So goes the love-hate relationship between science fiction and Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut is the most famous SF author to ever be ignored by the SF genre


Every year the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America awards the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for “lifetime achievement in science fiction and/or fantasy.” The Grand Master list reads like a who’s who of science fiction and includes almost every major author since the genre’s Golden Age, including Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. LeGuin, Isaac Asimov, and many more.

One name, though, is conspicuous for its absence: Kurt Vonnegut.

Despite writing some of the most famous SF novels of the 20th century, Vonnegut long had a love-hate relationship with the science fiction genre. He wrote novels which fully embraced science fiction tropes like space and time travel but distanced himself from the genre in search of a wider readership. He was friends with SF authors but dismissive of the bad writing the genre too often produced. He published stories in classic SF magazines like Galaxy and IF but achieved his greatest fame as a counter-culture author whose novels Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) were embraced by millions around the world.

Vonnegut even appears in the influential SF anthology Again, Dangerous Visions, with a story titled “The Big Space Fuck.” In Harlan Ellison’s introduction to the story, Ellison claimed this is the first time the word “fuck” has been used in a story title. Ellison also expressed outrage over Cat’s Cradle not winning the Hugo Award.

Vonnegut has been on my mind since I finished the first major biography of his life, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields. The biography covers in detail all of Vonnegut’s life, from his birth in Indianapolis, Indiana, to his prisoner-of-war time in World War II — where he survived the firebombing of Dresden — to his struggles and ultimate success as an author. The biography is filled with previously unknown details of Vonnegut’s life, many gleaned from access to Vonnegut’s personal letters. While Vonnegut comes off as far less likable in this biography than many of his fans would desire, that also appears to be how he was in reality.

However, the flaw in Shields’ biography is an almost total disdain and hatred for anything science fiction, as if Shields has absorbed Vonnegut’s hatred of the genre without also taking in Vonnegut’s love. For example, only a single page is given to Theodore Sturgeon, who was the inspiration for Vonnegut’s most famous character Kilgore Trout. That single page describes a dinner shared by the two authors and how Sturgeon attempts a backward flip but falls on his knees. In Shields’ account, Sturgeon is played for laughs only, as a clown who showed Vonnegut what could happen to his writing career if he didn’t break out of the damned box of SF fiction.

But if you read Vonnegut’s original account of the dinner, which he shared in his 1999 introduction to A Saucer of Loneliness: Volume VII: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, it’s obvious that this isn’t how Vonnegut saw Sturgeon. In the introduction Vonnegut said Sturgeon was the victim of a “hate crime then commonly practiced by the American literary establishment” — genreism, or the dismissal of any writer who wrote SF. Vonnegut closes his account of that dinner by describing Sturgeon as one of the best writers in America. The fact that Shields referenced this particular episode but missed Vonnegut’s larger point about Sturgeon leaves me wondering what else Shields missed due to a biased view of SF.

Unfortunately, this anti-SF attitude is common throughout the biography, almost as if Shields feels that SF is unworthy of being associated with his beloved Vonnegut. And as evidenced by the way the SF genre also held Vonnegut at arm’s length — such as by not awarding him any of the genre’s major prizes, even though he was a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards — it is obvious this antagonism cut both ways.

But as with so much about Vonnegut, the truth is much more complex than it first seems. In addition to writing for SF magazines — his most famous short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” was originally published in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy — Vonnegut was friends with many SF authors and attended the famous Milford Science Fiction Writers’ Conference. He later worked this visit into his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) where the main character drunkenly addresses the Milford convention saying “I love you sons of bitches, I really do. You’re all I read anymore. You’re the only ones crazy enough to really care about the future.”

But despite this love toward the genre, Vonnegut also hated being shoved into the science fiction “box.” His first novel Player Piano (1952), about a world where machines have replaced human labor, was based to a great degree on Vonnegut’s experiences doing public relations work at General Electrics after World War II. He once commented that the world he described in the book already existed, but because he was trying to show how technology impacted peoples’ lives the publishers decided to market it as science fiction.

As Vonnegut later said in his collection of essays A Man Without a Country, “I became a so-called science fiction writer when someone decreed that I was a science fiction writer.” As a result of this, Vonnegut said that ever since “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ … and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

Photo of Kurt Vonnegut graffiti on a dumpster, which is perhaps an apt metaphor for the SF genre’s view of the author.
Photo taken by miserlou and used under the creative commons license.

I suspect that Vonnegut’s “soreheaded” comment about science fiction is an overstatement, just as many comments he made in life were merely intended to stir people up. But he also wanted to reach a larger audience than afforded by science fiction at the time. Frederik Pohl later said he understood what Vonnegut was trying to do. “He made the commercial decision to deny that he was a science fiction writer,” Pohl said, “because he didn’t want his books in the science fiction section of the bookstore. He wanted them outside at the cash register, which was a very sensible decision, if he could make it happen.”

But despite Vonnegut’s attempt to escape from the science fiction box, he uses SF themes heavily in his early novels to makes larger points about humanity. In The Sirens of Titan (1959), Vonnegut’s wit is on perfect display as he throws everything at the reader, including an alien invasion of Earth and travel through time and space. In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut satires the nuclear arms race through the creation of ice nine — which causes all water on Earth to freeze — and pokes holes in religious beliefs with Bokononism, a religion which embraces lying and nihilism.

And let’s not forget Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), in which he finally writes about his experiences in the firebombing of Dresden by realizing that he can’t write about the experience. One of the most acclaimed novels of the 20th century, Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, who becomes unstuck in time and travels between World War II, an alien planet, and various other past and present locations.

As Vonnegut progressed through his writing career, he moved away from science fiction. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater was Vonnegut’s first book which contained no SF elements. But as SF critic and author Norman Spinrad said in his book Science Fiction in the Real World, “Just as Vonnegut had finished wiping the SF mud from his bootheels, Kilgore Trout began to haunt his work.” In addition to being in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Trout popped up in many of Vonnegut’s non-SF novels such as Breakfast of Champions (1973) and in the extremely underratedGalápagos (1985), which returned to SF themes and featured Trout as a ghost.

Spinrad agrees with biographer Charles J. Shields that Kilgore Trout was what Vonnegut could have turned into if he hadn’t hit the heights of literary success. But where Shields evidently sees Trout as a personification of Theodore Sturgeon, Spinrad says that “Trout’s work as described (in Vonnegut’s novels) sounds much more like Vonnegut’s earlier oeuvre than anything of Sturgeon’s.” In short, Trout is the voice of the SF writer Vonnegut almost became. The fate he escaped because his style changed and he found his voice writing weirdly original satirical stories.

Vonnegut distinguishes between low level and high quality SF in his 1965 essay “Science Fiction.” He states that “Whatever it knows about science was fully revealed in Popular Mechanics by 1933. Whatever it knows about politics and economics and history can be found in the Information Please Almanac for 1941. Whatever it knows about the relationships between men and women derives from the clean and the pornographic versions of ‘Maggie and Jiggs.’”

In the essay Vonnegut also laments that too many SF stories focus on technology and science instead of “dialogue and motivation and characterization and common sense.” As Susan Farrell writes in the Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut, this shows “That in Vonnegut’s view, then, good science fiction writers, like all good writers, focus on the nature of human beings while also paying attention to the changing world that surrounds those human beings.”

Vonnegut’s “Science Fiction” essay is what probably caused most people in the SF genre to decide that Vonnegut wasn’t one of them. However, the science fiction he was describing was the SF of earlier decades, as the genre was being changed forever by the New Wave movement even as he wrote the essay.

So what can we make of the relationship between Kurt Vonnegut and SF? The fact that he wasn’t awarded the Grand Master Award indicates that the SF field didn’t believe he was one of them. But Vonnegut’s fiction couldn’t have existed without SF, and SF — and literature as we know it — wouldn’t be the same without him.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the relationship between Vonnegut and SF is to quote from Slaughterhouse-Five: “And so it goes.”

And so it went indeed.

Jason Sanford is a Nebula Award nominated author whose science fiction stories have been published in a number of magazines and books, including Interzone, Asimov’s and Analog. His website is www.jasonsanford.com.

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