I’m working my way through Vonnegut’s novels and I’ve noticed a few recurring themes, some more mind-bending than others. For now, I’d like to focus on role of religion in Vonnegut’s early speculative fiction.
In Player Piano, Vonnegut creates a world in which humankind has painted itself into a meaningless corner of unproductive leisure via mechanization, and envisions the return of “the Ghost Dance religion” as a sort of “last, desperate defense of the old values.” As the novel unfolds, the futuristic society reverts to the ancient pattern, in which “[m]essiahs appeared, the way they’re always ready to appear, to preach magic that would restore the game, the old values, the old reasons for being.” Of course, the modern Ghost Shirt Society doesn’t follow the means and methods of the original movement, but their hopeless attempt to stand athwart history remains the same.
In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut once again makes religion central to his narrative, in the form of Bokononism. In that novel, the religion functions as a sort of cognitive buffer, a means for the author to share blinding insights with the reader without overwhelming them in the process — anything too profound may be written off as whimsically nonsensical.
Which brings us to my Friday read for this week: The Sirens of Titan. In this book, the protagonists are two rich old fools, one of whom flies into a cosmic distortion which spreads him out across space and time. As it turns out, this allows him to befriend aliens, wage interplanetary war against the Earth, and lay the foundations of a brand new religion: The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. The motto of the church is “Take Care of the People, and God Almighty Will Take Care of Himself.”
What hath the Ghost Shirts to do with the Bokononists and the followers of God the Utterly Indifferent? They each represent possible paths to enlightenment: back to the past, upward into mystical profundity, or forward into Deistic Apatheism. While I commend each of these books to my readers, I can only recommend the last of these three approaches to religion.