November 11th, is the birthday of the late Kurt Vonnegut. His first short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” appeared in the February 11, 1950 edition of Collier’s (it has since been reprinted in his short story collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House”). His first novel was the dystopian novel “Player Piano” (1952), in which human workers have been largely replaced by machines.
He continued to write short stories before his second novel, “The Sirens of Titan”, was published in 1959. Through the 1960s, the form of his work changed, from the relatively orthodox structure of “Cat’s Cradle” (which in 1971 earned him a master’s degree) to the acclaimed, semi-autobiographical “Slaughterhouse-Five”, given a more experimental structure by using time travel as a plot device.
These structural experiments were continued in >i>”Breakfast of Champions” (1973), which included many rough illustrations, lengthy non-sequiturs and an appearance by the author himself, as a deus ex machina.
“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself.
“I know,” I said.
“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.
“I know,” I said.
“Breakfast of Champions” became one of his best-selling novels. It includes, in addition to the author himself, several of Vonnegut’s recurring characters. One of them, science fiction author Kilgore Trout, plays a major role and interacts with the author’s character.
In addition to recurring characters, there are also recurring themes and ideas. One of them is ice-nine (a central wampeter in his novel “Cat’s Cradle”), said to be a new form of ice with a different crystal structure from normal ice. When a crystal of ice-nine is brought into contact with liquid water, it becomes a seed that “teaches” the molecules of liquid water to arrange themselves into ice-nine. This process is not easily reversible, however, as the melting point of ice-nine is 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit (45.8 degrees Celsius).
Although many of his novels involved science fiction themes, they were widely read and reviewed outside the field, not least due to their anti-authoritarianism. For example, his seminal short story Harrison Bergeron graphically demonstrates how an ethos like egalitarianism, when combined with too much authority, engenders horrific repression.
In much of his work, Vonnegut’s own voice is apparent, often filtered through the character of science fiction author Kilgore Trout (whose name is based on that of real-life science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon), characterized by wild leaps of imagination and a deep cynicism, tempered by humanism.
In the foreword to “Breakfast of Champions”, Vonnegut wrote that as a child, he saw men with locomotor ataxia, and it struck him that these men walked like broken machines; it followed that healthy people were working machines, suggesting that humans are helpless prisoners of determinism.
Vonnegut also explored this theme in “Slaughterhouse-Five”, in which protagonist Billy Pilgrim “has come unstuck in time” and has so little control over his own life that he cannot even predict which part of it he will be living through from minute to minute.
Vonnegut’s well-known phrase “So it goes”, used ironically in reference to death, also originated in “Slaughterhouse-Five” and became a slogan for anti-Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s. “Its combination of simplicity, irony, and rue is very much in the Vonnegut vein.”
With the publication of his novel “Timequake” in 1997, Vonnegut announced his retirement from writing fiction. In 2005, many of his essays were collected in a new bestselling book titled A Man Without a Country, which he insisted would be his last contribution to letters.
He continued to write for the magazine In These Times, as a senior editor, until his death in 2007, focusing on subjects ranging from contemporary U.S. politics to simple observational pieces on topics such as a trip to the post office.