Today is the birthday of American author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922) (books by this author). He’s best known for his book Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), which he based on his experiences during the famous bombing of Dresden during World War II. Vonnegut’s novels often blended satire, science fiction, realism, and politics. During the 1960s, he became a counter-culture icon on college campuses whose speeches to students inspired the wrath of conservatives. He scoffed: “The beliefs I have to defend are so soft and complicated, actually, and, when vivisected, turn into bowls of undifferentiated mush. I am a pacifist, I am an anarchist, I am a planetary citizen, and so on.”
Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis. His father was an architect, and his mother came from a brewing family whose prizewinning beer included a special ingredient: coffee. His early life was rocky: his father was remote and his mother was controlling and often vindictive, which profoundly affected his relationships with women for the rest of his life. An aunt once told him, “All Vonnegut men are scared to death of women.” He later wrote, “My theory is that all women have hydrofluoric acid bottled up inside.”
He worked as a police reporter in Chicago, studied for his master’s in anthropology, started an auto dealership, taught disturbed children, and wrote short stories in his spare time. His first novel was Player Piano (1952), a corporate satire in which a band of revolutionaries decide to destroy machines they believe are taking over humanity.
Vonnegut’s books skewer race, religion, and consumer culture. He invented the fictional religions of Bokonism and the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent; a cataclysm called Ice-Nine, which causes all water to freeze at room temperature; Tralfamadorians; Mercurian Harmoniums; and chrono-synclastic infundibula, which are places in the universe where all truths fit neatly together. When his book Cat’s Cradle was published, it only sold about 500 copies, but now it’s a perennial of high school classrooms.
He was famously ambivalent about being labeled a science-fiction writer and even had a running tiff with Ray Bradbury. He said: “When Shakespeare figured the audience had had enough of the heavy stuff, he’d let up a little, bring in a clown or a foolish innkeeper or something like that, before he’d become serious again. And trips to other planets, science fiction of an obviously kidding sort, is equivalent to bringing in the clowns every so often to lighten things up.”