Genre in the Mainstream

Genre in the Mainstream: The Kurt Vonnegut Question

Welcome to Genre in the Mainstream, a weekly Tor.com column highlighting mainstream literary writers whose work may contain elements of science fiction, fantasy or horror. In most weeks, I’ll usually have a disclaimer stating that we’re not necessarily claiming these authors for the SFF camps, and if you like those genres that you’ll probably like these books too. This week, however, I’ve decided to discuss the grandaddy of all genre defiers: Kurt Vonnegut. And though his work contains time travel, aliens, mind control, fictional chemicals, alternate histories, an exploration of the far future and so on, the question persists; can Science Fiction truly claim him?

In a collection of mostly essays and speeches titled Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, Vonnegut starts off with piece titled plainly: “Science Fiction.” This doesn’t pretend to be any kind of objective assessment of the genre, but rather a statement from Vonnegut about where he sits on the matter. He asserts that he was labeled as a science fiction writer early in his career because he “noticed technology.” Later, he goes on say that the genre of science fiction exists because the people writing science fiction would like to keep it that way. Vonnegut doesn’t imply that there is anything sinister about this, but rather, that just like any other club, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why it got started and separated from everything else.

So if Vonnegut casually shrugged off the science fiction label, what about how the professional world views him? He was nominated for the Hugo three times: in 1960 for The Sirens of Titan, in 1964 for Cat’s Cradle, and in 1970 for Slaughterhouse-Five. None of the novels won, though they each faced pretty fierce completion (Sirens was up against Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz while Slaughterhouse was dealing with Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.) Even so, the fact that Vonnegut was nominated should indicate that he was science fiction enough for the Hugos to notice. But, if you look down a list of past Hugo nominees, Vonnegut sticks out in a big way. Other than J.K. Rowling, he appears to be the only nominated author who wouldn’t be shelved in the science fiction and fantasy section of a bookstore or library. Why Vonnegut and not Margret Atwood? Or more recently, why not Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story?

At the start of his career, despite what he may have felt, he kind of was a science fiction writer, and not in the hyperbolic way he would utilize genre trappings later. His first novel, Player Piano doesn’t contain the famous Vonnegut satirical wit or hit-you-over-the-head preposterous science fiction ideas. Instead, the dystopic society is dark and depressing and Vonnegut plays everything pretty straight. The novel was even published under an alternate more SF sounding title Utopia 14. Either way, Vonnegut’s first novel is his least stylized. It’s also not very good. The slick prose of his later books isn’t fully developed, nor is his ability to use black humor to both frighten and comfort the reader at the same time. Most interestingly, the science fiction of this novel doesn’t come across as compelling as his later concepts. In Player Piano, Vonnegut was more concerned with convincing the reader that this world existed. By the time he wrote his second novel, this sensibility apparently went out the window. The flying saucers in The Sirens of Titan have one primary way in which they are controlled: an “on” button.

And what about the writing itself? Surely that’s all that’s needed to settle the matter. If enough of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels have science fiction in them, then Kurt Vonnegut is a science fiction writer. Right? Slaughterhouse-Five contains time travel and aliens. The Sirens of Titan features a Martian invasion made up of humans, mind control, and a robot alien. Cat’s Cradle depicts a fictional substance known as ice-9, which has incredibly destructive capabilities. Galapagos tells the story of how human beings eventually evolve into a furry kind of quasi-aquatic creature. However, there’s science fiction and then there’s science fiction. Muppets in Space may have a space ship in it, but no one is super concerned about what genre it belongs in. The test ought to be that if the science fiction elements are removed and the story ceases to function, it’s probably science fiction. With Vonnegut, this works for nearly all of his books except, oddly, for the most famous novel.

Slaughterhouse-Five begins with the conceit that Billy Pilgrim has been unstuck in time and we will get to learn the story of his life out of any kind of chronological order or consideration for what he now knows. By having Billy un-stuck in time, Vonnegut can incorporate the character’s present-day opinions into past-life events. However, much of past-tense writing is already like this, particularly memoir writing. Narrators are frequently viewing things with a somewhat “long lens” and insinuating their current viewpoints onto their past selves. In this way, many writers are “unstuck in time.” Further, Vonnegut uses the almost exact same fictional biography format in his 1987 novel Bluebeard. In this one, the narrator simply skips around in time because he’s writing a biography about his life. No actual time travel is needed, and the result ends up being the same. Does this make Bluebeard a better book than Slaughterhouse-Five? Not really. It’s also important to remember that Slaughterhouse-Five does have aliens in it too.

It seems what prevents Vonnegut from truly being embraced by hardcore science fiction fans is his tendency to use SF as a blunt instrument. Vonnegut doesn’t want to do any world-building, or have you marvel at any technology, or really ask you to meditate on a cool science fiction idea for very long. He wants to cut right to the human drama, and if he needs flying saucers to do it, he will. Vonnegut’s aliens and flying saucers and robots don’t exist in the imagination the same way Asimov’s robots or aliens do. Vonnegut’s characters and science fiction ideas exist on the page to get the reader to feel something. He admits this outright in Breakfast of Champions by literally having Kurt Vonnegut himself become a character who is controlling the story by the end.

Does this cheapen his novels? Is Vonnegut too meta? The answer is no. Vonnegut is one of the most highly readable, engaging and truly emotionally honest writers of all time. And he got there with a love of science fiction. Even if his books never migrate off the shelves of literary fiction, Vonnegut should forever and always be viewed as one of the genre’s greatest friends and supporters. If there ever were an ambassador between the mainstream and the genre, I would choose Kurt.


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. He has read every single Vonnegut book except for Hocus Pocus,which he is saving.

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