Tag Archive: Kurt Vonnegut


By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

I’ve gotten in and out of reading comic books several times in my life.  I couldn’t tell you where the comic book store was when I lived in Columbia, MO.  I found one when I lived in Delaware.  There wasn’t one for miles when I lived in the mountains (but I found a baseball card shop).  I knew of and visited at least six comic book stores when I lived in Kansas City and I visit about the same number in Los Angeles.  I’ve visited them when I’ve made brief stops in London, England and Austin, Texas.  I had subscriptions to several Marvel titles when I was in junior high and didn’t have to worry about getting my parents to take me to the comic store.  One day a comic would arrive in my mailbox covered in the plain brown paper wrapping that I would later associate closely with either comics or porn.

A map of comic book stores across the U.S.

Still, every walk into a store is like a step into a colorful, inedible candy shop and I start to wonder, what I’m going to take home in my brown paper bag.  I like recommendations quite a bit when I look for new things (and that’s why on Free Comic Book Day as I went to a few of my favorite stores, I picked up All-Star Western and Justice League Dark) but since my time in Kansas City, my main focus for when I look on the shelves of whichever store I find myself in, is new material by past favorite authors.  That’s why on Free Comic Book Day I also picked up Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, who has entertained me in several stories like Pride of Baghdad, Runaways and Y: The Last Man.  Saga looks to be a great start to another captivating yarn as I ripped through both issues I bought as I curled up to relax on Sunday night.

However, I must ask myself, is using the past a logical way to pursue entertainment?  Are past performances indicative of future returns, unlike financial instruments?  How can you tell when to jump off the creative train of a favorite author?

This reminds me of a game a friend and I play every now again based on the Fellini movie, 8 1/2.  The film deals with the creative process and my friend and I used it as a jumping off point to analyze the careers of creative people by asking, “Does X have eight unarguable classics to their name?”

It’s tougher than you think.  To be able to create eight works of art is an accomplishment in and of itself, and to make eight super-duper terrific things, well, that’s a rarefied air.  Of course, everyone has a different opinion of what a “classic” is, but we generally know that Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark are both Steven Spielberg classics, where War of the Worlds and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull don’t come close to reaching the same height.  Even though I’m not a huge Spielberg fan, he gets to eight relatively easily as you could add E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me if You Can to Jaws and Raiders and you get seven, though there are a few flaws, but I quibble.  Finding an eighth movie among The Color Purple, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Munich and Jurassic Park should be easy.  George Lucas on the other hand, I think he’s lucky to get two.  I suppose I’m saying that at this point, going to see a Spielberg film may be a bit more of a question mark than it was in the 90s, but if you gave me a choice between Spielberg and Lucas right now, there’s no question I would choose to see a Spielberg film.

Looking at my favorite movies over the past few years, Midnight in Paris has reinvigorated my belief in Woody Allen and I’m more likely to see his next film.  The quality of Marvel’s movies Thor, Captain America and The Avengers makes me more likely to go see non-sequels put out by Marvel Studios.  (Iron Man 2 still leaves a poor taste in my mouth. That’s what I get for licking the screen).  True Grit cemented my love of the Coen brothers, which I had before the movie as I’ve seen every one of their films.

My point?  If you like the creative work of a person, you’ll probably like their other work.  Looking at my bookshelf filled with several novels from Kurt Vonnegut, quite a few selections from Alan Moore and most every film by Wes Anderson, I probably didn’t need to do much thinking about it.  Still, it’s nice to come to that conclusion and know that when I roll into a comic store, I can find some Brian Michael Bendis, some Matt Fraction, some J. Michael Straczynski, some Neil Gaiman, some Jason, some Craig Thompson, some Daniel Clowes, some Kurt Busiek or many others and be happy when I get home, turn on the lamp and snuggle beneath my covers.  Plus, there’s always a chance I can stumble onto many more authors in the future through sheer luck, the recommendations of friends or the recommendations of the people I meet while wandering the aisles at my local comic book stores.

Review by C.J. Bunce

Out of the frying pan, into the fire.  Ted Bentley was just served his lay-off notice and is free for the first time in years to make a fresh start.  He was tired of the politics of the job, making and building with no knowledge of the point of all he did.  But he was determined to make all that change.  His plan was to go directly to the top and work for the Quizmaster, specifically Quizmaster Verrick, as one of Verrick’s biochemists.  But if you’re living on Earth in 2203 that means giving Verrick a fealty oath.  What Bentley did not know was that the oath he had just taken was a personal oath and not a positional oath–to Verrick, who was just removed as Quizmaster.

In the world of Philip K. Dick’s first novel, Solar Lottery, first published in 1955, society is upside down.  Western philosophy is no more.  Over-production became the problem of our future and all the excess is being burnt on an ongoing basis.  Natural law is at the fringe of society.  Statistics and odds and predictions and luck ultimately lead to the lottery as the means to divvy up goods across the world.  And power.  The ultimate prize?  The title of Quizmaster and with it the ability to run the Quiz itself.  But power corrupts.

Enter one “unk”—a member if the “unclassified class”–one Leon Cartwright, still driving a 1982 Chevy in 2203. Somehow he knew he was going to replace Verrick.  But how?  Armed guards arrive to take the new Quizmaster Cartwright into protective custody.  He now has supreme power of the nine-planet system, surrounded by a vast army, warfleet and police force, and a telepathic Corps, all to protect him.  And, unfortunately that includes a publicly appointed assassin to attempt to murder him.  Worse yet, a million gold-dollar bounty has been put on his head by ex-Quizmaster Verrick to call out anyone to take down his replacement.

With a world based on a lottery system, the real focus of day-to-day life is loyalty.  Who are you loyal to, and who is loyal to you?

Dick’s future world, where television commercials are the highest art form, is as complex, innovative–and as desperate–as the future dystopia of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron.  The chaos around such a planned and unforgiving system runs far deeper and resonates better than later efforts at a random selection-based society like those found in much later works like The Running Man, The Hunger Games, or even Logan’s Run.  And there is something more ancient here that is harkened back to, something more primeval, like the search for a new emperor in ancient Rome that resulted in the crowning of Claudius, five Hills that run the industry of the planet mirror the hills of Rome, and the concept of “protectors” that individuals must give fealty oaths to almost has a Cosa Nostra vibe to it.

Class conflict, transfers of power, the role of the individual in society, stolen identity, artificial intelligence, Machiavellian constructs, reality exploited on TV, and fake realities created for TV–it all can be found in Solar Lottery.  Look for a plot that moves forward like a freight train.  As strange as this unfamiliar world is for readers, Dick has no problem putting his characters in exciting, grave situations.

Dick’s dialogue includes great, crazy lines, like “During the Final War the big research installations at Livermore were hit by a Soviet missile.  Those who survived were badly bathed. We’re all descendants of one family, Earl and Verna Phillips.”

Early concepts later to be seen in Total Recall, Blade Runner, and Minority Report can be found in this very first novel from Dick, showing that he took no time to ramp up his storytelling.  Oddities of other, later science fiction works by other authors are here as well, including Star Trek: The Final Frontier’s “Great Barrier,” real world avatars, and the pursuit of the unknown in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  A hallmark of Dick novels are his ability to include an enormous array of prophetic ideas, some as full-on plot points, other as merely passing thoughts.  Like all future predicting science fiction writers of the past, some things don’t play out, outdated gender roles that never seem to let up in Dick’s works, the entire planet-impacting economic societal change happening before the 1980s.  If you’ve read Dick before you notice he “over-describes” the female anatomy and often relegates women to annoyers of men.  If you can overlook that, you’ll find more redeeming elements to take away from the book.

Then there are other ideas, like GM building space vehicles and a news network run by Westinghouse—both companies still around more than 50 years after Dick wrote Solar Lottery.  Who knows what will be re-conjured for the future?  The only thing that doesn’t dazzle is maybe one too many denouements and a title that is not very interesting.  But don’t hold that against this solid debut novel from such an important author.

As with all Philip K. Dick novels, Solar Lottery is still widely available.

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.

By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

American Gods is a pretty wonderful book and I can’t help but think about what a friend said after her husband read it.  He said, “I think this book would have blown my mind if I read it when I was eighteen.”

I can totally relate to that and I don’t mean it as a criticism, it’s just that it’s those years that really are the time when we explore religion.  We take the actual step into adulthood.  Eighteen is the age to go off to college, to find a job, to move out of the house and find your way in the world.  Faced with such a change in lifestyle, we all contemplate what it all means.  Is it money?  Is it happiness?  Money may not buy happiness, but it certainly makes it easier, right?  (I mean, how many of the fights that we saw between our parents were about money?)

If it is money, then we can measure how well we do in life by the amounts of money we make.  There is a measure to tell us how well we are doing.

Then after four weeks working at a campus snack bar, we hope that isn’t true.  Getting to the level of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Carlos Slim seems to be way out of reach.

So, maybe it is happiness.  Maybe we can find it and “win” at life.  So, we go to the local Christian church to find the joy, the power of an unconditional love and forgiveness.  We know that there will be trials and tribulations on Earth (and we’ve seen that first hand with that first paycheck that will never, ever come close to paying our rent), but if we love our neighbors, if we follow those commandments, if we turn the other cheek, we will find eternal happiness in about 49 years.

However, as teenagers, that seems way too far away and won’t help us at all with the possibility of missing our cell phone payment or a lifetime of chronic masturbation that faces us if we can’t get a date for this weekend.

How do other cultures find happiness?  Soon we look at the stories of heroes, of rebirths, of meditation, of inner peace and we can pick and choose what we like and what we don’t (or maybe we find a religion that suits us perfectly in every which way – though like a political platform, I find that less and less likely.)

Then we come to the realization that we’re the only person that believes in the combination Hindu-Buddist-Norse-Egyptian-Aztec-Judeo-Christian-Flying-Spaghetti-Monster belief system that we’ve described and defined in a three-ring notebook complete with commandments, tenets and a very liberating dogma.  That also means that the weekly prayer meetings are very lonely and dates for many of the following weekends look less and less likely if we keep following this path.

At that point, we look for things that help us to connect with more people.  Instead of being the only person under the age of twenty, thirty or even forty at an Audubon Society meeting, maybe we start to volunteer at the campus radio station.  Instead of constructing a really cool Dungeons and Dragons adventure that will probably never be played by another living soul, but if it was, they would get so many experience points, we sign up to go to football games with a big group from our dorm floor.  Instead of going home right after work, we think that a beer does sound like a good idea with the rest of our co-workers because they know the bartender and he’ll let us drink even though we’re underage.  Instead of living in a dorm, we join a fraternity, an organization that promises friends, lifetime bonds and the chance to meet girls on a regular basis.  Instead of staying home for the weekend, we go to WonderCon, DragonCon or many other trade shows/festivals where there are thousands of people with the same interests.

Soon our beliefs are that there is no way the Yankees will ever miss the playoffs, Batman is so much cooler than Superman and we have had enough dates to actually hold an opinion on the question of whether blondes are better than brunettes. (The answer is brunettes.  For now.)

We have found happiness.  We have surrounded ourselves with friends that like to do the same things, that love to talk about music, movies, comics and sports and we share the cool things that we find with each other.  We are no longer tied around a building where a lone figure talks to us from a stage on Sunday mornings, but rather a bunch of like-minded folks that we connect to on a daily basis, there for us when we need to keep busy to forget about money, break-ups or our other problems.  Sure, there are still those occasional Sunday meetings 6,000 strong in Hall H at San Diego’s Comic-Con listening to Steven Moffat, or the Sunday afternoon 30,000 strong in Dodger Stadium, because we all generally still have that day free to follow what we believe.

We believe in watching our DVR’d episode of Community.  We believe in community.  It may not include a promise of eternal life (or it may because we have just added our faith in the Christian God to our other beliefs) but it is a promise that our days don’t have to be spent in solitude, that as Kurt Vonnegut proudly exclaimed, “Lonesome No More.”

Would this book have been better as I transitioned to being an adult?  Sure.  Is it great now that I have become an adult and can look at all of my beliefs, my loves that I have brought around the world and thought about so furiously (please, please, please, let the St. Louis Cardinals win and let Albert Pujols hit three home runs for my fantasy team; please, please let Hurley survive the island; please, please, please let “Dogtooth” win an Academy Award) and wonder how they would effect the world Neil Gaiman has created?  Absolutely.

A book through the eyes of a child, a teen and an adult can be three very different things.  I may not know how American Gods would have affected my younger self, but I do know that it made for some really cool reflections and an enjoyable read right now.

Back in Beginner Computing class in junior high, we learned the BASIC computer language on Commodore VIC 20s.  The first program you learn to write is this:

10 PRINT HELLO

20 GOTO 10

The end result is a loop, printing the word HELLO over and over again infinitely like this:

HELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLO

HELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLO

HELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLO

HELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLOHELLO …

It’s an easy way to illustrate a temporal loop or time loop, a recurring story element in science fiction and fantasy works.

In 1905 Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  He didn’t mean this literally.  As science and science fiction would later speculate, repeating the past may be a possibility one day.

It is difficult to determine who first put the literal repeat of history into story form, but it is a recurring science fiction device that is often used to great effect.  Classic sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick used the time loop in his 1975 short story “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts.”  The best and most well known example of this is the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, where for for some unknown reason a weatherman’s day is repeated until something happens that is supposed to happen–he gets the day exactly right.

Unlike later uses of this device, in his short story Philip K. Dick did not express the element as a repeat of the actual narrative story, but an explanation of cause and effect.  In his story, time traveling astronauts go on a mission, where destruction of the mission results in a time loop that may or may not result in the preservation of an eternal life for everyone.  We don’t see the result, but hear from the tempunauts they have been there, done that, before.  Over and over.

Usually use of a time loop on sci-fi/fantasy genre tales involves at least one person being able to realize the existence of the repetition.  Bill Murray’s weatherman knows the day is repeating in Groundhog Day.  Yet the other characters are not aware at all.  In other uses, characters get to experience deja vu or even fatigue from living time over and over.

This week’s episode of the Syfy Channel’s Haven, the series based on a Stephen King story, is titled “Audrey Parker’s Day Off,” and is one of the best of the series so far.  The main character Audrey Parker, played by Emily Rose, wakes up to repeat a day after she comes upon a death at a crime scene.  She is in bed with friend Chris, played by Jason Priestley, to whom she must explain a different plan for each new day.  In each new day she tries to figure out how to not cause any death, by changing the variables of each day.  In the context of the mystic “troubles” the town of Haven is dealing with, Audrey as the only person person unaffected by the troubles.  With Audrey the show uses this story device quite well.  The parallels to Groundhog Day are unmistakable, but viewers can’t help but like it when it is adapted in a new way as was done here.

Jason Priestley may be strangely tied to time loops, as he also appeared in a television series entirely about time loops, called Tru Calling, one of borg.com’s favorite series.  In Tru Calling, a graduate student and morgue worker named Tru played by Eliza Dushku is able to relive days in the hope of saving the life of someone who died on that day.  Usually she has several opportunities to do this.  Priestley’s character later in the series comes along as an agent of death to undo the seemingly good that Tru has been doing.  His view is that Tru is interfering with the proper course of events, as if only one timeline is correct, and with him it is the first timeline.

Early Edition was another series focusing on the ability to “do over.”  The loop also occurs in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Life Serial,” on the series Eureka in the episode “I Do Over,” the X-Files episode “Monday,” and the Xena, Warrier Princess episode “Been There, Done That.”

In theaters now is the fifth film in the Final Destination franchise.  This series presents a variant on going back to change the past, without the ability to try again via repeats, although with the character of Clear played by Ali Larter in the first two movies, the repeat effort seems to be there all the same.  In the world of the Final Destination films, an individual lives out a horrible accident, then snaps back in sort of a deja vu state, with only seconds to try to prevent the course of events from happening.  However, like Priestley’s character in Tru Calling, an unseen power, like his agent of death, is set about to return the normal and proper timeline, even if it means the death of dozens.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s hero Billy Pilgrim similarly becomes what Vonnegut calls “unstuck in time”.  He has no choice, he appears in various stages of his own life, but with the choice of changing events.  This also happens in the episode of Angel called “Time Bomb.”

Captain Picard  (Patrick Stewart) experienced the same problem a few times in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  In  the episode “Tapestry,” John de Lancie’s omnipotent character Q plunges Picard into the past to allow Picard to not only revisit his past, but to change it if he wishes.  With no regrets, Picard changes nothing, even when that means a Nausicaan will again put a pool cue through his heart, resulting in Picard again needing an artificial heart for the rest of his life.  But whereas revisiting the past in story form has been around for centuries–think Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol–a temporal loop requires repeated visits to the past.  Luckily Scrooge gets it right after merely watching his past, and Q is just fine with Picard’s choices the second time around.

Actually the best Star Trek representation of the temporal loop is the Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect,” which might as well be an essay on how time loops work.  The episode starts with a poker game between the bridge officers.  The ship then experiences a temporal distortion and a ship comes out of nowhere to collide with the USS Enterprise, resulting in the destruction of both ships.  Then we have a commercial break, and the show appears to repeat again.  I know of at least one person who almost turned off the show, thinking there was something wrong with the network feed.  Brilliantly, the audience must be confused.  What did we miss?  In this story, characters are impacted by the repetition, they feel tired, and they experience deja vu.  Luckily Lt. Commander Data figures out how to leave a subtle clue for the next repeat, allowing him to save the ship before the end of the hour of the episode.  His crew had been repeating the event for mere days, but the other ship caught in the anomaly, the USS Bozeman helmed by a captain played by Kelsey Grammer, has unknowingly re-lived the same day for decades, and the show ends with Picard informing the other captain of some pretty bad news about his lost time.  Breaking a time loop is also the focus of the Charmed episode “The Good, The Bad, and The Cursed.”

Writers use time loops again and again because they are fun, and modern audiences understand them, mostly because of the success of Groundhog Day.  In fact in this week’s episode of Haven, “Audrey Parker’s Day Off,” when Audrey explains all this to Interim Chief of Police Nathan Wournos, his response is “you’re stuck in my second favorite Bill Murray movie.”  When on the following day Audrey has to explain the recurring events yet again, she cuts him off when he is about to repeat the line and finishes it for him.

C.J. Bunce

Editor

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