The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic by Ginger Strand

Books Reviews
The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic by Ginger Strand

“Science is magic that works.” ?? Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

As an avid Kurt Vonnegut fan, I’m advising you of two things: First, do not open this book anticipating a typical biography of the Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five author. Second, open this book.

BrothersVonnegut.jpgFor a long time, Cat’s Cradle was not only my favorite among Vonnegut’s books, but my favorite book. While Slaughterhouse is typically readers’ first introduction to the sweetly sardonic humanist and Breakfast of Champions wins the most fans, 1963’s Cat’s Cradle best portrayed mankind’s potential for worldwide catastrophe in the pursuit of technological advancements.

Ginger Strand’s dual biography invites another Vonnegut—the lesser famous, yet though no less remarkable Bernard—to share the spotlight as she provides an intimate account of this country’s substantially swift advancements in science and industry following World War II.

Kurt might’ve been the man of letters, but his brother Bernard was the man of science; the former started out writing for newspapers while the latter received his Ph.D in chemistry from MIT and published his undergraduate chemistry thesis on X-ray analysis of crystalline bromine. Now, if I haven’t lost any of you English majors at this point, it would likely interest you to know that Bernard’s work at General Electric on cutting edge weather-control technologies would have considerable influence on Vonnegut’s apocalyptic parable we now know as Cat’s Cradle.

We all know how dry non-fiction writing has the potential to be, but Strand cinches a novelist’s knack for edge-of-the-seat narration (much like Eric Larson or Jon Krakauer,) rewarding curious readers with a breathtaking portrayal of Kurt’s capture at the hands of the Nazis in 1944 after the firebombing of Dresden. The fateful fog that rolled up and surrounded Kurt and his fellow infantrymen that autumn towards the end of the war is utilized by Strand as an effective metaphor to match the clouds that Bernard would soon be “seeding” through “Project Cirrus.”

Bernard’s contributions to the method of cloud saturation are given a proper documentation by Strand, starting in 1946 at the GE Labs in Schenectady, New York. Interestingly, Kurt and his brother worked under the same roof for a short period, with the famous author starting out as a public relations man for GE, typing out peppy press releases for media dissemination. In fact, GE Labs had the nickname of “the House of Magic…” a phrase that, when paired with the eventual quote at the top of this article, helps you formulate that direct line between Kurt’s witnessing of his brother’s work and his own imaginative new takes on sci-fi storytelling.

From here, Strand’s narrative splits. One path follows the ambitious and imaginative writer eking out his way through the newspaper world before his first big break, and the other observes his shrewder, diligent brother, the chemist working hard to find a way to influence the weather through cloud seeding in the hopes of inciting rain storms in dry desserts or sparking showers for drought-weary farmers.

If you’ve read Cat’s Cradle, you’ll recall the fictitious seed crystal known as “ice-nine,” which, in the book, eventually caused a global freeze and essentially ends all life as we know it. Bernard Vonnegut, meanwhile, was experimenting with silver iodide ice nuclei to artificially bring about microscopic ice crystals meant to fall through the seeded clouds. But it’s not long before the military starts hoping that maybe the GE chemists, like Bernard, can one day help them influence the formation of fog or man-made mists, so that they can fly more bombing missions and use it as cover. At this, American Magazine wondered aloud during that time of great technological advancement and experimentation, if the weather, itself, could become our new “super weapon.”

Thus, Cat’s Cradle posed a question, through satire, whether technological advancement that leads to human loss is really “advancement” at all. Bernard, himself, would join Kurt’s side of this argument.

Bernard would eventually learn of the CIA using rain-inciting cloud seeding methods in Vietnam as a means of washing out river crossings and hindering movements of troops and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Learning that his research and his invention was now being used as a weapon horrified him. Strand shows that, during this time in the very early ‘60s, Kurt was also equally haunted by warfare, but those were direct reverberations lingering from his time inside the slaughterhouse. We follow Kurt as he tries to come to terms with his time as a solider through early attempts to write that war book, (the one that would eventually become Slaughterhouse-Five).

But that’s no spoiler. The benefits of The Brothers Vonnegut are threefold, starting with Strand’s insights into the professional and domestic lives of these two brothers, both equally strong-willed in their works despite their fields being worlds apart. Strand also draws attention to the vital support these brothers received from their wives, Lois Bowler with Bernard and Jane Marie Cox (Kurt’s first wife). More than that, though, these women are able to substantially enter into the narrative’s insightful spotlight, rather than being merely supportive backdrops for the brothers.

The third treasure here would be for the science geeks or history nerds, the ones who would likely delight at a chance to stand inside those laboratories and walk the halls of GE Labs in the ’50s and get a real feel for the nuanced excitement that was in the air during America’s first decade as the world’s lone super power, privileged with a running start down test tube-laden track toward technological innovations. That’s where Bernard’s story takes the lead… And, yes, he really did figure out a way to make it rain.

And as for you who would exclusively read this for your fandom of brother Kurt? Well, if Cat’s Cradle was always your favorite, then you’ll more than be rewarded.

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