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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

One of Cornell’s most famous almost-alumni (he was drafted to serve in World War II before graduating), Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007) became a countercultural celebrity in the 1960s and 1970s, revered by the Baby Boom generation for his resistance to the status quo and his pointed criticism of the Vietnam War.

While a chemistry major at Cornell, the young Vonnegut “was a great believer in scientific truth,” but after returning from the war in Europe he read about the atomic bomb’s decimation of Hiroshima and became skeptical about the power of science to improve human life in the face of politics and greed. Captured by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge and held as a prisoner of war in Dresden, a city of little strategic military value renowned for its exquisite baroque and rococo architecture, Vonnegut witnessed first-hand the Allied fire-bombing that devastated the urban center (known as the Jewel Box of Germany) and killed 25,000 civilians. This experience provided the framework for Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), his most famous work, a bitterly comic satire on the inhumane consequences of human irrationality. Controversial from the outset, it ranks 29th on the American Library Association’s “Banned & Challenged Classics” list and as recently as 2011 was banned by the Republic, Missouri school board. In response, the Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis provided a free copy to any Republic High School student who requested one. Though many of Vonnegut’s novels, such as The Sirens of Titan (1959), Cat’s Cradle (1963), Galápagos (1985), and Slaughterhouse-Five, employ the familiar science fiction motifs of time travel, extraterrestrial encounters, and dystopic futures, Vonnegut resented being categorized as an SF author, writing in a 1965 essay that he acquired the designation simply because he had written “a novel about people and machines.” Vonnegut’s blunt dismissal of magazine SF as “inexcusable trash” is tempered by the publication of his own early short stories in Galaxy, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and If – pulp magazines now widely recognized for their serious literary and sociological approaches to speculative fiction. Vonnegut’s public disclaimers and his growing reputation as a mainstream author may have influenced the marketing of his novels. Covers of paperback editions published in the 1950s and 1960s foreground imagery that emphasizes their SF content. In fact, Bantam’s 1954 paperback edition of Player Piano bears the title Utopia 14and a colorful cover clearly intended to appeal to science fiction fans. But after Vonnegut achieved widespread popularity the cover designs take a more abstract, “neutral” approach that resist genre identification. Whatever Vonnegut’s opinion of science fiction, its readership embraced and recognized his contributions, nominating his work for a Hugo Award, science fiction’s highest honor, in 1960, 1964, and 1969.