A few years ago we posted Kurt Vonnegut’s letter of advice to humanity, written in 1988 but addressed, a century hence, to the year 2088. Whatever objections you may have felt to reading this missive more than 70 years prematurely, you might have overcome them to find that the author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions single-mindedly importuned his fellow man of the late 21st century to protect the natural environment. He issues commandments to “reduce and stabilize your population” to “stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems,” and to “stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars,” among other potentially drastic-sounding measures.
Commandment number seven amounts to the highly Vonnegutian “And so on. Or else.” A fan can easily imagine these words spoken in the writer’s own voice, but with Vonnegut now gone for well over a decade, would you accept them spoken in the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch instead?
First commissioned by Volkswagen for a Time magazine ad campaign, Vonnegut’s letter to 2088 was later found and republished by Letters of Note. The associated Letters Live project, which brings notable letters to the stage (and subsequently internet video), counts Cumberbatch as one of its star readers: he’s given voice to wise correspondence by the likes of Sol LeWitt, Albert Camus, and Alan Turing.
Cumberbatch even has experience with letters by Vonnegut, having previously read aloud his rebuke to a North Dakota school board that allowed the burning of Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut’s work makes clear that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and that he considered book-burning one of the infinite varieties of folly he spent his career cataloging. In light of his letter to 2088, the same went for humanity’s poor stewardship of their planet. Vonnegut may not have been a conservationist, exactly, but nor, in his view, was nature itself, a force that needs “no help from us in taking the planet apart and putting it back together some different way, not necessarily improving it from the viewpoint of living things.” This is, of course, the personifying view of a novelist, but a novelist who never forgot his sense of humor — nor his tendency to play the prophet of doom.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.