Beneath Kurt Vonnegut’s grim, absurdist humor beat the heart of a humanist, but not, by any stretch, an optimist. Vonnegut looked balefully at every project intended to improve the sorry state of human affairs. In Player Piano, for example, he imagines a future very much like that envisioned for us by our contemporary technocratic elite: nearly all work has been automated and the mass of unemployed are given a modest stipend for their living and funneled into what anthropologist David Graeber might call “bullshit jobs.”
“Finally,” Ed O’Loughlin writes at The Irish Times, “Vonnegut’s non-tech proles rise up against the machines that have perversely enslaved them, smashing all that they can find. For Vonnegut, ever the pessimist, this is not a happy ending; the revolution runs out of steam, collapses internally, and the remaining rebels go happily to work in the wreckage of their struggle, eagerly repairing the machines that they destroyed themselves.” This bleak satire can seem almost upbeat next to the fatalism of his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
In this book, Vonnegut uses an alien race called the Tralfamadorians to illustrate the idea that “all moments—past, present, and future—always have existed… always will exist,” as the Mia Nacamulli-scripted TED-Ed animation above explains. The aliens keep the novel’s hero, Billy Pilgrim, in a human zoo, where they patiently explain to him the inevitability of all things, including the bombing of Dresden, an event Vonnegut personally survived, “only to be sent into the ruins as prison labor,” notes Paul Harris at The Guardian, “in order to collect and burn the corpses.”
To say that Vonnegut, who once worked as a press writer for General Electric, was skeptical of scientific plans for managing nature, human or otherwise, would be a major understatement. As he watched GE scientists embark on a project for controlling the weather (while the company’s “military collaborators have more aggressive plans in mind”), Vonnegut began to demand “an answer to one of science’s greatest ethical questions,” writes WNYC: “are scientists responsible for the pursuit of knowledge alone, or are they also responsible for the consequences of that knowledge?”
The question becomes even more complicated if we accept the premise that the future is foreordained, but without the intervention of all-seeing aliens, there is no reliable way for us to predict it. Vonnegut’s experiences at GE formed the basis of his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, in which a military technology called Ice-nine ends up freezing all of the world’s oceans and bringing on cataclysmic storms. Cat’s Cradle’s characters survive by adopting a religion in which they tell themselves and others deliberate lies, and by so doing, invent a kind of meaning in the midst of hopelessness.
Vonnegut stressed the importance of contingency, of “growing where you’re planted,” so to speak. The best options for his characters involve caring for the people who just happen to be around. “We are here to help each other through this thing,” he wrote, “whatever it is.” That last phrase is not an evasion; the complexities of the universe are too much for humans to grasp, Vonnegut thought. Our attempts to create stable truths and certainties—whether through abstract in-group identities or grand technological designs—seem bound to cause exponentially more suffering than they solve.
Vonnegut may have achieved far more acclaim in his lifetime than his contemporary Philip K. Dick, but he felt similarly neglected by the “literary establishment,” Harris writes. “They interpreted his simplistic style, love of science fiction and Midwestern values as being beneath serious study.” (See, for example the 1969 New York Times review of Slaughterhouse-Five.) But perhaps even more than the perennially relevant Dick, Vonnegut’s work speaks to us of our current predicament, and offers, if not optimism, at least a very limited form of hope, in our capacity to “help each through this thing,” whatever it is.
If you want to fully immerse yourself in Vonnegut's body of work, the Library of America has created a box set that contains all 14 novels plus a selection of the best of his stories.