“Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

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“Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”

Kurt was not the only famous Vonnegut sibling. His brother, Bernard, was a successful atmospheric scientist who discovered that silver iodine could be used in cloud seeding to produce rain and snow. Weather manipulation feels like something that belongs to the realm of superhero tales, or science fiction, but it’s genuinely happening now, with clouds seeded to produce rain for crops, or even to disperse fog and hail around airports. I mention this not because I’ve suddenly become a science blog, but simply because this technology almost certainly influenced Kurt Vonnegut in the writing of Cat’s Cradle.

Our narrator, Jonah (or John, depending which name you want to give him) begins the novel by telling us he was writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. He becomes fascinated by Dr Felix Hoenikker, the now-deceased scientist who was one of the founding fathers of the weapon and visits the man’s hometown to learn more. He discovers that Hoenikker had potentially been working on something called ice-nine, a chemical that would freeze any moisture it touched. Little to his former associates know, he was successful, and the chemical has found its way into the hands of his three eccentric children.

Drawn to the sun-drenched island of San Lorenzo in search of answers, the narrator meets these children, now grown, as well as getting to grips with San Lorenzo itself, a place where the religion of Bokononism is both forbidden on pain of death and practiced by the entire population. The narrator finds his original goal vanishing as now he has to deal with the very real threats of being declared President of San Lorenzo, and ice-nine being released into the world, bringing about the apocalypse.

Like everything Vonnegut wrote, the book is written with the driest humour imaginable, but relies heavily on truths of the human condition that we try not to think about in too much detail. Here, he tackles environmental collapse, the nature of pure research, free will, nuclear destruction, and humanity’s reliance on technology, dealing with them all with his trademark balancing act of humour and horror. The greatest contribution to society from this book, however, comes from the religion of Bokononism, which has the central tenet that everything is a lie, so one must live by the lies that make one “brave and kind and healthy and happy”. We get many interesting words and concepts from the religion, including karass (a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner), wampeter (the central theme or purpose of a karass), zah-mah-ki-bo (inevitable destiny) and of course boko-maru (the supreme act of worship which involves pressing the soles of your feet to those of another).

I’ve read Vonnegut a few times now, and every time I find him more and more bizarre. That’s not really a complaint. No one else writes like him and is unlikely to ever do so, and he has a way, much like Douglas Coupland, of making us look at ourselves and the world we’ve created and start asking questions about why things are the way they are. As J. G. Ballard said, “Vonnegut looked the world straight in the eye and never flinched.” As with all the truly great books about science fiction concepts, the characters humanity still shines through, and they feel real, despite the insanity and fantasy going on around them. They fully exist in their world, and you believe in the story, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.

A great little read, and one that still burns with relevance.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

Six of the Best … Opening Lines

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You only get one chance to start a story. When I was studying Creative Writing at university, emphasis was sometimes placed on the first page of a novel. Books have to be engaging throughout because the writer naturally wants the reader to finish the whole book, so every page is a new challenge to make them turn over and keep going. If you can’t even sustain their interest to the end of the first page then something has gone very wrong. Even more so, then, you need a first line that grabs the reader and drags them into the adventure they’re about to undergo.

Probably the most famous opening line, used to begin many stories in the English language and popularised by fairy tales, is “Once upon a time…” When you give it some thought, it’s actually a bit of a nonsense phrase, but one we accept without question because we are all exposed to it from a young age. It’s deliberately vague, setting the following story in deep history, back when magic was real and animals talked. In other languages, however, the phrase isn’t ever used and they have their own curious phrases, some of them actually much more fun. In the Indian language of Telugu, fairy tales open with, “Having been said and said and said…”, implying the story has been repeated throughout history. In Korean, fairy tales begin, “Once, in the old days, when tigers smoked…” and Polish ones focus on a location rather than a time, beginning, “Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven forests…” Fairy tales are always meant to be out of reach of us mortals to visit. One of my favourites however is that of Chile, where the traditional beginning is, “Listen to tell it and tell it to teach it”, which focuses on the oral tradition and morality aspects of fairy tales.

Because life doesn’t have beginnings and endings the way fiction does, it can be interesting to see where writers choose to begin their stories. Common beginnings, however, can be setting up a location (Fantastic Mr Fox: “Down in the valley there were three farms.”), having the character waking up (The Way Inn: “The bright red numbers on the radio-alarm clock beside my bed arranged themselves into the unfortunate shape of 6:12.”) or perhaps already at the breakfast table (Third Girl: “Hercule Poirot was sitting at the breakfast table.”). Starting in the morning seems to make sense to us, and I can’t think of many if any books where the character’s first act is to go to sleep. Mornings, and breakfasts feel like suitable beginnings, although perhaps The Bible takes this to its logical extreme by beginning at the creation of the universe. It’s far from the only book to do so.

Another very common form of opening line is one that discusses the weather. “It was a dark and stormy night” is often thrown up as an example of purple prose, and is now often mocked and parodied. Washington Irving (writer of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) first used the phrase in 1809, but it reached its fame as an example of bad writing in 1830 with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford, which opens:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Bulwer-Lytton wasn’t all bad – he also coined the term “the pen is mightier than the sword” – but this opening line was so maligned that that in 1983, San Jose State University began the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a contest to find the worst opening line in fiction for each year. None of this, however, has stopped the use of weather in opening lines. In Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, writer Ben Blatt analysed the use of weather in opening lines and found that Danielle Steel is one of the biggest culprits, with 46% of her 92 novels opening with a description of the weather. Other well-respected novelists use the same methods – 26% of John Steinbeck’s novels and 17% of Stephen King’s begin with the weather, as do 10% of Charles Dickens’.

Blatt also explored the length of opening lines, are his findings are interesting. Toni Morrison averages five words in her opening lines; Jane Austen, thirty-two. Charles Dickens straddles it all, with A Christmas Carol‘s first line being just six words long, but the opening of A Tale of Two Cities being a sentence of “119 words, 17 commas and an em-dash.” Despite the extraordinary difference in lengths, both are considered classics, showing that really there are no hard and fast rules for what makes a good opening line.

So what is the best opening line of all time? This is a point hotly debated by readers and writers, but often the same contenders crop up again and again. I’ve tried not to include many of them in my list below and give some others a chance to shine, but they are still worthy of a mention. 1984 famously opens with “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” I’ve always been a fan of this, as it invokes the fact that you’re about to step into a world where everything is just a bit off. It’s immediately uncomfortable. Alert Camus’ novel The Stranger says enormous things about grief just with its first ten words: “Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Moby Dick, of course, opens with “Call me Ishmael”, which serves to simply make us ask more questions than necessary – there’s an implication that Ishmael isn’t the narrator’s real name. Immediately you’re curious to know what – or indeed if – he’s hiding. And Pride and Prejudice opens with “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, which is probably one of the most parodied first lines in literature, and very quickly establishes a lot about the plot, characters and culture of Austen’s world.

And with those out of the way, may I share with you six of my favourite opening lines in all fiction.

A Christmas Carol

Marley was dead: to begin with.

I’m not especially a fan of Dickens, finding him long-winded, but this is understandable given the man was paid by the word. He is, however, responsible for this opening line, which contains what is surely the best colon in literature. Death is so often the end, but here we know straight away that Marley is coming back in some form or other. It feels topsy-turvy – if you start dead, surely you can’t become anything else? Like 1984, it introduces an immediate sense of unease which then pervades the rest of the novel. You can’t not be captivated by this opening.

Slaughterhouse-Five

All this happened, more or less.

It’s been a long time since I read Slaughterhouse-Five, but it’s one of those books that has stayed with me and began an ongoing fondness for Kurt Vonnegut. A lot of great stories have unreliable narrators, and this first line gives the indication straight away that it’s one of them. As the old saying goes: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Here, we know immediately that things are not necessarily going to be quite as they seem, and details of Billy Pilgrim’s life may have been altered for the purpose. What is true and what is false, however, are left for us to decide ourselves.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

The Narnia books passed me by as a series, and I wonder if it’s too late now to head through the wardrobe and learn about Christianity through the eyes of a lion. Probably for the best, as I never liked Turkish delight anyway. This opening line, however, always makes me laugh, though as a friend once said, “That’s pretty rich coming from a man whose middle name is Staples.”

A name can tell you a lot about a person – and if you don’t believe me, then think of two people called Wayne and Percival and tell me you don’t have preconceived notions about what these people would be like – so to open with a name like that is a sure fire way to grab the attention. Like a lot of good openers, too, it brings about questions. Who is he? Why does he almost deserve his name? Why doesn’t he fully deserve it? There’s something silly about it, but it works.

The Day of the Triffids

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

The Day of the Triffids is still remembered but doesn’t seem to be held up in the same regard as other classic science fiction tales. Cool and terrifying, I’d forgotten the opening line entirely. It’s a great one though, upending the world immediately and throwing you in, once again, with a sense of concern. I also like that it suggests we all know a Sunday morning is a very different beast to a Wednesday morning. Like many traditional openings, we are of course starting with talk of the morning, but it quickly points out that this is not going to be normal. Whatever is going to happen has already happened in some respects, and now we’re straight in dealing with the fallout.

The Crow Road

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

I’ve never read The Crow Road and this opener came to me when I asked others for some suggestions of their favourites. It’s instantly captivating, shocking, weird, funny and makes you wonder what on earth is happening. There doesn’t seem to be any shock in the words, like this is something that happens regularly. It’s another one that instantly makes you want to know more.

The Beginner’s Goodbye

The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.

In a similar vein to A Christmas Carol, The Beginner’s Goodbye opens with someone not being quite as dead as they were first thought to be. Like The Crow Road, it takes something strange and normalises it. We aren’t meant to think that this is odd, or at least not if we’re siding with the hero. It’s everyone else that seems to have the problem. It’s cleverly worded, and I adore the use of the word “strangest” which you think should be about one part of the line but is actually about another. It also doesn’t feel creepy in the slightest, just makes you want to know how people reacted and, frankly, how his wife made it back.


Thanks for reading the first post in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” by Kurt Vonnegut (1999)

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“My first near-death experience was an accident, a botched anaesthesia during a triple bypass.”

And the year rushes to a close with one final slim volume slipping through the gate, also bringing the decade’s current total up to a nice round seven hundred.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is another one of those Vonnegut classics where you’re not quite sure what’s real and what isn’t, as he seems to be a considerable part of the plot. Originally taken from a WNYC broadcast, the collection has expanded a little and is a set of very short stories where Vonnegut is taken to the brink of death to pass up “the blue tunnel to the Pearly Gates” to interview the famous and departed. The Dr. Kevorkian of the title was a real man, an American pathologist who believed in euthanasia.

On his journeys to the edge of Heaven, Vonnegut meets and speaks with many famous people including Isaac Asimov, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Philip Strax and, of course, the ever-present Kilgore Trout. He doesn’t quite hit it off with William Shakespeare, who speaks only in quotations from his plays, and he learns that Isaac Newton isn’t satisfied with all his scientific discoveries and is furious he didn’t also come up with evolution, germ theory and relativity. Adolf Hitler meanwhile reckons that he and Eva also suffered because of the war, and hopes that there is a memorial to him on Earth. Vonnegut doesn’t let him know how that turned out.

There’s not much to say about the book really. It’s cute, silly, funny and quite poignant in several places as Vonnegut explores the potential thoughts of these people once they’d departed from Earth. There’s also a lovely foreword by Neil Gaiman in which he too claims to be taken to the afterlife to meet Vonnegut in order to get a quote for the book. Unwilling to think up anything new, he’s told to use something that he’d said elsewhere. Gaiman shares the following quote, which seems even more important in these divisive times:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

There we have it. Happy new year, everyone – hope 2019 is a delight and full of amazing books. Don’t forget, you can always pre-order mine to get yourself in the mood. See you on the other side!

“Galapagos” by Kurt Vonnegut (1985)

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“The thing was: One million years ago, back in A.D. 1986, Guayaquil was the chief seaport of the little South American democracy of Ecuador, whose capital was Quito, high in the Andes Mountains.”

Earlier this year, I made my way via book to the remote Falkland Islands. This time, I’ve schlepped across South America and disembarked on the Galapagos islands the other side. With Kurt Vonnegut as my guide, I should’ve realised that this was going to be odd, but it’s been a while since I’ve read him, and I’d forgotten just quite how strange he is.

Narrated by a ghost (who happens to be the son of Vonnegut’s recurring science fiction author Kilgore Trout), Galapagos spans the eons, taking in both the year 1986 when the economy crumbled and the world as we know it ended, and a million years later – the book’s present – where the only surviving humans live on the Galapagos Islands and have evolved to suit their new habitat. The new humans are descended from the tourists aboard the “Nature Cruise of the Century”, a planned tour to the islands that Darwin made famous that never quite lived up to expectations.

While the ship was originally planning to have such illustrious passengers as Jackie Onassis and Rudolf Nureyev, in the end there were just eleven people on board, including the captain, a retired schoolteacher, a con artist, a pregnant Japanese woman, a blind woman reliant on her father, and the last six members of the Ecuadorian Kanka-Bono tribe. The only other thing that survived the end of the world was Mandarax, a tiny marvel of electronics that can translate almost any language, recite thousands of literary quotes, and diagnose over a thousand diseases. As the humans evolve and adapt to their new way of life, the old ways of humanity with their society of big brains quickly fades into history, and the question is raised – are things better for it?

Vonnegut is of course one of the most wonderful writers of the last century, but as mad as a box of mushrooms. He’s on good form here, with a slightly daft premise that manages to bring up all the big topics regarding humanity and our dangerous brains. The non-linear structure works well and with the narrator existing a million years beyond most of the action, it allows him to give us the salient facts in the order he sees fit. When a character is due to die soon, they gain an asterisk before their name. At first this is sign-posted, but eventually it just happens without mention and you realise that another one is on their way out in the next few chapters.

Some of the activity is naturally far-fetched, such as the methods of artificial insemination used on the island, the speed of evolution (although arguably it is sped up thanks to nuclear fallout), the appearance of ghosts and the “blue tunnel” that leads to the afterlife, and the sheer number of rare and unusual illnesses contained inside the few survivors, but because it’s Vonnegut it still works. While he’s somewhat vague about what exactly happens to humanity in its isolation – aside from revealing that our descendants have small brains, flippers and fur – he spends a lot of time pointing out the insanity of our modern world and the damage our big brains have done to the planet and to one another. Vonnegut goes to far to state that all the problems of humanity were caused by “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain”. When natural selection decides that a slim, streamlined head is more use than an oversized cranium, the brain begins to shrink and humanity returns to the water.

Vonnegut also makes a big deal about the inter-connectivity of things. The smallest things have the biggest impacts on the future, with the narrator pointing out that had something trivial not happened, then the fate of the human race would have probably been entirely different. These can be anything from someone have a specific gene, or a mentally unstable soldier breaking into a particular shop. Everything is linked – so it goes.

An interesting and somewhat creepy look at an unlikely – but nevertheless potential – future of the planet.

“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.