Kurt Vonnegut is arguably one of the greatest American writers of our time. He’s been described as the Mark Twain of the 20th century, and his fiction pairs intense satire with thoughtful philosophic musings.
My first run-in with Kurt Vonnegut was his science-fiction short story Harrison Bergeron, published in 1961. Coincidentally, I read it as part of an assignment for an advanced English class in middle school, which for anyone who has read the story, knows the importance of the education system to the plot.
From that first reading of Vonnegut, my perception of him has been that he was a classic sci-fi writer. Not a harmful assumption, in my opinion.
But, in the eyes of the literary world, Vonnegut’s delving to science fiction was an act that would forever set him apart from the larger American literary scene.
I only learned all this – and that Vonnegut teeters on the edge of the classic sci-fi author cliff—very recently. My roommate gifted me Timequake during the exodus from our college dorms in the midst of the pandemic.
“You’ll like it,” he said, “It had a big influence on my personal philosophy.”
Timequake, Vonnegut, and Science Fiction
Before we delve into the nitty gritty of Timequake, I’d first like to take a moment to think about what makes science fiction, well, science fiction.
If you’re reading this blog, chances are you already have a good understanding of the genre, its conventions, tropes, etc. But have you ever thought about what the acceptable level of fiction is to merit calling something science fiction?
For example, The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey very much embodies science fiction. Space fleets, civilization on Mars, wormholes, undiscovered planets—the list goes on. Or Yokohoma Station SF by Yuba Isukari, where a sentient train station consumes Japan.
But what about books where a single element of our world is altered, and in some cases, you can’t distinguish if you’re reading a literary classic or science fiction?
In the case of Timequake, Vonnegut institutes a blip in reality, a “rerun” for the span of ten years where everyone has to relive the past ten years of their life over again, fully conscious.
Sometimes, Vonnegut will go chapters without mentioning the rerun, instead focusing on autobiographical elements or reciting anecdotes about things he found humorous or curious. It’s in these stretches that you realize perhaps the science fiction element isn’t that important.
As a writer, I was taught that if the speculative element of a story can be removed without changing the story, then there’s a problem.
However, in Timequake, the rerun isn’t a pinnacle of the story. Sure, a lot of the anecdotes and stories Vonnegut recounts might lose a bit of their luster without the rerun to act as the foil, but at the end of the day, there’s still meaning in those stories.
I guess the question I’m getting at here is this: What makes something ‘more’ or ‘less’ science fiction than anything else?
Is The Expanse more science fiction than Timequake? And why?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Sci-Fi and Kilgore Trout
While doing some research, I came across an interesting article about Vonnegut’s relationship with science fiction.
And I think it helps us answer the previous question of ‘more’ or ‘less’ sci-fi.
Vonnegut was often considered to be a science fiction writer, and quietly shunned by the literary world for breaking away from the mainstream realism that dominated bestseller lists.
In his essay about science fiction, Vonnegut talks about being classified in the science fiction drawer of the filing cabinet, saying “I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”
In Timequake, Vonnegut voices some of these feelings through Kilgore Trout, his fictitious sci-fi author.
Trout is one of Vonnegut’s pinnacle characters, wrought with wit and tragedy. As a writer, Trout is largely unsuccessful by conventional terms. His stories are often ignored, thrown away, or unfinished.
However, in Timequake, the security guard, Dudley Prince, finds one of Trout’s stories in a trashcan, and think’s it’s a great work of art. So, when the rerun is over, and Trout inspires members of New York City with his “You’ve been sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do” spiel, Prince is one of the first to join his ranks.
Trout seems an awful lot like Vonnegut himself: shunned for science fiction, yet still inspiration enough for at least one person.
Ryan Britt, who has read far more Vonnegut than I have, said in a column for Tor.com that “Vonnegut doesn’t want to do any world-building, or have you marvel at any technology, or really ask you to meditate on a cool science fiction idea for very long. He wants to cut right to the human drama, and if he needs flying saucers to do it, he will.”
And that sentiment put into words the feeling that had been tugging at me since I finished reading Timequake.
I think Vonnegut’s writing is just as much science fiction as The Expanse, or Ray Bradbury, or any other big classic sci-fi author. The intent of Vonnegut’s science fiction is different—he’s using it as a foil, as a means to an end, whereas a hardcore sci-fi writer lives and breathes by the science, the technology.
If reading Timequake taught me anything, it’s that the definition of genre is perhaps more harmful than it is helpful. At the end of the day, who cares whether Timequake was just as much science fiction as any other piece of literature. Does it really matter? Let me know in the comments what you think.