“Cat’s Cradle” or how long does science fiction take?

By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

I just finished rereading Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut as I go through my idea to reread his novels in the order that he wrote them.  (Why?  Possibly because I didn’t realize Player Piano was his first novel and I wanted to put it in context with what followed it. Maybe a love of order?  Maybe I just wanted an excuse to read Vonnegut.)

As I was reading, a passage from pp. 86-87 of the Dell Paperback, copyright 1963, struck me a little differently, especially due to the news out of Washington, New Jersey and Maryland.  I’ll give you most of the whole thing:

‘He’ll never marry her.’
‘Why not?’
‘I’ve said all I’m going to say,’ she said.
‘I’m gratified to meet an indexer who respects the privacy of others.’
‘Never index your own book,’ she stated.
…(paragraph break)…
Sometime later, Ambassador Minton and I met in the aisle of the airplane, away from his wife, and he showed that it was important to him that I respect what his wife could find out from indexes.
‘You know why Castle will never marry the girl, even though he loves her, even though she loves him, even though they grew up together?’ he whispered.
‘No, sir, I don’t.’
‘Because he’s a homosexual,’ whispered Minton. ‘She can tell that from an index, too.’

I point this out, not because I think Vonnegut is making a moral judgment or an opinion on homosexuality, but rather its place in 1960s America.  In a plane with only a few people on board, homosexuality is something to be whispered about and is not appropriate for regular conversation.  It’s almost fifty years later and now gay marriage is legal in some countries and states, but still not even viewed as decent in others.  In fifty years, that seems a pretty big difference in acceptability, from what I captured in less than a page in a book and then moving to Stonewall, Harvey Milk, Rock Hudson and many other moments as the conversation on gay rights has evolved.

Despite being assassinated in office more than 30 years ago and posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, there's still no U.S. postage stamp to commemorate the "Mayor of Castro Street"

Fifty years can be examined in two ways. In the view of all of time, it is but a blip.  In the view of a single lifetime, it can be everything. (R.I.P., Whitney Houston, 1963-2012.)

For people fighting against injustice, they can fight their whole lives and never see change.  The Fifteenth Amendment, giving people the right to vote no matter, “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified in 1870.  The Nineteenth Amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”  It was ratified in 1920.

Along the way, both before and after these dates are times where rights for both groups improve and recede and there are many landmarks.  Just looking at one though, 138 years after African Americans had the right to vote, an African American became president.  92 years after women got the right to vote, there has yet to be a female vice-president or president.

Barack Obama, inaugurated as president in 2009, and made the cover of The Amazing-Spider-man

Unless you are very lucky, both of those time spans cover more than one complete life.  Fortunately there is happiness and joy from smaller milestones and hopefully those can make the setbacks of a lifetime more palatable.  To me and I’m sure many others, the U.S. Presidency is one of the ultimate proofs that you can do anything in this world, and until the time you see it done, open doors everywhere still might seem like a pie in the sky idea.  However, even the U.S. presidency doesn’t guarantee that racism or sexism will stop.

Those are the big issues and the important ones as far as equality and kindness to our fellow humans go.  However, generally when we talk about science fiction books, we talk about technology.  We talk about different ways of looking at things (ice-nine!) and future possibilities.  Does every aspect of our life really move that slowly?

In the 1890s, Thomas Edison and Louis Lumiere created the ability to make a motion picture.  Thirty years later came the first “talkie.”  Thirty years later and color pictures are ubiquitous.  Twenty years after that and most homes have a VCR and the ability to watch movies at any time of day in the comfort of their own home.  Ninety years from beginning to end of this timeline, and you see how the world has changed for viewing images, people and places from all over the world as you sit in your comfy chair, though the endpoint could be argued as arbitrary.

Another one I find interesting relates to baseball and F.C. Lane.  Almost 100 years ago, he argued that the press didn’t measure the contributions of baseball players correctly.  Today, after Moneyball and many, many blog posts by intelligent, interesting and rabid fans of the game, we have started to actually measure the contributions of baseball players in that way.

In his 99.5 years, F.C. Lane not only became the first sabermetrician, but wrote about a variety of subjects

In the even broader picture, for music we went from wandering minstrels to prominent people owning musical instruments in their homes. We went from having to know how to play an instrument to have music in our homes to pressed vinyl.  We went from pressed vinyl to reel to reel to 8-tracks to cassettes.  We went from a Walkman to a Discman to an iPod and its increasingly small forms.  Where we used to depend on a single person to crack their knuckles and tickle the ivories around 220 years ago (Mozart died in 1791 and if I remember my Amadeus correctly as my source for history, that’s exactly how life in those times was) we can now hold thousands of songs by thousands of artists in our front pockets.

You haven't heard Mozart until you've heard him in the original 8-track format.

As a friend likes to say, “Change equals death.”  (I don’t think he got it from Woody Allen, but who knows.)  Even on the small things and the things we know we want, it takes us a bit to adapt, to figure out how things work, to make things better.  As The Artist shows, not even the idea to make movies with dialogue was met with universal approval.  But, when change does happen, eventually we all adopt it and it comes to pass as “normal.”

When we look at science fiction, we look at the future, we look at what’s possible and at the same time, we look back to when the book was written to see from where we came.  Those dreams give us a chance to imagine a better world through love and technology in a time that so far to date, is always tomorrow.  (As it says in The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, entitled “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”  “Nothing.”)  Those glimpses back sometimes let us know how far we’ve really come and sometimes, it is a little bit more than nowhere.

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