12 April 2007

Listen: Kurt Vonnegut Has Become Unstuck in Time

Author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died yesterday, at age eighty-four. Or perhaps it would be better to say that he, like his protagonist Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, has become "unstuck in time."

Like many science-fiction fans/writers, I went through a serious Kurt Vonnegut phase when I was in high school. Vonnegut's books are often assigned in English Literature classes, and I was assigned two in sophomore year: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and the story collection Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). I went on to read a slew more, sometimes as independent reading assignments for class: Cat's Cradle (1963), Hocus Pocus (1990, the first new book to appear after I started reading him), Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye, Blue Monday (1973), Galápagos (1985), Bluebead (1987), Sirens of Titan (1959), etc. Although it isn't a book you hear much about, Galápagos is the Vonnegut novel of which I have the strongest memories and remains my personal favorite. Sadly, I don't think I've read a Vonnegut work since I went to college. Everyone moves on to new authors, but as I moved on I took a lot of Vonnegut's humanism, satiric comedy, politics, and unusual novel structuring (such as purposely spoiling his books' endings on the first page) with me on my own journey as a writer and fan of speculative fiction.

Vonnegut's work and influence has received copious amounts of study, probably far too much for his own comfort. He was New Wave science fiction long before the wave started to rise, but he was also an unclassifiable talent, a dark jester and curmudgeon of American letters who straddled genre and mainstream fiction. But I want to shine a spotlight on one of the most subversive and influential aspects of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., one that hasn't received as much attention: he is one of few science fiction writers who became part of the high school literary canon. Science fiction and fantasy still receive supercilious sniffs from the literary establishment, but somehow Kurt Vonnegut—a humanist and satirist with socialist leanings—found his way into the high school curriculum. A book like Slaughterhouse-Five, which contains heavy sexual content, pops up on assigned reading lists to this day. Breakfast of Champions and Cat's Cradle, wickedly subversive books, are also common English class assignments.

Now that's a damn achievement, one for which we should all thank Mr. Vonnegut as his slips around in the time stream.

So it goes.