Escorting Vonnegut

By Gregory Benford

For decades, starting in the 1970s, I was UCI’s default escort for visitors and speakers a bit out of the ordinary. This usually meant science fiction writers with a large audience, though not always. I was an sf writer too, but with real-world credentials as a professor of physics, which some thought qualified me to mediate between the real and the imaginary.

The most striking writer I hosted, in the early 1990s, was Kurt Vonnegut.

The university leaders asked me to walk him around campus, have dinner with him and host his public talk in our largest center, where he drew well over 1,000 people. With his curly hair askew, deep red pouches under his eyes and rumpled clothes, he looked like a part-time philosophy professor, typically chain-smoking, coughs and wheezes dotting his speech.

To my surprise, he knew who I was. “Sure, I’ve read – ” and he rattled off six of my titles, starting with Timescape and through my Galactic Center series, then incomplete. He was affable, interested in the campus, and wanted to talk about sf. “I live in Manhattan and go to the literary parties, but I don’t read their books. I read just enough reviews to know what to say, then look enigmatic.”

Vonnegut reminisced that his mother, Edith, had had the greatest influence on him. “She thought she might make a new fortune by writing for the slick magazines. She took short-story courses at night. She studied magazines the way gamblers study racing forms. All to little avail. I think she envied me later.”

He said his favorite writer was George Orwell, tried to emulate him. “I like his concern for the poor, I like his socialism, I like his simplicity.” Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World heavily influenced his debut novel, Player Piano, in 1952. He defended the sf genre and deplored a perceived sentiment that “no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works.”

“From his soft, ironic comments, I gathered he could have become a cynic, but there was something tender in his nature that he could never quite suppress.”

He had grown up reading and then writing sf but shed the label of science-fiction writer with Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969. Its subtitle, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, told its intent, refracted through an sf lens. After the book appeared, Vonnegut told me, he went into a severe depression and vowed never to write another novel. Suicide was always a temptation. In 1984, he tried to take his life with sleeping pills and alcohol, and failed. Smoking seemed to be a half-measure in that direction, I thought, watching him light one cigarette from the butt of the previous. Yet he was a man of mirth – perhaps the other side of the same coin?

His novels since Slaughterhouse-Five had been an ironic stew of plot summaries and autobiographical notes. Often, Kilgore Trout was a character, plainly a stand-in for Ted Sturgeon; I asked him about this, and he nodded. “If I’d wasted my time creating new characters, I would never have gotten around to calling attention to things that really matter.”

He remarked that he could easily have become a crank, but I said that was impossible because he was too smart. From his soft, ironic comments, I gathered he could have become a cynic, but there was something tender in his nature that he could never quite suppress. To me, he could have become a bore, but even at his most despairing, he had an endless willingness to entertain his readers: with drawings, jokes, sex, bizarre plot twists, science fiction – whatever it took.

In his remarks that day and evening, I felt from Vonnegut a deep, dark despair. I mentioned that when Kilgore Trout finds the question “What is the purpose of life?” written on a bathroom wall, his response is, “To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool.” Trout’s remark, I said, was curious, seeing that Vonnegut was an atheist, so there is no Creator to report back to. In The Sirens of Titan, there is a Church of God the Utterly Indifferent; that seemed to be his true position.

That night he said, “The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. People don’t acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats.” In the end, he said, he believed that “we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

Some years later, he nearly died in a fire started because he fell asleep smoking. In 2007, he died, age 84, of brain injuries incurred several weeks prior from a fall.

As usual, he had a great exit line. In 2006, he sardonically said in a Rolling Stone interview that he would sue the makers of the Pall Mall cigarettes he had been smoking since he was 12 years old for false advertising. “And do you know why?” he said. “Because I’m 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package, Brown & Williamson promised to kill me.”

Of all the odd people I escorted, Vonnegut seemed the most in touch with the world he struggled to describe. It gave his remarks an immediacy I relished. In my hours with him, he revealed a tenderness at the center of his comic cynicism, softening his satirical criticisms of our species’ persistent foolishness.

The last thing he said to me was that anything that persuaded people that they were not leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe was good. “So keep writing.”

Benford has been a professor of physics at UCI since 1971. A two-time Nebula Award winner, he is the author of more than 30 novels.