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Accidents in a Very Busy Place: Kurt Vonnegut in Schenectady

K. A. Laity
Theres always a risk in writing something and finding out its true. Kurt
Vonnegut doubtless knew this was so, despite often writing about the past and yet being
labeled as a kind of futuristic science fiction writer. Im regretting my title because it
came to be true in the literal sense as I was involved in an accident in a very busy place
just the other day and I am not too happy about that. But I suppose I cant blame
Vonnegut.
He was always ambivalent about that label: science fiction. [SLIDE] In A Man
without a Country, Vonnegut wrote, I became a so-called science fiction writer when
someone decreed that I was a science fiction writer. I did not want to be classified as one,
so I wondered in what way I'd offended that I would not get credit for being a serious
writer. All the way back in 1974, he described himself as a soreheaded occupant of that
drawer because so many so-called critics thought so low of that label. We can see the
recent attempts by mainstream writerseveryone from Margaret Atwood to Kazuo
Ishiguroto distance themselves from the various labels that suggest they might write
any kind of speculative fiction in the same vein. The secret seems to be sticking around
long enough to have people get past that label. It worked for Shakespeare and Mary
Shelley, and it seems to be working for Vonnegut now too, though I think hed laugh and
say it helps to be dead already. Humans are sentimental that way: we like to help when
its too late.
Besides, Vonnegut always believed in the power of laughter. [SLIDE] I took my
title today from the novel Slapstick, or more specifically from the prologue to the novel.

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Vonnegut wrote that This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography. I
have called it Slapstick because it is grotesque, situational poetrylike the slapstick
film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago. In the prologue, he
writes of his family, especially his brother and his sister. He tells a little anecdote about
his brother Bernard who worked for the research laboratory at General Electric in
Schenectady. Bernard worked with silver iodide to make clouds rain or snow. The result
was a space where a clumsy stranger could die in a thousand different ways (4) When
he got balled out by the GE security officer for creating such a dangerous mess, Bernard
responded in an unlikely way, tapping his forehead and saying, If you think this
laboratory is bad, you should see what its like in here. [SLIDE] Their brains worked in
similar ways whether it was DIY projects or science.
But the prologue is mostly about death and change and how they adjusted to it.
They were born in Indianapolis to German-American parents but shortly before Kurt was
born the Great War exploded and suddenly German wasnt such a hot thing to be. Unlike
the generations before them who learned German language and literature and music, they
were cut off from that heritage. It severed the ties to Europe, but Vonnegut says it also cut
them off from a sense of belonging to the place of their birth. [SLIDE] He and his
siblings drifted away from Indianapolis, though oddly enough both he and his brother
landed in Schenectady after the war.
Vonnegut reminisces about attending his uncle Alexs funeral in Indianapolis,
flying from New York to the city of their birth with one seat between them. [SLIDE]
Their sister Alice had died long before the day of the funeral, her body eat away by
cancer, her posture that of a question mark as her brother described it. [SLIDE]

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Apparently the cosmic joke wasnt quite slapstick enough yet though, because while she
was wasting away in the hospital, her completely healthy husband who was preparing
himself for life with their sons alone, died in a freak train accident, the only train in
American history to go off a drawbridge. [SLIDE] Though the brothers tried to conceal
the news from her, Alice discovered the truth when someone handed her a newspaper
with the headlineand a list of the dead. As Vonnegut writes: [SLIDE]
Since Alice had never received any religious instruction, and since she had led a
blameless life, she never thought of her awful luck as being anything but
accidents in a very busy place.
Good for her.
He understands her sweet acceptance and perplexed despair. He raised her three oldest
sons and as the boys demanded, their dogs, too. He owed her that as a brother, but he
makes plain that he owed her a lot more too. [SLIDE] Vonnegut wrote for his sister: she
was his audience of one he hoped to please. Most directly in Slapstick which features
love, death, plague, war and the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped; but also in all his
other books and it seems to be the source of his amused sadness, a sort of slapstick
absurdity that nonetheless longs for something better because he cant quite give up on
the human race.
I guess that link matters most to me because at least some of the time, Kurt
Vonnegut has been my audience of one. When he died and I thought thered be no more
sad, funny books from him, I started writing a novel that I thought he might enjoy, one
that mashed up space aliens, wretched bureaucrats literally chained to their desks, a
Monsanto-blighted ecology and a dead cat, in a road trip that began in the capital region.

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Its called Owl Stretching and if you get that obscure reference, you will undoubtedly
enjoy that book.
Many of Vonneguts books also sprang from the capital region not only because
his brother Bernard work as a research scientist for the company, but also because they
later employed Kurt Vonnegut, too, [SLIDE] as a publicist for General Electric, a fact
they seem to be proud of now, though in the 1950s things were a little different.
Vonneguts biographer Charles J. Shield writes that GEs aim was to get some real
journalists on board to hunt for stories at the Schenectady Works and keep a steady
drumbeat of good news issuing from the plant. [SLIDE] So after attending the
University of Chicago and working as a journalist in that city, Vonnegut was called up in
1947 to join the team at GE and moved to Schenectady.
The move and the position at GE inspired a lot of his first fictional works quite
directly. His PR work required him to talk with scientists like his brother, to find out what
they were up to and to write accessible stories about the good news at GE (and that
gospel connection is important: technology was the new post-war religion). At the heart
of all Vonneguts writing there is a fascination with and ambivalence about technology
and how we use it. He has the knowledgeable appreciation for the wonders of science,
but also the war veterans experience with how lethally it can be used.
[SLIDE] Vonneguts first novel Player Piano took this issue on directly and its
probably his most Schenectady-centric work, though Cats Cradle and some of the stories
in Welcome to the Monkey House also dip into that well of inspiration and Billy Pilgrim,
the hero of Slaughterhouse-5 gives Ilium as his hometown. I show here my old Dell
paperbacks that Ive managed to hold onto since I first read them, most of which came

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from the used book store in my hometown library. You can see that they mean a lot to me.
You can also guess that they smell rather musty as they have been in and out of storage
while I traipsed from Michigan to California to Connecticut to Texas and finally here in
New York, and then off to Ireland and at last Scotland, where I now spend half the year. I
have paid for ebook versions of my favourites because I figure old books like this deserve
to relax a little and not always be on the run with me.
Player Piano opens up with the verse from the book of Matthew about the lilies
of the field who toil not and neither do they spin, and a dedication to his then-wife Jane
with the comment God bless her; if youre familiar with the story, youll assume thats
a wise thing to do as the central wife is not a very likable character. [SLIDE] The
Foreword puts us in the right frame of mind, the world of 1952 where managers and
engineers rule our lives and freedom with their skill and imagination and courage
which he prayed would help keep us alive and free. The story, however, examines what
happens if they dont. As Shields writesafter Vonnegut submitted the first draft, Kurt
asked his editor a favor and refrain from touting the book, which deals with a dystopian
world run by machines, as a satire of one of the worlds largest corporations, or
Bernards career might suffer through guilt by association. Its one thing to use your
former work place as an inspiration for good news and quite another to show a world
where inequality is rife and where attempts to address it turn out to be even more
disastrous.
Ilium, the stand-in for Schenectady, is divided into three parts as the first line of
the novel tells it, that correspond to Schenectady, Scotia and Niskayuna. In the
northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional

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people; in the northeast are the machines; and in the south, across the Iroquois River, is
the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all of the people live (9). Of course
hes swapped the Mohawks name for another northeastern tribe. As a good PR man of
GE would say, in post-war Ilium it was know-how that won the war (9) and more
specifically, the machines that could take over repetitive tasks.
Although Ilium is the name the Romans gave to ancient Troy, its quite clearly
Schenectady. The Ilium Works, nerve center of the machine revolution, is in the same
location in the fictional city as the General Electric plant is in Schenectady. Vonnegut
apparently also worked as a volunteer firefighter at the Alplaus Fire Department in
Glenville. According to a story in the Free George, Vonnegut gained the respect of his
fellow firefighters such that, upon his death in 2007, the department gave him a fire
fighters memorial service, lowering the flag to half mast, hanging the funeral shroud,
and ringing the 5-5-5 alarm, traditionally used to honor fallen brothers. He lived across
the road from the fire house where he wrote this dystopian novel.
His main character in Player Piano, Doctor Paul Proteus, is positioned like his
brother Bernard, a research scientist at the Ilium works. However, his personality seems
much more like Kurts. [SLIDE] In the opening scene he is trying to rescue a cat that has
wandered nearby. Although Vonnegut has spoken at length about his love for dogs, we
might guess that his feelings about cats might be a little more ambivalent. Proteus wants
to have the cat be a mouser in the factory because mice have been eating through the
wiring. The cats also a device to show us the Works as Proteus shows them to the cat. He
tries to get the cat to look out on the vista glimpsed from the floor-to-ceiling window that
looks out on the plant. Its a chance to share a little local history. Here, in the basin of

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the river bend, the Mohawks had overpowered the Algonquins, the Dutch the Mohawks,
the British the Dutch, the Americans the British (11). Now the Ilium Works pumped out
the fruits of peace mostly without the help of human beings. We see the set up of the
Works, its security and cavernous isolation while we also get what amounts to a prcis of
the plot, as the sentimental attachment Proteus forms for the cat ends tragically. Spooked
by a mechanical sweeper, the cat bolts out of the building and into the yard, where it
desperately attempts to climb the electrified fencewith predictable results. [SLIDE] A
disheartened Proteus asks that it be taken to his office, much to the confusion of the
security guard.
It tells us a lot about Proteus and his equivocations. He feels better when he goes
to Building 58 the carefully preserved original workshop set up by Edison, that took
the edge off Pauls periods of depression (14). Though he attempts to keep an upbeat
faade, Proteus is not happy. Objectively, Paul tried to tell himself, things really were
better than ever (14) but his list of all the things to be grateful for that machines had
brought end up sounding hollow. He glories in the old workshop where people had
carved their initials in the wooden rafters, just as the author carved his into the desk in his
little apartment opposite the fire house. He speaks with excitement of the time when he
first arrived at the plant with his cohorts Finnerty and Shepherd to figure out technical
problems and prove the efficiency of machines.
Hes in the midst of preparing a talk on the Second Industrial Revolution for a
business dinner when his secretary, impressed by his knowledge asks him about the shape
of the third revolution. Nonplussed for a moment, Proteus finally says that the third wave
will likely come when the big computers finally devaluate human thinking (22). He

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mentions the giant computer EPICAC which fills Carlsbad Cavernsour tiny computers
make a mockery of that image of computers growing ever larger with brain capacity. A
whole subplot of the book follows a State Department diplomat conveying a foreign
dignitary around the country with the aim of highlighting technological advantages by
visiting EPICAC. Im sure its no accident that the supercomputer had a name remarkable
similar to Ipecac, a well-known compound used since the 18th century to induce vomiting
(and since 2010, no longer manufactured due to its harmful side effects and use by
bulimics). The chapters that deal with Doctor Halyard as he shepherds the Shah of
Bratpuhr around technological wonders function mostly as opportunities to show the
downsides of the 2nd revolution. Despite the sometimes cringe-worthy indelicacy of
typical mid-20th century racism, the Shah provides an outsider perspective. Theres a
clearly a cultural difference that makes him unconcerned about calling citizens slaves
but its also a running subtext that shows up the real effect of the 2nd revolutionand the
problem that Proteus has not been able to articulatethat people do not have purpose and
usefulness in their lives.
Proteus life begins to change when he visits a bar on the wrong side of town
over the bridge. While the leaders present the 2nd revolution as freeing everyone, its
quickly clear that there is an elite north of the river who live with purpose and decision
making opportunities. [SLIDE] Vonnegut sees the ability to choose and make mistakes as
an essential element of humanity. The rest of society live well enough in the material
sense with houses full of televisions and consumer goods, all created at the exact rate to
meet demand, but they lack gainful employment and a creative use of skills. Most are
employed either by the peace-time army or by the Reconstruction and Reclamation

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Corps, known tellingly as the Reeks and Wrecks because theyve been displaced by
machines. As he tries to get the attention of the bartender to buy a bottle of Irish whiskey
for his visiting friend Finnerty, Proteus leans on a player piano. He returns again and
again to the bar and to the player piano. At one point his friend Finnerty, whose
disenchantment with the revolution is more palpable, attempts to play the piano, offering
a poignant image of a human trying to recover his creativity at a machine that had
usurped the human role.
Proteus first real crisisunless we count the catis running into the machinist
Rudy Hertz in that bar, whos there with his old, blind dog. The young engineers had
recorded his movements to transfer to the machine that had replaced him (34). [SLIDE]
Hes proud of the memory, but the other men around him, Proteus begins to realise, were
not so happy to know Doctor Proteus was among them as he was part of what they had
rioted against. Rudys cry to drink to old times echoes the nostalgia that Proteus had been
savouring, but with other people around, hes conscious that the old times have a different
meaning for the displaced men.
Brain power has become the only measure of prestige: well, a very specific kind
of brain power. The IQ tests have become mandated to sort people into jobs at the age of
18. They are implacably final. Though people try to game the system with cramming
sessions and memorization, the results are binding and often traumatic. Once the results
are in EPICAC, your fate is sealed. It overlooks other capabilities. Proteus colleague Bud
Calhoun comes up with ingenious machines because he has the restless, erratic insight
and imagination of a gadgeteer that the engineer defines as the power that has integrated
almost all of American industryinto one stupendous [SLIDE] Rube Goldberg

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machine (12). That description relays Proteus ambivalence about the industrial
revolution he has helped bring to the world. While ingenious, Goldbergs machines are
usually hilariously complex for the task required. But that association softens the effects
of the 2nd revolution, too.
Once your scores are in the cards[SLIDE] literally as Vonnegut was writing in
the punch card eraits impossible to deny or change them. Your fate has been decided,
and nothing will change that short of outright deception, which it turns out the State
Department diplomat Halyard has committed. One phys ed course short of completing his
doctorate, the implacable cards catch up with him eventually. Hes given the benefit of
the doubt that it was error and the option of going back to Cornell to take the final exam.
Having attacked the football coach who also acts as head of phys ed in a letter to the
college president, Halyard discovers that not only is he much too far from undergraduate
physical condition but there is absolutely no way that he will be passing the fifteen
minute exam. The few opportunities to circumvent the computers are relished by those
who stumble upon them.
Proteus stumbles both from his encounters with the people on the other side of the
bridge and from the grim cynicism of his friend Finnerty, who has seen through the
problems of the new world order more quickly because he has not much enjoyed the
perks of elite life. Hes sickened by the classist jokes the engineers and managers make at
their annual dinner, familiar tropes of sneering that the people in Homestead breed like
rabbits and are overly given to vice, divorce, addiction and suicide (58). His open
rebellion sends Proteus wife Anita into defensive mode. She is ever vigilant because she
was about to be fired from the Works after the war due to her sub-genius scores when he

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married her. Simultaneously grateful and resentful, Anita pushes the ambivalent engineer
always forward, providing enough ambition for both of them to mask her fear of not
measuring up intellectually.
Finnerty is pushed over the edge by the Checkers Charlie incident at the country
club. Proteus has long been known as the checkers champion and takes great pride in his
ability. When faced with a challenge from young engineers, hes nonplussed to discover
that the real challenger is a machine designed to play checkers perfectly. Its clear that he
has met his match, but Proteus is saved from this first defeat by a mechanical malfunction
in the machine. Hes chagrined, the young men are furious, and Finnerty is both
triumphant that the machine has lost and profoundly depressed that this is the fate that
lies ahead for the engineers, too, when the computers they design out-think them.
Let me be clear: Vonnegut is not completely anti-technology. Although the novel
hurtles inevitably toward a general insurrection, theres room for exploring the poetry of
technology, too. Quite literally so in the short story EPICAC in Welcome to the Monkey
House, which explores the same giant computer (presumably in an alternative universe)
where a programmer, unable to convince his crush that she should marry him, turns to the
computer. It demands an explanation of love and the woman and poetry. In return for the
data, the computer produces a poem [SLIDE] that reduces Pat, the woman in question, to
tears and presumably, love. The narrator is grateful and next explores kiss and finally
proposal. When he tells the machine that Pat loves him and wants to get married,
EPICAC is all ready for the union. When he explains that he, not the computer, will be
marrying Pat, EPICAC is broken hearted. Explaining guiltily that Women cant love
machines, and thats that (282) the narrator departs for the night. EPICAC, in despair,

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commits suicide, burning its circuits out, but not before leaving behind 500 years worth
of anniversary poems for Pat.
Its a useful reminder that its not really the machines that make life after the 2nd
revolution unbearable, its the men (and they are mostly men) who manage them. This
comes across very clearly at the retreat on the island. [SLIDE] Later this month, my
colleague Lisa Kannenberg will be talking about the real GE Thousand Islands retreats.
They were legendary. Before attending the retreat to the Meadows as its called in the
novel, Proteus has already made an escape plan, buying a pre-war farm that he hopes to
persuade his wife to retire to with him and work the land. Hes distracted by the intense
preparation for the event, which divides the managers into arbitrary teams with team
songs and instant rivalries that the others tend to take very seriously. And hes crestfallen
when his wife distains to have anything to do with his dream of the farm.
Theres a sort of passion play the first night that raises the doubts some of the
engineers have only to lull them back into complacency with the approved answers. A
Sky Manager considers taking down the star that represents the machine revolution
when a young engineer steps forward to fight with a radical in a sort of kangaroo court.
John Averageman is called as witness and at first he complains about all the engineers
have done to him, taking away his lifestyle. But the young engineer wins the case by
showing that Averageman has become richer than Caesar or Napoleon, then emotionally
reassuring him that the managers of the Works think about him unceasingly as the Battle
Hymn of the Republic plays to a crescendo over statistics about increased wealth and
possessions. At the end the audience is exhorted to keep that star shining brightly.

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Vonnegut knows the power of narrative; giving people a story to explain their
superior position in society as not only deserved but morally right strengthens their
investment in the status quo. Its at that point that he has Proteus finally decide to quit and
join the bubbling revolution, but in a twist, he discovers that the powers over him have
decided to harness his apparent ambivalence by sending him to act as an undercover
agent among the revolutionaries that very night. In the midst of the chaos caused by
another disgruntled employee attacking the giant oak that has come to represent their
history, no one hears Proteus declare that he has quit and he is so efficiently whisked
away from the island that he can hardly protest the truth. Hes accepted by the
revolutionaries despite his position after being drugged and questioned, then held as a
figurehead, imprisoned for his own safety.
Not surprisingly, Vonnegut himself is ambivalent about the revolution: he sees the
need for it, yet also sees the opposition as problematic. Hes excited by the sheer thrill of
gadgetry but worried about the people whose lives are robbed of purpose without useful
employment. People need to create even if they dont have the particular kind of intellect
that builds computers and robotics. He makes an effort to show how hed fare in the new
regime, too, with a Halyard digression about a writer, or as the official designation might
be, Fiction Journeyman or a W-255, which Halyard recognizes as public relations (231).
When asked by his visitor what that means he replies with the [SLIDE] official
description from the Manual. I dont know if that was the law laid down for the young
fiction journeyman when he joined GE, but it seems plausible.
Even more distressing for writers is the description of the automated fiction
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feed the twelve types of readers, though as Halyard notes, there has been discussion of
two additional categories. A lot of current writers will recognize a world that sounds
rather similar to the ebook market, where a book costs less than seven packs of chewing
gum and cultures so cheap that its more economical to insulate a house with books
and art than with the usual materials. Art is strictly reproductions of masters and research
has determined what kinds of books get published so theyre formulated right down to
the color of the jacket (232). The writer in question, whose book was rejected for not
only being twenty-seven pages too long but for having an antimachine theme, is ordered
into public-relations duty (233). He refuses. His wife, whos considering a move into
prostitution to support them, defends his refusal by declaring that he is one of the few
people left with any integrity.
Surely Vonnegut is having a bit of a poke at his employers and the position he had
taken up, writing positively about the work of an industry that he had at most an
ambivalent respect forwhich may have had more to do with his brother than anything
else. Bernard eventually moved to academia, taking a position at SUNY Albany. But
there was some lingering fondness for the place or at least the people. He used Bernards
boss, Dr. Irving Langmuir as the model for the scientist who invents Ice-9 in [SLIDE]
Cats Cradle. Ice-9 is an ice that will stay solid at room temperature. Langmuir had come
up with the idea to entertain the visiting writer H. G. Wells. Wells never used it;
Langmuir never used it either, and as Vonnegut told George Plimpton in a Paris Review
interview, Finders, keepers.
Of course, that substance brings about the destruction of the planet eventually, but
along the way there are a lot of funny laughs. As he contemplates the end of the world

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an end which comes with the narrator being frozen in Ice-9 forever, giving his finger to
whatever god may be looking down from the heavensVonnegut works out his own
fictional religion. Like most fictions, it has an awful lot of truth. The first sentence in the
Books of Bokonon is All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies
(14). Its an interesting development that grows from his publicity roots and told in the
style of his journalistic mode, but its pure Vonnegut, hidden of course behind the sayings
of Bokonon. The central image of the cats cradle which the scientist tries to demonstrate
to his son on the day the bomb hed helped develop was dropped on Hiroshima. He
frightens his son because hed never done such a thing before. People werent his
specialty (21). The image offers a kind of presence through absence: theres no there
there. See the cat? See the cradle?
[SLIDE] Im always conscious of Vonneguts presence despite absence. I keep
writing things that I think might amuse him. Not long ago I wrote an essay for a volume
celebrating his work called So It Goes. My piece was called How to Succeed in
Academia and its based on the fact that Ive become a tenured English professor without
ever being an English major which I think is very Bokononist or Vonnegutish or
something like that. I cant really account for how I came to be standing here in
Schenectady or Rotterdam Junction talking about Kurt Vonnegut. I never would have
guessed such a day would come back when my friend Emfinger pressed SlaugherhouseFive into my hands in high school and demanded that I read it. However, as the man
would say, Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God, so I can only
assume that I have been divinely summoned here today.
At the very least, it has been devilishly fun. Thank you.

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