billy Pilgrim finds his mind scattered between his life’s timeline.

This is a book which cannot be pinned down by genre. It is a book of Billy Pilgrim’s search for a reasoning behind human suffering. Religion and patriotism don’t really cut it, and so Billy Pilgrim (either in his mind, or for real) leaves Earth for Tralfamadore, where you can experience your good memories and you can never die. Even before birth and after death you can sense something, before being swung back into a memory from within your lifetime.

Billy is indifferent to life. He ends up being in situations against his will – reinforcing the Tralfamadorian notion of fate over free will. He’s dragged to war in a position he hates:

“Billy was a chaplain’s assistant in the war. A chaplain’s assistant is customarily a figure of fun in the American Army. Billy was no exception. He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. In fact, he had no friends. He was a valet to a preacher, expected no promotions or medals, bore no arms, and had a meek faith in a loving Jesus which most soldiers found putrid.”

An uninspiring insipid existence which sums up most of Billy Pilgrim’s life. He stumbles through it. He doesn’t take action. A passenger in his own life. He rarely makes choices. The war, his marriage, even as he grows old his daughter walks all over him. He is an observer to the mindless violence and horror, which eventually drives him (or his mind) to another planet, somewhere where he can attempt to make sense of all this. But even then, he doesn’t discover any of this for himself – the Tralfamadorians teach him all he knows.

Billy manages to survive the Battle of the Bulge where stronger, fitter, better men perish. Fate? He is forced to continue through enemy lines by Roland Weary, a violent but equally inexperienced soldier with grand ideas of war and fighting and heroics. Frequently, exhausted and broken Billy tells Weary and the scouts who accompany them, “You go on. . .You guys go on without me. I’m all right.” But Weary forces him to continue.

Billy, at least later on in his life, seems to acknowledge this indifference to life, and is ashamed and embarrassed as it makes his relationship with his mother unbearable.

“Billy covered his head with his blanket again. He always covered his head when his mother came to see him in the mental ward – always got much sicker until she went away…She upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn’t really like life at all.”

Whilst reading I never had any doubt that Billy Pilgrim’s experiences on Tralfamadore were real; or at least he was convinced they were real. He speaks of the abduction very matter-of-factly

“Billy now shuffled down his upstairs hallway, knowing he was about to be kidnapped by a flying saucer…Billy was guided by dread and the lack of dread. Dread told him when to stop. Lack of it told him when to move again.”

The war plays a huge part of the novel, and obviously shook Vonnegut. War is described using particular experiences. Very little heroics, very few soldiers wanting to be where they are. And for the majority of the book, the soldiers we experienced are prisoners of war. They have no choice, no freedom, no control over their situations. War is not romanticised here, and characters in the book that do look upon it favourably, e.g. Roland Weary or Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, who tries to reason with Billy in a hospital ward they at one time share that Dresden was justified, are cast by Vonnegut as the villains of the piece.

“You were just babies in the war – like the ones upstairs! . . . But you’re not going to write it that way, are you. . . . You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

The wife of the narrator’s war comrade is furious to find out he is to be writing a book on the war and his experiences, as she thinks he will glamorise war. He does not – Slaughterhouse 5 reinforces the pointlessness of war, and the narrator even promises that he will call the book ‘The Children’s Crusade’, which is actually the subtitle to the book itself.

Vonnegut describes some moments that typify war and suffering, and certainly does not romanticise or glorify war in any way.

“Nobody talked much as the expedition crossed the moon. There was nothing appropriate to say. One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no moon men at all.”

In the aftermath of the firebombing that ravaged Dresden, Billy observes the calculated ruthlessness that has murdered a large proportion of a city. When the bombs dropped, no thought was given to who the targets would be – soldiers, women, children…or ironically, American prisoners of war.

“So Billy made a [syrup] lollipop for [Edgar Derby]. He opened the window. He stuck the lollipop into poor old Derby’s gaping mouth. A moment passed, and then Derby burst into tears.”

One of the most noble, senior officers, Edgar Derby, is reduced to tears after tasting syrup; so desperately starving he had been. To see someone that Billy Pilgrim looked up to, as a real gentleman and good guy, dehumanised as a victim of sufferable war, is significant.

“A middle-aged man and wife were crooning to the horses. They were noticing what the Americans had not noticed – that the horses’ mouths were bleeding, gashed by the bits, that the horses’ hooves were broken, so that every step meant agony, that the horses were insane with thirst. . .

Billy asked them in English what it was they wanted, and they at once scoled him in English for the condition of the horses. They made Billy get out of the wagon and come look at the horses. When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears. He hadn’t cried about anything else in the war.”

This is also extremely interesting albeit sad and tragic. Billy cries for the only time during the war. Why? Because of the condition of the horses? The horses are similar to Billy, and the rest of his imprisoned soliders. They are following orders, with no way of making sense of the destruction that surrounds them. Like Billy, they are innocent, but continue marching on, following orders that they can’t possibly understand.

So it becomes reasonable to assume that Billy Pilgrim, understandably, is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of what he has experienced in the war. Suddenly a lot of the strange observations and memories make more sense. Those terribly written but fantastical stories written by Kilmore Trout – a way of escaping reality, or to lose himself within the absurd plots.

When considering Billy’s nightmares, his kicking and screaming in his sleep while on the boxcart in Germany (resulting in the other soldiers unwilling to sleep next to him), easily startled and the flashbacks – not becoming unstuck in time, but relieving moments from the war that he cannot forget.

The prime example of these flashbacks is at his eighteenth wedding anniversary. A barbershop quartet performs for Billy and his fat wife, Valencia. A latent memory from Dresden is triggered, and the effect it has on Billy speaks for itself.

“Unexpectedly, Billy Pilgrim found himself upset by the song and the occasion. . . Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to the changing chords. His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade, and his face became grotesque, as though he really were being stretched on the torture engine called the rack.”

“‘You look so awful.’

‘Really – I’m O.K.’ And he was, too, except that he could find no explanation for why the song had affected him so grotesquely. He had supposed for years that he had no secrets from himself. Here was proof that he had a great big secret somewhere inside, and he could not imagine what it was.”

The whole space travel experience on Tralfamadore is now put into perspective. A way for Billy to deal with the horrors he has seen and can’t explain. An attempt to make sense of the senselessness of war. If we have no free will, and our actions are pre-determined, then it is hopeless attempting to explain and prevent such appalling events such as war and suffering. And so Billy Pilgrim creating a world for himself, where there is no free will, is his way of attempting to comfort himself, his existence and his peace of mind.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.”

This was my first Vonnegut experience, and I loved every word. The genre of Kurt Vonnegut, from what I’ve heard, is primarily a blend of satire and science-fiction. But I don’t recognise Slaughterhouse 5 as a science fiction book. Sure, Billy Pilgrim’s alien abduction and time spend on Tralfamadore comes straight from the world of science-fiction, and Kilmore Trout is introduced along with many of his bizarre fantasy books as a science-fiction writer. But these are fronts. Methods of escape used by the characters. Billy and his mental ward-mate Rosewater read these works of science fiction by a rather poor writer in Trout to escape a reality that they can, or no longer want to face. Billy escapes to Tralfamadore to find explanations to life, suffering, war and the atrocities he witnessed in Dresden.

Poo-tee-weet?” is the final phrase of the novel. Billy observes the charred landscape of a ruined Dresden, met with silence but for the song of birds. The question mark indicates this bird is asking a question, but as we cannot understand it and it makes no sense to us, we have no way of answering. I think Billy Pilgrim (and Kurt Vonnegut) realise that the question of war, and the atrocities come with it, also pose questions that we simply cannot answer. In which case, “Poo-tee-weet?” is as intelligible a thing to say at the end of a massacre as any spoken words we could actually understand when trying to describe the indescribable.

It’s a strange piece of work and anything but coherent. It has dark humour, a meandering plot; it’s beautiful and emotional as you might expect from someone who was present at the time. Make sure you read it before you ‘die’. So it goes.

It’s rare that a work of fiction can have intertwine inherent brutality and horror with startling and delicate beauty. The Road, the 2006 novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy, is a masterpiece indeed.

Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.

A man and his son travel through the wasteland of a charred and ruined America. A cartful of supplies and meaningless possession and each other. An unnamed catastrophe, some apocalyptic event has left the Earth a dead husk and McCarthy documents the man and the boy on their harrowing trek to the coast and further south, in the hope they will find less harsh winters, a source of food and more ‘good guys’. On their journey they scavenge abandoned towns and houses for anything salvageable while making discreet fires at night to keep warm. The threat of starvation and the cold keep them moving while they attempt to remain hidden from cannibalistic bloodthirsty tribes that ravage near extinct life.

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The cause of the end of civilisation and the death of the world is never explicitly stated or explained but subtlety remembered by the man and hinted at within his thoughts. An event at least a decade before the book takes place has destroyed the world as we know it. Animals are extinct, crops are dead and don’t grow, the earth is strangled by ash that hides the sky and the sun. The vast majority of mankind is dead, left to rot in the cities or the countryside or wherever they fell. Those that survive are either good guys or bad guys.

The man and the boy, the father and the son. We never learn their names and apart from sparse understated and often tense interactions with other people on the road, they are the only characters in the book. They are the good guys. After a confrontation where a man pulls a knife and tries to take the boy, the man is forced to shoot him dead.

He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.

Yes. We’re still the good guys.

And we always will be.

Yes. We always will be.

Okay.

And they carry the fire – an expression for hope, for goodness and morality. They do not steal from or kill the living, unless they absolutely have to. They do not eat human flesh, no matter how starving and skeletal they become. They are moving south, away from the inevitable death of another winter, with no real motives other than surviving.

The man also has the unenviable task of trying to instill morals into a boy who has only ever known this hell. He has heard stories of what the world used to be like, of nature and beauty and love, but none of that he can visualise on this earth he walks upon. And while the man is keen to reinforce that they are the good guys, there are difficult moments where he must put their lives first. They are the good guys, but the man is also a hardened survivalist who will do anything and risk nothing. The boy always wants to help, he always tries to see the good in people. But the things the man has seen and done to protect the only thing he lives for have made him tough, and this leads to some heartbreaking moments between the two.

He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die.

He’s going to die anyway.

He’s so scared, Papa.

The man squatted and looked at him. I’m scared, he said. Do you understand? I’m scared.

The boy didn’t answer. He just sat there with his head down, sobbing.

You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.

The boy said something but he couldn’t understand him. What? He said.

He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.

The relationship between the man and the boy is the glue. They are one another. They rely on each other. The man lives because the boy lives.

[The boy]: What would you do if I died?

[The man]:If you died I would want to die too.

So you could be with me?

Yes. So I could be with you.

Okay.

Their dynamic is all of sweet, tragic, heartbreaking. Their dialogue is short and simple, and always flirts towards topics that the man knows they should not talk about, ideas that he does not want the boy to think about.

How would you know if you were the last man on Earth? He said.

I don’t guess you would know it. You’d just be it.

Nobody would know it.

It wouldn’t make any difference. When you die it’s the same as if everybody else died too.

The theatrical adaptation released in 2009 was a faithful adaptation. From pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/304767099759184167/

The theatrical adaptation released in 2009 was a faithful adaptation. From pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/304767099759184167/

McCarthy has never shied away from violence. I wrote about Child Of God back in January, which focuses on a homicidal necrophiliac as a protagonist. Blood Meridian, certainly one of my favourite novels of all time, describes one violent massacre of cruelty and debauchery to the next.

The Road too, deals with troublesome times. It is not concerned with the apocalypse, the whys and hows of it. Simply put, that doesn’t matter – it’s not important. What McCarthy describes in horrifying beauty (a skill indeed) is a landscape dead and man, devolved to such a point where rape and cannibalism is the fear for the ‘good guys’.

An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. [. . .] The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge upcountry. [. . .] Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illcothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each. All passed on. They lay listening.

Are they gone, Papa?

Yes, they’re gone.

Did you see them?

Yes.

Were they the bad guys?

Yes, they were the bad guys.

Avoiding starvation and freezing to death is only half the battle. Devolved monsters who have survived by carrying out despicable acts and ruling over the weak. The above quote hints at slavery, caravans that walk across the country looking for any other survivors to enslave.

He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

Jesus, he whispered.

And the insinuation the passage above gives is scarier than anything I’ve ever read, watched, hell experienced in any form of media. We are given a glimpse into what some people are willing to do, and perhaps think they have been forced to do, in order to etch out life and survive during these end times.

For me The Road is compelling and breathtaking. When a writer has a level of mastery of language and storytelling that McCarthy does, the scenarios covered can be violent and despicable, yet still a work of art and elegance. It just works. Their struggle is real.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee play the man and the boy respectively in the film adaptation. http://fanpix.famousfix.com/picture-gallery/viggo-mortensen-picture-14375239.htm

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee play the man and the boy respectively in the film adaptation. http://fanpix.famousfix.com/picture-gallery/viggo-mortensen-picture-14375239.htm

You feel the cold as the rain starts to beat down on their tarp. You feel their hunger as they rut around in the dirt and ashes of another abandoned house to find nothing but empty tins and rotting meat. You feel their fear as a party of cannibals rumbles past, wagons being pulled by slaves and victims destined to become their sustenance. It is depressingly bleak, and sometimes the brutality of this hopelessness winds you. As a reader, it can be punishing. Questions raised that one shudders to ponder and dares to consider answering.

I wish I was with my mom.

He didnt answer. He sat beside the small figure wrapped in the quilts and blankets. After a while he said: You mean you wish that you were dead.

Yes.

You musnt say that.

But I do.

Dont say it. It’s a bad thing to say.

I cant help it.

I know. But you have to.

How do I do it?

I dont know.

The man is frequently forced to consider whether this suffering, this existence is worth it. His wife clearly did not think so. Having seen the horrors awaiting she takes suicide over being rape and murdered and eaten.

Will you tell him goodbye?

No. I will not.

Just wait till morning. Please.

I have to go.

She had already stood up.

For the love of God, woman. What am I to tell him?

I cant help you.

Where are you going to go? You cant even see.

I dont have to.

He stood up. I’m begging you, he said.

No. I will not. I cannot.

She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He’d taught her himself.

And she leaves him and the boy, alone. The discussion on suicide had been made, clearly. He had taught the wife and he had taught the boy on what to do. But he couldn’t do it, not while there was hope and not while there was still the boy.

They trekked out along the crescent sweep of beach, keeping to the firmer sand below the tidewrack. They stood, their clothes flapping softly. Glass floats covered with a gray crust. The bones of seabirds. At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as eye could see like an isocline of death. One vast salt sepulchre. Senseless. Senseless.

Anyone familiar with McCarthy’s writing will not be surprised how he makes the dead earth so believable. The way in which he glides through landscapes is metaphoric poetry.

Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.

And while we spend the short days and long cold nights with these two survivors, through daydreams and nightmares the man recalls how the world used to be. The beauty that is now so long gone and forgotten it is a sadistic joke almost best erased from the mind entirely.

Lying under such a myriad of stars. The sea’s black horizon. He rose and walked out and stood barefoot in the sand and watched the pale surf appear all down the shore and roll and crash and darken again. When he went back to the fire he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept and he said if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different.

Pain when the memory fades, and we are confronted with the truth, the here and now. All there ever has been replaced by the reality of all there ever will be.

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

And so you can understand and rationalise the reasoning behind the man when he tells the boy;

Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.

You forget some things, dont you?

Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.

Yes, there is a horrid bleakness to the so-called ‘existence’ that the boy and the man are living. It hits you like a tonne of bricks. It’s like a living hell. It’s easy to label the book as depressing. But it reaffirms how beautiful our world is, to appreciate what we have, and in retrospect gives true importance to our world. This is what McCarthy does so fantastically. He reinforces how beautiful our world is by creating something utterly terrifying, putting characters we care about and sympathise with in unimaginable situations.

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There is an eloquent warning within. A post 9/11 plea for peace or a warning of the dangers of climate change? Or simply a book about faith, love, never giving up in the face of insurmountable odds. McCarthy is believed to have said that the book was dedicated to his son, a love letter to him so to speak. Perhaps that’s what the The Road truly is. Not science fiction, or horror, but a love story.

You have to carry the fire.

I don’t know how to.

Yes, you do.

Is the fire real? The fire?

Yes it is.

Where is it? I don’t know where it is.

Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.

Written by Aldous Huxley and published in 1932, Brave New World presents us with a distant future. Utopian or dystopian? Huxley had a strong education in science and his passion for satirical work combined with his societal commentary led to this masterpiece. Brave New World will forever be compared with Orwell’s 1984 and for good reason; the parallels are obvious, with both dystopias predicting a reduction in individuality for the good of society. I couldn’t pick a favourite between the two (favourite might be the wrong word in this instance – it’s like choosing between the chair or the noose) but in terms of bleak, thought-provoking, eerily believable prophecies for the future these two novels are rightly at the top of the pile.

Huxley introduces the reader to the new world values by including us on a guided tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre with a group of school boys being shown around by the Director of the centre. In the year A.F.632 (After Ford, named after Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. Ford is treated like a god, and shows that religion has almost been replaced by technology. A lifestyle mechanized by the efficient production that Ford pioneered) (A.D. 2540), The World State controls civilisation. Individuality and free will have been sacrificed, in order to promote happiness and consumerism for the good of society and civilisation. A totalitarian government which makes the rules, all the decisions purely for the benefit of society with the help of science and technology.

Life is created on a conveyor belt, eggs and sperm fused to create children which are ‘decanted’ and raised in the hatchery; basically assisted reproduction, with babies being ‘made’ in high-tech test tubes. Each fetus is predeterminately allocated into one of five ‘castes’; alpha, beta, gamma, delta and epsilon. Alpha and beta are developed naturally along with stimulants, and generally become the more intelligent and attractive members of society. Gamma, delta and epsilon development cycles are deliberately interfered with to cause slightly lower intelligence and physical growth. They are effectively created to become working class – standard office work to repetitive factory or cleaning work (‘epsilon work’). And so every foetus, baby, child, is perfectly made to their role in society. Teaching is done through conditioning and hypnopaedic processes such as messages spoken aloud to them in their sleep that seeps into their subconscious. Citizens are never unhappy or unfulfilled with their role in society, as they have been ‘conditioned’ to be satisfied with their position.

So artificial reproduction has fully replaced natural reproduction as we know it now, in fact the natural method is verging on taboo – an almost unbelievable joke, an antiquated disgusting practice and contraception is mandatory. This is seen as a good thing, as sex and sexual promiscuity is actively encouraged, and from a young age. Partners are not taken, one is free to procreate with whoever they want, whenever they want and everyone belongs to everyone else.

Everyone is created for a role, and everyone is happy with this role – they don’t know any differently. Everyone is happy.

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Well, nearly everyone. Bernard Marx is an alpha who is discontented with the World State. He has physical imperfections (for example, he is slightly shorter than the average alpha) that mean he is not as desirable as others. So in this world of promiscuity and recreational sex, he does not feel fulfilled. To make matters worse he feels love and attachment, to a beautiful woman named Lenina Crowne. He hears two of his colleagues talking about how they have ‘had’ Lenina, angering him that she is being treated like a piece of meat when in fact Bernard is the strange one – in the World State everyone belongs to everyone else. State organised ‘orgy-porgy’ is a biweekly event and people spend their free time on expensive dates, having casual sex with many different people while high on soma.

What’s more, Bernard is outspoken of his dissatisfaction of life in the World State. He openly criticizes soma, the government created and approved legal drug that allows the population to safely cope with anything unpleasant or upsetting. There are no side-effects, no health related problems; a hallucinogenic with no sign of a hangover. They have created a drug with no ill-effects, and so the population can use it whenever they are feeling down. Bernard however, would prefer real unhappiness than a fake happiness.

Bernard’s only true friend is another misfit, a man named Helmholtz. Like Bernard, he is unhappy with the control The World State has on its citizens. The difference is Helmholtz is physically perfect and handsome. He has to turn down offers of foursomes and various invites to prestigious dinners as they bore him. In a way, Bernard is disillusioned because, as an alpha he is too weak; Helmholtz because he is overpowered. He feels sympathy for Bernard – whereas Helmholtz can somewhat get away with his grumbles, Bernard’s inferiority makes him a target for rumours and ridicule (many within Bernard’s office speculate that alcohol was spilled during his incubation process as a foetus).

Lenina finds Bernard strange but intriguing, and agrees to visit a Savage Reservation with him. The Reservations are areas which for various geographical and economical reasons were not viable locations to ‘civilise’, like the rest of the world. So they remain as a reminder of what primitive life used to be like. Upon witnessing several old-world traditions (religious ceremonies, boys being beaten, old age, sickness and disease), Lenina is disgusted and severely disturbed whereas Bernard a twisted voyeur observes, fascinated. They are introduced to John, a white male with fair hair, in contrast to the dark skinned indigenous population, and his mother Linda, an overweight ‘disgusting’ alcoholic. We find out that the Director visited the Reservation some years ago with Linda and due to a storm Linda was stranded and abandoned to live the rest of her life in the Reservation. This hit her hard; having grown up in the World State, she was punished and outcast due to her conditioning, for instance having sex with the married men in the tribe.

John has suffered in the Reservation for being so different and therefore feels isolated and lonely. And when offered by Bernard a chance to see this ‘brave new world’ he jumps at the chance. Bernard may have an agenda however; knowing that the Director has planned to ship him away upon his return, realises a chance for blackmail against the Director by bringing back both John and Linda – the Director’s son along with John’s birth mother. The embarrassment this would cause; natural birth of course being utterly laughable, a hilarious awkward joke from the strange old world ways.

While Lenina, forcibly moved by the horrors she has witnessed, takes enough soma to knock her out for eighteen hours, Bernard gets permission from Mustapha Mond himself to bring John and Linda back, as a ‘social experiment’.

And so the narrative changes somewhat to accommodate John in this new environment, and he becomes the main protagonist. Rejected by both the ‘savage’ culture and alienated by the unfamiliar and strange ‘civilized’ World State, he is a true outsider. We as readers are interested and highly sympathetic towards him, eager to observe how he adapts. But Linda decides she has suffered enough and wants nothing more than to spend the rest of her days in a soma-induced coma, despite knowing this will shorten her life significantly. So it is with John, along with Bernard and Lenina, to experience modern civilisation. As you might expect it does not go well. For John, the words from Shakespeare’s Tempest O Brave New World…”, at first uttered in excitement and wonder at the thought of escaping the Malpais and travelling to the World State, soon return to haunt him as he repeatedly mutters them bitterly and ironically as he experiences the new world and civilisation for what it truly is.

For once in his life Bernard is wanted and relevant, achieving celebrity status for bringing back the ‘savage’. But in reality the citizens who desire his company are still revolted by him and soon desert him when John refuses to be used as a circus act in order to keep Bernard popular, and Bernard is brought back down to earth and reality instantly.

As the novel progresses he comes across as increasingly cowardly and pathetic. Yet the reader is still interested in him as a protagonist and can have some sympathy as he is so different to the rest, and wants for things he cannot have.

At the despair of a jealous Bernard, Helmholtz and John are very similar and instantly have a connection far deeper than Bernard and John manage; both love poetry, are intelligent and critical of civilisation and the World State. As you might expect however there are still extreme cultural differences. John was given The Works of William Shakespeare as a child and, as one of the only books available to him, became like a bible to him. He learnt to read and is well spoken as a result. Even when Helmholtz sees the genius in Shakespeare’s poetry, he cannot help but laugh at the mention of mothers, fathers, and marriage—concepts that are vulgar and ridiculous in the World State. The conversations between Helmholtz and John illustrate that even the most reflective and intelligent World State member is defined by the culture in which he has been raised.

In my opinion, the pièce de résistance of Brave New World comes during a tremendous discussion of freedom, science, happiness and the World State’s control over civilisation between Mond and John the Savage. This after John goes mad and starts a riot in a factory by throwing soma rations out of a window, crying “Free! Free! You’re men at last! You’re free!” Along with Bernard and Helmholtz, they are taken into custody and a meeting with Mustapha Mond.

The bottom line of Mond’s point and the reasoning for The World State’s stance is there is a complete and utter incompatibility between truth and happiness. Trying to pick quotes is tough as the whole chapter is riveting. Each side (Mond vs Helmholtz, John and a quiet and tame Bernard) have their merits.

Mond discusses soma with John. He tries to convince him that, in soma, the World State have created a method in which humanity can deal with unpleasant emotions.

“And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears—that’s what soma is.”

John rejects this notion of soma as too easy, too simple. There needs to be suffering.

John the 'Savage' nails it perfectly. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/369647081888235473/

John the ‘Savage’ nails it perfectly. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/369647081888235473/

“All right then,” said the savage defiantly, I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

(Mond) “Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat, the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”

There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.”

Bernard and Helmholtz meet with John after he is dismissed by Mond, and he confesses.

“I ate civilization. It poisoned me; I was defiled. And then,” he added in a lower tone, “I ate my own wickedness.”

John realises ashamedly that he was wrong to initially show wonder and joy at some of the more superficial aspects of civilisation (and perhaps also, his encounter with Lenina, in which he very nearly gave into a lustrous urge and had sex with her – frowned upon in his culture but perfectly normal in the World State). Due to his learning and education leaning heavily on The Works of William Shakespeare during his youth, he struggles to cope with the lack of humanity and traditional values in The World State.

Eventually Mond decides to exile Bernard and Helmholtz from the World State to separate islands where some of the old world values remain, and which he somewhat envies as they will spend the rest of their lives free with like minded people. Mond had revealed that he was at one time a scientist and a free thinker, and was given the choice of exile or to step up into the World State and serve ‘happiness’.

John however is denied the punishment of exile. Mond, almost sadistically informs John that he cannot leave so that this ‘experiment’ can continue. John, determined to exist outside of the hell of this new world, escapes the city and takes up residence in an abandoned lighthouse in the country. A delegation of journalists, tourists and intrigued onlookers continue to pester him, shocked and awed by his ritualistic self beatings, savage and . Their bloodlust causes a riot, where Lenina arrives to try and comfort the Savage. In a confused and hateful rage he begins to whip himself, then Lenina, and in a frenzy the crowd of excited civilians beat each other and themselves. Before long the scene is rife with writhing people, induced with soma and arousal and violence.

In the brutal final scene, John awakens, remembering the orgy that he unwillingly participated in the night before. Disgusted at his part played in the debauchery and unable to cope with this brave new world, John hangs himself in the lighthouse and his swaying body is found by a crowd anticipating another night of drugs and sex.

The fundamental conflict within John of his values, his learnings, all he has taught and experienced against the vastly different reality that is modern civilisation is too much for him to bear. An insanity which he could not adapt to.

The disturbing aspect is how logical this brave new world is. Forget freedom, everyone is happy. Everyone has a purpose. There is no unrest because people are conditioned to be happy with what they are ‘designed’ to do. As a society it’s efficient and a well oiled machine. It’s unnatural and automated…but ashamedly I can nearly see the sense behind it.