Wednesday, April 11, 2007

R.I.P., Kurt Vonnegut

I meant to turn off the computer, but just had to check the news one last time.

Huh. How about that. Kurt Vonnegut has died.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. In a sense, I feel like an old friend has checked out — but then as I think more about it, it feels like I've lost an old friend who in recent years has drifted away and turned out to be rather less good of a friend than I'd formerly thought. When I was 16, 17, 18, I thought Vonnegut was the most brilliant writer I'd ever found. Those dog-eared paperbacks of The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and Welcome to the Monkey House still sit on my bookshelf. And even though I long ago outgrew him, deep in my heart of hearts, a part of me is very sad that the voice who told the story of "Harrison Bergeron" has fallen forever silent.

There were things about Vonnegut that scarcely registered when I was a young fan. He survived the Battle of the Bulge, in an action where the rest of his unit was nearly wiped out. He was taken prisoner and shipped off to a forced labor camp, where he survived the fire-bombing of Dresden and was forced to help clean up the carnage afterwards. After witnessing all that, to still be able to speak, much less write, is an awesome testimony to the power of the creative spirit.

Strangely enough, though, when I read the news that he had died, I started for my bookshelf, to pick up one of those old paperbacks, but instead picked up the best Vonnegut novel he never wrote: Venus on the Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout. And then I put that book down, and instead picked up Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, because I thought I remembered —

Ah, yes, there is it. Chapter 14, page 115: Larry and Jerry's acidic description of the special place in Hell reserved for Vonnegut. I'm sure that 30 years ago, Larry and Jerry felt both very funny and very righteous writing that passage. Especially the bit about the blinking green neon light on Vonnegut's gigantic sepulchre:
Memo to self: Tempting as it may seem at the time, never write a passage like that in any of my books or stories.