Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Age Group: Adult
Genre: Who knows
Pub Date: 1950
Publisher: Vintage

“All this happened, more or less.” The first line of Slaughterhouse-Five is a warning of how Vonnegut will blur the lines between fiction and reality throughout the book.

The narration of Slaughterhouse-Five is a peculiar one. This is a fine example of meta-fiction, the first chapter follows the author (who we can presume to be Vonnegut, but could be as fictional as the Tralfamadorians who turn up later in the book) and then of his book, The Children’s Crusade, which is about a World War II soldier, Billy Pigram, and his time-travels through past, present, and future. Oh yeah, and there are aliens. And the author keeps turning up in the novel that he has written.

It’s all a bit confusing at first.

It feels like Vonnegut is trying to make a statement. And that statement is to abandon everything you think you know. The reason Slaughterhouse-Five was so initially confusing was because I kept trying to label it in my head. “Okay,” I thought, “This is a meta-fictional, black comedy, war story”. And then time-travel appeared. And then the Tralfamadorians turned up.

Once you give up on trying to understand the story, you can focus more on what the story is trying to say. And it says a lot of important things.

At the heart of it, Slaughterhouse-Five is a war story, and although there are a lot of comedic elements to it, the recurring reminder of death (so it goes) is through it. The awful events of Dresden seriously affects Billy Pilgrim, so much that it distorts his reality through post-traumatic stress. Vonnegut paints it clear that he does not condone war at all, and that although this is a work of fiction, the self-referencing in the times of war shows that he knows what he’s talking about.

Then there’s the concept of time. And the helplessness you have against it. Billy Pilgrim is zapped around time without having any control over it, but there’s some hope within it. As time is presented as non-linear, yet set completely in stone, the Tralfamadorians remind us although we can chose to dwell on the bad times presented at us, we should also remember the good. Or Vonnegut could be saying that this is just an excuse for ignoring the horrors in front of us.

Different people will take different things from Slaughterhouse-Five, just as people have different opinions on Billy Pilgrim. Was he deluded? Suffering from post-traumatic stress? Or did he really see aliens? With the blurred lines between fiction, genres, and reality, we will never know, but Vonnegut gives us plenty to think about.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Asking the Big Questions

Can society ever be fixed? That’s the central question in the two TV shows I’m watching: Humans on Channel 4 and Psycho-Pass on Netflix. In terms of format, neither of these shows have anything in common, Humans is a British drama set  in the not-so-distant future, while Psycho-Pass is a Japanese anime set in a dystopian future.

Humans takes place in a world very much like ours, but with one small addition: there exists a type of Artificial Intelligence called Synths. They look human, they act human; and they do your washing, your shopping, and look after your kids. But it’s ok, because they can’t feel. Psycho-Pass is about a future world where the overarching Sibyl System is in control, where everyone has a Psycho-Pass, which measures everyone’s mental health, and gives them a “Criminal Coefficient”, if you’re above a certain value you are a “latent criminal”, that is you have the potential to commit a crime and you’re a risk to society. It’s then the law enforcement job to neutralise latent criminals before they commit a crime for the protection of society.

But what happens when you get a Synth that can feel? And what happens when you look too closely at a “perfect system”? Both shows examine how our society works, how we interact with other people, and can society ever “be fixed”?

If we introduce Artificial Intelligence that can do everything for us, does it give us more time to be useful, or does it take away our uses? In Humans Synths initially seem like a good idea, they’re basically like servants without the pay and human flaw. But we soon uncover the unsettling effect of their presence. Causing rifts in marriages, people bonding with them like parents and child. And as we follow the journey of a set of Synths who can feel, everything takes a new spin. As Niska, a feeling Synth, yells to a Synth brothel owner “Everything your men do to me, they want to do to you”.  Clearly Synths haven’t fixed society, they’ve just alleviated some of the damaging symptoms. Do the blurred lines between what is human and what we perceive as human matter?

In Psycho-Pass, the idea is that society is already fixed. The Sibyl system is optimising everyone’s happiness; it tells you what’s the best job for you, how to keep your mental health stable, but most importantly it identifies who’s the risk to this perfect society. Is it right to enforce controls upon people who are a threat to society even if they haven’t committed a crime? Is that more important than justice? A quandary that is presented in the first episode is around victims, who get emotionally traumatised from attacked, so much that their Psycho-Pass identifies them as a risk. Can we use logical machines to evaluate humanity?

I realised I’ve just asked a lot of questions in this, which I guess is why I enjoy these shows so much. I doubt we’re going to get artificial intelligence to the point in either of these shows, but it’s always good to ask “What If?”.