The end of the world, via scientific calamity, and falling off the literal edge
of the world – that’s one connection between Cat’s Cradle by Kurt
Vonnegut and The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett. The other link? My
attempt to see what two writers, well-known to others, not so familiar to me, were doing at the beginning
of their careers.
That attempt went very well, as far as I can tell – I was highly impressed by both books, but I also found out that these are not necessarily the authors for me. I now see why I might not have pursued them. More on that in a minute.
I’ll start with Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut’s book that came out in 1963, became a bestseller and launched his career. I didn’t care for this book all that
much in the beginning, but I kept going because the writing is so
smooth. Then the pieces of the plot start clicking together about
two-thirds of the way through, and every step after that felt masterful and smart.
It’s a book about a biographer, not the most promising of subjects – in this case, the biographer is writing about the life of a deceased nuclear physicist named Felix Hoenikker. The biographer becomes friendly with Hoenikker’s family, and the section where we learn about Hoenikker’s kids and their peccadilloes seems long and pointless.
Then our biographer goes to a (fictional) Caribbean island named San Lorenzo, chasing his material, and we encounter a ton more exposition about San Lorenzo and its dictator, Papa Monzano, and its resident cult figure, Bokonen. Again, I was baffled by these sections, and, again, I kept reading because of Vonnegut’s lovely writing. It’s an easy book to pick up and read and continue reading.
That gives the final third of the book a considerable portion of its kick. There’s a reason why we had to learn so much about the Hoenikker kids – I had a memorable “Oh shit!” moment when I realized what was going to happen. Catastrophe is on Vonnegut’s mind, and the human race’s endless capacity for self-destruction. Cheerful stuff! The book might read like a light satire, but Vonnegut follows his theme to its logical end, so kudos for that.
Over to Pratchett, and the very first entry in his long-running Discworld series. I was surprised by The Colour of Magic: I liked this book, even though I’m not a fan of light
fantasy or light science fiction, by which I mean humourous material
like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Pratchett’s Discworld. That stuff is all perfectly fine
for someone who might enjoy it, but I don’t go head over heels for it like many
In The Colour of Magic, a wizard named Rincewind and a “tourist” named Twoflower find their way through various nonsensical adventures across the lands of Discworld, encountering various fantastical beings (I wasn’t expecting the parody of the Pern books!) and barely escaping with their hides intact. I quite enjoyed the escapades of Hrun the barbarian hero, who expects nothing less than the most dazzling treasure, the most exotic ladies, and a never-ending series of perilous moments along the way. As my description indicates, the book has a strong “they went here, then they went there” feel to it; I didn’t mind, since each stop was generally entertaining, if not memorable.
For both Vonnegut and Pratchett, I’m not that familiar with their
other books. I’ve read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and for
Pratchett, I’ve read Monstrous Regiment and maybe one other title but I
can’t say for sure. I admired both Cat’s Cradle and The Colour of Magic
a great deal but I’m not sure if I’ll write up a big Vonnegut/Pratchett
reading list as a result. For one thing, a little of each goes a long
way. For Pratchett, Discworld has certainly been one of the biggest
successes in publishing, but the subsequent books, all 37 of them (!), have a notion
attached to them in my head that they will be very similar (I know, I
know, that’s not the case, but that’s certainly my impression). For
Vonnegut, it’s more his philosophical point of view that leaves me less than enthused about diving headlong into his oeuvre. Laughing at the inevitable self-destruction of all humanity? I’m glad Vonnegut was there to write that book, but a drop of that particular potion goes
a long way.
That’s okay though – it’s okay to take a sample of something and move on. That’s been one of my big insights for my own reading habits lately, and one that came to me by the simple fact of time constraints. I’m a completist by nature, or at least I was when I still felt like I had time to read, say, 37 Discworld novels in a row. I liked The Colour of Magic, I got my entertainment value from the book, and now I’ll move on to something that might suit me more closely. Ditto for Cat’s Cradle, with “nihilistic encounter with the abyss” swapped into that sentence in the place of “entertainment”.