Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Brothers Vonnegut by Ginger Strand

Kurt had not realized that there were different kinds of ice crystals. Of course, Bernie was happy to explain. He told Kurt to imagine cannonballs stacked on a courthouse lawn. Just as the balls could be piled up into different shapes, ice crystals could stack up in different configurations. In fact, Bridgman had described a whole series of ice phase variants, ice-1 through ice-6. And who knew--there might be more to come. 

Kurt Vonnegut got his first full-time writing job writing copy for General Electric's PR department at a time where GE was revolutionizing everything from lightbulbs to fighter jets. His older brother, the much more successful Bernie, was a scientist at GE's Research Lab. As Kurt wrote robotic copy, Bernie was encouraged to chase down his dreams and find something "fun" to research. Strand's book follows the brothers' intertwined careers as well as the rise and fall of "The House of Magic," scientists' loving nickname for the Research Lab.

A cloud-seeding demonstration.
Bernie Vonnegut at center
Kurt is clearly the underdog here--his work is mindless, and he has to devote his nights and weekends to the fiction that sustains him. He is constantly striving for a nebulous, intellectual existence where his fiction writing supports him, his wife Jane, and their future family of seven children, and his work at GE does not fit into that vision. Bernie, on paper the more successful of the two, has struggles of his own. He is working on Project Cirrus, a Herculean attempt to control weather through cloud seeding--the process of impregnating clouds with various substances to prompt precipitation. He and his team are in it for pure scientific curiosity, and the joy they take from their early work is palpable in Strand's prose (as well the photographs included throughout, including the one to the right). But, as they become more successful, the project takes on political significance and Bernie struggles with the meaning and implications of their success.

By far my favorite aspect of this book were the parallels between the work being done at GE (by Bernie and by the other scientists the Vonneguts worked with) and Kurt's fiction. I haven't read all of Vonnegut's writing, but the ties to Cats Cradle (ice-9!), Slaughterhosue Five, and Sirens of Titan were especially clear. By layering Bernie's story on top of Kurt's, we get the excitement and potential of science along with the tinge of skepticism needed, but also a clear road map to Kurt's later work. Bernie haunts his pages just as much as his experience in the war. The debate over the atomic bomb and the ethical responsibilities of scientists runs throughout Strand's book as clearly as it does through Vonnegut's fiction, and the two brother's perspectives inform and enrich each other as their lives progress. 

Even without the context of Vonnegut's novels, this is a great read. The work being done at GE in the 40s and 50s is fascinating--almost bordering on science fiction all on its own--and Strand's writing draws you into the world the brothers inhabited.