I received a copy of Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1950-1962 in the mail the other day. The book featured a cover photo of a Vonnegut I did not recognize and an essay on science fiction written by a Vonnegut I did not recognize either.
The photo caused some cognitive dissonance because of what was lacking—the curly hair, that mustache … and where was the cigarette? And as for the essay, well, he may have liked SF writers and editors, thinking them a jovial bunch, “generous and amusing souls,” as he put it, but he sure didn’t like the words on the page.
I’m sure I read the piece titled “Science Fiction” back in 1974 when it was reprinted in his collection Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, but I’d completely forgotten about it. Maybe you have, too. Or perhaps you’ve never read it. But in writing of the science fiction field of 1965, Vonnegut was quite dismissive:
Whatever it knows about science was fully revealed in Popular Mechanics by 1933. Whatever it knows about politics and economics and history can be found in the Information Please Almanac for 1941. Whatever it knows about the relationships between men and women derives from the clean and the pornographic versions of “Maggie and Jiggs.”
Oh, but he doesn’t hate all science fiction, though, because:
Along with the worst writing in America, outside of the education journals, they publish some of the best, They are able to get a few really excellent stories, despite low budgets and an immature readership, because to a few good writers the artificial category, the file drawer labeled “science fiction,” will always be home. These writers are rapidly becoming old men, and deserve to be called grand.
However, in closing, he returns to his basic theme of SF’s low standards, and sums up by saying:
Meanwhile, if you write stories that are weak on dialogue and motivation and characterization and common sense, you could do worse than throw in a little chemistry or physics, or even witchcraft, and mail them off to the science-fiction magazines.
This essay was originally published in the New York Times Book Review for September 5, 1965, the same year his character of Kilgore Trout, the science fiction writer, appeared in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I’d like to think Vonnegut eventually altered his opinion of us based on the changes the field went through in the ’60s and ’70s, but I have no idea whether or not he did.
Any Vonnegut experts out there know if he ever wrote further non-fiction about science fiction that reflected post-1965 SF?