Kurt Vonnegut was an author who found humorous and imaginative ways to write about disconcerting realities that face us every day, from the plagues of war to the looming presence of technology. In his first novel, Player Piano, Vonnegut brings the two themes together in the setting ten years after a third world war, a time in which most American workers are replaced by automated machines. Player Piano is filled with irony, allusions to Marxist theory, and fears of a future dystopia laid out by other science fiction novelists of the period.
I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. (Player Piano, 1952)
Described as a pacifist intellectual, Kurt Vonnegut was well loved for exhibiting through satire, gallow humor, and science fiction his humanist beliefs and counterculture ideals that arose from his time spent as a prisoner of war in World War II. As a POW, Vonnegut was held in Dresden in a building the Germans referred to as, Schlachthof Fünf , which translates to “Slaughterhouse Five,” the title of Vonnegut’s most famous novel:
Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps Vonnegut’s most powerful novel, presents two characters who can see beneath the surface to the tragic realities of human history but make no attempt to bring about change… The central event is the destruction of Dresden by bombs and fire storm – a catastrophe that Vonnegut himself witnessed as a prisoner of war.
Kurt Vonnegut did indeed witness the horrible attack on Dresden, the aftermath of which he described as “utter destruction” to a defenseless city. He survived the attack with other POWs because they were locked in the underground meat locker that was Slaughterhouse Five. After the destruction, he and other POWs were ordered by the German guards to break into basements and bomb shelters to gather bodies for a massive burial. Though Vonnegut explained, “There were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Germans sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes,” (Brinkley, Douglas. Rolling Stone, 2006).
Though the novel Slaughterhouse-Five is only semi-autobiographical, it brings to light many of the real tragedies prisoners of war and their families face during and after battle, tragedies actually lived by the author, in a style that engages readers in brilliantly poignant ways.
Kurt Vonnegut knows all the tricks of the writing game. So he has not even tried to describe the bombing. Instead he has written around it in a highly imaginative, often funny, nearly psychedelic story. The story is sandwiched between an autobiographical introduction and epilogue.
Though not autobiographical, Vonnegut’s novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater satirically remarks on social issues of the time. In the story, billionaire Eliot Rosewater, a name thought to be created out of those of T.S. Eliot, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Barry Goldwater, develops a social conscience and travels across America visiting poor populations of small towns before landing in Rosewater, Indiana. The book critiques majorly critiques the presence of money and the American Dream as a dehumanizing force in the country. His fifth novel and comic masterpiece, Conrad Aiken describes Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater as “a brilliantly funny satire on almost everything.”
Other available first edition, inscribed copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s works include his anthology, Tomorrow the Stars, his novels Hocus Pocus, Breakfast of Champions, The Sirens of Titan, and his collection of short masterpieces, Welcome to the Monkey House.