I had the opportunity to see Serial Blackface, a world premiere play by Janine Nabers, at Actor’s Express in Atlanta on Wednesday, 6 April. Serial Blackface is about the struggles of a low income mother and daughter dealing with the disappearance of a younger son, set against the backdrop of what has become known as the Atlanta Child Murders, but which residents at the time primarily knew as Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered Children. While I found the story to be compelling in its own right, I was somewhat disappointed by the attempt to connect it to the Child Murders. Granted, any depiction of that period in Atlanta’s history is going to fall far short of portraying the fear and confusion which gripped the city those two years, but the events of Serial Blackface could just as easily be set in any period of Atlanta’s history, up to and including the current day without losing the focus of the story.
In most depictions of Atlanta I see or read, I often find it difficult to recognize my hometown and Serial Blackface is no exception. While there were news reports on the television that was on throughout the play which sounded authentic, I felt no connection to the city portrayed in the fictional reality. For instance, in real life, from the moment the killings became well publicized, most, including the media, referred to the killer as the “child snatcher” and of victims being “snatched” because that’s how family members referred to the killer in interviews. The sex industry in Atlanta, characterized by strip clubs and X-rated movies, is mentioned in the play, but I saw no evidence of the consistent and sometimes comical efforts of Atlanta, and in particular Fulton County, to curtail the activities. I also felt none of the conflict between Atlanta’s city hall downtown and the monied interests in Buckhead, represented by the Chamber of Commerce, which was a very large part of the tragedy of the killings at the time. The theme of dealing with the loss of a child and not knowing where or even if to assign blame is universal and only mildly informed by connecting it to the events in Atlanta at that time. While the play revolves around a lower middle class black family, I recognized many of the characters and situations I knew from West End, the lower middle class white neighborhood in which I was raised, before it became a so-called “transitional” neighborhood in the early 70s. The play is less about color and more about class and the desperation inherent in trying to raise a family and deal with a tragedy when resources are taxed beyond their limits.
Nothing in the play is firmly connected to the Child Murders except for one or two explicit mentions, one involving identification of a victim — which was very evocative of the times and used the name of an actual victim — and another featuring a victims’ support group. The authenticity of the story comes from the timeless situation of its characters making horribly bad choices for all the wrong reasons, and failing to take responsibility for their actions which exacerbates their suffering. Remove the specific references to the Child Murders or set the action in a different era, and the play would not lose any of its power. The overall plot does contain considerable irony with regards to predatory behavior found in a given segment of society, but again, this could be divorced from the subject of the Child Murders without significantly altering the action of the play.
As an Atlanta native, certain events are engrained in my memory, and the Atlanta Child Murders looms the largest. I got my drivers license the year the first bodies were found and graduated from high school the year Wayne Williams was arrested. I was not much older than the average age of the victims and younger than the two grown men Williams was convicted of killing. While I was not in the demographic most traumatized by the killings, it was impossible to live in Atlanta at that time and not be affected. The killings literally happened all around us. One body was found within a few hundred yards of the elementary school my brothers were attending at the time along a route I used to travel coming home from school when I was in the eighth grade at South Fulton a few years before. Every few days, the front page of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution carried a list and photos of the victims and I still remember the names of many of them, including Lubie Jeter, Patrick Baltazar, Darren Glass, and Jo Jo Bell.
Children were disappearing and bodies being found at least two or three times a month, and the leadership of Atlanta seemed powerless to address the tragedy. Children were abducted from Memorial Drive to Camp Creek Parkway and dumped in places such as East Point and Cliftondale, along Buford Highway in DeKalb County and in the woods on Redwine Road. Oftentimes all that was found were bones and fragments of clothing making it impossible to determine how they died. Just as everyone was affected, everyone had theories about the killings. Among the more prominent was the rumor of a child sex ring involving high level city officials, and numerous reports of a black man and white woman enticing young kids to get in their car. While the official conclusion was that Wayne Williams was the sole killer, it’s doubtful a single person was responsible for all the deaths. My own belief at the time was that Williams had some involvement but didn’t commit all the killings himself.
In his book The List, Chet Dettlinger, a former investigator on the case, also raises the specter of a child sex ring along with other possibilities, and establishes a geographic pattern for the killings. Suggestions in the press that, in some cases, the families were being investigated were met with a considerable outcry from the community, as well as criticism of how long it took officials to acknowledge the problem. Once the leadership admitted something was wrong, many criticized how quickly the killings became politicized. There was also considerable controversy about who was included on the official list and who wasn’t — many believe the actual number of murders was much higher. The national news media largely got the story wrong, popping in during sweeps periods or whenever some high profile national figure showed up to demand answers or express outrage. Local media stuck with the case full-time, from gut-wrenching interviews with grieving mothers to allegations that money from the victims’ fund was being misappropriated for tummy tuck operations and new cars.
In general, Atlanta doesn’t handle high profile crimes very well, whether it’s the rape and murder of a poor Irish girl in 1913 or the deaths of twenty-nine children and adults between 1979-1981. The city cultivates a reputation for being a great place to live and do business, and events which tarnish that reputation tend to get swept under the carpet quickly. Many breathed a sigh of relief when a splash heard in the waters of the Chattahoochee river beneath the James Jackson Parkway bridge led to the arrest of Wayne Williams, and the FBI’s complicated fiber evidence tied him to many other cases with which he’d not been charged. The fact is, Williams was convicted of killing two adults, Jimmy Ray Payne, age 21, and Nathaniel Cater age 28. It was discovery of Cater’s body in the river a few days after the infamous splash which led authorities to focus on Williams as the prime suspect. Since bodies were discovered in numerous cities and counties, there were jurisdictional issues which complicated the trial and limited the crimes Williams could be tried for in Fulton County. The notion that the killings stopped after Williams was arrested has been disputed by Dettlinger among other critics.
Serial Blackface is a compelling play which presents the audience with a family spiraling out of control and a mother’s misguided attempts to regain stability at any cost. It shows us that all actions have consequences and by failing to consider those consequences, bad situations can quickly become much worse. While I was not always certain of the motives behind each character’s choices, I found the characters believable and relatable. I believe the play suffers by tying itself to the events of the Atlanta Child Murders, because it adds a good deal of weight to the play that the story is unable to support. That being said, I do applaud the playwright for reminding us of this dark time in Atlanta’s history and providing us with a stark lesson that there’s still much work to do if we’re to become a truly egalitarian society. If this work helps to get the conversation started, it has served its subject matter well.
As one develops as a writer, one becomes aware of the painful reality that not everything one writes, no matter how well-crafted or heartfelt, will see the light of day. In many cases, favorite phrases or passages must be sacrificed for the overall good of the piece. Improving the quality of the writing doesn’t make excising them any easier though. In some ways, the process is akin to killing a well-loved child.
A writer has just crafted the perfect paragraph, one that beautifully sums up the character and situation, all the while being witty, insightful, and concise and try as one might, it can’t be worked into the context of the story in progress. I once crafted this opening paragraph:
Aaron Slaughter was appropriately named. He was born bad and grew up mean and never did a kind turn for anyone, from the moment the doctor slapped him on the butt to the day they strapped him in the electric chair and put forty thousand volts through him. I was there that day, and while I’m not normally the sort of person to enjoy watching another human being die, I made an exception in Aaron’s case. See, I’m the man who put him there.
As happy as I am with the paragraph, I have never found a use for it in anything I’ve written.
What’s worse than being unable to use good material is having to remove it after fitting it into a work. Editing is actually where the real work of writing begins. Few writers are able to set words onto paper exactly the way they will eventually be finalized. I tend to be an organic writer and once I get into a work, the words flow with no rhyme or reason. Editing is crucial to my process, because when I’m writing, my only concern is getting the thoughts into words. As the work grows, a pattern begins to emerge and I can start rearranging paragraphs, adding and deleting lines until the piece says what I want in the way I want it said. Along the way, lots of favorite lines and phrases get cast aside.
Removing material does not mean the material is bad, just as rejection of a manuscript or play doesn’t mean the writing is lousy. It simply means the material does not work with the piece as a whole. I wrote an entire section for my novel The Long-Timers in which the main character was brought before the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, which did not make it into the finished work. When I reworked the novel into A Tale of Two Sisters, however, I found a place for the material again. Oftentimes, material that doesn’t fit in one work, may be just what’s lacking in another.
As writers, we learn to maintain journals or files of ideas and phrases which may someday make it into a story or play. Carrying around miniature computers in our pockets makes this task easier. I like to retain text files of everything I remove from a story or play, since I may find a use for it somewhere else, and since Acrobat allows for editing marks, I’m now able to preserve drafts of works in progress. In some cases, I’ve taken bits and pieces of excised material to fill out or enhance a different work, or borrowed scenes from one play to use in another.
Still, cutting scenes or paragraphs from a work isn’t easy. “They’re my babies,” a writer might say. “I can’t kill them!” If one is to evolve as a writer, however, it’s a skill one must master. At one time, a publisher would pair an author with an editor who would take on the harsh process of excising passages, but with independent authors publishing their own work, a professional editor is often a luxury one simply cannot afford. It becomes the writer’s responsibility to make the necessary cuts.
Obviously, no one will be seriously harmed if a novel, story, or play is a few hundred words shorter than the author initially conceived it. The goal is always to convey the most ideas with the fewest words. As authors, we must continually strive to improve the craft and say what we mean as succinctly as possible, even if it means killing a few of our babies.
Shakespeare’s best known tragedy is the story of two star-crossed lovers, who, in death, end their families’ conflict. Despite being hailed as a great romance, Romeo and Juliet is, in no way, a love story, but very much about individual responsibility and the consequences of making decisions in the heat of passion. Romeo is very impulsive in his actions, never thinking about the harm he may be causing and bringing about much needless strife for himself and those around him. Juliet emerges as a tragic figure, unwittingly caught up in the increasingly violent tensions between the families which leads to her demise.
I have taken to referring to the play as the comedy of Romeo and the tragedy of Juliet. Most who’ve studied the play will note the humorous tone of the first half of the play, with the forlorn Romeo first pining away for Rosaline, then quickly forgetting her when he spies Juliet at the Capulets’ party. The play initially has the wistful feel of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, all of which is cast aside with the death of Mercutio at Tybalt’s hands, which leads Romeo to avenge Mercutio’s death by taking Tybalt’s life. From that point on, the play becomes darkly tragic as the focus shifts from Romeo to Juliet.
The play is laced with violence, both actual and implied. The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt which leads to first Mercutio’s then Tybalt’s death is an example of the overt violence in the play, but there’s also a lot of subtle violence, in how the characters interact with one another. In the scene where Juliet balks at marrying Paris, Lord Capulet’s reaction shows exactly how daughters were regarded in Shakespeare’s time. Capulet implies that she’s his property, and he may dispose of her as he chooses, a sentiment echoed in other works by Shakespeare, including the beginning of the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
We’ve already seen a demonstration of Capulet’s temper early in the play, when ordering Tybalt not to take action after finding Romeo has crashed the Capulets’ party. At first, Capulet seems reasonable, lauding the favorable reports he’s heard of Romeo’s behavior, but as Tybalt presses the issue, he provokes the anger of Lord Capulet, who quickly abandons his festive appearance to let his kinsman know who’s in charge. The hot-headed Tybalt can’t let the issue drop, though, leading to his confrontation with Romeo, which Mercutio takes up on Romeo’s behalf when Romeo tries to walk away.
Pretty much every bad thing that happens in the play happens as a consequence of something Romeo does and at each turn, he has alternatives he never takes the time to consider. He pines over Rosaline, so his friends take him to the Capulets’ feast, where he meets Juliet, then immediately forgets Rosaline. He woos Juliet, and hastily marries her, without considering the consequences of secretly marrying into the family of his family’s sworn enemy. When confronted by Tybalt, he chooses to say nothing of his union to Juliet, first allowing the situation to escalate between Tybalt and Mercutio, then coming between them, which allows Tybalt to deliver the fatal wound. Up to this point in the play, Romeo hasn’t done anything, other than hastily marry Juliet, to cause him any lasting problems. He soon changes all that, setting in motion the series of events which leads the play to its devastating finale.
After killing Tybalt, Romeo runs away, declaring, “I am fortune’s fool” but in reality, fortune had nothing to do with it, as Romeo had many options which did not include fighting Tybalt. When Romeo is first provoked and chooses to walk away, and Mercutio takes up the fight on Romeo’s behalf, Romeo’s best option was to do nothing, and just let Mercutio handle it, since, as a kinsman of the Duke, Mercutio is in a better position to deal with the fall out. Once Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo again needs to do nothing. Following the Duke’s decree, anyone guilty of dueling in the streets is automatically sentenced to death, and Tybalt has not only violated this decree, but he’s killed a relative of the Duke in the process. From the moment Mercutio falls, Tybalt has signed his own death warrant. Romeo would best be served to walk away and let Tybalt face his punishment. Even if his family connections are enough to save him from death, Tybalt would, at the very least, be banished, which would also solve Romeo’s problems without getting his hands dirty. Once again Romeo acts impulsively, this time costing Tybalt his life, and Romeo his freedom of movement within Verona and his actions have devastating consequences for the woman Romeo claims to love.
Romeo’s irresponsible actions leave Juliet in a terrible position, first having to reconcile her love for Romeo against her devotion to her cousin Tybalt, then, finding herself offered as a bride to Paris, which puts her at odds with her short tempered father. Her nurse counsels Juliet to simply yield to the will of her father and marry Paris, but Juliet knows that it’s not that simple. While it’s not explicitly spelled out in the context of the play, the reality is that once Juliet has spent the night with Romeo, she’s no longer a virgin. Capulet has been promising Paris the hand of his virginal daughter and once Paris has sex with her, he’ll know she’s not and will undoubtedly raise the issue with Capulet. Judging by his response to her reluctance to marry Paris, there is little doubt how Capulet would respond to the embarrassment such a revelation would cause him, and Juliet is well aware of this. Her only real hope is for Romeo to return and claim her hand, and given his situation, that’s not likely to happen. Under these circumstances, suicide or cloister are her only viable options and she has Romeo to thank for that.
Technically, under Shakespeare’s definition of the term, Romeo has committed rape. In Elizabethan England, rape was not defined as a sexual offense against a woman, but as a legal offense against her father or family. While Juliet may have consented to having sex with Romeo, who she viewed as her husband, in Shakespeare’s time, young, unmarried women did not have the legal capacity to consent to marriage, which was the only pretense under which sexual activity was considered acceptable, particularly for a woman. In order for the union to be legal in the eyes of their society, Juliet’s father or family would have had to consent to the marriage, and that was never going to happen. From the way the word is used in other plays by Shakespeare, one of the definitions of rape was that of a man who marries a woman simply to have sex with her, which, one could argue, Romeo has done. While he does claim to love Juliet, he also claimed to love Rosaline before meeting Juliet, and hardly a day has passed in between. When he speaks to the friar about performing the marriage, Friar Laurence is skeptical about how much Romeo truly cares for Juliet, but foolishly agrees to perform the union, hoping to end the conflict between the families.
There is a definite pattern to Romeo’s behavior which calls into question how much he truly cares for Juliet. This is evident from the beginning of the play, when it’s revealed that the Rosaline Romeo claims to love is Capulet’s niece. This suggests that Romeo’s trouble with Rosaline isn’t that she’s rejected him but that she is off-limits to him because of her family connections. He’s pining for her because the situation between their families makes it impossible for him to pursue her. In this context, his motives must come under scrutiny, since all accounts are that he’s as much an active participant in his family’s feud with the Capulets as the rest of his kinsmen. Lady Montague expresses relief that Romeo was not party to the fight which starts off the play. Why then would Romeo choose a relative of the Capulets as the object of his affection, knowing full well that it would only lead to more conflict? Meeting Juliet at the party and learning of her parentage presents Romeo with a new opportunity to needle his family’s sworn enemy, and he immediately puts his life at risk to pursue it by sneaking back onto the grounds of the Capulets’ home that night to see Juliet. Romeo shows his true colors when he allows Tybalt to goad him into a fight once Mercutio is dead. Not even his professed love for Juliet, Tybalt’s cousin, is enough to prevent him from striking out at his sworn enemy when provoked.
Every production I’ve seen has cast actresses playing Juliet who are in their late-teens to mid-twenties. However, the text makes it fairly clear that Juliet is thirteen. Lord Capulet, questions whether Juliet is old enough to marry when the subject of her betrothal to Paris comes up. We’re not specifically told Romeo’s age, but given his companions, it’s safe to assume that he, Benvolio, Mercutio, and Tybalt are close in age, probably early- to mid-twenties at the oldest. Paris is a count, that is, landed gentry, meaning he was “of age” or no younger than twenty-one to twenty-five. The life expectancy of people in this era was early- to mid-forties, and under English common law, boys of fourteen and girls as young as twelve could act as witnesses to wills and executors of estates. While men tended to forestall marriage until they had some means of subsistence, usually a plot of land on their families’ property or the guarantee of a substantial inheritance, women could be betrothed as soon as they reached sexual maturity so long as their families were in agreement, and given the hazards of childbirth, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for men to marry several times, leading to very young women being wedded to much older men, particularly if there were young children who needed care. While we may find it scandalous that a man in his twenties is pressing for a marriage to a thirteen year old girl, as Paris does in the play, in that day and age, it was fairly commonplace. For one thing, it got the woman out of her father’s house and made her the responsibility of someone else. Daughters in this era weren’t held in very high esteem, and were generally prized more for the powerful men they could attract than for their own personal attributes.
Juliet is the only character in the play who does not have an overt agenda. The Capulets and Montagues are consumed with their feud, which may or may not influence Romeo’s decision to pursue women related to his family’s sworn enemy. Paris wants Juliet as his wife and Capulet wants the prestige that comes with joining his daughter to a kinsman of the Duke. Friar Laurence is largely motivated by his desire to end the bloodshed caused by the feud, agreeing to sanction a union which he should know neither side will accept. Juliet’s nurse at first helps Juliet in her pursuit of Romeo, but shows her reliance on the established order when she counsels Juliet to marry Paris when Romeo is sent away. Juliet finds herself caught between her obedience to her father and her love for her father’s enemy, yet remains focused on what she believes to be the right course of action, remaining faithful to the vow she made to Romeo. In doing so, she becomes the only character who consistently grows throughout the play.
Romeo’s behavior does not change significantly, and in fact he becomes more reckless and impulsive as the action progresses, whereas Juliet becomes more mature and assured of her actions. Romeo’s decision to kill himself after hearing erroneous reports of Juliet’s death is yet another rash and foolish act which could have been avoided if only he had checked in with Friar Laurence when he arrived back in Verona. Juliet, on the other hand, looks for any opportunity to rectify the situation without further bloodshed. When she realizes her family views her as little more than a token to be offered to the influential Paris, she resolves to chart her own course, even if it means ending her life, and while she is fully prepared to die rather than violate her vow to Romeo, she allows Friar Laurence to counsel her and gratefully accepts his remedy for her situation. Once again, she falls victim to Romeo’s impulsiveness, and seeing her last chance at happiness on her own terms taken from her, she exercises the only option she feels she has left and ends her life.
Many years ago, when I was in high school, I saw a film talking about Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which contained a quote from Ibsen on why Nora leaves at the end. While I don’t recall the exact quote, he essentially said that once he knew the character, he knew leaving was her only course of action. At the time, I recall disagreeing, believing that since he was the writer, he could make the characters do whatever he wanted. I now have a clearer understanding of what he meant.
When I was working on my novel The Long-Timers, which is the basis for my current series The Long-Timer Chronicles, my intention was for Charles and Renee Fox, a couple who have been married for more than eleven hundred years, and who were once members of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, to be the main characters. I also created a secondary character, who was murdered by someone posing as Jack the Ripper, who would come back to life and provide a subplot for the main story about the Foxes. Once I started writing, the character who started out as Vickie Seely and became Victoria Wells, began to grow and develop until she completely took over the whole story. Charles and Renee are still very important characters, and the focus of the second book in my series, called Crazy Like the Foxes, but in the original novel, Victoria Wells was definitely the main character and the main focus of the book. She’s also one of my favorite characters that I’ve created.
Writing is a process of discovery for the writer, and as a work progresses, the characters sometimes take on minds of their own. This was certainly the case with Victoria, who started out as a victim, but grew into a strong and independent woman perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Charles and Renee are, largely, the way I initially envisioned them, but since I started with a blank slate with Victoria, she grew along with the novel and finding new facets of her character was one of the great joys of writing the book. What I ended with was certainly not what I imagined when I began writing, and I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
The same has been true of other characters I’ve created. In my full length play, Rebecca, Too, which started out as a script for a short film that was never produced, the title character of Rebecca didn’t even appear in the earliest draft I wrote. When I sat down to expand the short script into a full-length play, I had a lot of notes I’d written on what Rebecca does, but not who she is. As she developed, her character took on new and sometimes dark aspects, all part of becoming a fully formed individual — on paper at least. As writers, we should not be afraid to let our characters become who they should become. We should abandon our preconceptions and constantly ask ourselves is this action true to who he or she is and are there aspects I’m missing?
I would imagine the process is akin to becoming a parent. When a child is born, parents have ideas about how they’d like the child to develop, or the type of person he or she should grow into. As the child matures, however, new aspects of his or her character may emerge the parent wasn’t expecting. The challenge is knowing when to intervene, to correct potentially damaging behaviors or attitudes, and when to step back and allow the child to discover his or her own path in life. This notion is tied to the general human tendency to categorize and define those with whom we associate, making judgments on how a person thinks and feels, based solely on his or her outward behavior. Scratch the surface and a completely different individual may emerge, which is why someone can have a friend one has known since childhood, without ever realizing that person enjoys ballroom dancing or can speak multiple languages.
As a writer, one should never be afraid to explore aspects of a character that diverge from one’s initial notion of who the character is. As a person, one should never simply assume that those with whom one associates share the same beliefs or have the same attitudes as oneself. Sometimes friendship or courtesy may dictate that another person hides aspects of his or her character, believing them to be uncomfortable or potentially disruptive to the friendship. The challenge for us, as individuals, is to be willing to see those we call friends as they truly are, not simply as we would like them to be. While we may learn truths we find discomforting, we may also be laying the groundwork for an even deeper and more meaningful friendship. We all have minds of our own. We should learn to appreciate the fact that those around us do as well and not be afraid to look beyond the outward facade. Who knows what we might discover?
My play A Mother and Child Disunion, presented as part of OnStage Atlanta’s 2015 “Spring Shorts” festival of short plays. Recorded 22 March 2015.
Directed by Nat Martin
Rose: Amy Johnson
Angie: Maggie Schneider
Daniel: Dre Camacho
The problem with rapid advances in society and technology is that often we’re so concerned with answering the question, can we, that we forget to ask, should we. This question is much more difficult to answer, and in the rush to develop the next big breakthrough, people raising legitimate concerns are often drowned out in the discussion of how far we can push the limit. Still these concerns deserve to be heard. By modifying crops to make them more resistant to pests, do we run the risk of making them inedible to humans and animals? Mechanization can free us from labor, but then what happens to the legion of workers who previously performed those activities? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but if we are to deal with the consequences wrought by technology in modern society, they must be addressed.
Is it any wonder that so many people feel alienated by the modern world? The rise of fundamentalism, the rejection of science and technology, the nostalgia for simpler times and less complex ways of living, are all reactions to the increasingly complex world in which we find ourselves. None of this is new, however, as people have been dealing with questions such as these throughout recorded history. It’s no surprise that most of the great art movements of the past few centuries have followed rapid changes in the established social order. Dadaism sprang up as a reaction to World War I and its shocking level of brutality and the aftermath of World War II in the U.S. gave us such authors as Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, and J. D. Salinger, while artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein employed pop culture motifs inspired by the growth of mass media and commercialism in the late 20th century. Art comments on the world around it, and when life becomes increasingly complex, it’s the job of artists to try to make some sense of it all. This is probably why absurdist writers such as Beckett, Pinter and Camus flourished as the world was gripped by the uncertainties of the Cold War, and fears of nuclear annihilation. In a crazy world, sometimes nonsense makes more sense than rationality.
Romanticism arose during the early days of the Industrial Revolution and frequently lamented the potential of industrialized society to rob us of our individuality and humanity. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelly (1818), was a perfect expression of this — humanity reborn without a soul. The creature was a modern vision of humankind, stitched together from many sources and reanimated through unnatural means. It represented the final evolution, humans as creator gods, and raised frightening questions for its author and all who read it. Can one wield the power of a god without the wisdom of a god? It’s ironic how often technological innovation is driven by the need to kill, conquer and subjugate, only discovering non-lethal applications as an afterthought. Splitting the atom first led to weapons of warfare, then to electric power plants.
Science fiction is an outgrowth of Romanticism, and as such is often skeptical about social and technological advances. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the works of Kurt Vonnegut in novels such as Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, and Slapstick. Vonnegut witnessed, first hand, the destructive side of human nature in all its technological infamy, by being front and center at the Allied bombing of Dresden in February of 1945, the event which inspired what is perhaps his best-known work, Slaughterhouse-Five. In it Billy Pilgrim becomes a metaphor for post-World War II America, hurtling toward a confusing future, longing for the simplicity of earlier times, and slowly losing his grip on what constitutes reality. “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” The Tralfamadorians, the aliens Billy encounters, who have the ability to see time all at once, in a clear, unchangeable present, speak of the futility of free will. Events are inevitable, and nothing can change them or stop them from happening.
Vonnegut rarely described himself as a science fiction writer, though he acknowledged that people regarded him as such. Rather, he used the conventions of science fiction to tell his story, which any good writer of science or conventional fiction might do. A number of his stories, such as Mother Night and Deadeye Dick, aren’t heavily reliant on science fiction, at all, but depict characters famous or infamous for what they’ve done, or are perceived to have done. At heart, Vonnegut shares a kinship with the Romantics in his cynicism for modern humans and the direction evolution seems to be taking us. He tended to blame our “big brains” for most human foibles, and the eventual loss of this biological innovation by humanity in his novel Galapagos, is the salvation of humankind, as the species reverts back to being just another equal player in the natural cycle of predator and prey on earth.
In Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, the lead characters destroy the dominant technology, only to see their followers rebuild the most vapid remnants of it to amuse themselves. Vonnegut seems to believe humans can learn from history, but refuse to do so, and it’s this refusal that contributes to their worst tendencies. Technology itself is never the villain in Vonnegut’s world, except in the ways humans use it to further their own selfish ends. The culprit for Vonnegut is the belief by humans that they’re far more clever than they actually are, believing they’ve become masters of the world, when in fact their intervention in the ways of nature often makes things much worse.
Despite his sometimes crusty cynicism, Vonnegut nevertheless remained hopeful that humanity could overcome its worst tendencies and somehow live up to its better nature. In his essays, he often cited those he identified as “angels” who were working to combat a host of societal ills such as racism and poverty. An avowed Atheist, he nonetheless admired the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount, and frequently counseled people to show kindness toward one another, reassuring them “you are not alone.” In novels such as Slapstick and Cat’s Cradle, he tackled the existential problem of living among many, yet still feeling alone and alienated. His principal characters are almost always struggling against the absurdities of human interactions, constantly being victimized by those of lesser mind who are carrying out their own agendas for less than noble purposes. Organized religion was often a favorite target, as was the human tendency to create heroes out of the thinnest of provocations, only to tear them down when the situation changed.
It’s probably no surprise that in many of Vonnegut’s novels, the world or the established social order is destroyed and those left are forced to start over with something new, but not necessarily better. Vonnegut seems to view this as the natural progression of life. The old world passes away and is replaced by another, equally confounding one. Through it all, though, Vonnegut refuses to give up hope and encourages us to do the same. In an ever-shrinking world where events on the other side of the globe have the immediacy of what’s happening outside our front doors, and many dissonant viewpoints compete for our attention, Kurt Vonnegut still has a voice which rises above the din, guiding us toward a better way of seeing the world and our place in it. It’s definitely worth our time to listen.