Saturday, October 20, 2007

the last book I read

The Sirens Of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.

It's the 22nd century, and Winston Niles Rumfoord is in a slightly odd position. After flying his private spaceship into a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, he - and his dog - have been smeared into a sort of quantum energy wave thing, and materialise in various parts of the universe for the short period when those parts intersect his waveform. One of the consequences of this is that he appears for an hour or so on earth every 59 days; another consequence is that he knows everything that has ever happened or will ever happen. Which is nice.

Malachi Constant is the richest man on Earth. Summoned by Rumfoord's wife Beatrice (at Rumfoord's request) to the latest materialisation, he is sent (or, more accurately, manipulated into going) by Rumfoord on a bizarre series of adventures involving being press-ganged into the Martian army, repeatedly brainwashed, marooned at the bottom of a cave system on Mercury, brought back to Earth briefly and then fired off to Titan to (it transpires) deliver a vital spare part for a stranded alien whose race have been manipulating human history to their own ends.

This was only Vonnegut's second novel (published in 1959) and it's much more orthodox SF (indeed much more orthodox novel-writing, period) than his later stuff. It's all relative though - though this has much less of the authorial intrusions and general smart-arsery that I found slightly trying in later books like Breakfast Of Champions, it's still recognisably Vonnegutesque (to quote Bridget Jones). You'll remember me banging on in similar vein around the time of Vonnegut's death back in April.

What it mostly is, though, is a sneaky attack on organised religion, from the comical randomness of the events described, to Rumfoord's Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent, to the whole business with Salo the alien on Titan - if life on Earth is designed and/or manipulated by a higher power, then why does it have to be God? Why not tangerine-coloured space aliens trying to co-ordinate the delivery of an intergalactic head gasket from Kwik-Fit? And then there's this rather lovely quote:
....a Universe composed of one trillionth part matter to one decillion parts black velvet futility.
Its influence on Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy books is obvious, in fact Adams himself said as much in interviews while he was alive.

Only one criticism, really - the quote on the back (also printed, with exactly the same wording, inside the front cover, so it's not a random misprint) reproduced here: doesn't anyone proof-read these things? That would be MeaninglessNESS, presumably. Otherwise, hats off to the Gollancz SF Masterworks series - lots of other good stuff to be found here as well.

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