Kurt Vonnegut has died, from brain injuries resulting from a fall. He was 84. (See New York Times obituary.) An iconoclastic writer, he had a big influence on me during my college years, circa 1970. I remember first encountering his work with Cat’s Cradle, which I started and at the time didn’t finish. It just didn’t grab me, somehow; probably I was looking for something more like “normal” science fiction. I also tried Player Piano and didn’t like that, either; it was too normal, and seemed like just another take on the familiar Brave New World theme.
But then he came to give an informal talk at Brown, where I was in school, and I went to hear him. I was an aspiring writer, and he was a sensationally popular author. In person, he was fascinating, very unassuming and welcoming to questions from the students. I remember someone asking him what his favorite novel was (I believe this was before Slaughterhouse Five), and he said that he had had the most fun writing The Sirens of Titan. That title had seemed so preposterous to me, so unserious (I was pretty serious about my SF back then) that I hadn’t even thought of reading it. But I got a copy of Sirens—and I loved it. Somehow that story infected me with Vonnegut’s sardonic sense of humor and absurdity, and from there I went back and tried Cat’s Cradle again; and it was all different this time. On the second attempt, I thoroughly enjoyed it, too. Finally I read Slaughterhouse Five, and that one did me in, not just for the heavy-hitting themes inspired by Vonnegut’s witnessing of the Dresden fire-bombing in World War II, but for the silly stuff, as well. The line, “Kazak wuzza dog. Kazak wuzza dreat big chronosynclastic infundibulated dog” has been embedded in my mind ever since. (I hope I got that right. I typed it from memory.)
Reading those books was an intense emotional and intellectual experience for me, but one that was never repeated. His later books didn’t do it for me, and my world-view now is pretty different from what it was when I was in college, so I don’t know how the books would stand up to rereading. But I’m profoundly grateful to him for what he gave me then and there, when this aspiring writer needed it.
Rest in peace, Kurt Vonnegut.