Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007:
“He was the kind of writer who made people – young people, especially – want to write,” added Jonathan Safran Foer, the 30-year-old author of “Everything is Illuminated.” “He wrote the kinds of books you pass around.”
For countless teenagers, reading Vonnegut was as much an entry into adult life as your first beer. The world became funnier, more dangerous, more exciting. If you were looking to send up authority, question life’s meaning or face the worst and keep your sense of humor, Vonnegut was your teacher.
I know that there have been countless generations that grew up and led meaningful lives before Kurt Vonnegut’s writing was around but they all must have realized that there was some hole, some vital missing piece to the human experience that they could not fill. It took Kurt Vonnegut to fill that hole. Those of us who have grown up in a world with his books at hand are better people for it. He was a teacher and a hero, not because he did great things but because he taught us all that it was heroic enough simply to get up in the morning and keep on living, despite all the reasons in the world not to. His message was a simple one: be kind to one another as often as you can, not because you’ll be rewarded for it but because it makes the world a better place and a lot more interesting. He may be gone but his words remain, to fill the hole left behind.
Cyrano De Bergerac was the first man to visit the moon. When he arrived, he found a young Chinese woman named Chang’e who was witty, intelligent and fond of wine. They had a brief but passionate affair. Cyrano eventually tired of life on the Moon and one morning, climbed back into his hot air balloon and put the thing into reverse. He left a note pinned to Chang’e’s pillow but there is no record of what he wrote. It was beautiful and passionate and utterly cold, no doubt. Several months layer, Chang’e gave birth to a rabbit. Things work differently in Outer Space.
The rabbit, while the first animal in space, was not the last. The United States and the Soviet Union both spent inordinate amounts of rocket fuel placing dogs, mice, rats, chinchillas, iguanas, turantulas, several colonies of ants and assorted birds (mostly parrots) into orbit at a rate that you just wouldn’t believe. On at least one occasion, the United States launched a capsule stuffed with three thousand eight hundred and fifty two speckled guinea pigs, just to see if they could. Then there were the primates. For whatever reason, all the Chimpanzees sent into space returned with their intelligence greatly augmented and full of a desire to conquer mankind. This fact was kept secret form the general public until 2000, when, due to clerical error, one of these maniacal super chimps was accidentally elected president of the United States.
Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit planet Earth (who was not entirely fictional) was reportedly to have said from his space capsule,”Well, here I am in heaven and I don’t see any God.” This anecdote was made up by Khrushchev and attributed to Gagarin, who was far more popular than the Russian Premiere. Unfortunately, Gagarin died just a few years later when his jet encounter foul weather and crashed.
There is no weather, foul or fair in heaven. No God either. Just stars and infinity. Enough room for everyone. Planets and comets. Fountains of methane. Hurricanes bigger than the planet Earth. Black Holes. Giant clouds of sparkling light that give birth to stars. Wonders greater than can be conceived of here, at the bottom of our little well. We look up through our narrow opening and dream of the moon, of Chinese girls and rabbits, lovers who fly to heaven in hot air balloons and heroes who ride smoking rockets into a sky that never ends.