Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—‘God damn it, you've got to be kind.’*
Kurt Vonnegut has died. He was 84, a long-time smoker, had attempted suicide many years ago.
And yet it was still a shock when I read the headlines this morning. Every news site I regularly check had a picture of him, the man who was his own caricature. Many of the articles focused on his cynicism, his conviction that human beings have really fucked up.
But a few of the professional tributes I read captured the whisper that runs through so much of his work: we should be, must be, kind.
The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.*
The first Vonnegut I ever read, though I didn’t comprehend the significance, was “Harrison Bergeron.” I was in 5th grade and we were doing a unit on science fiction in my “gifted” class. I was a bit smug, because I knew we were doing the unit precisely because it was something I was interested in and had put it in my IEP; after the fit I threw in 4th grade about the teacher ignoring my IEP, she had decided it was in her best interest to pay me some attention. (But that’s a different story for another time.)
Most of my reading to this point, outside of what one might expect for a kid my age, would more accurately be classified as fantasy and included such classics at Lewis’ Narnia series, a good chunk of Tolkien, and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. If I had read any true science fiction at this point, it might have been Asimov’s I, Robot, but not much else.
“Harrison Bergeron” turned me on my head. It challenged my ideas of what I meant by ‘equal.’ It introduced me to the idea of futuristic dystopias and the idea that by examining just how bad things could get might help us avoid them. I learned that science fiction is so much more than space and robots and time travel—and not a genre to dismiss as inconsequential.
I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.*
The first time I consciously read Vonnegut came about five years later. My 10th grade English teacher had us choose a book to read independently each quarter. She supplied a list of suggested texts, which I took home to my father. I didn’t want to read a standard classic and asked for his recommendation. He looked the list over closely, commented on several, and then paused at God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. “This is the one you should read. I think you’ll like Vonnegut.” And so I did.
Within the next few months, I don’t remember exactly which novels I picked up, but they included The Sirens of Titan and Player Piano at the least. When my birthday came around in the spring, I was dating my first boyfriend, who presented me with a copy of Welcome to the Monkey House (and a cassette, I think, but I don’t remember which one). As I made my way into one of the early stories in that collection, dejà vu! “Harrison Bergeron.” The author I had been enjoying so much of late was the same one who had shaken my world years before.
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the
Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.*
I admire Vonnegut’s style of writing. And I know that I will never be brave enough to match it. I simply could not manage his balance of the absurd and the ordinary, the grand observations in small moments. But that is not to say that I do not find his writing creeping into my own, sometimes quite purposefully, sometimes creeping in from nowhere.
Notes and a few scenes lurk in a couple of my notebooks that play with a concept of time much like Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, spliced with some odd experiences I had during a period of many dizzy spells and odd movements in my peripheral vision. Not something likely to get any further development—or to deserve it.
And that’s only one of the many concepts that have stuck with me.
All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.*
What a wonderful coincidence that he was born in Indianapolis in 1922, that he survived the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, that he published his first story in 1950, that he continued from there.
Thank you, Kurt Vonnegut. Thank you.
So it goes.*
*Quotes come, in order, from: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, “Harrison Bergeron” from Welcome to the Monkey House, The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five, Timequake (and elsewhere), Slaughterhouse-Five.