As I am drawing near the end of my masters program at the University of Oklahoma, I thought would update on the progress I have made this semester on my writing. I have a solid 70 page draft that has been dispersed to my committee, and I have received some feedback. Now it’s time to do some edits, and I should be defending in about two weeks. I plan to post some of my writing from my thesis on this blog this summer, after I have complete my program, for those of you who wish to read the finished product. For a bit of a teaser for what I will be covering, I’m going to include the introduction in this post. Enjoy!
“We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.” The humor and nonchalance that Kurt Vonnegut brought to his writing was infectious, so much so that he was often compared to Mark Twain. Known best for his satire, discussions of war, and science fiction themes, in the decade since his death, Vonnegut has fallen somewhat from favor by literary scholars and the public alike, though not entirely absent from discussion. While there was a plethora of scholarship written during his lifetime, it is less focused on Vonnegut as a historical figure, and more on Vonnegut as a literary figure. For example, Vonnegut as a Cold War writer is something which is rarely looked at, even though he spent nearly the entirety of his career writing in this period. It is the goal of this paper to place Kurt Vonnegut within a specific historical and cultural context, one of early Cold War America, and examine him as a historical figure, rather than solely as a literary figure. During the immediate Postwar and early Cold War period (1945-1965), the United States began to grapple with a changing culture which was centered around science and technology. The public at large faced changing economic conditions driven by the emerging “military industrial complex” and increasing automation, as well as a new idea of the “American” identity.
It was within this context that Kurt Vonnegut wrote Player Piano (1952) and Cat’s Cradle (1963). I focus on Vonnegut’s first and fourth novels, with some discussion of his second novel, The Sirens of Titan (1959) as well. I have chosen these two novels because they deal so heavily with questions of progress narrative in science and technology as well the dangers of unintended consequences in our relationship with evolving science and technology. It is because they are the novels most heavily influenced by Vonnegut’s time working at General Electric in the late 1940s. While Cat’s Cradle has often been discussed in terms of its humor and satire, its criticism of the modern scientist and misunderstood technology has often been ignored, while Player Piano has become a footnote to Vonnegut’s literary career. These pieces provide an important insight to the early mind of a man who has been praised for his unconventional approach to post-modern fiction, while skirting the edges of science fiction. Moreover, they are interesting products of a period of great cultural change in the United States, speaking to many of the fears which other Americans were hesitant to voice about changing science and technology. Rather than viewing Vonnegut as a Postmodern writer of the 1970s, it is my goal to show that Kurt Vonnegut’s views on science and technology within these two texts are both unique and in line with a larger Cold War culture.
Vonnegut works to offer commentary on science and technology, which stems from his two-tiered connection with General Electric (both his own career in the public relations office, and his brother’s time working in the research lab). His relationships with science and technology throughout his life, and long career were often complicated and conflicting, showing both boundless curiosity over innovation, and repulsion at the things we have created. To a certain extent, I will be making the argument that Vonnegut is something of an anthropologist of science, taking the skills he learned as a graduate student at the University of Chicago in anthropology, and applying them to his time at GE and his relationships with men of science throughout his career in order to produce satirical pieces as commentary. In this, Vonnegut’s proximity to General Electric made him an expert critic on the influence and involvement of corporations in the development of science and technology after World War II. Player Piano, a sketch of General Electric more broadly, demonstrates some of Vonnegut’s fears surrounding ideas of progress in relation to science and technology, as well as the difficulty of giving technology up once we have grown accustomed to its use. Meanwhile Cat’s Cradle, which investigates the corporate scientist himself, delves into the unintended consequences of the things which we produce, specifically the ways which technology can quickly become deadly, even if that was not its original purpose. The two texts represent the end of work and the end of the world, respectively, both of which are intricately tied to our ever-complicating relationship with technology.
A brief note on what Vonnegut means by the word “technology” and what how I will be using the term moving forward. As a writer who is greatly concerned about technology, Vonnegut is surprisingly lax in his use of the term, and is rarely specific in his imaginings of the ways which technology is used. For instance, what is remarkable about the world which he creates in Player Piano, is that Vonnegut works with and describes technology contemporary to its publication. The humorously named EPICAC, clearly a close relative to ENIAC (the real-life computing machine), was a late 1940s futuristic imitative vision of a computer, encompassing an entire room. Vonnegut rarely attempts to create technologies that could not exist outside of his own time and place, and when he does, in the case of ice-nine, he blackboxes the specifics of what makes them novel. To clarify, I am referring to ice-nine as a technology because it was originally proposed as the solution to a specific problem (getting rid of mud in military engagements to make movement on the ground for troops easier). Vonnegut uses the term “technology” in the broadest sense. As for myself, I will be discussing what I have deemed “automation technologies” in reference to the overwhelming sentiments expressed by Vonnegut in Player Piano about machines replacing human workers, and later will explore “world-ending technologies” which combines ice-nine from Cat’s Cradle, and Vonnegut’s general attitudes towards weapons of war.
 Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without a Country. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005): 62
 Robert Tally. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography. (London: Continuum International, 2011)
 For example, there is a conference dedicated to Vonnegut at Indiana University, Granfalloon, in May 2018, celebrating the life and work of Vonnegut
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