So… Handmines! (Doctor Who, Daleks, & Slaughterhouse Five)

I just watched the season premiere of Doctor Who and was struck by the thing that probably struck all fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugherhouse Five: The Handmines are suspiciously similar to the Tralfamadorians.

In case you haven’t seen the episode, Handmines are like landmines, but instead of blowing people up, they reach up from underground and drag people to their deaths. And, creepily, they look like hands. And, more creepily, each hand has an eye in its palm.

A Handmine in action... like a Dalek, scary but oddly impractical as a weapon.

A Handmine in action… like a Dalek, scary but oddly impractical as a weapon.

By way of comparison, here’s how Kurt Vonnegut describes the natives of planet Tralfamadore in Slaughterhouse Five:

The letter said that they were two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm.

Plumber’s friends! Which, of course, is to say plungers! Which is also to call to mind the ridiculous, iconic, and seemingly useless appendage mounted to the left of almost every Dalek’s gun!

Assuming Steven Moffat, who wrote the episode, is paying tribute to Vonnegut in some way (and even if he denies it… really?), then when we’re looking at Handmines, we’re looking at the flipside of a Dalek’s trademark plunger.

But what does it mean?

It’s tempting to wonder why Daleks have mostly useless plungers for arms, particularly given that Davros (who invented the Daleks) was a genius who hailed from a planet with the kind of technology that could produce Handmines and could therefore produce artificial hands, But that’s not really the question the Handmines answer. (The answer is that a humanoid hand would look ridiculous sticking out of a Dalek.)

The real question the Handmines answer is why the Daleks look like Daleks. That is, why do they roll around when walking seems to be the superior alternative? After all, we know that they have the technology to take on any form and usually do so in an upright, bipedal fashion (as the shopworn plot device of having pretty much every side character turn out to be a Dalek in disguise demonstrates). In other words, they can walk. They just choose not to.

Why?

If you’re Davros and you come from a planet where hands can reach up from the ground and grab you around the ankle and drag you to your death at any moment, you’re going to be particularly wary of the drawbacks of having ankles. As a result, any design you come up with for the ultimate survival machine isn’t going to have ankles. Instead, it’s going to have a massive base that rolls around on the ground so that a Handmine can’t reach up and conveniently grab it.

In the context of a world littered with Handmines, the pepper-pot design of Daleks makes a lot of sense. The Daleks were created as a means of survival and of winning war at any cost, which serves as a commentary on our own lot here on earth. It’s surely no coincidence that the Doctor is seen riding on a tank early in the episode. And when he makes a pun about the tank being the wrong size for his fish (or something along those lines), it’s tough not to think about Pink Floyd and the “two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl year after year” of “Wish You Were Here.”

More to the point, however, it’s hard not to think of other sea creatures that might be living in tanks. Octopi and squid, for example. And their doppelgangers, the Kaled mutants who operate the Daleks.

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A Kaled mutant rolls down the windows of his Dalek to get a bit of fresh air.

If there’s a parallel to be drawn here, it’s one I’ve made elsewhere, so forgive me for beating this dead horse: We have met the Daleks and the Daleks are us. But the image of the tank also underscores a theme shared by Slaughterhouse Five and pretty much every episode of Doctor Who featuring the Daleks. That is, war isn’t just bad; it’s dehumanizing. It causes people to arm themselves, to shield themselves inside protective layers of armor that prevent their feet from touching the ground.

And these layers of armor aren’t always literal. They can consist of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and how the world works (“We’re good, and they’re bad!” “We’re survivors!” “You need to kill or be killed!”). Moreover, these stories we tell ourselves can take away our compassion — which turns out to be the main theme of the episode.

It’s easy to show compassion for our friends since, by definition, they’re part of our understanding of who the “good guys” are. It’s harder to show compassion for our enemies or those we consider “other” or “alien.” Hence the Doctor’s on-again, off-again uneasy alliances with Missy/the Master, but his general tendency to always be aligned against the patently alien Daleks. But as the season premiere of Doctor Who and Slaughterhouse Five both suggest, without compassion, none of these alliances mean much of anything at all.

Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,

Welcome to Earth.  It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.  It’s wet and round and crowded.  At the outside… you’ve got about a hundred years here.  There’s only one rule that I know of… “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

More Sketchy Thoughts on Slaughterhouse Five

A while back, I posted some thoughts on whether or not Billy Pilgrim is hallucinating when he’s visited by aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I’m teaching the novel again this week, an my thoughts have turned to the issue of free will in the novel. The reason this came up is that a student asked whether Vonnegut believed in predestination. Here are my thoughts…

I don’t think Vonnegut personally believed in predestination. He was a humanist and an atheist. Since humanism asserts that people should work to benefit society, my guess is that he also believed that people had free will, since working to benefit society (as opposed to choosing not to do so) requires a decision.

Nonetheless, predestination is a major theme in Slaughterhouse Five. In fact, much of the novel reads like a debate over the legitimacy of free will over predestination. On the predestination side of the argument, there’s Harrison Starr’s theory that writing an anti-war novel is like writing an anti-glacier novel; i.e., war, like glaciers, is inevitable, so there’s no sense in trying to stop it (3). But on the “free will” side of the argument, we have the fact that Vonnegut ignored Harrison Starr’s advice and wrote an anti-war novel anyway.

Yet this act of free will — the decision to write a novel that might influence its readers to reject war — is itself haunted by doubt, as exemplified by the Tralfamadorians’ understanding of time and space. The Tralfamadorians, we learn, find free will to be a foreign concept because they see the past, present, and future all at once (86). At the same time, though, there’s something terrifyingly absurd about that vision: they know how the universe will end, and they don’t do anything to stop it. From their perspective, it had to be done.

Professor Rumfoord, the military historian, echoes this sentiment when he tells Billy that the bombing of Dresden “had to be done” (198). Of course, the fact that it’s Rumfoord telling us that it had to be done — and that Rumfoord is described as “a hateful old man–conceited and cruel” suggests that we’re not supposed to agree with him (193). That Billy stands up to Rumfoord by saying “I was there” suggests that he’s exercising some degree of free will, just as Edgar Derby exercises free will when he stands up to Howard Cambpell elsewhere in the novel.

I’d also argue that Vonnegut’s concerns over free will can be seen in the idea that Tralfamadorians see humans (and all creatures) as machines (154). I want to complicate this image a little bit by suggesting that we can replace “machines” with “computers” or “robots,” and that the actions of the kinds of machines we are (in Vonnegut’s view) are therefore dictated by software or a kind of code. In other words, while some things are hardwired into our physical makeup (e.g., instincts), something else is responsible for the decisions we never really think too much about. That “something else” is the set of cultural norms and assumptions into which we’re born (comprised of many things, like myths, religion, manners, attitudes, and unspoken rules).

This “software” (our assumptions) causes us to see the world in a certain way (or frames our perceptions). Building on the idea that Vonnegut is not in a position to judge his characters as good or evil (or as heroes or villains), he’s basically recognizing that each character’s definition of “good” or “true” hinges on the “software” that his or her culture has been installing since birth. Thus Billy doesn’t judge Rumfoord’s assessment that “It had to be done” because that assessment is “true” to Rumfoord based on everything he’s ever read or been taught to believe.

The challenge that Vonnegut poses to us, I think, is asking us to recognize that even if we are machines, we have the capability to reprogram our software. In other words, by writing a book like Slaughterhouse Five, he’s saying that once we recognize the cultural assumptions that dictate many of our actions, we can question and eventually change those assumptions in a way that will allow us to avoid the fate of the Tralfamadorians.

Is Billy Pilgrim Crazy?

Slaughterhouse-five+by+Kurt+VonnegutA student of mine recently asked whether Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist (for lack of a better word) of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, has, within the context of the narrative (such as it is) really experienced a close encounter with aliens or simply lost his mind.

The question is certainly valid. When I first read the novel over twenty years ago, I took the story at face value. When Vonnegut informed me that Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time, I went along for the ride. Yet the more I thought about it, the less willing I was to suspend my disbelief. After all, how did the Tralfamadorians get around if their bodies were shaped like toilet plungers?

Eventually, however, I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter whether the aliens really visited Billy or he imagined them. What matters is that he believes he’s been visited by aliens, and that this belief – along with all of the knowledge they allegedly impart to him – provides the framework for Billy’s understanding of the world.

Throughout his oeuvre, Vonnegut echoes the Shakespearean sentiment that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In Mother Night, for example, he writes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Bluebeard, he adds,  “Belief is nearly the whole of the universe whether based on truth or not.” In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut expresses this notion in financial terms: “Frames are where the money is.”

On a literal level, of course, Vonnegut’s reference to frames explains what Billy does for a living; he’s an optician, and most of his money comes from selling protective eye ware to employees of the General Forge and Foundry Company of Ilium, New York. Figuratively, however, Vonnegut is letting us know that context (i.e. how we frame information) is everything (or, more colloquially, “where the money is”).

The idea that stories shape our sense of reality saturates Slaughterhouse Five. Early on, Mary O’Hare is furious with the author because she suspects that the book he’s writing will glamorize war. Later in the novel, Roland Weary makes sense of his experiences behind enemy lines during World War Two by imagining himself as a member of his own version of the Three Musketeers. Later still, a dying colonel convinces himself that he’s a hero by adopting the nom de guerre “Wild Bob” and picturing a cookout he’ll never get to enjoy.

The list goes on and on, but the most imaginative and explicit example of the power of stories to frame reality in Slaughterhouse Five is a novel by the fictional science fiction writer Kilgore Trout titled The Gospel from Outer Space. In this novel, a visitor from outer space figures out that the reason Christians can be so cruel is “slipshod storytelling in the New Testament.”

The trouble with the New Testament, the alien realizes, is that its underlying message belies its intent. Whereas the message of the New Testament is to be kind and merciful, the Gospels actually taught this: “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.”

To rectify this problem, the alien writes a new Gospel in which Jesus is “a nobody” whose crucifixion is so repugnant that God adopts “the bum” and issues a warning to all of humanity: “From this moment on, He will punish horribly anyone who torments a bum who has no connections!

Needless to say, the underlying premise of The Gospel from Outer Space echoes the dominant theme of Slaughterhouse Five: stories shape reality, a notion borne out by life in the “real” world whenever anyone claims a monopoly on virtue by citing the foundational document of their choice, religious or otherwise. (If you have time, take a look at the Patton Oswalt video at the bottom of this post for a funny take on this phenomenon. Fair warning: It’s a little racy.)

In the context of the novel, then, Billy Pilgrim’s belief that he’s been visited by aliens is no different from anybody’s faith in God or, for that matter, faith that the framers of the Constitution had everything so perfectly worked out that there’s no room for interpreting the document in anything but the most literal fashion.

Moreover, the vast range of stories, big and small, that Vonnegut describes throughout Slaughterhouse Five serves as a warning to those of us whose skeptical tendencies might tempt us to feel superior to religious fundamentalists, strict constructionists, and other people who, like Billy, build their lives around such stories.  Sure, they’re crazy. But so are we – because no matter how sophisticated we imagine ourselves to be, we all invent or subscribe to narratives that allow us to make sense of the world.

In one way or another, we’re all Billy Pilgrim.