Historically, Vonnegut occupies an interesting place. As a man both fascinated and repulsed by the science and technology of his time, he spent all his career grappling with those conflicting feelings. Even by the last years of his life, in his final autobiography, Vonnegut still was conflicted.[1] While he was never truly comfortable with changing technology, his very first novel is his attempt to reconcile what he sees as a sort of technological inevitability: once we have created certain technologies which help to make tasks easier, stopping their use is all but impossible. He may not have liked that fact, but he was well aware of our dependence on science and technology as he moved through the twentieth century.

The realities of the new world which Kurt Vonnegut inhabited after the Second World War have not left us. While trust in science and technology has waned for some Americans, the idea of science as an absolute fact has only grown since the 1950s for others. Vonnegut’s fears about automation replacing human workers continue to loom, though at least Vonnegut imagined a future where those displaced workers would be well taken care of, even if they no longer had jobs to give them purpose. The Cold War may have ended, and with it many people’s fears about world ending technologies. Yet nuclear weapons continue to haunt the global consciousness to this day. So too do our scientific and technological innovations which continually alter the planet’s climate, of which Vonnegut was aware, dedicating the fourth chapter of A Man Without a Country to his understanding of climate change.

To call Kurt Vonnegut unique in his views on science and technology would be to undercut the other critics who were discussing the same issues as Vonnegut, many of whom Vonnegut was probably aware of.[2] However, Vonnegut not only had a fifty-year career, but remained relevant to the American public during most of that time. Not only that, but he remained a critic of science and technology throughout his entire career and was clearly seen as someone who has something interesting to say on the subject since he was the commencement speaker at MIT three times during his career.[3] While understanding Vonnegut from a literary perspective has many merits, and the fact that the study of him has declined over the last decade is itself a tragedy, it is also important to understand Vonnegut as part of larger conversation that was happening during the 1950s about science and technology in a post-war world and to place Vonnegut historically not just as a commentator on World War II, but also as a critic who spent the majority of his career writing during the Cold War period in the United States. Moreover, Vonnegut brings a background in science and technology that is interesting in that he is both proud of his brief education in the sciences and yet adamantly against the idea that he is a scientist. He stands at a sort of middle ground between the scientist and the writer. His background in science makes him more knowledgeable than some literary critics of technology, and yet he is not nearly as attached as a scientist, so he maintains some level of objectivity. His humor and satire made his critiques seem familiar, even if the worlds he was imagining were anything but. “If I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”[4] A complicated man, full of contradictions, even within his own writing, he is worth studying, if only to understand that it is possible to love something, and fear it, all at the same time. As Vonnegut states in Cat’s Cradle, “science is magic that works,” and with all of the mystery and wonder that magic brings, the way that it titillates our curiosity, there is an underlying danger to the uncertainty of what our experiments might create.[5]

[1]Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without a Country. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005): 61

[2]Philip K. Dick, Norbert Wiener, Herbert Marcuse, Isaac Asimov, and many others.

[3] Kurt Vonnegut. Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s. (New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1991).

[4] Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without a Country. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005): 80

[5] Kurt Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle. (New York: Dial Press, 2010): 218