Kurt Vonnegut

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"Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'"
from Timequake, his final novel

Listen: Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an American science fiction writer who is known for such works as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions. His work is known for its satirical, anti-authoritarian, humanist, and often brutally depressing worldview. If this worldview can be pinned down to one event, it would be the bombing of Dresden.

Vonnegut served in World War II. When in Germany he was captured by the enemy and brought to Dresden. Dresden was a large German town known for its doll-making that had little to no strategic military significance, yet was still fire bombed by the Allies into a smoldering charred pile. So it goes. This event would become a major theme in many of his books, especially the later ones.

Vonnegut is also notable because he was one of the first modern science fiction authors to get serious attention in the literary world. Although your literature professors (and Vonnegut himself) may try to tell you he's not actually a science fiction writer, the aliens and time-travel seem to disagree.

Tropes common in his work

Examples of tropes from his other stories

Short Stories

  • Brown Note: A radio telescope in "The Euphio Question" picks up "the music of the spheres", which gives such pleasure to listeners that they stop whatever they're doing, and only snap out of it when the playback is interrupted.
  • Death by Sex: Specifically cited in "Welcome To The Monkey House" (the short story itself, not the collection that borrowed the name).
  • Evolutionary Levels
  • Graceful Loser: In "EPICAC", the eponymous machine's response when it is told that it would never be able to be with the woman that it and its operator are competing for? Wish the operator well and commit suicide by overtaxing itself... writing thousands of love poems for him to give to her.
  • Gravity Is Only a Theory: In Slapstick, the protagonist and his sister theorize that gravity was once variable, which is how the Pyramids in Egypt were built. This turns out to be true when their theory is used by the Chinese to change gravity back to how it used to be. From that point on it varies daily.
  • Her Codename Was Mary Sue: Mercilessly Deconstructed in "Shout it out from the Rooftops." The author is shunned by everyone in her town, loses her living and is on the verge of breaking up her marriage after "Hypocrites' Junction", a book about a thinly disguised version of her town, becomes a smash hit.
  • Instant AI, Just Add Water: "EPICAC", in which the old-school punch-card computer learns how to love when its operator flicks a couple of positions at random.
  • Lost in Character: In Who Am I This Time?
  • Sadistic Choice: In "All The King's Horses," the captain at one point sees the one way he can save all but one of the remaining Americans... but he has to choose one of his twin sons to die. Due to intervention from one of his adversary's concubines, the child doesn't have to die.

A Man Without A Country


...I am going to sue the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am now eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the planet were named Bush, Dick and Colon.


Deadeye Dick

  • Strange Syntax Speaker: Haitian Creole is said to only have a present tense, leading to some very odd grammar. Of course, it's implied that the Haitians simply don't bother trying to teach the American proper grammar.

"He is dead?" he said in Creole. "He is dead," I agreed. "What does he do?" he said. "He paints," I said. "I like him," he said.


God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Hocus Pocus

  • Anachronic Order: In this case, due to the scraps of paper from the "original artist" getting a bit mixed up.
  • Take That: At one point the narrator receives a pamphlet titled The Protocols of the Elders of Tralfamador (with Tralfamador being an alien planet), obviously a mockery of the anti-Semitic tract Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: The riddle at the end.


  • A Real Man Is a Killer: Vonnegut told this story many times, both in speeches and in at least one book other than Timequake. After he returned from World War Two, his Uncle Dan came up to him and clapped him on the back, proclaiming "You're a man now!" The implication being that the only way for a boy to become a man was to kill people. Although Vonnegut had never had occasion to kill anybody during his military service, he had seen a lot of death and lived through the firebombing of Dresden, which wasn't a lot of fun. Imagine that you've just gone through the worst, most traumatic experience of your life, and before you've finished dealing with that trauma somebody comes up to you and congratulates you on it. Yeah, Kurt wanted to kill the guy.

So it goes.