Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death couples World War II with the fictional story of Billy Pilgrim, a war veteran who travels freely through time. So he says. Known as Vonnegut’s most popular and influential work, it was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel (losing both to The Left Hand of Darkness). It has frequently appeared in “best of lists” such as Modern Library 100 Best Novels and Time magazine’s 100 Best English Novels (written since 1923).

Listen. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (first published in 1969) has come unstuck in genres. It started as autobiographically and ended as a science fiction, metafiction, and postmodernism stew. It has stumbled to the terrible bombing of Dresden in 1945 and has flown to the planet where the aliens come from. It is above all a satire and a anti-war book, blending the two together hilariously… well if you like black humour that is.

All this happened, more or less.

The book is told anachronistically, beginning with the author deciding to write a book about the war and choosing Billy Pilgrim as the person whose life he would narrate. Billy Pilgrim is, like him, a war veteran. However he claims to have become unstuck in time – freely travelling between all the events of his life. As such the book travels with Billy as he lives his life… moving between his war days, retirement, life as an optometrist, time as victim of an alien abduction and retirement in haphazard manner.

– Why me?
– That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
– Yes.
– Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.

The writing style is short and to the point, almost declarative, despite the relatively complex content. Indeed time time-travling in the story is used to highlight the relationship between fatalism and free will. The aliens (Tralfamadorians), and eventually Billy, believe in fatalism. This is because the aliens live in 4 dimensions, the fourth being time, allowing them to see all events that are happening, will happen and have happened.

All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. […] “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.”

Slaughterhouse-Five has made Kurt Vonegut an author I’ll be sure to look out for. It has coupling the fantastic and mundane in a narrative that is witty, haunting and compelling. The style and nature of the novel may not agree to all… Indeed I may be so trite to repeat that cliche, “You’ll either love it or hate it.”. All I can say is that this book is a new addition to my favourites.

[The book] is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

Kurt Vonnegut – How to write with style

In 1985 Kurt Vonnegut wrote “How to Write with Style”, wherein he outlined 8 rules for great writing.

  1. Find a Subject You Care About

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

  1. Do Not Ramble, Though

I won’t ramble on about that.

  1. Keep It Simple

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’

  1. Have the Guts to Cut

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

  1. Sound like Yourself

The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench. […] I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

  1. Say What You Mean to Say

I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

  1. Pity the Readers

Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

  1. For Really Detailed Advice

For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. E. B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.


A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Time by Stephen HawkingBriefHistoryTime

Popular Science

“Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity’s deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.”

A Brief History of Time, From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking was first published in 1988. It aims to give the public a general understanding of the scientific theories of space and time – focusing on the nature, formation and possible end of the universe.  The book is a bestseller and was on the Sunday Times bestseller list for 4 years.

The books begins by overviewing the development of scienitific ideas of the nature of the universe and how objects move. Hawking begins with Aristotle (340BC) and ends with Einstein’s theories of general and special relatively. He discusses the major implications of these theories; namely the Big Bang and singularities. Thereafter, Hawking moves on to the second major field of physics – quantum mechanics. Here he begins with the necessary description of the uncertainty principle, and follows on with a description of the elementary particles and forces that exist between them. With this background explained Hawking switches focus to that of black holes – showing that although general relativity predicts the existence of black holes, quantum mechanics shows that black holes are unstable and will eventually collapse. Having described what was then known of the universe, Hawking considers the various theories of the formation and fate of the universe, and the nature of time. The book concludes with a discussion about the ongoing of a single, complete, unified theory of the universe.

The rate of progress is so rapid that what one learns at school or university is always a bit out of date. Only a few people can keep up with the rapidly advancing frontier of knowledge, and they have to devote their whole time to it and specialize in a small area. The rest of the population has little idea of the advances that are being made
or the excitement they are generating.

The book was published in 1988, and since then research in physics has progressed substantially. Over the years newer editions of the book have been published to alleviate this problem, but the most recent was published in 2005, and is still dated. While the major theories have remained relatively unchanged, new ideas and details have developed. For example the newly discovered Higgs Boson is not included in the section on the fundamental particles. Despite this dated-ness much of the ideas of the book would still be unfamiliar to those without a tertiary education in physics.

Hawking successfully  reduces and simplifes the highly technical and complex subject matter allowing it to be readily understood. Instead of delving deeply into the underlying mathematics he principles are explained through descriptions, analogies and diagrams. Also he doesn’t go into any great depth on a topic – he is merely providing an overview that touches on the big ideas and thoughts of physics. This lack of depth is both a good and bad point – at its current level the book is easily understandable, going into anymore detail would most likely reduce its potential audience by making it more complicated and less understandable. If one still wants mroe detail there are other more specialized books available.  A downside of this brevity is that in places the book definitly feels rushed; a topic is introduced and soon dropped to maintain the level of the book.

Overall I would consider this to be an good popular physics book whose major distinction is that of having been written by one of the leading scientists of our time.

What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?

Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?

Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time


War in media

You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be portrayed 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.

– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – tv adaptation

Jonathen Strange & Mr Norrell has previously appeared on this site. I draw attention to it once more as a miniseries adaptation of it has arrived to much celebrating on my part. After watching the series I admit to being impressed – it is a good series in its own right and is a much better adaptation than that which we poor readers normally receive. It currently holds a rating of 8.5/10 on IMDb. And without further ado, here is the trailer to Jonathen Strange and Mr Norrell:

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett has died.Sir-Terry-Pratchett

The words resonated as I tried to understand.

Terry Pratchett has died. One of my most loved and delightful authors has passed away.

No more new tales full of laughter and delight …. no more hilarious tales of a cowardly wizzard, of friendly Death, of witty witches, of the incomparable  Ankh-Morpork.

Terry Pratchett … you will be missed.


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic. They were gentleman-magicians, ClarkeJonathanStrangewhich is to say they had never harmed any one by magic  – nor ever done anyone the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel, by  Susanna Clarke, is one of my favourite books. It’s set in Regency England (1800’s – the time of Napoleon) and reads like a wonderful historical fiction that just happens to be about the return of magic to England by the two titular magicians. It is a thoroughly different fantasy – this is blatant from the beginning. It’s this unusualness that prevents me from recommending it to everyone – I am aware that some people dislike the book for the same reasons that I enjoy it. You see this isn’t a quick-paced quick read – as it’s hulking size should suggest. It also isn’t the typical quick fantasy read filled with action, magical battles and easy going prose. Nor is it typical of the ‘saga’ type of fantasy, with their hosts of characters and sprawling sequels – this is a stand-alone book (although rumours of a ‘sequel’ set in same universe exist) with, as the name suggests, only two main characters.  I am not alone in my love of the book – it won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, reached number 3 on the New York Times best-seller list and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is currently being adapted for a BBC One Drama.

Oh! And they read English novels! David! Did you ever look into an English novel? Well, do not trouble yourself. It is nothing but a lot of nonsense about girls with fanciful names getting married.

The basic premise is that once, long ago, magic thrived in England. It reached it’s pinnacle during the time of the Raven King – a human raised in Faerie who ruled Northern England for 300 years. Ever since, magic has declined and in 1806 all magicians are theoretical magicians – gentleman scholars who talk about what magic once was. The reason of the decline is unknown and when the York society of magicians attempt to discover why there is no magic in England they find out that there is one last practising magician –  Mr Gilbert Norrell. This reclusive bookworm decides that it his duty to restore English magic to it’s former glory – well actually, only the parts he thinks are proper and respectable. He enters the public sphere, after some difficulty, and demonstrates that magic is still a force in the world.  While doing so he accidentally sets in motion events that spiral beyond his control and knowledge.

It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.

So why do I like this book so much?

For a start the prose is brilliant. As the book is set in the 19th century the writing style is a pastiche of the time period’s writing styles (think Austen and Dickens). It is witty, moving, scary, sarcastic, compelling… fantastic. Clarke has an incredible gift with language – using the right words at the right time to create her multifaceted world – be it mundane or magical, it is written wonderfully. This is a book to read slower than normal to savour the descriptions and the wonderfully snarky narrator.

Mr Robinson was a polished sort of person. He was so clean and healthy and pleased about everything that he positively shone—which is only to be expected in a fairy or an angel, but is somewhat disconcerting in an attorney.

The story is character-driven and is not a sequence of magic battles, duels, explosions and all that action-ey fluff. Even though there is war in the book it presents itself atypically. In fact, this book could easily be recommended to people who don’t normally read fantasy – although magic is an all important part of the story it isn’t treated in the normal way. Magic doesn’t solve all the problems and neither is it a stand-in for some part of technology. It’s this all-powerful, mysterious, otherworldly force that is unpredictable and not understood despite the countless years of its study. Of a greater importance to the story are the characters, they are complex and interesting – there wasn’t one character that made me groan, “Oh, not her again…” (Sansa and Perrin – I’m talking to you).

I’d like to end with a quote by one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman, on this book:

Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years. It’s funny, moving, scary, otherworldly, practical and magical, a journey through light and shadow – a delight to read.