Mike Wood admired Kurt Vonnegut
“The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal.” Kurt Vonnegut’s prediction for the future.
Kurt Vonnegut has died at the age of 84. He was a science fiction author who remained prolific, acerbic, and radically left wing right up until his death.
Vonnegut served in the US army during the Second World War and was famously held as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the allied bombing. He was imprisoned in an underground meat locker and as a result survived the firestorm. His most famous and highly regarded novel centres on these events and is named after the meat locker he was kept in — Slaughterhouse 5. Like many of Vonnegut’s books the plot, despite a heavy dose of reality, was utterly bizarre.
Vonnegut had a knack for seeing, and pointing out, those things that are right in front of us but that we manage to ignore. Although his writing was often off the wall and outlandish, this was generally coupled with a simple moral lesson. Vonnegut did not write large heavily-symbolic theses on life and humanity, he wrote disjointed observations loosely connected by a plot. However, these observations were, for many people, deeply morally affecting.
Most of his books concern death, tragedy, and madness, and a fair few focus on the end of the world. Often he ascribed this to the mistakes of science. Vonnegut was trying to cut through all the bullshit that surrounds how we live our lives and ask if any of it was really helping people. Why is the atom bomb scientific progress? If it is progress then what good is it for us? Wouldn’t it just be much easier if we turned our attention to helping each other?
A lot is currently being made of Vonnegut’s famous humanism. Certainly the moral of much of his work seems focussed on the innate goodness of humanity, despite the tragedy and horror we inflict on ourselves. He succeeded Isaac Asimov as the President of the American Humanist Association.
But we should also remember that Vonnegut was, in his own peculiar way, a socialist. He named characters after the great early US socialist leader (and fellow native of Indiana) Eugene Debs. He also named characters after Leon Trotsky. He would quote Debs in his novels. (But then Debs made some great speeches: “As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”)
He wrote, in a disarmingly simple no-nonsense fashion, about the need for a society where we organise things to help people, not to grind them down. He often used a deeply ironic and sometimes absurd style. He answered attacks on his redistributive ideals by pointing out the current system already redistributes money. It just does so from poor people to rich people.