Three more book-reviews: Slaughterhouse-Five, Barry Trotter and a unique Fighting Fantasy story. This time I wrote each review shortly after reading each book so I go into quite a lot more detail.
By Kurt Vonnegut
Cool metafiction sci-fi semi-autobiographical account of the Dresden massacre.
The opening chapter is all in first-person, and is told from the authors perspective. Wanting to write a book about his experiences witnessing the bombing of Dresden, but not having the words. Wanting a definite anti-war message, but recognising the futility in it, seeing war as inevitable (may aswell be writing an anti-glacier book). From the second chapter onwards, the novel is (mostly) told in third person, following ‘Billy’, an American taken as a prisoner of war by Germans.
Apparently this book took two decades to write in a way Vonnegut was satisfied with. So you might expect that communicating such a disturbing, traumatic experience adequately meant finely crafting the most disturbing descriptions, dwelling on the emotionally-charged details of dead characters lives to fully immerse the reader in the tragedy, and so on. But that isn’t how this story goes at all.
For one, the book is very short. I’m a very slow reader, but I got through it all in three or four sittings. More interestingly, the characters are very stoic and accepting of events, at least on the surface. Billy is disconnected from the timeline, he knows how everything goes, he’s seen it before and he knows how it ends. He often jumps back and forth in time, usually between the war and time after the war, taking the reader with him. This means that the reader is also aware, even if they had no idea what the book is about before picking it up, of what will happen. There are no sad surprises, things just happen. The moments are structured that way. Even before we meet Billy, during the first-person opening, it is revealed that the old highschool teacher will be killed after the bombings for stealing a teapot, and that is supposed to be the climax.
Sometimes Billy is visited by aliens who live in four dimensions on planet Tralfamadore, and who see all times at once. They see people like long millipedes, with baby-legs at the bag and old-persons legs at the front. They have their own novels, but the novels pages are read all at once, so there are no plots or moral lessons, just pleasant scenes. Since they see time in this way, they don’t fear death or feel sad about it in a human way. They know how the universe ends and the terrible accident that causes it, but they don’t feel any distress over it, in the same way believing the universe is finite in the spatial-dimensions doesn’t distress anyone. People may be dead at one point in time, but they are still alive in another point in time, so everything is fine. This is the attitude Billy adopts. It is implied that Billy retreats into these ideas from reading badly-written science-fiction novels. Nowadays, we would probably call this “copium”. So one of the main ideas here is learning to just cope with what has happened, accepting that it always was going to turn out that way.
Aswell as acceptance (or escape), another idea touched on quite frequently is just being lost for words. Sometimes when describing something off-the-scale we have to pull a Lovecraft and just say that it is indescribable in human language. Vonnegut does this a few times by letting the birds talk for him: ‘Poo-tee-weet?’. The strongest example of this is the German guards changing their facial expressions after the bombings, unable to find a suitable way expression, just twitching their mouths open and closed like a mute barbershop quartet. Just the memory of this moment causes Billy to become very distressed by a real barbershop quartet. Even with the coping strategy and a comfortable successful life, the war still haunts him. His mental-struggles are also implied on the train, as he disturbs other passengers in his sleep.
There are many more themes and ideas to pick up on. Lots of criticisms of Christianity in the sci-fi novels Billy reads, links between the characters in the real and fictional sections, reminding you that the story is fiction but with plenty of reality, etc.
In chapter 9, a historian character reads from ‘The Destruction of Dresden’ by David Irving, claiming that 135,000 people were killed in the massacre. This figure has since been scrutinised, and nowadays historians say that around 25,000 people were killed. The superposition of including David Irving’s old takes and simultaneously accepting the human-soap myth (and ‘ghostly candles’) is somewhat amusing to me in 2022. Lipstadt of course responds by REEEE-ing at the inclusion of inflated figures and suggesting that the work should have been edited. No word on perpetuating the widespread human-soap myth though, which she also says is untrue elsewhere.
Of course, expecting Vonnegut to retract either of these details from his work would be insensitive and unreasonable. The fact that he felt it reasonable to include such “facts” illustrates how difficult information was to come across, with Nazi Germany’s exterminations being shrouded in rumour and with much of the information around the Dresden bombings being classified. This also shows how significant Vonnegut sharing his experiences in this book was! Editing-out these non-facts, suggesting that Vonnegurt’s characters had access to all the information back in their times and when Vonnegut wrote this book, would itself be rewriting history.
The first line of the novel, fittingly, goes: “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true”.
Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody
By Michael Gerber
Harry Potter parody from 2001 (I believe), so from after Goblet of Fire (2000) and before Order of the Phoenix (2003), somewhere around the time that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was coming out onto film. This thankfully means that the jokes have absolutely nothing to do with Rowling’s later habits of making character retrospectively gay, nor her introduction of other stupid facts over Twitter. It also comfortably avoids the era of later hysterial criticisms of Rowling (e.g. ‘She’s a transphoberino! The Goblins in the banks are antisemitic!’).
The parody is set later in Harry’s life: he is 22 now, but still allowed to live in Hogwarts for the attention his fame brings to the school. The date that the book was written makes this tale very different to other Harry-as-an-adult stories, as the author had no way of knowing the later developments of the Harry Potter series. So for example, some characters that die during the series are still present in this version of Harry’s future.
Harry foolishly gives the muggles a map to Hogwarts. Suddenly the school grounds are filled with his irritating, unhygenic fans. Things get worse when it is revealed that there are plans to make a film (which will massively inflate the number of fans, since only like 1 in 10 kids read). So Dumbledore sends Harry off to get the movie cancelled before the muggles overwhelm the school and get it closed down. Harry agrees, after being reminded that if Hogwarts closes, he will have to get a real job.
The names are all substituted. So Harry is now Barry, Ron is now Lon, Hermione is now Ermine. Hogwarts becomes Hogwash, Dumbledore is Bumblemore, the Golden Snitch is now the Sneetch (not star-bellied!). Some of the renamings are funny, some are a bit obvious/uninspired and some are just random/weird. Like the rest of the humour in this book, the name-substitutions are a bit hit-and-miss. Some chapters (perhaps more-so earlier on in the story) feel more reliant on the funny-new-names and on crude sexual humour, and those bits fall flat.
Barry and Lon have the best moments in the story. Lon has been substantially brain-damaged in a Quiddit(sic) accident, so he acts very stupidly, childishly, and sometimes he thinks he is a dog (exaggerating Ron’s daft but loyal character). Barry meanwhile is still an edgy, pretentious teenager at heart who avoids responsibility and is eager to sleep with his muddle(sic) fan-girls.
Lord Valumart wants Barry to sell out, to give in and become an adult. To fit in with everyone else, buying $17 CDs that cost less than $1 to make, that kind of thing. The movies threaten to kill children’s imaginations and reduce Barry to a brand, there will be a Barry Trotter themepark, and the movies will be above good and bad: simply nostalgia; replacing book-Barry in everyone’s mind. Quite prophetic! Towards the end the story gets very meta, postmodern and circular. It’s not exactly cleverly or subtley done, but it is entertaining.
Some early bits, like the chapter introducing Zed (a parody of Q from James Bond), really didn’t do much for me and almost put me off. But in the end I finished the story and I am very glad I did. The writing was very entertaining, so I read this book very quickly. There are two sequels, but I don’t feel the need to read more Barry (yet).
Blood of the Zombies
By Sir Ian Livingstone
I only just realised Ian Livingstone had been knighted while writing this review, congratulations! So this is something a little different, a ‘Fighting Fantasy’ book. If you’ve never heard of them, they are a series of gamebooks, so stories divided into 400 (sometimes a little more or less) sections. At the end of each section you will usually be presented with a choice of entries to turn to. Something like:
To climb up the ladder, turn to 20. To climb up the wall instead Spiderman-style, turn to 140.
Obviously that’s a silly example I just made up and not a quote from this book. What makes these ‘gamebooks’ a little more sophisticated than choose-your-own-adventure books like ‘Give Yourself Goosebumps’ is that you have to keep note of the items you collect along the way (as they have effects on the outcomes later on) and there is a fighting-system with numbers and dice-rolls.
Anyway, Blood of the Zombies is an unusual entry in the series, hence I went for trying it out. This book ditches the traditional fighting-fantasy skill/stamina/luck system in favour of a MUCH simpler stamina-only system. This means you can start playing almost instantly. That appealed to me a lot, as I fancied just exploring and having an adventure over having so much of a ‘game’ experience. Also, minimalistic gamebook-systems appeal to me in a geeky sense, I’ve been brainstorming and playing with ideas for making tiny systems for years (since I first played Legion Of Shadow in 2011, which has a far deeper, more strategic system than Fighting Fantasy). So it should have been perfect!
Strangely, I actually found the simplified system a little uninteresting to play. Getting an instant-loss from a poor ‘Test Your Luck’ roll (or similar) in classic Fighting Fantasy adventures is silly, but it is exciting and - to my horror and surprise - I missed those sections! Also the map I was drawing as I went along wasn’t as satisfying as the ones I drew for adventures like City of Thieves. The reason for this is that, unlike City of Thieves, Warlock of Firetop Mountain, etc., Blood of the Zombies does not describe explicit North/South/East/West directions. I suppose that should still work, but in some of the entries I really wasn’t sure which direction I was heading in. Either it wasn’t clear enough or I am too dumb. So my map fell into a few scruffy pieces, making it less appealing to revisit.
The opening to the story was a lot more entertaining than I expected. You play as a mythology student who gets kidnapped while investigating ghosts in Transylvania (I think). There’s a cruel guard you who likes to mess with you; the revenge is very satisfying. I would have loved for him to make a miraculous reapparance, he was a lot of fun.
How well did I do? Well I did a lot of exploring, gathered a ridiculous number of weapons (including a shotgun), killed nearly 50 zombies (not including 15 mutant rats). Then I tried being clever and stealing some medieval knights-armour from the castle, but that was too heavy so the zombie-dogs caught me and chewed me to death slowly. I’m very happy to have had such a fun death. Maybe I’ll give this another playthrough during the Summer Holiday, though I probably won’t bother mapping it.