Thursday, April 12, 2007

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt

When I was nine years old, the local PBS channel aired a science fiction special called Between Time and Timbuktu and it scared the hell out of me. I mean the particular type of scared you get when you're about nine years old and something so totally blows your mind that you can't stop thinking about it no matter how much you'd like to stop, and you're up all night afraid to go to sleep for fear that you'll start dreaming about it.

Amateur poet Stony Stevenson wins the Blast-Off Space Food Jingle Contest, with the prize of being the first human launched into a Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum in space: a space-time warp. After passing through the Infundibulum, he meets himself and then reappears on Earth, where he passes through a variety of weird and disturbing possible futures -- scenarios (I later discovered) taken from assorted novels and stories by Kurt Vonnegut. Stony meets Bokonon from the novel Cat's Cradle just as soldiers arrive to assasinate the religious leader; he visits a cryogenics laboratory where world leaders are frozen and a substance called ice-nine could cause the end of all life; he visits an overpopulated world in which the government provides "ethical suicide parlours" and body-numbing pills to eliminate the pleasure of sex; he witnesses a dissident trial in a machine-run dystopia; he sees a future in which the drive for equality has gone wild and citizens are forced to wear debilitating handicaps to make sure no one is superior to anyone else in intellect or looks or physical ability. Finally he visits Heaven, where he befriends a little girl killed by an ice cream truck on her birthday. And then the image of Hitler shows up to make everyone disappear and destroy Heaven...before Stony works out the ultimate secret of everything he's experienced and gets some friendly advice from God.

Any one of those sequences would have been unsettling to my young mind...but the cumulative effect of them all concentrated into a single broadcast depicting so many different nightmarish possible futures was terrifying. The underlying message of atheism and skepticism, sadness at human failings and mockery of our pathetic vanities balanced with affection for human kindness and imagination -- the whole thing was itself like seeing a message from the future and being introduced to fears and disappointments and even hopes of a sort that maybe I shouldn't even have been thinking about. But obviously on some level I was ready for all that, because it resonated so deeply with me I couldn't stop thinking about it.

Somehow I had to conquer the fears that tv show woke up in me. And I did that by reading all the Kurt Vonnegut books my parents had on their bookshelves. That's how The Sirens of Titan became the first adult novel I ever read. It was swiftly followed by Cat's Cradle, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five as fast as I could read them. I don't think I understood a fraction of what was in those books, but I had to master them as best I could. Over time, I came to feel the viewpoint of these books represented the truest and most objective view of the world I'd ever encountered, and my horror at a world stripped of meaning and without a benevolent patriarch who was always right in charge was replaced by fascination. And the writing was by no means unsophisticated, but it had a particular sort of straightforward simplicity that made it accessible to anyone who cared to read it. Vonnegut wasn't out to dazzle us with the brilliance of his language, but to convey ideas he felt were so important they needed to be expressed as plainly as possible. Before then I didn't realize books for adults could be like that. When Breakfast of Champions was published the following year, I insisted to my probably bemused parents that we had to get it right away.

More than thirty years later, I've never found a writer who saw the world so clearly and accurately (or so it seems to me -- obviously my entire view of the world has been so thoroughly shaped by that early exposure to Vonnegut's work that I still judge everything else by those values on a level I can't possibly examine objectively) nor a writer who was so utterly determined to communicate something to his audience rather than impressing them with his erudition. And more than thirty years later, I still feel sad when I think of that poor girl Wanda June and the ice cream truck, and shiver when I hear the word "ice-nine."

I haven't even mentioned all the other Vonnegut books, or the other translations of his work to the screen. Between Time and Timbuktu isn't available, but if you're curious to see what Vonnegut is like without cracking open a book, I recommend checking out Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night. (Bonus points for the first person to mention Vonnegut's hilarious cameo appearance in a Rodney Dangerfield film...)

Update 1: Matt Brady has written an overview I wish I had written of Vonnegut's work.

Update 2: Check here for more information on Between Time and Timbuktu.


  1. I know the reference, but only because I've seen it on both Metafilter and Monkeyfilter over the past 24 hours, so I can't say I deserve any bonus points for the knowledge.

    In any case, so it goes.

  2. Beautifully written, RAB. I would love to see Between Time and Timbuktu someday. I'll hope for a DVD release. And thanks for the kind words!

  3. my first encounter with KV was, ironically, in Back to School, where he apparently couldn't write a paper on himself!

    i knew he was this legendary figure, and the fact he showed up in the movie made me like him because he just seemed so cool.

    i read S5 not too long after that, and eventually Mother Night and Galpagos (which confused me entirely).

    great, great man. nice tribute.

  4. This is a beautiful eulogy, better than my own attempt. In fact, this is the only one I've read that I think is really worth a damn. Thank you, RAB!

  5. David, it seems like every tribute to KV I've read this weekend has included a link to another one, along with the statement that the other one is superior. None of us thinks our tributes were good enough. For the record, I liked yours a lot but I don't think mine is anything special!

    I highly recommend this one in Salon about Vonnegut playing a game of chess with a twelve year old.

  6. Strangely, I'm collecting them all. They're all quite good, I think: understated and not a little touching.

    Now desperately trying to recall if in fact I saw "Between Time And Timbuktu"...

  7. yes.
    and this was after accidentally memorizing kafka's diaries at age 4
    or fortune.ate?me
    the day kurt died this past april
    i lost 7 hard years of art.
    go figure.
    i blame it on time travel,

  8. I saw this movie around '72 when it was aired on public TV in the U.S.
    It did'nt scare me much. "Night Gallery"
    took care of that.
    If you can get your hands on the book
    it's LOADED with pics from the movie,
    including the Ethical Suicide Parlor
    "Drop in- turn off today" sign and just about all of the other scenes.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.