Kurt Vonnegut Once Lived in the Shadow of His Brother
Though Kurt Vonnegut eventually became a world-famous author for novels like Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, he spent much of his life in the shadow of his famous older brother, the brilliant scientist Bernard Vonnegut. Ginger Strand explores their lives in her new book The Brothers Vonnegut, which describes how Bernard was able to produce rainfall by seeding clouds with dry ice and silver iodide, an innovation which thrilled his bosses at GE.
“They said, ‘We’re now at the brink of a new era where we’re just going to take control of the climate,’” Strand says in Episode 184 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “They really thought they were on the verge of doing something about the weather.”
As a PR man at GE, Kurt had a front row seat to his brother’s experiments, and both men grew increasingly concerned as the military started asking if Bernard’s technique could be used to redirect hurricanes to enemy targets. Such experiences prompted Kurt to write story after story about scientists whose inventions turn deadly.
“When he was asked, ‘Why did you choose to write science fiction at this period in your life?’ he said, ‘There was no helping it. General Electric was science fiction,’” says Strand.
Later tests revealed that cloud seeding is much less effective than it first appeared. It can boost rainfall from certain clouds by about 10 percent, but it can’t work miracles.
“It can’t produce clouds when there are none,” says Strand. “It can’t make rain from a blue sky. But it does work, and it works in the way that Bernard Vonnegut expected it to work.”
Bernard’s most lasting legacy may be his contributions to atmospheric science. By showing that human activity can effect the weather, he helped inspire subsequent research on climate change. And the work of both Vonnegut brothers continues to inform our thinking about the moral responsibilities of scientists.
“Both laid the groundwork for thinking hard about what it means to stay human,” says Strand. “And to continue to honor and value our humanity in a world where science can very easily be misconstrued as offering a technological fix to anything.”
Listen to our complete interview with Ginger Strand in Episode 184 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Ginger Strand on Cat’s Cradle:
“[Kurt] was at a cocktail party one night at GE, and someone told him this interesting story about Irving Langmuir, Bernard’s colleague. Irving Langmuir had been given the job of entertaining H.G. Wells, and being his tour guide, when H.G. Wells came to visit the plant some time ago, before the war. And Irving Langmuir didn’t really know many novelists, and he thought, ‘How do you talk to a novelist? I guess you just make up ideas for them.’ So Irving Langmuir said, ‘Hey, H.G. Wells. I have an idea for you for a novel. How about writing a novel about a form of ice that’s solid at room temperature? And if this got out into the water supply, it would end the world.’ And H.G. Wells just thought, ‘Meh.’ He passed on it, and nothing came of it. When Kurt heard this, he thought, ‘Hmm. Finders keepers.’”
Ginger Strand on Irving Langmuir:
“Irving Langmuir was kind of the classic head-in-the-clouds, brilliant scientist. There were a million stories about him. He once stuck his foot in a can of paint, then pulled out his foot and kept walking, without even realizing that he was leaving a trail of yellow footprints down the hall of the research lab. Or a temp would come in and replace his secretary, and he wouldn’t notice. If he was lost in thought and you said ‘hi’ to him, he would just push by you without saying anything. There was one case where a woman fell down on the staircase in front of him at GE. He was lost in thought and simply stepped over her and kept going. These stories were bandied around, and Kurt recycled a lot of them in Cat’s Cradle in describing Felix Hoenikker.”
Ginger Strand on Player Piano:
“[Kurt] later said, ‘I bit the hand that fed me.’ He so mercilessly skewers a lot of the elements of GE, particularly what he saw as the blind corporate boosterism. … There are really funny letters from the salesman who goes to Schenectady and says, ‘You know, I think this book might be of interest to the people who work here. It’s about a company a little bit like GE.’ And every bookstore came up with some lame excuse for why they didn’t want the book. … Basically Schenectady was simply a company town, and no bookstore was going to risk the wrath of GE by carrying the novel. Bernard assured Kurt at the time that there was a secret underground supply of Player Piano coming up from New York City.”
Ginger Strand on science fiction:
“[Player Piano] was taken as science fiction, and it was re-titled Utopia 19. It was sold for five cents in drugstore spinner racks. And his short stories too were seen as kind of wacky, out there, sci-fi things. He didn’t mind this, in a way—he did feel that he was writing science fiction—he just didn’t like the idea that because it was ‘science fiction,’ it was not serious literature, or it was not serious social critique. Because he was always really most interested in diagnosing the real problems of society that he saw and thought about a lot, and he felt that in an age that valorized science to the extent that we did—and have done ever since the 1940s—he felt that writing science fiction was really the best way to get at these issues.”