Review & Analysis: A Clergyman’s Daugther

A Clergyman's DaughterA Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a remarkable, depressing work. Whenever I read Orwell I feel I should weep for humankind afterwards. The tone of his novels is largely negative, but not in a cynical way. Even though you could call some of his psychological observations cynical, that’s not the tone I get from his writing. Instead, Orwell’s writing can only be called tragic. This comes as no surprise, seeing as he was a democratic socialist writing in the early twentieth century, a soldier in India for the British Empire, and a witness to several of Europe’s bloody revolutions. Any man with those beliefs and in those situations would have to walk away from it mourning what we’ve become.

A Clergyman’s Daughter is the story of Dorothy, a pious and overworked young woman who’s dedicated her life to caring for her selfish father and his failing church. She’s also devoted to the Lord’s work to the point she pricks herself with a needle for any less-than-perfect thought she has, something which happens at least fifty times throughout the day. When she finds herself wishing she didn’t have to scrub an old lady down from head to toe as part of her Christian-based philanthropism, well, that’s a prick of the needle right there! The fervor with which she punishes herself for having thoughts any human being would have in her situation is astounding, but also tragic, as this only makes her more miserable, while making nothing better. Orwell’s opinion of the effects of such religious devotion are made quite apparent by introducing this idiosyncrasy into his leading character of the novel.

Yet, unappreciated and stressed to the point of near-crippling anxiety, Dorothy eventually faces a mental breakdown and suffers a mild case of amnesia as a consequence. She finds herself living out several adventures after this, one of which includes becoming a teacher at a fourth-rate private school, whose owner is the most abominable of human beings. “Different girls, different treatment,” she says as she shows Dorothy her ledger of which students’ parents pay their school fees on time and which don’t.

While the middle section is a failure–and possibly why Orwell wanted this work scorched from the face of the Earth–I think the novel is without a doubt a masterpiece. It’s heartbreaking. It’s intelligent. It’s a book for very few. Most people would get bored reading this and not understand the points Orwell is making, but for the rest of us who do, sadly, this novel only leaves us weeping for the state of humankind and mourning the futility that is trying to make the world a better place.

Review & Analysis: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Philip K Dick first saw the script for Bladerunner, the film adaption of his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, he wasn’t too happy. In an interview with Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, he even professed to having a nightmare in which he was on set for the film’s shooting, strangling Harrison Ford for “ruining his book.” This reaction, though, is to the movie’s original script. Dick was much happier after it was revised and some substantial changes were made, but I can’t help but wonder if this was simply complacency, relief at seeing an improvement—when any improvement at all would have done—upon the script which had so radically changed the meaning of his novel. In Bladerunner, many of the same themes present in the book are explored, but the takeaway is that the faux-humans, the replicants, are to be pitied in their struggle to attain humanity, while in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the androids are something to be hated.

The the narrative of the novel follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter tasked with killing a rogue group of androids who have assimilated into human society. The novel also follows John Isidore, a brain damaged “chicken-head” who works for a shop that repairs broken, electric animals. This theme of simulacrum pets is present throughout the book; on the dying planet of Earth, where nuclear fallout has led almost all animal life to near extinction, the remaining human population has come to value owning an authentic animal. Because of this, a market for electronic animals has sprung up, with the main consumers being the less affluent members of society who covet a higher stature, e.g., men like Deckard. Yet, Deckard resents the electric sheep he and his wife own, and longs for an authentic animal—an animal he doesn’t have to lie to his neighbors about being electric—hence him agreeing to chase down six androids all at once, his eyes on the bounty.

Another theme present throughout the novel is the religion of Mercerism—an element of the novel wholly left out of the Bladerunner adaptation—and the empathy box: a device the religion’s followers use to connect with one another on a global scale, whereby they share one another’s feelings, giving away their sadness or joy and receiving some other indeterminate emotion in return. When Deckard comes home after purchasing a real goat, his wife becomes ecstatic and suggests they tune into their empathy box to share the emotion with their fellow followers of Mercer. Deckard remains hesitant, stating that he’d like to keep the joy for himself. His wife calls him selfish, pointing out that if happy people didn’t use the empathy box, then people would only be sharing their misery with one another when they tuned in. She says it isn’t their joy alone to have, but that it belongs to the rest of the world, and it’s their religious duty to give their joy away whenever they come cross it. What the end goal of this religion is is never clear, but the world building employed in this depiction of self-sacrifice and communal suffering is remarkable, and it’s one of my favorite elements of the novel.

As the events of the day progress, Deckard begins to sympathize with the androids he is hunting down and killing. Though he realizes they are not human, that they do not possess empathy—the distinguishing factor in the novel—he still appreciates the fact that they are intelligent and thinking beings, each with a desire to live. Deckard has to force himself to look past these qualities when he performs his duties, but each time he “retires” an android, his conscience eats at him more and more. One of the androids on his list turns out to be an opera singer whose voice he enjoys. This android, against its own better judgement and advice from its fellow escapees to lay low, puts herself in the spotlight all because she cannot resist her love of art. Though she is not human, Deckard finds it difficult to kill such a creature without aggravating his conscience.

Meanwhile, three of the six escaped androids Deckard is hunting have taken up residence in John Isidore’s apartment, befriending him and taking advantage of his loneliness and longing for companionship. They ignore Isidore and treat him quite rudely, even forcing him out of his own apartment to run an errand for them. At this point in the novel the reader may feel ambivalent towards the androids. On the one hand, their callous disregard for Isidore demonstrates their lack of empathy, but on the other, their cooperation with one another shows just how much they long for a community of their own.

Yet, any doubts as to whether or not the androids can live alongside humanity are squashed when Isidore comes back from his errand, carrying a spider in his hand. Ecstatic at having found a real living creature still surviving in the wasteland of Earth, Isidore eagerly shows the spider to his new friends, wanting them to appreciate and marvel at its beauty just like he does. Instead, the androids stare at the spider curiously and begin wondering aloud why the spider needs eight legs. To Isidore’s horror, they begin to pluck the poor creature’s legs off one by one, testing to see how many they can remove before it becomes immobile.

It’s here that the reader sees why Dick thinks beings without empathy cannot live alongside us. Their callousness towards Isidore—and their lack of care for preserving what few remnants of the natural world there are—reveals just how inhuman they are. The androids, while thinking creatures with emotions, hopes, and desires, are far too distant from real humans to share a community with them. They will harm living creatures, not because they are evil, but because they simply do not recognize what they are doing; they lack the empathic faculty, the ability to consider the conscious experience of beings other than themselves.

So, the novel leaves us with an important question: should we empathize with living things that cannot empathize back?

If the sympathy Dick elicits from the reader for the opera singer Rick Deckard is forced to kill is any clue, then the answer is yes. We should empathize with such creatures. We should empathize with any thinking or feeling being with even a mote of sentience.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean such things should be allowed to exist—or, at least, exist alongside us. If something possess volition but also lacks empathy, we cannot bring it into our society, the communities where we care for those who cannot care for themselves, our children, elderly, and even our pets. Whether these non-empathic creatures kill human beings out of self-interest, or pull the legs off of a spider in a world where animals are the most precious thing there is, they can’t be allowed to live. It doesn’t matter whether they can dream or not.

Analysis & Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Gentleman in Moscow can easily be called a masterpiece. It almost seems silly to even bother explaining why–the book so clearly speaks for itself–but if I were held at gunpoint, I’d have to say the key to its beauty is the prose. Amor Towles is clearly a man smarter than the rest of us, and this is evident with how many literary, historical, philosophical, and just plain cultured references can be found within the book. While all the essential story-telling elements are found within its pages and masterfully executed, the fact that each and every paragraph is fun to read on its own merit is what pushes this novel into the stratosphere, leaving most other books to wallow in shame as they crane their necks to look above.

Thematically, Towles’s novel has come at a much needed time. A Gentleman in Moscow is about the evils of a foreign government and the humanity of its citizens who are often the primary victims of their government’s misdeeds. In the same way Middle Easterners face the violence of Islamism and Islamic extremism more than anyone else in the world, with a death toll of approximately twenty million, the Soviet Union’s citizens suffered more than those who were invaded by it. This book reminds us that while it’s important to identify who is our friend and who is our enemy in this world elevated to the geopolitical scale, the most important thing of all is to identify who is innocent.

Towles also provides an elegant defense of aristocracy and enjoying the privileges some are given by being born as the right person. It is interesting just how aptly the practices of communism are criticized within this book, while at the same time, not giving enough consideration as to why those practices were ever felt necessary in the first place. But though the book may not directly defend the proletariat, it indirectly comes to their aid by showing how easy it is for new tyrants to take place of the old, by showing just how wrong a revolution for the people can go. While Towles never mentions what the motivations for a collectivist government are, or provides examples of successful ones that didn’t go as far as the communists did, he does provide a criticism that, if appreciated, would make the world a better place for everyone, both rich and poor alike.

Analysis & Review: The Futurological Congress

The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon TichyThe Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is often compared to the work of Philip K Dick, ostensibly because of its theme of drug-induced hallucinations, but I suspect it’s more so because of Lem’s admiration for PKD as “the only worthwhile American science-fiction writer.”

For me, I’m much more reminded of Brave New World by Alduous Huxley. The same, basic concept is behind the story, even though Huxley’s work is a “serious novel” and this one is anything but. While The Futurological Congress has many deep ideas, it’s delivery is just about as far-fetched as can be. Lem’s decision to make this a shorter novel was a good one, because I’m not sure how much more of the book anyone could take; it’s all world-building, and the narrative is only an excuse to explore the satirical, over-the-top world Lem has crafted. Truth be told, there’s very little plot and characterization here, and though I often put the ideas and concepts used in a novel far above these elements, I must confess that the book’s world-building-only approach ruined my enjoyment of it—but as for the ideas:

The Futurological Congress takes place in a comically over-populated future Earth, one in which society has decayed to a vulgar and violent level, and Ijon Tichy—our protagonist—is attending a meeting of futurists held in Costa Rica. The depiction of this meeting is one of the novel’s best devices: one by one, inane suggestions as to how to handle the ever growing population of Earth are voiced by the hundreds of intellectuals in the room. These proposals range from a restructuring of the role of the family in society, to a comical vision of the future where everyone changes apartments every day “so people don’t get bored” and dissatisfied with the cramped living conditions of the future.

Following a violent protest at the hotel which the Congress is being held at, Ijon and a few other intellectuals escape into the sewers, fleeing the mass violence and LTN bombing above—short for Love They Neighbor, a bomb which causes its victims to enter into an enthralling state of ecstasy in which their love for all humankind brings them to their knees and leaves them weeping, unable to fathom how deep their appreciation for their fellow man is.

While inside the sewers, Ijon is killed, only to be revived inside the body of another human being—made possible by a brain transplant—and then frozen. He wakes up even further into the future as a “defrostee,” and finds that civilization has finally achieved equilibrium. The birth rate has been brought under control and the populace is pacified through an endless variety of happiness inducing drugs. It is a strange utopia; for example, bank loans are given to anybody and everybody without the legal requirement to pay them back, because the conscience of every citizen is so heightened by the drugs in their system that almost no individual can resist the nagging urge to repay their debt. In fact, one of the few illegal actions there is in this society is to withhold another citizen’s supply of psychem—the mass produced, ever-present, happiness-bringing drug.

But of course—and here is where I suspect we are tempted to draw similarities between PKD—the reality Ijon finds himself a part of is only a façade. In actuality, there is another drug omnipresent in the world, though with this one there is no avoiding its consumption as it is present in the air itself. Called a “mascon,” this drug hides the ugly reality beneath the veil of hallucination. People are nothing more than decaying, broken bodies patched up with artificial limbs; their buildings are crumbling and decaying; their gourmet food is in actuality a bucket of carbon matter, in front of which they drop to their knees and grab handfuls of its contents with their skinless fingers, eating straight out of the bucket. Needless to say, Ijon is shocked by this reality, but he is told off by a soothsayer—an individual who is given yet another drug to null the effect of the mascon—who says the real difficulty is being outside of the illusion, making sure the illusion is preserved for everyone else. He calls it the final moral act. As humanity is approaching the end and the Earth is dying, he says at least there are those willing to make the end tolerable for everyone else.

While The Futurological Congress’s narrative approach changes halfway through the book, and it is nothing more than an excuse for Lem to write down all of his most comical ideas, it still has the finishing touch of a master storyteller and novelist. It ends with a final twist and the beautiful image of Ijon watching a futurologist’s paper floating away into the “unknown future.” It’s a powerful sentiment, one which is almost at odds with the jocular nature of the story.

Analysis & Review: Cat’s Cradle

Cat's CradleCat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Within the Vonnegut fan-base there are two warring camps: one who believes Slaughterhouse-Five is his greatest novel, and the other which claims such a title is reserved for Cat’s Cradle. The comparison may be unfounded, though, because each book lies in its own plane. While Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel of profound, big-picture thought, its meaning is conveyed by sentiment and not by argument. Cat’s Cradle, though, is far less cryptic. Easy to interpret, and difficult to disagree with, it’s a much bolder work as far as its message is concerned.

The novel follows the first-person narrative of a man named John, who is writing a book about what various Americans happened to be doing on the day the US bombed Hiroshima. His research eventually leads him to track down the three children of Felix Hoenicker, one of the fictional fathers of the atomic bomb. John interviews Hoenicker’s son, Newton, who tells John that, on the day the bombs fell, his father was fascinating himself with a piece of string which he had shaped into a cat’s cradle—a string figure. Delighted with himself, Felix Hoenicker tries to show the shape to Newton, who is disgusted at seeing his aging father up close. Newton is later scolded by his sister for being unable to overlook his father’s ugliness and for being unappreciative of the man who raised him. This scene, so early in the book, illustrates the difficulty many American children face when taught how World War II ended—and afterwards, how they’re guilted into accepting this ending as righteous on pain of being deemed unpatriotic.

John’s interviews also lead him to Dr. Asa Breed, Felix Hoenicker’s former supervisor, who recounts the speech he gave at Hoenicker’s funeral. In the speech, Dr. Breed mourned the ignorance of humankind, expressing a Socratic-like view that all evil in the world was due to lack of knowledge. He promised the attendees of the funeral that if everyone would be more like Felix Hoenicker, and just learn a little bit of science, all would be right with the world—even though such widespread understanding of science would lead to more discoveries like the atomic bomb and, the novel’s central subject, ice-9, a fictional form of water which exists in the solid state at room temperature, transforming all water it comes into contact with into ice-9 as well.

John soon tracks down Hoenicker’s other children to the Republic of San Lorenzo, an island. The society there is a strange one, with most of its inhabitants adhering to a religion called Bokonism, which the government of San Lorenzo has outlawed, even though its leaders are followers of it as well. The religion’s message is a mix between Buddhism and nihilism; it teaches its adherents that, even though everything is meaningless and God, if he exists, is cruel, one should find peace in the inevitable meaningless and cruelness to come. John is soon sucked into the religion as well, and finds himself participating in its various rituals, and his immersion into the community eventually leads him to find Hoenicker’s older son, Franklin, who, like his two siblings, secretly possess a sample of ice-9 he had taken from his father following his death.

The novel ends with a catastrophe created by this compound: (view spoiler) This was, of course, never the intended use of ice-9; it never had any intended use, really. Its inventor was simply interested in the problem presented to him of how to make water behave as a solid at room temperature. Beyond that, Felix Hoenicker hadn’t thought about what such a substance could do. He was a man entirely fixated on his curiosities, which sometimes led to harmless things—such as his study of turtles and how their necks worked—but other times disaster, such as his curiosity over how to split an atom.

Cat’s Cradle’s portentous message concerning science isn’t unique, but it is unique coming from Vonnegut, a humanist, atheist, and freethinker. These qualities aren’t often associated with someone who fears science, but Vonnegut comes at it from a different angle than those who might think digging into the mysteries of God’s creations is a sin. Vonnegut doesn’t deny the beauty of the mechanics that underlie the universe, the wonder and awe understanding the nature around us can inspire: Vonnegut asks whether or not humanity is responsible enough to hold such knowledge. When we science-advocates appeal for better education around the world, we suggest that such efforts will lead to the cure for cancer and the means to adopt renewable energy—but, in our unparalleled love for knowledge and fascination with the natural world around us, we leave discoveries such as nuclear weapons and ice-9 off of the list.