Books of 2014 - #42: Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut
This is classic Vonnegut, pessimistic, dark, and very clever. What Slaughter House Five was to WWII, this book was to Vietnam.
Well, that’s probably putting it too simply. There are some major differences. Hocus Pocus still has a sci-fi element to it, but it is much more in the realm of the believable. Instead of a guy zapping to the future by alien power, this book merely takes place in a dystopian future. But it isn’t even a distant one. The narrator is speaking from 2001 (the book was published in ‘90), so much of the dystopianism is simple extensions of what was already happening at the end of Reagan’s presidency. Some of it has turned out since then to be off the mark, but some of it is on. Particularly poignant is how he describes the distribution of wealth and the growth of the prison complex.
One thing that didn’t turn out is global cooling (which I’m not sure why he was writing about that as late as ‘90), but even this isn’t so far off in the sense that he was writing about climate change and ecological consequences. Another thing that doesn’t turn out exactly but comes really close is the use of National Guard. Vonnegut writes as though the nation would become gradually militarized through the use of Nation Guardsmen. The scenarios he sets up don’t quite exist in real life, but militarization of police is an increasingly controversial issue facing us today.
As social commentary, I was pretty much right with Vonnegut the entire way, though that may just mean that he was preaching to the choir in me. I also very much appreciated the commentary on Vietnam, which was a constant feature of the book, despite that I was born a decade after it ended. It’s a topic I try to pay attention to since all the men in my family of the previous generation went (and came back). Part of me would like to know what my father would think of Vonnegut’s commentary on that war, but part of me doesn’t.
I do recommend this book. It will make you uncomfortable in ways that I think it is important. Whether talking about class or race, Vonnegut is a useful gadfly.