Selected Works by Great Authors: Kurt Vonnegut

Like many millennials, I have recently discovered the author Kurt Vonnegut. His sardonic prose and surreal plot lines draws in any reader who has become cynical to this world. If anything, they are easy to read but with some new and different ideas sprinkled in. Many of his works were published in the 20th century and still ring true to this day. I would like to note that I am not a book reviewer; there are people much more qualified to review books and there are people whose writing is much better than mine but the paper published this anyway. Kurt Vonnegut was a prolific writer having written fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. I have read a small portion of his works; I would rank them from favourite to least favourite but I only know what my favourite book is, and everything in between would be a crapshoot. So, I will be taking a diplomatic approach and discussing the books that I think about the most and what is relevant to this day and age.

 PHOTO: https://www.publishersweekly.com/images/data/ARTICLE_PHOTO/photo/000/043/43766-1.JPG

 Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born November 11,1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He attended Cornell University but dropped out to enlist in the United States Army in 1943, just in time for World War II. As part of his military training, he studied mechanical engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and the University of Tennessee. He was then deployed to fight in Europe and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge. He was interned in Dresden and survived the Bombing of Dresden, an Allied aerial bombing attack that destroyed 1600 acres of the city centre, killing an estimated 22 700 to 25 000 people.

 Most Relevant Work: Player Piano (1952)

 PHOTO: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ae/Chase_%26_Baker_player_piano%2C_Buffalo%2C_NY%2C_circa_1885.JPG

 Vonnegut published his first novel in 1952, entitled Player Piano. Player Piano is set sometime in the future after World War III. During World War III, much of the American workforce was sent to fight, leaving behind only the nation’s managers and engineers. The managers and engineers turned to automation to make up for the missing workforce which was sent to fight in the war. Through innovative and ingenious automated systems, most factories became fully automated and most factory workers came home from the war only to find out they were replaced by robots. Player Piano depicts the automated dystopia, where the automation that was supposed to make people’s lives easier has decreased quality of life. Due to the widespread automation, many people are left unemployed and unhappy. The increasing gap between the wealthy engineer, manager class, and the poor working class drives the conflict in the book. The story follows two parallel plotlines. The first follows Dr. Paul Proteus, the factory manager of Illum works. His father is a very powerful person and was said to hold more power than the President of the United States. Though he is in a great position in life, has a great job, and high status, he grows discontent with life. The second follows the Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million people in a distant land.  By following around the Shah, you get an outsider’s perspective of this futuristic “utopia”. (Utopia is in quotations because the entire point of this book is that it is a dystopia.)

 Out of all of the Vonnegut works I have read, this is something that I constantly think back to. During co-op I constantly think back to this idea that the engineer and manager are complements to one another: the engineer is highly technical but not very physically impressive while the manager is not very technical but has a presence in the room that attracts everyone’s attention. Where pedigree matters just as much merit, if your parent is very high up in a company, you could probably get by riding on your parent’s coattails, but if you are an idiot, then it’s really hard to get by. Currently, we are on the advent of mass automation, with machine learning becoming more and more sophisticated. Eventually all processes will be automated and many people will be without a job. Even us in engineering may soon be without a job; one of the characters in Player Piano was so good at automating processes that he automated his own job and was fired.  Will the world end up like in Player Piano or will everyone be content with not doing anything?

 Favourite Work: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

PHOTO: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03191/dresden_3191294c.jpg

Bombing of Dresden Aftermath

 My favourite work of Vonnegut’s is Slaughterhouse Five, widely considered to be his magnum opus and perhaps his most personal work. Slaughthouse-Fire or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, was published in 1969 and provides a semi-autobiographical account of his experience in World War II. The novel is narrated by a third person and revolves around the American soldier, Billy Pilgrim, who believes he has become “unstuck in time”. The central event of the book is Pilgrim surviving the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner-of-war and reflects Vonnegut’s experience during the Bombing of Dresden, where he took refuge in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned. The book does not go in linear order and many of the events travel through time and space through flashbacks. It is obvious that Pilgrim is an unreliable narrator when he believes he was held in a Tralfamadorian zoo and put on display. The Tralfamadorians is a fictional alien race that Vonnegut uses in many of his books. They can see in four-dimensions and pity humans for only being able to see in three.  My favourite scene in Slaughterhouse-Five is in the first chapter and relates to the subtitle, “the Children’s crusade”. The narrator, who is not Pilgrim, is a writer and visits an old war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare to discuss the Bombing of Dresden. Bernard’s wife, Mary is visibly distressed because she thinks the narrator’s book is going to glorify war and the soldier’s life. The first chapter establishes the anti-war themes of the rest of the novel as Mary O’Hare says:

 “‘You were just babies in the war-like the ones upstairs![…] But you’re not going to write it that way, are you […] You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.’ So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anyone else’s babies killed in wars.”

 This scene sets the tone for the rest of the book. It establishes early on that it is anti-war and unlike many other books on war, that end up glorifying war, it shows a more pitiful view. The story follows around a low ranked soldier who has obviously become mentally unfit to fight but is stuck in the thick of it.

 Most Mind Blowing Work: Cat’s Cradle (1963)

PHOTO: http://theatrebristol.net/assets/0000/2535/Cat_s-Cradle_crop_sml.jpg

Ice-Nine picture

 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut was published in 1963 and  is written in a different way. Each chapter is only a page or two long, making you feel smart when you are at chapter 30 after only an hour of reading. Cat’s Cradle explores the issue of science, technology, and satirizes the Cuban Missile Crisis. The story revolves around Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the fictional co-inventor of the atomic bomb who was playing cat’s cradle with his infant son when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The narrator, called John,  is a writer who wants to write a book about what important Americans did during the bombing of Hiroshima. John comes across Dr. Hoenikker and his three children, Newton, Emily, and Franklin, during his research. John learns more about Dr. Hoenikker’s work and finds out about ice-nine, an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature and solidifies all the liquid water it comes into contact with. The story then follows John and two of the Hoenikker children to the fictional country of the Republic of San Lorenzo, located on a tiny rocky island in the Caribbean Sea. This country is under a dictatorship and follows the religion of Bokonoism. The true nature of the dictatorship and Bokonoism is revealed later in the book and is hilarious. The ending of the book is also mind blowing and hilarious, but telling you that there is a mind blowing ending probably ruined the mind blowing ending. If anything, read it anyway for the amazing parallels to real life and how hilariously dark everything is.

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