Monthly Archives: September 2015

Satire in Jingo and Cat’s Cradle

“It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.”

Terry Pratchett

“Sometimes I dream that we could deal with the big crimes, that we could make a law for countries and not just for people.”

Terry Pratchett

“Always be wary of any helpful item that weighs less than its operating manual.”

Terry Pratchett

Recently, I read both Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel, Jingo, published in 1997, and Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963. I’d never read Vonnegut before so I was struck by the similarities and, more importantly, the differences between their works, especially the use of satire. I decided to write this piece comparing and contrasting the types of satire they used.  However, my expertise area is sociology, not english literature. Therefore, I needed to learn more about satire.  My friend, Amanda, loaned me her copy of “A Handbook of Literature” by Harmon and Holman to help me better understand satire.  Satire is “[a] work or manner that blends a censorious attitude with humor and wit for improving human institutions or humanity” (461). The point is that authors using satire write to “inspire a remodeling.” From my reading, I learned that there are two major types of satire, formal (direct) and indirect.  Indirect satire is “expressed through a narrative and the characters who are the butt are ridiculed by what they say or do.” Terry Pratchett’s novel Jingo falls into this category. Although there is a first person narrative, I believe that “Cat’s Cradle” also falls into this type. Although I’m arguing that they both employ indirect satire, I believe that the tone of Pratchett’s is more Horatian (e.g., “gentle, urbane, smiling) while “Cat’s Cradle” is more Juvenalian (e.g., “biting, bitter, angry.”) Perhaps, someone familiar with satire will tell me if I’m on the right track with these ideas or not.

Both books are quite witty, using humor on multiple levels. Although they were written in different time periods, they both deal with technology and war. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a satirical fantasy series that often addresses modern political situations.  In particular, Jingo deals with the appearance of a fantasy island with no apparent “value.” In both countries, there are factions that want war rather than peace. Pratchett uses his characters to show the ridiculous and horrifying lengths that people will go to over their in-groups. However, there are many familiar characters from the Discworld series working to promote peace.

On the other hand, the narrator of Cat’s Cradle wanted to write a history of the day that the atomic bomb was dropped. During his investigations, he learns that the main scientist who helped to invent the bomb also helped to invent Ice-Nine, which essentially turns water into ice. The disastrous implications are easy to spot. In the end, humans destroy their own environment and many commit suicide.

As a side note, the treatment of scientists in Vonnegut’s piece, reminds me of the cartoon going around that science will allow us to clone dinosaurs, but we need the humanities (and the social sciences) to tell us that maybe that’s not a good idea. Just because someone is brilliant doesn’t mean that they are an ethical actor. However, there is no reason to assume that a brilliant mind has to be inherently cold and without empathy. Also, people in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences are usually intelligent (and hopefully, trained to be thoughtful and ethical.) The cartoon actually creates a false dichotomy.  I feel like the sciences and humanities have been pitted against one another to help minimize the attention on the business people and government officials who are throwing all of us under the bus through reduced tenure, instability, fewer grants, etc.

I loved Terry Pratchett’s treatment of his inventor/engineer in Jingo. We are introduced to Leonard of Quirm (based on Leonardo Da Vinci) in the book, who constantly generates ideas.  It becomes quickly apparent that he assumes other people are ethical and doesn’t think that his inventions should actually be used by people for war, although I, as the reader, worried that they might be. In the book, Pratchett notes:

Any sensible ruler would have killed off Leonard, and Lord Vetinari was extremely sensible and often wondered why he had not done so. He’d decided that it was because, imprisoned in the priceless, inquiring amber of Leonard’s massive mind, underneath that bright investigative genius was a kind of willful innocence that might in lesser men be called stupidity. It was the seat and soul of that force which, down the millennia, had caused mankind to stick its fingers in the electric light socket of the Universe and play with the switch to see what happened – and then be very surprised when it did.

Leonard of Quirm ridicules and seems horrified by the suggestion of the less intelligent/less educated character, Nobby, who repeatedly suggests that the drill on his submarine could be used to sink the other country’s ships. In the end, Lord Vetinari uses his own wits, science, and Leonard’s inventions to protect his people and country. He and his country even to come out on top politically. He’s certainly a believer in his in-group, but he does not turn to war.

In the end, the biggest different between the books to me is that of optimism versus pessimism about the ultimate human condition. Pratchett believes that we can learn and do better. It’s not that Pratchett is a “Polly Anna” type, because he certainly understands the darker side of the human condition, but when I read his books, I feel like there’s a chance for myself (and other people) to be better and even a chance to change institutions in society for the better. I prefer Terry Pratchett’s optimism to Vonnegut’s pessimism in Cat’s Cradle. If we don’t believe that humans can change things, I suspect that the chance we will becomes slimmer. In my own writing, I’d rather leave people feeling optimistic than bleak.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Sociology