Interviews

The Wonderful, Sci-Fi World of Kurt and Bernie Vonnegut

Bernard (left) and Kurt Vonnegut at home before Kurt joined the army at twenty.

Imagine, if you will, a huge American company. It’s at the height of the Cold War, and the company’s scientists are going hog-wild, inventing all sorts of new technologies that are then seized by the military to help defeat the Russians. It’s a company that creates thunderclaps to wash out enemies, not as some Strangelovian Jack D. Ripper wet dream but for practical purposes against the Commies. The company swarms with corporate office drones that smile at their overlords as they put out the kind of press releases that rebrand “torture” into, say, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” while product development people create a toaster that records all your conversations and sends them to a planet yet to be discovered.

You’d probably think: Sounds like a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novel. 

Amazingly, the paranoid fever dream described above isn’t all that far removed from the actual life lived by the brilliant fraternal siblings Kurt and Bernie Vonnegut, following World War II, and wonderfully told in The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic. Author Ginger Strand takes us inside General Electric, the enormously powerful company where the Vonnegut boys toiled: Kurt, in a desultory hack gig “covering” the goings-on at the future Jack Donaghy fiefdom; and Bernie, his older brother busy inventing a way to induce precipitation by seeding clouds with silver iodide. (He’s like the Lil’ Wayne of actually making it rain!)

Strand, who has written on a wide variety of subjects including the history of Niagara Falls, insect assassins, and truck stop serial murders, spoke to Signature about the Vonnegut brothers who very much loved peace, knowledge, farting, and one another.

Signature: You’ve had an eclectic writing career, what draws you to a topic?

Ginger Strand: I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to write three nonfiction books and many articles and essays about things I’m obsessed with, which is a lot of where my topics originate. It takes three years to write a book, so it has to be a story that grabs me, one that I can’t stop rolling around in my head, before committing to a subject. There is a continuity throughout the books, that I can see at least. It’s the vexed relationship between the natural world and the human one. Niagara was straightforward, a cultural history of a natural wonder that exposed how unnatural it really was. Killer on the Road was looking at this big piece of infrastructure that had a violent effect on the natural world and changed our relationship to it, using true crime to highlight that angle of highway history. The Brothers Vonnegut is similar in my head in that the weather-control aspect is about the far-reaching implications of science and the human impulse to dominate and control the natural world. I guess that’s where I see the connective thread.

SIG: How did you come to The Brothers Vonnegut?

GS: It started when I discovered the little-known 1950 story about how New York City cloud seeded the Catskills to make it rain. I spent my summers in the Catskills, and I’m interested in hydro-infrastructure, so I’d been reading about New York City’s reservoirs, which is yes, totally gripping to me. When I found out the city had a municipal rain-making program that was invented by Bernard Vonnegut, it seemed like the perfect essay. I could see the lyrical counterpoint between a brother trying to bring rain from the clouds while the other had been in a basement while fire rains down upon him. I was describing it to a historian friend of mine who said, ‘No. This is a book.’ It was good advice.

Brother's Vonnegut - Kurt Vonnegut

SIG: Were you an aficionado of Kurt, or did you basically come to the Vonnegut brothers story from the science side?

GS: Mostly the science side. I was a big fan of Slaughterhouse Five, which I think is one of the finest anti-war novels ever written, and I was familiar with a few of his novels, but I’d never read any of his short stories. When I delved into them, it was so clear one could trace the development of this Vonnegut voice through his years at GE, which was really cool and interesting. I didn’t start as a hardcore Kurt fan, but I became one over the course of writing the book.

SIG: I didn’t realize the depth and breadth of the cult of Kurt Vonnegut until I interviewed documentarian Bob Weide. His fans are deeply committed to him…

GS: I had a great time at VonnegutFest a few weeks ago. When I do a presentation, I have these slides from Kurt’s days at GE that I show, like of the walking talking refrigerator that was in development, so the Q&A I held became like a game show. Fans could identify the slides as source material, ‘Oh, that must be the genesis of the story ‘Jenny.’’ Kurt’s diehard fans really know their stuff.

SIG: Sometimes we forget how much work successful people put into their careers. The Brothers Vonnegut shows that even these two renowned geniuses struggled with rejection, corporate politics, frequent setbacks, all the office crap us mortals deal with…

GS: As a writer, I was fascinated by the long grueling apprenticeship Kurt had to go through. Struggling with the frustration of being a company man while at home, banging his head against the wall because he didn’t know how to write yet. And Bernie as well, watching his ideas be co-opted for military applications. In my office, I have a chalkboard wall and while writing the book, I made a timeline of world events. I added Kurt on one side and Bernie on the other and marked their various milestones, triumphs, frustrations, and failures, just so I could look at them side-by-side. They lined up nicely.

SIG: Following the atrocities and nuclear bombings of World War II, but before the Cold War era took hold, there was a push in the name of peace, for a one-world government to be run by the U.N. This is an amazing, albeit doomed and forgotten moment in time that shaped both brothers, isn’t it?

GS: I know my American history. It goes World War II, the bomb, then 1950s abundance, and the Cold War, right? I didn’t know about that brief and shining moment in the 1940s when the world could have gone the other way and  come together under the United Nations. Out of the darkness and gloom of the bomb came this incredibly optimistic hope for the future, which got quickly crushed under the wheels of the military-industrial complex. Both Bernie and Kurt held on to that idealism throughout their lives.

SIG: It’s also amazing that working for General Electric was this all-encompassing thing where the company was your life and everyone was in it together. Total fealty and loyalty seems so ridiculous in the 21st-century, but employees were taken care of in a way they aren’t today…

GS: In the 1930s and ’40s, GE was a great company to work for, they looked out for their people. The salaries were high for the day, employees called it ‘Generous’ Electric. They loved the discounts on appliances, playing for the company softball team, all these ancillary benefits. The tech companies today try to produce a similar feeling, where the corporation shapes your social life as well as your work life, but they don’t have the constancy or loyalty that GE had. Even back then, there was a clear distinction between the blue-and-white-collar workers, but there was a feeling they were all part of Team GE. It was before we learned to suspect and somewhat despise corporations, before companies were known for gaining the rights of people, and before GE was caught dumping PCBs in the Hudson River. Employees didn’t think their employer would lie to them or do anything destructive.

SIG: So the Vonneguts were rather unique in recognizing what life at GE was actually like?

GS: Absolutely. Kurt doesn’t get enough credit as a writer for his prescience. I’d never read Player Piano before writing this book and I think it’s much more astute than Huxley’s Brave New World, which it was somewhat inspired by. The notion that the workers immediately start rebuilding the machine world, one that they destroyed because it’s ruining them, is like people constantly on their iPhones.

Bernie Vonnegut

SIG: Count me among those who thought weather control was the stuff of conspiracy theories…

GS: Like Chemtrails? I get this all the time, ‘Cloud seeding is not a real thing, right?’ The National Science Foundation put out a release right after The Brothers Vonnegut went to press of a ten-year double-blind randomized Wyoming study that established in the right conditions — winter storm fronts coming in over the mountains — cloud seeding will increase precipitation up to fifteen percent. That’s real money for people who need water, or utilize irrigation districts, hydroplants, etc. It’s highly significant to the western states affected by drought, particularly those in the Colorado River Compact because that river is problematically low. Some utilities and companies have been seeding clouds nonstop since Bernie invented it.

So it works, but not in the way it was expected when Bernie was at GE. You can’t make rain from nonexistent clouds, or steer hurricanes, or any of the big dramatic things they wanted to do.

SIG: So was cloud seeding ever of much use to the United States military?

GS: Certainly fog and cloud dispersal is important to the military. They also flew 2,800 cloud seeding missions in Laos during the Vietnam War to make rain and muddy up the Ho Chi Mihn Trail. Cloud seeding isn’t a super-weapon, but it is a significant tool, and people were scandalized after the Vietnam War. The U.N. banned environmental modification during wartime and Bernie was horrified to find out the U.S. used silver iodide seeding in combat.

SIG: Bernie and Kurt come across as normal dudes (you note their love of fart jokes). Were they more or less regular guys?

GS: I never met either of them, but I spent a lot of time with their families and that was the impression I got. Kurt remained down-to-Earth even when he was super popular. In the ’70s, hippies would show up at his house and he’d invite them inside for tea.

SIG: Their mother died of an overdose, and I know Kurt suffered bouts of depression. Did Bernie have personal darkness as well?

GS:  As far as I can tell, no. The brothers had that one big personality difference. Bernie was the most happy-go-lucky guy and didn’t get gloomy or depressed. His kids said Bernie’s wife suffered from depression and that their father’s one major moral flaw was his obliviousness. He was so in love with science — bored his kids to death talking about it — that he didn’t notice anything else going on around him, including his wife’s struggles.

SIG: Were Bernie and Kurt close in a modern sense? Did they talk through their mother’s death?

GS: I think they did. Although they had differing opinions on their mother’s overdose. Bernard always believed it to be an accident. Kurt’s worldview was darker; he felt she committed suicide as he mentioned many times in his writing. They definitely discussed the moral and ethical issues of science. Maybe they weren’t as open as brothers might be today, but they had a meaningful ongoing conversation throughout their lives. They kept each other going through periods of rejection.

The families remain close as well. Early on, I sent letters to a couple of Bernie’s kids, and didn’t hear anything back. Then one day, I get a letter from all the Vonneguts. The cousins had discussed it together and wanted to participate in my book. They remain a tight-knit family and were adamant about the fact that Bernie and Kurt really loved each other.

SIG: You write in the book, “The difference between a writer who makes it and one who doesn’t is the ability to take criticism.” Kurt certainly heeded that wisdom, but I’m curious if you think it still holds true in the internet age?

GS: That’s an interesting question, because that passage is me stating a belief, but in the context of why Kurt eventually found success after years of grinding away. His trajectory is one in which he received a lot of criticism and learned from it. His papers are astonishing, to see his editor or agent send him ‘ten things wrong with your story,’ and then Kurt would make a list, checking each one off as he edited and revised. He learned how to write by having conversations with intelligent people and not taking umbrage. It’s a different world now. Kurt got beat-up by a number of critics, but nothing like he’d face with internet trolls everywhere. Maybe the secret today is not just accepting criticism, but knowing who is worth listening to and what to take seriously. If someone flames me on Amazon, there’s a good chance it’s not worth considering.

SIG: What was the most surprising thing you learned about each brother?

GS: The whole episode was a surprise because I didn’t know anything about it. Specifically, the tightness of the connection between GE and what Kurt was writing. We tend to think of Kurt as a little wacky, a guy in his own head, which is full of aliens, space travel, and porn stars. So to find out there really was a talking refrigerator, and a deer trapped in the office, was amazing. On Bernie’s side, I had no idea that weather control was studied as extensively as it was. I ended up attending the Weather Modification Association, which was astonishing. There were all these guys giving power point presentations on how to induce rain. It was like being in a Kurt Vonnegut story.

SIG: Do you feel like the ethical ideas about the role of science and technology Bernie and Kurt were kicking around in the 1940s are ignored in everyday life today?

GS: Yes, but not simply that robots are taking our jobs. It’s more of the idea of if we create devices to do every little thing that we’ve done as people, we are basically eliminating ourselves. What’s our excuse for existing on the planet? Marshall McLuhan said human beings are the sex organs for the machine race, which is provocative, but one that Kurt Vonnegut spent his whole life writing against. Kurt wasn’t anti-technology, but he was aware how technology diminishes us. I see the appeal, a shiny digital world where we all upload our consciousnesses, never having to deal with the messiness of life and death. I don’t think it’s imminent and it would make us less human, which is what Kurt hated.

SIG: Lastly, how did you end up feeling about the Vonnegut brothers now that the book is out?

GS: They were great to spend time with, as were all the scientists, artists, and nutty people at GE. Coming off of Killer on the Road, which took me to a dark, dark place…I was sick of thinking about murder and being in the heads of these horrible people. The Brothers Vonnegut was way more fun and they totally became part of my life, my companions. I have conversations with both of them in my head. I even have a little crush on Bernie. Meeting his kids was like Christmas Day.