“We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”[1] The humor and nonchalance that Kurt Vonnegut brought to his writing was infectious, so much so that he was often compared with Mark Twain.[2] Known best for his satire, discussions of war, and science fiction themes, in the decade since his death, Vonnegut has fallen from favor somewhat by literary scholars and the public alike.[3] There is less historical scholarship on Vonnegut than there is literary scholarship. It is the goal of this paper to place him within the historical and cultural context of early Cold War America. I will show how Vonnegut’s ideas about science and technology were shaped by the ongoing concerns of the immediate postwar and early Cold War period (that is, from 1945 to 1965). It was at this time that the American public faced changing economic conditions driven by what President Eisenhower famously called “the military industrial complex,” by increasing automation (in the factory and at home), and by a new understanding of “American” identity.

It was within this context that Vonnegut wrote Player Piano (1952) and Cat’s Cradle (1963), his first and fourth novels. These two novels deal heavily with questions about science and technology, especially the idea of progress and the dangers of its unintended consequences. They were also shaped in large part by Vonnegut’s experience at General Electric in the late 1940s, at a time when his older brother, Bernard, was working there as well, as a scientist under the direction of Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir. These two works tell us much about the nature of Vonnegut’s thinking during these heady Cold War years. Cat’s Cradle has often been discussed in terms of its humor and satire, but its criticism of the modern scientist and misunderstood technology has often been unanalyzed. Player Piano too is underappreciated for what it tells us about Vonnegut’s thinking. In literary circles, it has become a footnote in Vonnegut’s long literary career.

In this respect, I argue that we should read Vonnegut as an anthropologist of science and technology, that he applied his graduate training from the University of Chicago anthropology program to his time at GE and his relationships with men of science throughout his career. Player Piano tells us the story of runaway automation in the hands of a scientific managerial class. Cat’s Cradle analyzes the nature and ramifications of corporate science, specifically the unintended consequences of modern technology. Both novels are studies in the new system of corporate science which dominated that aspect of mid-century US industrial work and catapulted America into world leadership economically and scientifically. Vonnegut makes a critical distinction between two types of people working within a corporation, which I will be calling the corporate scientist and the corporate worker. It is this dynamic that Vonnegut finds to be so dangerous to the production of science and technology. The two texts represent the end of work and the end of the world, respectively, both of which are intricately tied to our ever-complicated relationship with technology and the intricate power structures which we fall into. However, what I am examining is more than just the ideas of Kurt Vonnegut, but also the ways which his experiences contributed to his thinking, the link between the man, his ideas, and his experiences.

Vonnegut uses the character Felix Hoenikker in Cat’s Cradle to argue against the structure of corporate science and the person of the corporate scientist. His egalitarian view of science was the foundation of his thinking and helped him analyze what was wrong with American science. The corporate hierarchy and its celebration was an affront to Vonnegut’s belief that there should be less of a distinction between the corporate scientist and corporate man. Corporate science creates a morality vacuum and robs men of their humanity. This idea is fundamental to the way Vonnegut thought about science and is one of Vonnegut’s main critiques. Both novels explore this corporate connection, but I will show that they diverge in their exploration of the unintended consequences that Vonnegut believes technology can create. Vonnegut believed that work provides purpose and when machines replace humans, we are robbed of our humanity. He argues in Player Piano that we have done little to consider the human impact that replacing people with machines will have and this presents a moral dilemma that the corporate scientist has neglected. Vonnegut’s fears about technology becoming destructive, even against our best intentions, are played out in Cat’s Cradle, where amorality in science is ultimately our biggest threat.

Within the section Corporate Science on Display, I will first be explaining in closer detail Vonnegut’s connection with General Electric. It is from his time working in the public relations department, as well as his understand of the work which Bernard did under Irving Langmuir that was fundamental to many of the critiques about science and technology that he would make later. These connections to GE formed the basis for his fears about the addictive properties of technology and about morality removed from science, as he witnessed in the industrial research lab. In the section Player Piano and Automation, I will argue that Vonnegut’s views on automation come from his view that work is fundamental to human identity. But it is also here where some of the greatest complexity in Vonnegut lies, because while he is a critic of science and technology, he believes that there is something inherent in humans that draws them to technology, that progress is inevitable, not because of the technology itself, but because of a flaw he sees in humanity. Finally, in the section Cat’s Cradle and World Ending Technology, I present the argument that Vonnegut’s experiences during World War II did much more than create Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, they also cemented Vonnegut’s horror at the ways which we use technology to harm ourselves and our planet. Vonnegut’s fears about humans losing control of the science and technology that we create are grounded in first-hand experiences with the horror of human progress.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without a Country. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005): 62.

[2] Robert Tally. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography. (London: Continuum International, 2011).

[3] For example, there is a conference dedicated to Vonnegut at Indiana University, Granfalloon, in May 2018, celebrating the life and work of Vonnegut.