Rosetta Books’ Kurt Vonnegut series is a re-release of the best-known, as well as the more obscure, of Vonnegut’s works in a re-branded collection. Right now many of the Kindle books in this series are being offered at discount prices.
Adapted for a magnificent George Roy Hill film three years later (perhaps the only film adaptation of a masterpiece which exceeds its source), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is the now famous parable of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and POW, who has in the later stage of his life become “unstuck in time” and who experiences at will (or unwillingly) all known events of his chronology out of order and sometimes simultaneously.
Traumatized by the bombing of Dresden at the time he had been imprisoned, Pilgrim drifts through all events and history, sometimes deeply implicated, sometimes a witness. He is surrounded by Vonnegut’s usual large cast of continuing characters (notably here the hack science fiction writer Kilgore Trout and the alien Tralmafadorians who oversee his life and remind him constantly that there is no causation, no order, no motive to existence).
The “unstuck” nature of Pilgrim’s experience may constitute an early novelistic use of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; then again, Pilgrim’s aliens may be as “real” as Dresden is real to him. Struggling to find some purpose, order or meaning to his existence and humanity’s, Pilgrim meets the beauteous and mysterious Montana Wildhack (certainly the author’s best character name), has a child with her and drifts on some supernal plane, finally, in which Kilgore Trout, the Tralmafadorians, Montana Wildhack and the ruins of Dresden do not merge but rather disperse through all planes of existence.
Slaughterhouse-Five was hugely successful, brought Vonnegut an enormous audience, was a finalist for the National Book Award and a bestseller and remains four decades later as timeless and shattering a war fiction as Catch-22, with which it stands as the two signal novels of their riotous and furious decade.
Kurt Vonnegut presents in Fates Worse than Deatha 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.
Vonnegut was in his early sixties and his career, still successful, drawing toward a kind of bitter summation when Galapagos (1985) was published. His early work with its unequivocal statement of absurdity and hopelessness was now almost four decades behind when he completed this meditation on Darwinism, fate and the essential irrelevance of the human condition.
Humanity has in the millions of years after inevitable holocaust and exile transmogrified into a race of not-quite-human seals on Darwin’s Galapagos Islands. Leon Trotsky Trout, the son of Vonnegut’s wretched familiar character Kilgore Trout, watches and broods over his no-longer-human descendants who have made natural selection a matter of debased survivalism.
Using a device common in his novels after Slaughterhouse-Five, the material is presented in the form of a transcript or memoir; Trout unhappily witnesses a sad outcome which may nonetheless represent the best of all human possibilities. Trout’s father Kilgore, in ghostly form, remains in communication, urging his son to cease observing and exit, but Leon will not take the opportunity, feeling linked to the pathetic, morphed shards of humanity who remain on the Islands. Whether the survival of the seals constitutes human survival, whether Kilgore and his son are imaginary fragments of evolutionary decay lurk as questions beneath a sequence of events which show Vonnegut trapped in the Age of Reagan.
Vonnegut is trying to see through (rather than to shape) his material; the theme of the novel represents a kind of apotheosis and never has Vonnegut’s ambiguous despair been more clearly revealed or more clearly made the engine of his narrative.
Player Piano (1952), Vonnegut’s first novel, embeds and foreshadows themes which are to be parsed and dramatized by academians for centuries to come. His future society–a marginal extrapolation, Vonnegut wrote, of the situation he observed as an employee of General Electric in which machines were replacing people increasingly and without any regard for their fate–is mechanistic and cruel, indifferent to human consequence, almost in a state of merriment as human wreckage accumulates. Paul Proteus, the novel’s protagonist, is an engineer at Ilium Works and first observes with horror and then struggles to reverse the displacement of human labor by machines.
Ilium Works and Paul’s struggles are a deliberately cartoon version of labor’s historic and escalating struggle to give dignity and purpose to workers. The novel embodies all of Vonenegut’s concerns and what he takes to be the great dilemma of the technologically overpowered century: the spiritual needs of the population in no way serve the economies of technology and post-technology. Vonnegut overlies this grotesque comedy over tragedy, disguising his novel in the trappings of goofiness.
Not published–at Vonnegut’s insistence–as science fiction, the novel was nonetheless recognized and praised by the science fiction community which understood it far better than a more general readership, a dilemma which Vonnegut resentfully faced throughout his career. Bernard Wolfe’s dystopian Limbo and Player Pianowere published in the same year to roughly similar receptions; two “outsiders” had apotheosized technophobia as forcefully as any writer within the field. Throughout his career, Vonnegut was forced to struggle with his ambivalence about science fiction and his own equivocal relationship with its readers.