Utterly Indifferent

One of the main purposes of this blog, apart from being a kind of daily tablet for my thoughts, is to demonstrate that religion continues into the age of secularity.  It would be an uncomfortable stretch of the imagination to suggest Kurt Vonnegut was a religious writer, but it would also be a disservice to him to ignore just how much religion shows up in his novels.  Often the remarks are subtle and perhaps easily missed, but one of his early works, The Sirens of Titan, treads pretty solidly in that territory.  From the fact that monument to the twelve great religions was made by artisans who don’t know what those religions are to the founding of a new religion to unify humankind, this story never strays far from it.  It’s also, in my experience, the most science-fictiony of Vonnegut’s books.

The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent is the goal of Winston Niles Rumfoord’s doomed Martian attack on earth.  Because the Martians are actually brainwashed earthlings, they are sacrifices to the grand vision of all people sharing a single religion that recognizes God does nothing to help humans and humans, therefore, should not worry about serving God.  Clearly a religion that functions the opposite way of most actual religions—which try to keep God happy, often by harming other humans—Rumfoord’s vision is a united Earth.  One of the pawns in his scheme is his unhappy wife, and another is the biblically named Malachi Constant.  Constant built a ship to take humans to Mars.  Christening it The Whale, Constant took the pseudonym Jonah, which is something readers are increasingly ill-equipped to understand, but which demonstrates Vonnegut knew his Bible.

Religion plays throughout Sirens of Titan in ways that both poke fun at the seriousness with which religion is treated and with a certain respect for its power.  Vonnegut’s famous nihilistic leanings pervade the novel with an almost Job-like portrayal of Rumfoord, and several ethical questions lie beneath the apparent space-travel story.  Genre fiction, as I’ve intimated before, is intended to be slotted easily into recognized categories.  Critics reserve the sobriquet of “literary fiction” for those pieces that don’t really fit other patterns—not all fiction obeys the rules—and that’s where I’d put Sirens.  Yes, people zoom around in flying saucers and invasions from space are standard sci-fi tropes.  Engagement with religion, even if it is to question it, tends to move fiction into more serious categorizations, excluding, of course, novels written to promote a particular religion.  None of them would suggest a Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.  Unless, of course, they came from Kurt Vonnegut.

Fantasy Land

As a naive kid with a solid master’s degree, I was accepted for doctoral work at Aberdeen, St Andrews, Oxford, and Cambridge.  Only Edinburgh, however, was able to come up with some funding that made it possible for me to matriculate.  I’ve always been particularly grateful to Edinburgh since otherwise I would never have made it that far.  Oxford was, also, a little confusing what with all its different colleges and specializations.  As an American in the pre-internet age it wasn’t easy to learn about such things and academic advisors in the US didn’t have much helpful input to offer.  Like Harvard, however, Oxford is the single university that opens career doors for academics in my field.  I didn’t know that, of course.  Still, Oxford is a fine place to explore and despite my grousing about being made to travel, I was pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to partake of a high table dinner in Christ Church Hall.

I’d been far too busy to plan this trip, and I didn’t realize the significance of this dinner until I walked into the hall, and suddenly realized—as everyone else in my party already knew—that this was the Hogwarts Hall from the Harry Potter movies.  There’s an air of ancient tradition here, and it’s clear that my employer is held in very high regard in this particular shire.  I wasn’t aware that this would be part of the meeting I was here to attend, but I did wonder again at just how much popular culture drives our awareness and perception of ancient things.  Even my own reaction of recognizing this as the hall in Hogwarts was instructive.  Had I not seen the early movies of that series I’d likely have been simply impressed by the grandeur of the place itself.  My most recent books explore this same phenomenon, but in a different key.

Between gawking at J. R. R. Tolkien’s house that morning and ending the day at Christ Church, there was an element of fantasy to this trip for which I was simply unprepared.  Of course, it was a business trip, and I have trouble planning to have any fun on such occasions.  I take work far too seriously to let down and enjoy, unless I’m instructed to do so.  As I ran a couple of other small errands in Oxford, I realized there’s much yet to explore about the city.  I spent over three years in Edinburgh and didn’t see everything there by a long stretch.  And I doff my cap to Scotland still, for had my alma mater not made this possible I wouldn’t have had dinner among the Potter fans at all.  If movies didn’t tell us what to think, it would be just another old building in an ancient college defined by tradition.

Evolving Tales

There’s nothing like a six-and-a-half hour flight to get some reading done.  I’d made good progress on Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos before leaving for England, but the plane ride gave me time to finish it.  While nobody, I think, can really claim to understand Vonnegut, there are clearly some trends in this novel that demonstrate his struggle with religion.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’ve been saving this book for later you might want to wait before reading the rest of this.

As the title suggests, it’s a story about evolution.  Charles Darwin had his first divine epiphanies about evolution while visiting the Galapagos during his voyage on the Beagle.  Land creatures isolated from others of their species adapted to the environment in which they found themselves, and over eons passed on useful traits to their progeny.  If humans only had as much foresight!

With his trademark cast of quirky characters about to set out on a cruise from Equador to the Galapagos, Vonnegut has war break out.  Riots and pillaging take place.  Vonnegut takes broad aims at capitalism and business-oriented thinking, and how these represent the devolution of our species.  Of course, being Vonnegut, he does it with wit and verve.  Vonnegut was a writer not afraid to use the Bible in many ways, including what experts would call misuse.  As the surviving passengers make their way onto the stripped, but functional ship, he notes that they are like a new Noah’s ark.  They end up populating Galapagos with humans that evolve a million years into the future.

A thought that caught me along the way was a line where he wrote that in the long history of David and Goliath conflicts, Goliaths never win.  This kind of sentiment could do the world some real good right now.  In fact, although the book was written decades ago, one of the characters, Andrew MacIntosh, reads very much like a foreshadowing of 2016, down to the descriptions of how he regularly mistreats others.  In Galápagos MacIntosh gets killed during a rebellion, showing that grime doesn’t pay.  The cruise goes on without him.  Galápagos is a book that points out the evils that our system encourages, or even necessitates.  There can be another way.  The survivors land on the barren islands and set about adapting because they have no other choice.  A more egalitarian scenario evolves largely because females are in mostly charge.  While not intended as an actual solution to social ills, Galápagos is nevertheless not a bad guide, especially when shipwreck seems inevitable.

In Middle Earth

I try to make the best of business travel.  I had all-day obligations this time around, but fortunately my hotel was next to a place of some renown.  The house where J. R. R. Tolkien lived was practically right next door.  This is the place where the Lord of the Rings came into the world.  I have always tried to visit sites of literary significance when in new places.  When we were more able to do so, my family would take such literary pilgrimages annually, especially in the autumn.  Being a believer in the confluence of science and spirit, I can’t help but think there’s something sacred about the place where great literature was born.  Of course, in Oxford you can find sites for Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis, as well, among many others.  These days everyone seems to associate the place with Harry Potter, although J. K. Rowling started that particular series in Edinburgh.

Tolkien has become a deity in his own right, I suspect, for creating an entire world to which millions of fantasy fans come.  His actual house, however, is privately owned.  Besides, I’m here on business.  Still, falling asleep so close to where Tolkien dreamed his Middle Earth dreams is akin to inspiration.  Writing as an avocation makes such encounters almost worshipful.  I read the Ring trilogy and The Hobbit many years ago.  I haven’t seen any of the movies, however, since my own imagination seems sufficient for me.  Tolkien took me, for many hours, into another world.  Somewhat like work has done this week, I guess.  Were it not for business, Oxford could be a magical place.  Living in a location where imagination is valued and encouraged makes a huge difference, I expect.

Years ago, Edinburgh was an inspirational place to reside.  Although my main writing output at the time was a 300-page doctoral dissertation, it was a place that has inspired much of my fiction.  Tolkien, in truth, was just as human as the rest of us.  His work was largely based on ancient Germanic traditions that were also reflected in Wagner’s Ring cycle.  We are all borrowers, in some sense.  Adapters.  Oxford is one of those places with a long sense of continuity with the past, in a singular tradition.  It has become modern in parts, but with medieval streets.  There are cars parked along Northmoor Road, and nobody else seems to be here for a pilgrimage today.  Perhaps it’s for the best; how could the workaday world possibly improve for the use of imagination?

From Above

You can see a lot from 35,000 feet.  Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” comes back to me, although I’d never make so bold as to associate myself with Horus.  As I’m preparing for my return flight, I wonder what I might see.  Not much, I expect, since all the window seats were taken and I’ll be sitting in the middle section.  I like to see where I’m going.  On the way over, for example, about three hours into the flight, we were over the Grand Banks.  I’d just finished Brian Fagan’s Fishing, and the Grand Banks were on my mind.  The last land I saw was Cape Cod, although from the monitor I knew we’d passed near Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.   In other words, there was nothing but the north Atlantic beneath us.  We were hundreds of miles from land.  Then I saw it.

Was that an oil platform all the way out here?  I didn’t have enough time to wake my napping phone for a picture, but there was clearly a large platform and a nearby tanker.  Later I checked and, sure enough, Hibernia, the world’s largest oil platform is smack-dab in the middle of the Grand Banks.  A number of thoughts occurred.  We’d been flying for hours, and a platform this far out would make a great setting for a horror story.  (Okay, so my thoughts move in predictable directions sometimes.)  Another thought was this: why are we so dependent on petroleum that we’re all the way out here drilling for a polluting, non-renewable resource?  Is it not for profit margin alone?  This was an epiphany for me.

I still carry a little cautious hope around in a hidden pocket that there might be some places left for humanity to explore, but not exploit.  Fagan mentioned in his book that we’d trawled much of the ocean floor.  Although I admiring the engineering that could plant a platform in the stormy Atlantic, I still can’t help but feel a little bit let down that we’ve driven yet another stake into the unexplored world.  We really know so little about the oceans (apart from the fact that many creatures that live there can be eaten and otherwise exploited).  Our lack of scientific knowledge is addressed by great wells drilled down to draw out pollutants to grease the wheels of capitalism.  Yes, I was using fossil fuel in flying.  I’d be happy with solar-powered planes, if they existed (they’re above the clouds much of the time, so it would seem worth dreaming about).  In the meantime, however, the earth just keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Even from 35,000 feet.

Selection, Natural or Not

Darwin is extinct, it seems.  At least in the UK.  Perhaps I ought to explain.  I do not travel to England often, and I’m not always good about changing cash before I go.  Usury doesn’t sit well with me, and someone taking a cut just because I have to travel (usury actually doesn’t sting so much when you make a trip by choice) seems unethical.  When I discovered I was required in Oxford, my wife suggested I take some cash.  I went to the attic and rummaged through papers from a trip sometime within the last decade (my passport is still good, so it had to have been in this time frame), and found some ten-pound notes with Darwin on them.  They didn’t smell bad to me, so I said “I’ll just take these.”

I suspect that, like most people, I keep a pocketful of change as a souvenir when I travel to foreign shores.  So I had a few bank notes that hadn’t seemed worth changing back at the time.  Bread cast upon the waters, and all.  I had to make a small purchase in Oxford and the clerk said, oh so politely, “That’s old money, I’m afraid I can’t accept it.”  Interesting.  I had no idea money had a sell-by date.  She said “The bank will change it for you.”  Banks handle all kinds of money.  I walked to the nearest bank and the polite young man (all the bank tellers carry tablets here, like iPads at the Apple Store) told me that banks don’t do that service unless you’re an account holder.  “The good news,” he said, “is that the post office will do it for you, and it’s less than 300 metres from here.”  I was up to a 300 meter walk, so I went.  The British post office isn’t just a place to mail letters, I knew from living here years ago.  The woman at the counter frowned.  “I don’t know why banks send people here,” she said.  “We can’t exchange pounds for pounds.  I can change it into dollars for you.”  Of course, there was a charge to do so, just as there was a charge to change the notes from dollars to pounds in the first place.

Sadly I handed Darwin over and received American faces in turn.  Such is natural selection.  Ironically, just a few days ago I was at a farmer’s market (in the United States).  The man next to me received a silver note in change—he commented that these bills are somewhat more valuable than a standard Washington.  They are still accepted however, as legal tender.  In fact the last time I went to a US bank to turn in change, the bank officer looked at some very eroded coins and said, “As long as I can verify it’s US currency I can accept it.”  I still find occasional old coins in circulation.  Updating currency and then charging for having old money seems like it ought to count as usury.  But then, perhaps my ethics are simply outdated. 

Prejudice, Technically

I must admit that I received my first “smart phone” with more than a little trepidation.  It was going on a decade ago and I didn’t know my app from a hole in the ground.  What was this thing that was a telephone and yet so much more?  I carry it around with me, nevertheless, and I use it for the very occasional text, for a camera, and when it was younger, as a geocaching device.  My sense of distrust came from being a user of personal computers for many years.  There would be constant upgrades and renewals and each would cost you something.  You don’t buy just a smart phone, you buy a liability.  This Luddite screed arises from my attempts to get my boarding pass for my flight yesterday, with a special shout out to United Airlines.

Things change.  I’m cool with that.  Still, “checking in” for a flight has always meant your ticket was secure.  When I went to check in yesterday, for the first time ever United Airlines allowed it only through your smart phone and only via its app.  The app is free but my phone is of such an age that the app won’t work with it.  I received the confirming text stating I wasn’t checked in.  Wasn’t that exactly the same as the status at which I’d started?  Why then did I spend half an hour of my Saturday trying to select a seat and telling it I am a vegetarian?  (Vegans, it seems, are from another planet.)  At least I didn’t have to specify a non-smoking row.  I realized as I hung up that I was being shamed for not updating my phone.

You see, capitalism thrives on forcing the purchase of new things.  If you wear clothes that are out of style (guilty as charged!) then you aren’t playing by the rules.  If your phone is too big or too small (yes, size does matter), or if it flips open instead of being accidentally awakened when slipped out of your pocked, you’re a Luddite.  If you can’t afford an update (which no longer fits in the pocket of a guy my size) you deserve to be shamed.  You can’t check in.  You have to stand in line and proclaim to all, “I didn’t upgrade.”  I still use an iPhone 4S.  It does what I need it to do.  United Airlines doesn’t think so, however.  Most of the apps have ceased to work.  Now it is once again simply a phone, pretty much back where I’d started.