Kurt Vonnegut is a unique voice in the American canon-a writer whose works are hard to categorize, often straddling the space between literature and science fiction, and filled with cutting satire and dark humor. Like Mark Twain before him, Vonnegut's reputation and impact on American writing and reading will continue to grow steadily and increase in relevance as new insights are made.
Vonnegut was born in 1922 in Indianapolis, and studied at the University of Chicago and the University of Tennessee. In the Second World War, he became a German prisoner of war and was present during the bombing of Dresden. This experience provided inspiration for his most successful and influential novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut-admired as much for his views and his "Vonnegutisms" as for his publications-wrote extensively in many forms, including novels, short stories, essays, plays, articles, speeches, and correspondence, some of which was published posthumously.
The editor of GALAXY magazine, Horace Gold, was obsessed with social trends and their extrapolation. The prototypical GALAXY story (often parodied in the magazine itself) would take a present-day, often overlooked trend, fad or demographic fact and posit a society in which they had become dominant. Thus Fred Pohl’s THE MIDAS PLAGUE in which obsessive consumerism and its unpleasant acquisitiveness had become negative social values. Thus Damon Knight’s BACKWARD TURN BACKWARD in which the lifespan reversed (from grave to cradle) becomes a mockery of 1950’s youth obsession. And thus THE BIG TRIP UP YONDER (January 1954) in which the increasing of the lifespan has led to a future America in which the old dominate simply because they will not die and yield their share of the diminishing stock of possessions...a circumstance which leads to the inevitable infantilism of the deprived younger generations. THE BIG TRIP UP YONDER is the second and last of the two stories which Kurt Vonnegut, a struggling mainstream writer and reluctant presence in science fiction, sold to GALAXY magazine. Characteristic of Vonnegut’s work, it is framed as comedy but is deathly serious and confronts the issue of overextended mortality with unbending grimness. Vonnegut spent no more time hanging around the genre science fiction markets; it was another 18 years before THE BIG SPACE F--- appeared in AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS and only did so because Vonnegut and that famous original anthology’s editor, Harlan Ellison, were old friends.
Vonnegut sold two stories to Horace Gold, the editor of GALAXY magazine, early in his and the magazine’s career; this characteristic absurd employment of common themes was the first of them, published in the April 1953 GALAXY. Vonnegut’s absolute familiarity with science fiction tropes and his mocking contempt for them are well displayed in a story which shifts between tragic cartoon and straightforward projection. His highly evolved humans in an indeterminate future have become body-transcending spirits and Vonnegut handles this vaporous situation with deadpan comedy suspended over unspeakable loss, a characteristic technique. In its fluidity--the story is parody masked as extrapolation; no, it is a horror story in the form of a parody. This kind of cross-category narrative attack was often used by Vonnegut and makes him difficult to label; he is too serious to be funny, too absurd (as in jailbreak or as in the concept of Billy Pilgrim’s alien Tralmalfadorians) to be taken as realism. Vonnegut when he wrote this story at 30 was still trying to find his voice, identify his material; as a laboratory of his enveloping subject matter and technique UNREADY TO WEAR is particularly interesting and disturbing, demonstrating that Vonnegut could have gone in any number of directions and perhaps by deliberately failing to make a decision, found his voice through indeterminacy. It is as a poet of indeterminacy then that Vonnegut went on to write his most famous novel, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE.
Kurt Vonnegut presents in Fates Worse than Death a veritable cornucopia of Vonnegut's thought on what could best be summed up as perhaps "anti-theology", a manifesto for atheism that details Vonnegut's drift from conventional religion, even a tract evidencing belief in the divine held within each individual self; the Deity within each individual person present in a universe that otherwise lacks any real order.
Vonnegut was never a real optimist and with just cause: he had an incredibly difficult life (he had been a prisoner of war from which he drew the title for his book Slaughterhouse-Five) and suffered from failing health, which only showed him his own mortality even more than he already knew it. Still, most readers find that in the body of Vonnegut's work there is still a glimmer of desperate hope. Vonnegut's continued search for meaning surely counts for a great deal as he balances hope and despair.
Scholars and fans can read about Vonnegut's experiences during World War II and the after-effect he felt it had on him. His religious (or anti-religious) ramblings and notations are interesting and, by turns, funny and perceptive. The humor may be dark, but that does not make it any the less funny.
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