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Rediscovering Kurt Vonnegut

By / September 14, 2017 / no comments

Complete StoriesThe story goes that early in his career, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., had a short story rejected by a magazine. His agent told him to put the story away and try again when he became famous, “which may take a little time” the agent added.

Well it didn’t actually take that long, but Vonnegut never did unearth that story and submit it again. The story, “The Drone King” about a man who wants to build a fortune on bees, eventually appeared in The Atlantic recently. Now, that story and five others that have never previously been published, is included in the Complete Stories that has just been published.

Vonnegut was a prolific short story writer (this volume includes 97 stories in total), many of them, like “Harrison Bergeron” a sharply satirical take on the idea that everyone should be equal, or “Welcome to the Monkey House” about a rebel in a world where birth control is rigidly enforced, make distinctive and often comic use of science fiction devices.

Of course, Vonnegut consistently tried to avoid being labelled a science fiction writer, but couldn’t seem to avoid writing the stuff.

Player Piano: A Novel   The Sirens of Titan: A Novel   Cat's Cradle: A Novel

Early novels like Player Piano, in which humanity surrenders both its creativity and its political will to machines, The Sirens of Titan, in which a stranded alien is shown to have manipulated the entirety of human history, and Cat’s Cradle, in which the invention of “ice-nine” threatens to bring about the end of the world, are unashamedly science fiction.

Slaughterhouse-FiveThe pivotal novel in his career was, of course, Slaughterhouse Five, a novel built around his own experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the fire storm caused by allied bombing. It is a novel which neatly interweaves a mainstream story with science fictional devices. In particular, the central character, Billy Pilgrim, is unstuck in time, so that he experiences every moment of his life at the same time. The use of science fiction to tell what is essentially an emotionally powerful mainstream story somehow captures the quality that Vonnegut seemed to be striving for in all of his fiction.

Slapstick or Lonesome No More!   Galapagos: A Novel (Delta Fiction)   Timequake

After Slaughterhouse Five, his work was less consistent, but he still produced extraordinary science fiction novels such as Slapstick and Galapagos, both of which present a post-apocalyptic world, and Timequake in which the history of the world resets to 1991, but then continues exactly as it had previously played out.

The appearance of the Complete Stories presents a perfect opportunity to renew acquaintance with one of the most idiosyncratic and important science fiction writers of the last half century.

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