Kurt Vonnegut rolls in his grave
Or at least I like to think he does, given the news that two of his unpublished stories will first go on sale as ebooks. Vonnegut, one of the most original, if not to say beloved, writers of the last half of the 20th century, cheerfully described himself as a “Luddite.” And let us not forget that his first novel, Player Piano (1952), is a dystopian comedy about a time when human workers have been replaced by machines (no!?). As the science fiction writer who gained acceptance as a major literary force, Vonnegut was no booster of technology.
Of course, it’s hard to blame Delacorte, which will published Look at the Birdie in traditional bound book form in October. The book is said to contain 14 “never before published” Vonnegut stories. But first, a story titled “Hello Red” will be offered as an ebook for $1.99 on August 25. A second, “The Petrified Arts”, goes on sale as an ebook Sept. 29.
Given the economic downturn, not to mention the struggles of all old media — not only books, but newspapers, magazines and even broadcast television — to maintain audience and make a profit, it’s only smart for Delacorte to draw attention to Look at the Birdie any way it can.
“We haven’t done an e-book initiative before, but this material lends itself to this promotion,” said Kerri Buckley, the book’s editor. “Diehard fans will want an early taste, while new readers will be seduced by the individual stories.”
Vonnegut, who died April 11, 2007, is remembered largely has a comic anti-war novelist for his most successful book, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), based loosely on his experiences as a prisoner-of-war during the bombing of Dresden, which killed 100,000 German civilians near the end of World War II. Coming out at the height of the Vietnam War, it seemed another imaginative indictment of war in the vein of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961).
But Vonnegut’s subject matter extended far beyond opposition to war. It took in the whole of human folly, which, for him, included the pursuit of science and technology. Cat’s Cradle (1963), arguably his best novel, satirized the arms race, but its deeper theme was the responsibility of scientists to consider the applications of their discoveries. The world ends when the U.S. Army, seeking a better way to maneuver trucks in muddy conditions, develops a formula that freezes every drop of water on the planet.
Indeed, Vonnegut is all but unique in American letters. In some ways, he was the clearest heir of Mark Twain, carrying on Twain’s humor and bitter misanthropy — not to mention his mustache. But he combined these traits with the free-wheeling sci-fi sensibility of contemporaries the likes of Philip K. Dick or Philip Jose Farmer.
If Delacorte can use this ebook marketing strategy to draw fresh readers to Vonnegut, then more power to them. I just don’t think the man would approve.