Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1963

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a number of books that were satire, and were insightful comments into human behavior; he used to weave in the areas that caused the strongest of human emotions such as organized religion, different brands of politics, and the quest to run our daily lives. The name of the book, Cat's Cradle, is derived from a string game (played with strings manipulated by the fingers of both hands), and is used because the fictional character of one of the leading scientists, Felix Hoenikker (a fictional character, and a leading scientist, who played a key role in the creation of the atom bomb) was playing Cat's Cradle when the atom bomb was first used. Felix was a hard nosed scientist who did not care about what his inventions would do, and was indifferent on the uses of his invention. This attitude in the book was based on the real life experiences of Vonnegut, who used to interview scientists from GE as part of an effort to generate some good stories from the research work ongoing.

The primary character of the novel is a man called Jonah, who wants to write a book that details what some important Americans were doing on the day that a nuclear bomb was used, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. During his research, he gets acquainted with the family of Felix Hoenikker, Nobel award winning physicist who was involved in the creation of the atom bomb. Jonah soon learns of another creation of the scientist, a chemical called ice-nine, a pretty dangerous material that freezes water even at room temperature, and can do so even if it is one crystal of the material coming into contact with a huge amount of water.
Soon, Jonah is on his way to a Carribean island of San Lorenzo, a very poor island that is ruled by a dictator, "Papa" Monzano. San Lorenzo has a religion called Bokononism, which is very popular in the island, and is a new type of religion, combining peaceful rituals with a nihilistic thoughts about humanity and God's role. Soon, a series of events occur in which Jonah is handed over the Presidency of the island, and ice-nine causes first the death of the ailing dictator, and then a freak accident causes the freezing of the entire water of the earth's oceans and seas, causing mass deaths. It is then revealed that the book is a memoir written by Jonah.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1963

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Odessa File - Frederick Forsyth (1972)

After the Second World War, there was a quest to hunt for the Nazis to bring them to justice, and yet, a number of them were never caught. Some of them escaped to various countries in South America, others were co-opted by both the Western and Communist countries and some of them tried to stay underground in Germany itself. There has always been the belief that there was an organization called ODESSA (Wikipedia link) that sought to provide an environment in which former SS (the most feared and devoted Nazi) members would be supported and provided escape routes, and such an organization would seem logical as the war was ending, and former SS members knew that they would be persecuted by both the Soviet and Western forces. No less a Nazi hunter than Simon Wiesenthal believed that such an organization existed and accounted for how SS members managed to escape the manhunt.

Frederick Forsyth normally researches his novels in great detail, and you can see the results in this novel itself. The novel details the way in which ODESSA works, and how a reporter manages to get involved with the network. The story is set in 1963, and deals with Peter Miller, a freelance crime reporter who reaches the apartment of a suicide victim - the suicide is that of Salomon Tauber, a Jewish Holocaust-survivor from the Riga concentration camp, which was commanded by Eduard Roschmann, also known as "The Butcher of Riga" (wikipedia). He soon obtains a diary, which records that Tauber had witnessed Roschmann shooting a German Army captain.
After finding that there is not much resolve to convict ex-Nazis, he is approached by former concentration camp survivors and soon, he is determined to get into the ODESSA. After some training, he manages to get inside after meeting a lawyer who works for ODESSA. He slowly starts getting information on the entire system, but a chance mistake means that he is revealed, and now there is a hitman after him. It is now a quest to get away from the hitman while trying to get Roschmann. Will he succeed ?

The Odessa File - Frederick Forsyth (1972)

Mother Night, a book by Kurt Vonnegut (1961)

Mother Night is partly a war story, and a spy story (with the syping done during the war), but is more than that. It does not do much about fighting, or about combat, more about the life of a playwright who lives a double life as a spy, and ends up at the end of the war as a shell. The book is a depiction of the plight of the person who ends up with a double identity at the end of the war, a spy who survived the war (not something that a lot of spies did), who feels that he is nationless now, and cannot find anything worthwhile to have as a means of living (the one true love he had, his wife, died during a war battle). In the end, you end up with a person who has no will to live. Part of the message of the book is 'you end up being what you pretend to be', and and hence people should be very careful about whatever they try to become.

The story (written in first person) is about this guy called Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American citizen who moves to Germany after World War 1. He stays on in Germany after Hitler comes to power in 1933, and since he is a playwright, he continues to write plays. He associates with members of the Nazi Party, and cares for 2 people - his plays, and his wife Helga (also the actress of his plays). Soon, he has an encounter that sets the stage of the remainder of his life. He meets with a man called Frank Wirtanen, from the US War Department (the US Government did not have a separate spy agency at that point of time), who asks him to become a spy of the US. Campbell refuses, but Frank tells him to think it over.
As the war starts, Joseph Goebbels is the propaganda minister for the Nazis, the one who turned the art of propaganda into a convincing weapon; part of Goebbels assignment is to convert enemies to their cause, and Campbell becomes a part of that effort, rising in esteem and becoming more and more allied to the effort. He would be reviled for his role as a loyal supporter of the Nazis, and criticized as a war criminal. However, Campbell is also a spy for the US, working for the OSS (Office of Strategic Service - the agency that later became the foundation for the CIA), passing on messages through his speeches; however, Campbell does not know the content of the messages he is passing.
However, in the middle of the war, he gets a real shock, when his wife Helga is presumed dead when she was caught in a camp (where she was entertaining German troops) which was over-run by the Soviet Army. Later, near the end of the war, he has a slightly unpleasant conversation with his father-in-law, in which his father-in-law basically tells him that he always suspected that Campbell was a spy, but he was good at his propaganda work that it over-shadowed everything else he may have done. When he is captured by US forces, he gets released due to the efforts of Wirtanen.
Campbell moves to New York City, living a lonely life without any adventure, until there is a confluence of events. He is sought by a Soviet agent looking to re-build his career, by a white supremacist, by the FBI, by the sister of his wife, and by Nazi hunters. He however is almost beyond caring.
Eventually, there is a sequence in which he gets caught by Nazi Hunters, and taken to Israel. What happens to him, to a person who is beyond caring, but who was not a war criminal, but instead a spy who was very effective.

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1961

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut (1952)

The Player Piano was the first book by Kurt Vonnegut, and was published in 1952. The book was strongly drawn by the experiences of Vonnegut, in terms of his having seen the introduction of a large new milling machine to do a complicated cutting job, and how workers saw this as a trend whereby the dignity of workers deriving from their jobs would be destroyed. Vonnegut was working in General Electric at that time, and he visualized a world whereby there would be a large scale mechanization of society; and this automation of the world caused a huge disruption to the quality of life. The society is split into the upper classes (managers and engineers who keep society running), and who also keep a close watch on each other to ensure that they are dedicated to the faith and believe in this concept of society.

The second class in society is the dispossessed, the lower or working classes who job have been taken away and who suffer. Unless a person has graduated, there is no possibility of upward movement. If this entire concept seems familiar, then that is logical, since this was also the basis for the incredible 'Brave New World'.
Why name the novel as 'Piano Player'. It is possible that you would have seen this device, which is a scroll coded with the music to be played, and which replaces the human who would play the piano. The keys actually move up and down, and the sounds are produced by the piano, just that the keys are controlled by the unwinding scroll. This is a representation of how society is replacing human roles by automation. In the book, one of the friends of the main character, is seen playing a piano controlled by the piano player, representing the replacement of automation by humans.
The novel is about Doctor Paul Proteus, a rising member of the society, being made in charge of one of the largest such factories of the Ilium Works, but who has worries about what humans have become. Through a set of circumstances, he gets involved with the Ghost Shirt Society society (and even becomes its chief), who want to get back to a time when humans were in control.

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1952

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Sirens of Titan by author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, (1959)

The Sirens of Titan was a novel that was nominated for a Hugo Award, published in 1959. It is acknowledged to be one of the best books by Kurt Vonnegut, even though he has several other famous books such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions. The book is not actually true science fiction in the mould of books by writers such as Asimov or Arthur C Clarke, more in the lines of satire, a satire on humanity. The book is especially critical of concepts such as religion, treating religion as a concept that can make its followers do weird acts, as well as how these concepts are used as a powerful weapon to influence people, and equally and weirdly, how people allow themselves to be influenced by such use of religion.

This novel was controversial, given its treatment of religion, and churches, and how the fervor of the book was seen to be almost similar to Marxist disdain for religion. At the same time, there are a huge set of fans of Vonnegut, who cannot understand the controversy about the book. The book should be seen as a funny and humorous look at overall society, and this book is indeed pretty funny.
The novel is supposed to be about the richest man on Earth (in the 22nd century), Malachi Constant, who is extremely rich, but whose life is mostly stagnant. In actuality, the novel seeks to portray the entire human existence, its civilization, its development, all this as something that was necessary only to help an inter-galactic traveller. This traveler, called Salo, from a place called Tralfamadorian, is a robot meant to carry a message to another galaxy. However, his ship breaks down, and needs a new part. And this is where the meaning of humanity takes on a different air, since the entire human existence and development was meant for the level of civilization to reach a point where this part can be manufactured and given to Salo.
Constant is actually manipulated by a strange set of events, manipulated by Winston Niles Rumfoord. Rumfoord is a person who knows the past, present and future, and can appear on different planets, primarily because his ship entered a strange phenomenon called 'chrono-synclastic infundibulum', something not defined, but which gives him strange powers.

The Sirens of Titan by the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, published in 1959

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Avenger - Frederick Forsyth (2003)

If one were to describe the main hero of the novel (The Avenger), one would call him a superhero of sorts. This is a person who is able to plan superbly, fight easily, and fulfill missions. Frederick Forsyth writes thrillers (he ran into similar problems that others did when the Cold war ended, and numerous plots between the East and the West could not be spun). Forysth is famous for detailed descriptions of the elements of his stories, based on a lot of research. He writes about people and jobs that we do not know too much about in detail, such as big businessmen, spies, mercenaries, gangsters, politicians, senior government officials, etc. And of course, there is a twist always there in the tail, there will be something in the end that is surprising.

The Avenger is basically the story about this lawyer in his 50's, who runs triathlons to keep in shape. He is Colin Dexter, a Vietnam War veteran who was involved in one of the most dangerous missions. Described in great detail, the mission was part of a group called the 'Tunnel Rats' who climb into the massive underground tunnels dug by the VietCong (with many traps and chances of getting killed very high). He and his commanding officer survive the war, although a large number of their unit does not.
Colin now has a new mission, something that he got into once his family disintegrated after his daughter got involved with Latino gang members and was killed after being forced into prostitution. He tracked down the gang members and killed them one by one, although his wife died due to the pain. He is now a small and unknown lawyer, but is also contactable as a man called 'The Avenger'. He will, for a fee, find a person from anywhere and get him back to the US for trail.
He has been put onto a mission where a volunteer US young man served in the Bosnian war, and then went missing. The man's grandfather is an extremely rich man, and hires The Avenger to find out what went wrong, and if somebody was involved, to get him for justice. And then starts the hunt, the man leading the mission in Bosnia was a sociopath called Zoran Zilic, a hitman for the Serbs, who moved out of there when that war ended and became an asset for a faction within the CIA who want to use him to get an upcoming terrorist, Osama Bin Laden (this happened before the September 11, 2001, attack). Colin has to stay a step ahead of Zoran and the CIA team that wants to stop him. Can he do this in time ?

The Avenger - Frederick Forsyth (2003)