While Vonnegut wrote four novels and various short stories from 1945 to 1965, I focus on Player Piano, his first novel, and Cat’s Cradle, argued to be his best novel after Slaughterhouse-Five, because of their connection to Vonnegut’s time at General Electric.[1] Set in an alternative present after a Third World War and Third Industrial Revolution, Player Piano (1952) follows Dr. Paul Proteus, an intelligent, thirty-five-year-old factory manager of Ilium Works in Ilium, New York, who has become discontent with the company, as well as his job. The nation’s managers and engineers have developed an abundance of automated systems to replace the workforce which was depleted due to the war.  The novel begins ten years after the war, when most factory workers have been replaced by machines. Some of these machines include the EPICAC machine (satirically named after the 1950s computer ENIAC), Charlie Checker (an automaton designed with the sole purpose of defeating Paul in checkers), and the ever-present player piano located in a bar that Paul frequents. The population of Ilium is divided geographically into “The Homestead”, where the lower classes live and where Paul’s wife, Anita, was raised, and the other side of the river at the center of town, where all the engineers and managers live. As the novel progresses towards its climax, the reader becomes privy to Paul’s growing discomfort with the order of life in his society as well as his disillusionment with modern technology, especially as it becomes apparent that technology will continue to progress until it replaces all human work. Paul ultimately falls in with a popular uprising, the Ghost Shirt Society, and eventually they overthrow Ilium Works, along with the government system which allowed for automation to replace human workers. The last few pages of the novel allude to the resistance returning to and rebuilding the system which they just overthrew, when the men of the Ghost Shirt Society use the same machines to begin rebuilding.

Begun shortly after Player Piano, and published in 1963, Cat’s Cradle follows Jonah, the reluctant narrator of the end of the world. While he sets out with the original purpose of writing a book to understand the human motivations behind the atomic bomb, what he discovers is a man, Felix Hoenikker, whose own lack of morality will ultimately be the undoing of the entire world. Jonah’s journey of discovery takes him from General Forge and Foundry in New York, to the island nation of San Lorenzo, where he becomes entangled with Hoenikker’s three children, as well as a theocratic dictator named Papa Monzano. Hoenikker becomes a synecdoche for all corporate science for Vonnegut. Hoenikker creates a substance, known as ice-nine, which causes water to freeze at a higher temperature, simply because he theorizes that it would be possible to do so. As with the atomic bomb, Hoenikker has no regard for how it would be used but does it solely out of curiosity. Hoenikker’s indifference to the uses of his discoveries spills over into an indifference to the moral education of his children, whom he neglects. Eventually, because of their ignorance of both a scientific and human understanding of the ramifications of the uses of ice-nine, it falls into the ocean, freezing all the Earth’s water and killing off humanity.

While some of the discussions which Vonnegut presents in both novels could be applied to other periods in American history, both before and after their publication, they are especially pertinent considering their context in the Cold War. Ice-nine can be seen as a clear analogy for the Bomb and weapons of war more generally, and it is just as destructive whether it is used accidentally or on purpose. Vonnegut’s fears about automation are not new to this period, but are timely, since they appear around the same time as Norbert Wiener’s work on cybernetics. Vonnegut was not alone in questioning what the corporate structure would do to the individual as white-collar jobs became more prevalent. It is for those reasons that I have chosen to discuss these works and Vonnegut himself in this particular context.

My goal in this thesis is to extend the discussion of Vonnegut to explore his role as a commentator on science and technology during the 1950s, specifically his discussions of war and his ideas about the relationship between science and corporate life in the twentieth century. In doing so I have followed the work of many scholars discussed in Appendix B who have provided foundational work to my deeper examination of Vonnegut’s musing on science and technology and their connection to his time working at General Electric. For more discussion of the current state of Vonnegut scholarship, see my Appendix B.

However, I will discuss briefly Ginger Strand’s 2015 text on both of the Vonnegut brothers’ time at General Electric, as it relates most closely to my own area of interest in Vonnegut studies. Strand is a biographer of Kurt Vonnegut. Her popular book, The Brothers Vonnegut, directly explores the careers of both Bernard and Kurt during their time at General Electric. While Strand offers many important details about the two brothers and their work at GE, she oversimplified Vonnegut. To Strand, Vonnegut’s time at GE simply made him cynical towards technology. While it may be true that Vonnegut’s time at GE was overwhelmingly negative for him, I argue that it was not so much technology itself that he was critical of, but rather corporate science and the person of the corporate scientist.

[1] Robert Tally Jr. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography. (London: Continuum International, 2011, Kindle Edition): location 250.