There are many types of social fantasts in literature, but the quality common to them all is a suspicion that the accepted customs of human society, if carried to their logical conclusions, would prove to be grotesquely absurd. Thus Swift, who, next to David Hume, had the best analytic imagination of his century, laid out a micro- and macroscopic demonstration of man and his society as no more than a Brobdingnagian piece of vanity and something less than a fraternity of honest beasts.
Samuel Butler was somewhat less savage, deducing the cool ironies of Erewhon with a delightful rigor from the values of an age from which we are still trying to liberate ourselves. Shaw, a disciple of Butler’s, but not quite his equal at subtle deduction, settled for polemical rhetoric and dramatic paradox to make the citizen question the first principles of his social being. If he gave us no Erewhon or Lilliput, he was every bit as much a fantast as Swift or Butler, and only a very poor critic would try to make Shaw’s plays examples of social observation rather than acts of fantastic projection.
Finally, there is Orwell, a writer who, of all those who have given us a glimpse of the dark utopias our society is capable of engendering, made perhaps the shortest leap from actuality to fantasy. Swift, Butler, and even Shaw had to get beneath an apparent social order to uncover the hidden absurdities of their ages; Orwell, however, lived in a time of such mad political designs that only the smallest literary inference was needed to project them into the pattern of 1984.
On my way to talking about the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., I have started with these four writers because they provide a neat descending scale of fantast ability which anticipates the arrival and style of a writer like Vonnegut. Now it is no disgrace to be anticipated, but in Vonnegut’s case he so badly abuses the tradition of deft argument and intelligence which his predecessors have established that one wonders whether they didn’t anticipate him as a character rather than as a fellow writer, whether somewhere in their imagined worlds they didn’t foresee that an age like ours would get and deserve a soft, sentimental satirist like Vonnegut, a popularizer of naughty whimsy, a compiler of easy-to-read truisms about society who allows everyone’s heart to be in the right place.
For if there is one hard irony issuing out of all the novels and stories of Kurt Vonnegut, it is that should those drab, mindless worlds he conjures up so easily ever come to pass, his work would fit in perfectly with their values. After reading Player Piano, for example, that novel of what life will be like when man lives in a society based totally on technological efficiency, one can imagine those infantile executives of the state reading and enjoying the very work that created them. After all, what else could …
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So It Goes July 23, 1970