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Fictional Science: Ginger Strand's 'The Brothers Vonnegut'

February 17, 2016


Written to avoid all spoilers (or something like that):

I arrived late to the pages of Kurt Vonnegut. Aside from reading “Harrison Bergeron” in middle school, I don’t think any of my English teachers wanted to go near the man and his quirks, at least not for any longer than a short story. When I first started reading Kurt’s novels, I treated them as supplements to the television show Lost. What explains the show’s last season better than Time Quake’s sentimental notion of a clambake? In this way, Vonnegut’s humor has always struck me as both moving in its desperate humanity and scientific in its striving for answers.


Read Ginger Strand’s The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic (2015) and this latter gesture--the science fiction that is wrought from real life--comes beautifully to life. Strand divides each chapter into episodes and passages between the brothers: Bernard, the scientist, and Kurt, the writer. While the former's tinkering in the lab appears as cause, the latter's typing at a desk surfaces as affect. 

Throughout the book, Strand questions how on earth one activity could exist without the other, at least with any purpose or meaning. Science without ethical reflection would lead to destruction, and reflection without science would have few questions to tease and pester it.  Strand portrays both brothers as artists in their fields, and, drawing on a quotation from Einstein, she positions fiction as no less real than science. Both fields function at their best when motivated by wonder. 

At a time when the Cold War threatened to the existence of open-ended questions, the world's sense of wonder often gave way to fear. The daily routines of the Vonnegut brothers existed on this invisible boundary. Each man dedicated himself to walking a tightrope through the fog. And, with his brother pressing against the physical frontier, Kurt pressed him self against the imaginary. Except Strand's exploration of how both brothers spent their time at General Electric reveals that the imaginative acts of Kurt Vonnegut weren’t so much fictive but an echo of reality. Bernard's world was a launchpad for Kurt's stories. And these stories have far too often have been categorized and reduced to the genre box of science fiction. When, if anything, they were as real as any laboratory hypothesis.

With World War Two positioned as the Big Bang for the Vonnegut universe, Strand begins the book with a description of Kurt hunkered down in the fog of Europe, on the verge of becoming a prisoner of war. From there, she briefly discusses the relationship between meteorology, the laboratory, and the battlefield. Her underlying premise is that science—the description of the physical—and fiction—the record of experience—intersect most in scenes of combat, as well as the laboratories and factories that plan for combat. When World War Two ended, the laboratory remained a terrain threatened by warmongering. In The Brothers Vonnegut, Strand studies how such working conditions can inspire a great deal of fiction from both writers and scientists alike. The intersecting lives of these two brothers and their chosen fields makes for a fascinating study. Moreover, their stories bear witness an onslaught of technology against an ocean of humanity. 

I am now an English teacher. And, while I have included Cat's Cradle on independent reading lists, I have never taught a Kurt Vonnegut novel to an entire class. I don’t know why that is; I have yet to read a book of his that didn’t prompt me to both laugh and cry. Other teachers have told me they just don’t get him, that they don’t the kids would either. Part of me wonders if what we just don’t get is how real the absurdities are; that the irreverence reveals the irresponsibility of our species; that a trip through the twentieth century requires a tour through General Electric; that labeling Kurt’s observations science fiction was always about creating distance between our own comfort and the looming possibility of widespread death.

Thus, what's more real than life's clambakes, however few and far between? I'm not sure I have an answer, and I'm okay with that. 


Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys.     

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