Three years ago, Kurt Vonnegut died. I had just given a presentation exploring the scientific themes in his novels — the threat and potential of nuclear technology in Cat’s Cradle, the ideas of fate and free will in Slaughterhouse-Five, and the dangers of a completely mechanized society in Player Piano.
The discussion went well, despite the fact I broke one of the strictures placed upon how I chose my author. The author, you see, was supposed to be dead.
My talk came about a month before Vonnegut’s death, and I remember justifying my subject by telling the audience, “He’s not dead yet, but by all accounts, he should be.”
After all, this was the guy who survived the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II, and smoked unfiltered Pall Malls since he was a teenager, famously calling it a “classy way to commit suicide.”
So I felt pretty bad when I heard a few weeks later that one of my favorite authors had died at the age of 84, after falling in his home and suffering irreversible brain damage.
Decades before this tragedy, however, and years before Vonnegut became required reading in every American high-school, he was just another short story writer in a time when that profession was almost blue-collar.
And so we have Look at the Birdie, a collection of unpublished short fiction by Vonnegut. The 14 tales contained in the book are, simply put, awesome. For my fellow Vonnegutians, this is a monument to a young Vonnegut, still stretching his mighty wings before taking flight. For the uninitiated, these stories will also entertain.
Take, for instance, “The Nice Little People.” Lowell Swift is a meek husband eagerly awaiting his wife’s return from a day at work so they can celebrate their anniversary. While passing time, he discovers tiny people in a spaceship, which he thought was a small knife. How fun!
But when Swift realizes his marriage isn’t as happy as he thought, the aliens play a role in his marriage’s dissolution that is completely unforeseen and disturbing. Kind of like real life.
That was Vonnegut’s favorite topic.