Listen: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (November 11, 1922 — April 11, 2007) was an American science fiction writer. His work is known for its satirical, anti-authoritarian, humanist, absurdist and often brutally depressing worldview. If this worldview can be pinned down to one event, it would be the bombing of Dresden.
Despite having been an active anti-interventionist in college, Vonnegut enlisted in the US Army during World War II. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was captured by the enemy and brought to Dresden. Dresden was a German city known for its doll-making which, after conversion to war-production, produced light infantry equipment that was only of marginal military value. Because of those industries, and the railway lines which passed through it (and enabled German industries to continue functioning through the continued transportation of resources across the country), like all other German cities it was fire-bombed by the western Allies as part of their campaign to reduce German armaments production. Around 25,000 civilians died. So it goes. This event would become a major theme in many of his books, especially the later ones.
Vonnegut is also notable because he was one of the first modern science fiction authors to get serious attention in the literary world. Although your literature professors (and Vonnegut himself) may try to tell you he's not actually a science fiction writer, the aliens and time-travel seem to disagree.
A full decade after his death, the editors of an omnibus of his work discovered five short stories from the early '50s (i.e., before any of his most famous work) that had never been published and put them in the book, first posting one online for free as a tease.
Vonnegut's novels with their own pages:
- The Sirens of Titan (1959)
- Mother Night (1961)
- Cat's Cradle (1963)
- Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
- Breakfast of Champions (1973)
- Galápagos (1985)
Short stories include:
Tropes common in his work:
- Author Avatar: Kilgore Trout, recurring Science Fiction author, sometimes described as a hack. Stuck deep in the Sci Fi Ghetto. Vonnegut has also noted that Trout (or at least his name) was somewhat based on Theodore Sturgeon as well.
- Author Filibuster: Vonnegut's characters (particularly Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout) are often surrogate mouthpieces for his social and political views.
- Cosmic Horror Story: While most of his works, with a few exceptions, don't often include hostile extraterrestrial or quasi-supernatural beings (preferring anthropogenic agents of the apocalypse, e.g. Ice-9 in Cat's Cradle), Vonnegut shares with writers of the cosmic horror genre a belief in a universe that is completely indifferent to human welfare and morality and therefore seems hostile.
- Cosmic Plaything: Most of Vonnegut's protagonists are poster children for this trope, suffering one misfortune after another as a consequence of an indifferent society (and a Godless, inherently meaningless universe) while usually taking the blows in stride. Notable examples are Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five and Rudy Waltz in Deadeye Dick.
- Crapsack World: A common motif in Vonnegut's fiction is social decay in combination with environmental devastation, ranging from (at its most benign) people living sleazy personal lives in a generic midwestern town alongside a river contaminated with toxic sludge in Breakfast of Champions to more extreme scenarios, such as that same town being accidentally destroyed by a neutron bomb in Deadeye Dick, the aftermath of the Dresden bombing in Slaughterhouse-Five, the end of human civilization from a worldwide pandemic in Galápagos, or complete annihilation of nearly all life on Earth through a chemistry experiment gone wrong in Cat's Cradle.
- Either/Or Title: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade, Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday and Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!
- Hero of Another Story: Many novels have the protagonists of other novels turning up as side characters. In addition, even genuine bit players are given complex backstories and the narrator often makes a point of explaining what the events of the novel looks like to them. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut writes that he tried to use this trope as often as possible, because he suspected that Protagonist-Centered Morality in stories made people more selfish in real life.
- "How I Wrote This Article" Article: Vonnegut's narration frequently goes off to explain what he was going through when he was writing Breakfast of Champions.
- Humans Are Bastards: A lot of his books have a rather dim view of humanity. Considering what the man went through, it's hard to not understand how he came to this conclusion.
- Idle Rich: What Eliot Rosewater in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater (and a minor character in several other Vonnegut novels) wishes to avoid being, hence his esoteric humanitarian projects.
- Mechanistic Alien Culture: The Tralfamadorians, depending on the story or novel that features them, are either Starfish Aliens or Mechanical Lifeforms that replaced their organic ancestors (Vonnegut never makes it clear if there was a Robot War or if this was a more benevolent Singularity-like event), their culture is perhaps even more Starfish-y then their physical form (when Salo tries to explain their system of government in The Sirens of Titan, he sounds like he's fraking stoned). So, they sometimes count as examples of this trope, depending on the story. Vonnegut's literary, Author Avatar, Kilgore Trout, wrote several stories using aliens that had the stereotypical features of this trope, including a race of Car-People.
- The 'Verse: Vonnegut's stories and characters have a tendency to overlap with one another. If it's one of his fictional works, expect at least a cameo from Kilgore Trout and/or the Tralfamadorians.
- Slaughterhouse-Five is a major offender of this, with Billy Pilgrim meeting several other protagonists: Eliot Rosewater (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater) appears in the neighboring bed to Billy when he's institutionalized; Howard W. Campbell (Mother Night) is the Nazi American trying to convince the POWs to change sides; and both Kilgore Trout and the Tralfamadorians (pretty much every book) both meet Billy at some point.
- This Is a Work of Fiction: He had a standard parody of this, as exemplified in Bagombo Snuff Box:As in my other works of fiction: All persons living and dead are purely coincidental, and should not be construed. No names have been changed in order to protect the innocent. Angels protect the innocent as a matter of Heavenly routine.
- White-and-Grey Morality: Despite his brutally cynical worldview, Vonnegut also wrote in the introduction to Welcome to the Monkey House that there were no villains in his stories, just people with conflicting interests. He also touches on this in the introductory chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five.
- World of Jerkass: Those characters in Vonnegut's novels who aren't complete idiots or Cloudcuckoolanders on the margins of society tend to be selfish, crass, and needlessly cruel. This is especially the case in Deadeye Dick and Slaughterhouse-Five.
- Writers Suck: The hack science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, something of an parody of Vonnegut himself, appears in several of Vonnegut's novels. While Trout is described as having clever ideas for stories, his writing itself is only fit for publication as filler material for pornographic magazines and thus almost completely unread and unknown.
Examples of tropes from his other stories
- Brown Note: A radio telescope in "The Euphio Question" picks up "the music of the spheres", which gives such pleasure to listeners that they stop whatever they're doing, and only snap out of it when the playback is interrupted.
- Evolutionary Levels
- Gravity Is Only a Theory: In Slapstick, the protagonist and his sister theorize that gravity was once variable, which is how the Pyramids in Egypt were built. This turns out to be true when their theory is used by the Chinese to change gravity back to how it used to be. From that point on it varies daily.
- Her Code Name Was "Mary Sue": Mercilessly deconstructed in "Shout it out from the Rooftops." The author is shunned by everyone in her town, loses her living and is on the verge of breaking up her marriage after "Hypocrites' Junction", a book about a thinly disguised version of her town, becomes a smash hit.
- Lost in Character: "Who Am I This Time?".
- Overpopulation Crisis: In "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow", overpopulation is connected to the invention of a medicine called anti-gerasone, which stops the aging process and people no longer die of old age and related diseases as long as they keep taking it. It's is cheap and easily obtained, made from mud and common flowers. The world now suffers from severe overpopulation, lack of living space and shortages of food and resources.
- Rape as Drama: Quite gruesomely used in "Welcome To The Monkey House". Sex is repressed and discouraged to the point where a vigilante thinks the only way to convince women to try it is to rape them. The women he violates end up being his loyal followers, and eventually help him do it to other women. It may sound unreal, but this happens in a lot of societies and cultural subgroups.
- Sadistic Choice: In "All The King's Horses," the captain at one point sees the one way he can save all but one of the remaining Americans... but he has to choose one of his twin sons to die. Due to intervention from one of his adversary's concubines, the child doesn't have to die.
- Winds of Destiny, Change!: The titular effect from "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" - anyone who thinks in just the right way can manipulate chance all around them. First manifesting as the ability to roll snake-eyes at will on two dice, it can allow its user to cause machines to fail at will around them. Horrified by the potential destructive power of the effect, Prof. Barnhouse goes into hiding and dedicates his life to rendering all weapons inert via his power.
A Man Without A Country
- Jesus Was Way Cool: Kurt writes that Christians always demand the Ten Commandments to be posted in public buildings, but never the Beatitudes."Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
- Immune To Cigarettes: Near the beginning of chapter four, Kurt writes......I am going to sue the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am now eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the planet were named Bush, Dick and Colon.
- Artistic License – Physics: Deliberately invoked; as Vonnegut points out in the preface, Neutron Bombs do a lot more damage than is suggested in the story, where a neutron bomb is dropped on Midland City and kills all its inhabitants, but leaves buildings intact.
- The Atoner: Rudy sees himself as this after he shoots Eloise Metzger. He becomes his parents' sole carer, and only when he leaves Midland City for New York does he realise that he was doing this as a way to atone for his crime.
- Doomed Hometown: Midland City.
- Driven to Suicide: Celia Hoover, who commits suicide by eating Drano chips, which does so much damage to her body that her coffin has to be kept closed at her funeral. Why she commits suicide is never explained; it may be a result of her descent into madness due to drug abuse.
- Food Porn: Many delicious-sounding recipes are used as a framing device (although Vonnegut explains in the preface that he has tinkered around with the recipes, which are based on recipes from various real life cookbooks, and that they will not work if tried at home). They are also a reference to Rudy's abilities as a cook, and how he feeds and cares for his family as a means of atoning for the damage he has done.
- Science Marches On: Said word-for-word when Rudy describes a pharmacy refitted to look like its 1920s/1930s model but which stocks current (to the 1980s) prescription medicines.
- Strange-Syntax Speaker: Haitian Creole is said to only have a present tense, leading to some very odd grammar. Of course, it's implied that the Haitians simply don't bother trying to teach the American proper grammar."He is dead?" he said in Creole. "He is dead," I agreed. "What does he do?" he said. "He paints," I said. "I like him," he said.
- Those Wacky Nazis: Certainly, Otto Waltz seems to think so, and sees Nazi imagery as colourful and fun. He becomes friends with Adolf Hitler while 'studying' in Austria, and has a massive Nazi flag flying above his house. He even greets Felix's friends with 'heil Hitler', and they are expected to say 'heil Hitler' back. By World War II, Otto realises that being openly pro-Nazi perhaps isn't such a good idea.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
- The Alcoholic: Eliot Rosewater.
- All-Loving Hero: Eliot's defining trait - he loves everyone, no matter how unlovable they are, simply because they are human and need someone to love them. Possibly deconstructed,note as Senator Rosewater bitterly notes that that makes for a raw deal for anyone who (like himself) wants to have a personal relationship to Eliot, since Eliot loves them exactly as much as he does a random person on the street. Eliot's wife also tries to be this, but it eventually causes her to have a nervous breakdown and turn into a complete sociopath for a while - essentially, she wore out her sense of empathy by trying to apply it as widely as Eliot. Eliot himself also suffers a mental collapse towards the end of the novel.
- The Atoner: Eliot Rosewater develops a Thing about supporting volunteer firemen after he kills some of them in World War II Germany, mistaking them for soldiers.
- Amoral Attorney: Norman Mushari.
- Being Good Sucks: Unusually, it's not because you get punished for doing it, but because it's simply so soul-crushingly thankless and time-consuming. Eliot, a man of immense fortune and considerable mental and physical gifts, has to devote his entire being to simply making day-to-day life in one small town a little better for its hapless inhabitants, and creating any sort of lasting improvement there or elsewhere is implied to be completely impossible.
- Conspicuous Consumption: What rich people are supposed to do, averted by Eliot and embraced by his father.
- Conveniently Interrupted Document: Fred Rosewater, a distant cousin of Mr. Rosewater reads his family history, only to discover that the most of it was eaten by maggots.
- Crapsack World: One which Eliot is trying to make less crapsacky.
- Creator In-Joke: Vonnegut reuses the name "Diana Moon Glampers" from Harrison Bergeron, although unlike The 'Verse examples discussed above, rather than being the same character, the two women are in fact polar opposites.
- Hereditary Suicide: Fred Rosewater's father committed suicide. Fred often thinks about killing himself and once nearly goes through with it, but gets interrupted.note
- Heroic BSoD: Happens to Eliot. Twice.
- Hypocrite: Fred Rosewater's wife is said to despise him for being so poor and dull, while having failed to notice that she's every bit as poor and every bit as dull as he is.note
- Interrupted Suicide: Fred Rosewater is about to hang himself, but he's stopped by a visit from Mushari.
- It's Not Porn, It's Art: To settle once and for all the question of which is which, Senator Rosewater has created a law of which he is quite proud. The law says that if it has pubic hair, it's pornography (note that this was before the modern custom of porn stars shaving off their pubic hair).
- Moral Guardians: Senator Rosewater. He's so proud that he managed to create a law that passed muster with the Supreme Court in defining obscenity. If it has pubic hair, it's not art, it's obscene.
- Nautical Knockout: Eliot accidentally killed his mother when he took her sailing on his small boat and tacked. The boom swung across and knocked her off the boat where she sank like a stone.
- Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Norman Mushari is trying to prove that Eliot is insane and that the Rosewater fortune should therefore be inherited by Fred, who is Eliot's direct heir. As part of his efforts, he drums up a startling number of fraudulent paternity suits against Eliot. When Eliot finds out, he thinks it over for a moment and then formally admits paternity to every single one of his supposed illegitimate children - meaning that even if Norman manages to get Eliot declared incompetent, there are now over fifty people who stand to inherit before Fred does.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Senator Rosewater.
- Shut Up, Kirk!: One of Eliot's friends try to call Senator Rosewater out on his open contempt for the poor, saying that an elected politician should be polite to the people he hopes will vote for him. The Senator tells him that he has spoken his mind his entire career, and everyone votes for him anyway, including the poor - because even they secretly agree that contempt is all they deserve.
- Strawman Political: Senator Rosewater, although he is far more Truth in Television than most people will admit (even to themselves).
- Title Drop: The title is told both to Eliot and Fred Rosewater.
- Anachronic Order: In this case, due to the scraps of paper from the "original artist" getting a bit mixed up.
- Gosh Dang It to Heck!: The narrator never swears, because his grandfather told him that if he uses profanity, it's easy to dismiss what he's saying.
- Named After Somebody Famous: The narrator is named after prominent American Socialist Eugene Debs.
- Take That!: At one point the narrator receives a pamphlet titled The Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamador (with Tralfamador being an alien planet), obviously a mockery of the anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: The riddle at the end.
- Almighty Janitor: Mary Kathleen O'Looney is a bag lady who secretly runs the world's largest corporation.
- Because You Were Nice to Me: At one step's removal. Everyone who was nice to Starbuck on his first day out of jail end up lavishly rewarded, since his account of their kindness gave a very rich woman renewed hope for humanity.
- Classical Antihero: Walter F. Starbuck seems to lack all talent and drive, beyond a vague shame at his own lack of heroism.
- Didn't Think This Through: Mary Kathleen O'Looney's ultimate plan was to create a socialist society by having RAMJAC expand until it owned all businesses, then leave it to the US government when she died. While a creative idea, the government has no interest in running all of RAMJAC's businesses and just auctions them off.
- Mega-Corp: RAMJAC seems to own pretty much the entire world, though it eventually turns out to "only" own about 19% of all the property in the USA.
- Rags to Riches: ... to rags, to riches, to rags, back to riches again... Starbuck's life has a lot of ups and downs.
- Women Are Wiser: Starbuck believes this, and further asserts that back in his day, it was considered conventional wisdom. Whether it's objectively true in the world of the story is a bit harder to tell - certainly all the women we see are more practical and ethical than Starbuck, but that's not saying much.
- Author Tract: The book is about how automisation is bad. And you'd be hard pressed to find a single scene that doesn't in some way force home the theme of automisation's inherent awfulness with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
- The Baby Trap: Anita got Paul to marry her by claiming to be pregnant. Not only was she not pregnant, she actually can't have children at all.
- Dark Messiah: Lasher is a sinister figure trying to affect the overthrow of the machine-focused society. After the revolution fails at tremendous cost in lives and property, he admits that he never even thought it had more than a chance in a thousand to succeed, and that all he was after was one last glorious stand in favour of human dignity.
- Jerkass Has a Point: At one point Anita angrily tells Paul that for someone whose heart bleeds for the uneducated and the way they are dismissed and belittled by those with doctorates, he's sure happy enough to lord his superior intelligence and education over her. Paul can't entirely say she's wrong.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: However disagreeable the novel's dystopia is, the people the Ghostshirts manage to recruit to fight against it turn out to be mostly idiots who are less interested in sustainable social change and more interested in getting to smash things up and have some fun for once.
- A Real Man Is a Killer: Vonnegut told this story many times, both in speeches and in at least one book other than Timequake. After he returned from World War II, his Uncle Dan came up to him and clapped him on the back, proclaiming "You're a man now!" The implication being that the only way for a boy to become a man was to kill people. Although Vonnegut had never had occasion to kill anybody during his military service, he had seen a lot of death and lived through the firebombing of Dresden, which wasn't a lot of fun. Imagine that you've just gone through the worst, most traumatic experience of your life, and before you've finished dealing with that trauma somebody comes up to you and congratulates you on it. Yeah, Kurt wanted to kill the guy.
Armageddon In Retrospect
- Hypocritical Humor: His son, Mark Vonnegut, wrote the forward for this book and recounts this exchange from one of his last conversations with his father:Kurt: How old are you, Mark?
Mark: I'm fifty-nine, Dad.
Kurt: That's old.
Mark: Yes it is, Dad.
So it goes.