Saturday, April 21, 2007

Hocus Pocus

Of course this book review is dedicated to the the author's memory, and I was motivated to read one of his books because he passed away recently. His last book was actually an inspired diatribe against Dubya, but neither the bookstore nor the library had it, so I settled on this one, which turned out to be another book Dubya obviously must have missed...

Review of Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

This 1990 book is basically a science fiction story where the slightly future background (already in the past) is a downward projection from the Reagan years, and though that trend was somewhat disrupted by the Clinton presidency, it still seems to have a lot of rather good predictions considering when it was written. A lot of the detailed predictions should be updated, but by and large his main message stands up: Unconstrained and mindlessly selfish greed is a bad thing. The basic thesis is that the wealthy elite is betraying America by being stupid and by short-sightedly selling the nation's infrastructure to foreigners. His projection was for Japanese to remain as the #1 buyers, but now the #1 buyers have become the Chinese--though the Chinese are being rather sharper in their investments, doubtless based on their observations of the many impressive but non-productive investments made by the Japanese before them. At the close of Vonnegut's book the Japanese are basically writing off their American investments as worthless.

Another prominent projection is the explosion of prison populations, and that one looks to be sadly accurate. He also included a lot about problems created by privatization.

There's also a powerful anti-war message throughout the book, though he focuses mainly on the Vietnam War. He draws relatively little upon his own combat experience in WW II, but he still has an authentic grunt's-eye-view of Vietnam. However, I feel he is simply focused on the viciousness of war and the emotional costs of losing, but he doesn't consider the larger economic problems created by war in the same way as the other parts of the story deal with economic issues. That may be natural, since his personal experience of war was mostly the loser's perspective, even in WW II, where he spent much of his time in Europe as a POW.

The book reminds me of the main difference between fiction and real life. There are a lot of parts of the book that don't make sense as we normally describe 'sensible', thus putting the lie to the claim that fiction has to make sense. I think the more essential difference demonstrated by this book is that books are dense. Everything the author writes should contribute to a controlled description of his mental model, and the words should contribute to the goal of transmitting that model to the reader, and the efficiency with which an author does so could be taken as an important metric of the author's skill. Vonnegut scores high on that metric, even though part of his mental model is that lots of things don't make sense. The extra level of talent that qualified him as a great writer is how he wraps his message in sardonic tongue-in-cheek humor. The more important contrast between fiction and real life is that real life has lots of noise in the signals, and there are lots of things that should just be ignored. The author can skip forward (and backwards) to ignore the noise, but in real life, you just have to go through the less meaningful parts at exactly the same speed...

There isn't really any big moral or lesson to be drawn from this book, but it's still the kind of thing that might have given Dubya pause before making the colossal blunder of invading and occupying Iraq. Vonnegut's contrast between the soldiers' experiences at the end of the two wars (WW II when they were welcomed as winners and Vietnam where they were dismissed as losers) is rather haunting, and a sad omen for the fate of the soldiers currently in Iraq. If you can't afford to lose, you shouldn't play the game, and this book makes it more clear how and why we lost and why America can't afford that loss.

No comments: