One of the few nonfiction books I’ve bothered to read this year is The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic by Ginger Strand. Not quite a full dual biography, it's more an examination of the parallel careers of Kurt Vonnegut and his older brother, Bernard, in the years following WWII, when they both worked at General Electric in Schenectady, New York -- the House of Magic of the title, Here Kurt wrote copy for the publicity department (known pretentiously as the News Division) while Bernard conducted experiments in cloud seeding. In this period, as in their childhood, Bernard was the star of the family, a bona fide scientist who followed the path set for him by his father and uncles. Kurt was the overlooked kid brother, a college dropout, the family clown who sent story after story to slick magazines and amassed stacks of rejections slips.
The central section of the book flips back and forth between the brothers’ working lives in the late forties and into the fifties, and Bernard’s story is far more absorbing. The descriptions of Kurt sitting at his desk and pounding out prose become repetitive. Bernie, meanwhile, flies off in B-17s and makes rain with silver iodide (maybe). It isn’t until the last fifteen pages of the book that the roles are reversed, and Kurt becomes the dominant figure.
In Strand’s telling, the years in Schenectady bore most directly on two of Kurt’s novels: Player Piano (which disappointed me) and Cat’s Cradle (which didn't). The description of Ice-9 in the latter is taken directly from Bernie’s explanation to his brother about the different ways in which water may crystallize:
He told Kurt to imagine cannonballs stacked on a courthouse lawn. Just as the balls could be piled up into different shapes, ice crystals could be stacked into different configurations. In fact, [Percy] Bridgeman had described a whole series of ice phase variants, ice-1 through ice-6. And who knew—there might be more to come. (95)
Indeed there was.
Strand’s book also provides a valuable portrait of the GE corporate culture in those years. The company was then, as now, a central cog in the military-industrial complex, and it demanded not only the time and talents of its employees, but their political sympathies as well. And the sympathies were decidedly right-wing. (It was GE, she reminds us, that launched the political career of Ronald Reagan.) Kurt loathed the atmosphere, and got out soon after selling his first couple of stories. Bernard grew disillusioned over time – rather too much time, it seems – and escaped into academia.
Last aside: In Person of Interest, the sci-fi/action series that concluded its five-year run on CBS this month, the virus that finally destroys the evil computer is called Ice-9. I was tickled to hear that.
Now I’m itching to reread some Vonnegut, when I’m finished (please, God) with Lovecraft.