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A comet passes… 1922-2007

April 12, 2007

“By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas in December.”
I’m not going to say that Kurt Vonnegut was the most subtle novelist I’ve ever read, but he was clearly one of the most talented social critics to have lived and worked in the US in the last century.
When I was living in Troy, NY I read Player Piano, a novel about engineering and automation, set in a town called Ilium. I am embarassed to say it, but I actually looked on the map, because Ilium was supposed to be equidistant to Albany and Schenectady — both real towns. It was supposed to be full of engineers, which, of course, is true for much of upstate New York. My father pointed out, to my chagrin, that Ilium was the latin name for Troy. That immediately tripled the resonance of the book, about the process by which peoples’ skills and intelligence are taken, turned into mechanisms, and made obsolete. I was working on the DJ I, Robot project, and the novel was more or less describing what I was doing. Even later I learned that Player Piano was a direct response to Norbert Weiner’s Cybernetics, published four years afterwards and still at the beginning of the cybernetics bubble.
I am trying to imagine what kind of heaven Vonnegut would have wanted to go to, and I’m torn about whether he’d have wanted to watch the planet or not, as he felt and expressed extraordinry pain for human folly. But Vonnegut wasn’t a misanthropist. He didn’t hate the player, he hated the game (and player pianos). He hated what people seem capable of doing to each other, precisely because he loved the people.
Perhaps the amateur astronomer Charles W. Juels figured out the whole heaven thing ahead of time. In 1999 he named an asteroid — #25399 — Vonnegut. Peaceful, but close enough to keep an eye on things. And to potentially still have an impact.

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