Friday, February 18, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut: War, Anthropology, and Atheism

This is a look at another SF authored who was interviewed by the Paris Review. The interviews with  Aldous Huxley and William S. Burroughs took place in the early 1960s. Now we jump ahead more than a decade to a 1977 interview with Kurt Vonnegut.

The Paris Review's interview with Kurt Vonnegut starts out with a discussion of Vonnegut's experiences as a infantry scout in during the Second World War.  His experience as a prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden formed the basis for his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five - at least for the parts that weren't set in a zoo on the planet Tralfamador.

Before the war Vonnegut studied chemistry at Cornell University for several years. When he enlisted in the Army, he was transferred to the Carnegie Institute of Technology where he studied mechanical engineering. His studies were interrupted by the war.

After the war was over, Vonnegut went back to school to study anthropology as a post-grad at the University of Chicago. As he describes it, anthropology influenced his opinion of religion and his own atheism:
After the war, I went to the University of Chicago, where I was pleased to study anthropology, a science that was mostly poetry, that involved almost no math at all.
[. . .] [Anthropology] confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were. We weren’t allowed to find one culture superior to any other. We caught hell if we mentioned races much. It was highly idealistic.

Those views would influence the depiction of the fictional island dictatorship of San Lorenzo in his Hugo-winning 1963 novel Cat's Cradle. The government of San Lorenzo promotes (by prohibiting) a made-up religion to control its population. 

Apparently a poor student, Vonnegut left the anthropology program without completing his degree.  Luckily one of the University of Chicago's deans was apparently a fan, and got Cat's Cradle accepted in lieu of Vonnegut's rejected thesis in 1971.  
Twenty years [after leaving the University of Chicago], I got a letter from a new dean at Chicago, who had been looking through my dossier. Under the rules of the university, he said, a published work of high quality could be substituted for a dissertation, so I was entitled to an M.A. He had shown Cat’s Cradle to the anthropology department, and they had said it was halfway decent anthropology, so they were mailing me my degree
According to Vonnegut it was a "piece of cake".

Several characters in Cat's Cradle were inspired by the scientists he met while working in the public relations department of General Electric in Schenectady, New York.  Even the idea for the novel's compound "ice-nine", supposedly came from Nobel-prize winning GE scientist Irving Langmuir.   The way Vonnegut tells it, he wasn't even the recipient of that suggestion:
[H.G.] Wells came to Schenectady, and Langmuir was told to be his host. Langmuir thought he might entertain Wells with an idea for a science-fiction story—about a form of ice that was stable at room temperature. Wells was uninterested, or at least never used the idea. And then Wells died, and then, finally, Langmuir died. I thought to myself: “Finders, keepers—the idea is mine.”
Even if Wells had used the idea in a story, I doubt it would have turned out anything like Vonnegut's version.

Read the whole interview for more of Vonnegut's reminiscences and thoughts on writers and writing.

Tomorrow: Ray Bradbury

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