Curated and Edited by Jason Ahlquist
I discovered Kurt Vonnegut while I was on the road, working in newsrooms across America as a technology consultant. I had been trying to write a novel during these times and I think Kurt’s influence was too great on me. I tried too hard to reach for his star and as a result, the novel sucked. I wasted four years of my creative life on that piece of junk. It only occurs to me now that my failure was the result of me trying to be Kurt instead of trying to be myself. Only Kurt could be Kurt in his novels and I didn’t get that.
Now I’ve created MarsDust.com, so my creative life is poured into the voices of other writers being themselves. So when Kurt died, rather than write some big bio piece, I thought I’d step aside and let some of those other voices speak.
My big Vonnegut phase was around the age of ten, when I read SIRENS OF TITAN.
Nothing else of his I read ever made me feel like that book did, although I loved it all until Slapstick…
Orson Scott Card
I came to Vonnegut when I was a college student. I went to see the movie of Slaughterhouse Five with my best friend at the time, and we enjoyed it, both for its silly irreverence and for the devastating story from WWII.
Naturally, we had to read his books. I started with Breakfast of Champions and fell in love. Of course, the star of all Vonnegut novels was the author (or, as Wayne Booth would remind us, the “implied author”; the author as presented by the book). His work was often science fiction, but was always literary, in the sense that it was as much about the writing and the writer as about the story. In fact, in later years my interest in Vonnegut waned, because the stories were rather thin, and the author’s voice began to seem repetitive to me. Whether this was my fault or Vonnegut’s or simply the way the transaction between author and audience always goes, I can’t guess.
But I have never forgotten how energizing his books were to me in those first years. I read his books and thought, Ah, THIS is possible, THIS is a tool a writer can use. At the time I was a playwright – good thing, or I would have churned out fiction that was pure imitation Vonnegut, at least for a while. At the same time, I was playing with both old dramatic forms (lots of plays in blank verse, for instance) and new ones (loved Ionesco and Beckett and other absurdists), and Vonnegut, oddly enough, informed my approaches to both kinds of theatre.
By the time I turned to writing sci-fi, however, I had learned enough to realize that if I wrote like Vonnegut, it would destroy my fiction – because I was not Vonnegut. Only in a handful of my stories have I played around in a Vonnetestinal way (“Memories of My Head,” “Damn Fine Novel”); but I’d also like to think that Vonnegut gave me permission to write with my own voice instead of affecting the sterile neutrality that was in vogue in sci-fi at the time I started publishing. My voice wasn’t like his, but I was as free to use my own voice as he had been to use his. For that, I’m still grateful to him.
Like countless members of my generation, I was influenced by Kurt Vonnegut. I could praise all the same things that others do, but he lived for interest, not repetition. So, I’ll merely comment that he always seemed torn between his root instincts as a thought-experimenting science fiction author – so clearly shown in PLAYER PIANO – and the “arty” side of writing, that beckons to us all, like a naked shaman, dancing in the rain, capering and shouting while lighting flashes about.
The best of us contain multitudes and authors like KV quickly learn to make use of the ecumenical contributions from many parts of the faceted brain.
Alas, there are sycophants and critics and professors and flatterers who must have their categories, and use every blandishment to fit complex pegs into simple holes. At times, Vonnegut seemed to accept their authority to limit him. To hem him into literary ghettos, using prods of praise.
But he was an unruly beast, impossible to geld. And he would chafe within the corral. breaking out, even in graying age, to seek the higher ground where untamed creatures stare across the cosmos, and into times to come.
When I was in junior high school, in the late 1960s, Life Magazine did something uncharacteristically courageous and published the photos of the My Lai massacre, a mass murder carried out by American soldiers; the massacre included babies, shown in the photo shot to pieces. I had been raised on John Wayne war movies and this was a terrific shock to me. I started to look around and realized what kind of country we lived in, what kind of world we lived in, and what war was really like.
I was sickened by this knowledge. No one gave me a workable way to deal with the nightmarish reality of our short, zombielike, blighted, and mostly amoral lives, until Kurt Vonnegut. His books looked at the human condition directly, honestly.
Then he offered a way to deal with that harsh reality. He offered it satirically, with Bokononism, and the “way” of the Tralfamadorians; he offered humor and the simplest and best of social prescriptions: when it doubt, resort to kindness. His perspective was zenlike, it was existential, but it had something Zen and Existentialism
didn’t have (okay, Zen has a little), a real sense of humor. Unlike the waffling, babbling postmodernists, he was unafraid of meaning; he looked for significance. He wrote with clarity. He also used science-fictional forms in a more “literary” context, which gave those of us who flourished on science-fiction some intellectual hope. So on many levels, despite the fact that he was a depressive
(so am I) and had a dark view of life (so do I), he was, paradoxically, a source of hope for me. He helped me to go on when I needed that help…and later I found other reasons to go on. Kurt Vonnegut may well have saved my life… and I’m sure I’m not the only one.