Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

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Copyright © 1985 by Kurt Vonnegut

Book One

The Thing Was

It is hard to believe nowadays that people could ever have been as brilliantly duplicitous as James Wait—until I remind myself that just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute.

So I raise this question, although there is nobody around to answer it: Can it be doubted that three-kilogram brains were once nearly fatal defects in the evolution of the human race?

A second query: What source was there back then, save for our overelaborate neural circuitry, for the evils we were seeing or hearing about simply everywhere?

My answer: There was no other source. This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.





Mere opinions, in fact, were as likely to govern people’s actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be. So the Galápagos Islands could be hell in one moment and heaven in the next, and Julius Caesar could be a statesman in one moment and a butcher in the next, and Ecuadorian paper money could be traded for food, shelter, and clothing in one moment and line the bottom of a birdcage in the next, and the universe could be created by God Almighty in one moment and by a big explosion in the next—and on and on.

Thanks to their decreased brainpower, people aren’t diverted from the main business of life by the hobgoblins of opinions anymore.



They did not claim the islands for Spain, any more than they would have claimed hell for Spain. And for three full centuries after revised human opinion allowed the archipelago to appear on maps, no other nation wished to own it. But then in 1832, one of the smallest and poorest countries on the planet, which was Ecuador, asked the peoples of the world to share this opinion with them: that the islands were part of Ecuador.

No one objected. [...] It was as though Ecuador, in a spasm of imperialistic dementia, had annexed to its territory a passing cloud of asteroids.

But then young Charles Darwin, only three years later, began to persuade others that the often freakish plants and animals which had found ways to survive on the islands made them extremely valuable, if only people would look at them as he did—from a scientific point of view.

Only one English word adequately describes his transformation of the islands from worthless to priceless: magical.




This financial crisis, which could never happen today, was simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains. From the violence people were doing to themselves and each other, and to all other living things, for that matter, a visitor from another planet might have assumed that the environment had gone haywire, and that the people were in such a frenzy because Nature was about to kill them all.

But the planet a million years ago was as moist and nourishing as it is today—and unique, in that respect, in the entire Milky Way. All that had changed was people’s opinion of the place.




About that mystifying enthusiasm a million years ago for turning over as many human activities as possible to machinery: What could that have been but yet another acknowledgement by people that their brains were no damn good?


“I’ll tell you what the human soul is, Mary,” he whispered, his eyes closed. “Animals don’t have one. It’s the part of you that knows when your brain isn’t working right.”


What made marriage so difficult back then was yet again that instigator of so many other sorts of heartbreak: the oversize brain. That cumbersome computer could hold so many contradictory opinions on so many different subjects all at once, and switch from one opinion or subject to another one so quickly, that a discussion between a husband and wife under stress could end up like a fight between blindfolded people wearing roller skates.



“You, Doctor Hiroguchi,” she went on, “think that everybody but yourself is just taking up space on this planet, and we make too much noise and waste valuable natural resources and have too many children and leave garbage around. So it would be a much nicer place if the few stupid services we are able to perform for the likes of you were taken over by machinery. [...] what is that but an excuse for a mean-spirited egomaniac never to pay or even thank any human being with a knowledge of languages or mathematics or history or medicine or literature or ikebana or anything?”




Andrew MacIntosh had told the top financial people in Ecuador that he was prepared to transfer instantly to any designated fiduciary in Ecuador fifty million American dollars, still as good as gold. Most of the supposed wealth held by American banks at that point had become so wholly imaginary, so weightless and impalpable, that any amount of it could be transferred instantly to Ecuador, or anyplace else capable of receiving a written message by wire or radio.



Ortiz’s brain was so big that it could show him movies in his head which starred him and his dependents as millionaires. And this man, little more than a boy, was so innocent that he believed the dream could come true, since he had no bad habits and was willing to work so hard, if only he could get some hints on succeeding in life from people who were already millionaires.



So I have to say that human brains back then had become such copious and irresponsible generators of suggestions as to what might be done with life, that they made acting for the benefit of future generations seem one of many arbitrary games which might be played by narrow enthusiasts—like poker or polo or the bond market, or the writing of science-fiction novels.

More and more people back then, and not just Andrew MacIntosh, had found ensuring the survival of the human race a total bore.

It was a lot more fun, so to speak, to hit and hit a tennis ball.




Like so many other pathological personalities in positions of power a million years ago, he might do almost anything on impulse, feeling nothing much. The logical explanations for his actions, invented at leisure, always came afterwards.

And let that sort of behavior back in the era of the big brains be taken as a capsule history of the war I had the honor to fight in, which was the Vietnam War.



Vietnam War


A million years ago, there were passionate arguments about whether it was right or wrong for people to use mechanical means to keep sperm from fertilizing ova or to dislodge fertilized ova from uteri—in order to keep the number of people from exceeding the food supply.

That problem is all taken care of nowadays, without anybody’s having to do anything unnatural. Killer whales and sharks keep the human population nice and manageable, and nobody starves.


There is another human defect which the Law of Natural Selection has yet to remedy: When people of today have full bellies, they are exactly like their ancestors of a million years ago: very slow to acknowledge any awful troubles they may be in. [...]

This was a particularly tragic flaw a million years ago, since the people who were best informed about the state of the planet [...] and rich and powerful enough to slow down all the waste and destruction going on, were by definition well fed.

So everything was always just fine as far as they were concerned.

For all the computers and measuring instruments and news gatherers and evaluators and memory banks and libraries and experts on this and that at their disposal, their deaf and blind bellies remained the final judges of how urgent this or that problem, such as the destruction of North America’s and Europe’s forests by acid rain, say, might really be.

And here was the sort of advice a full belly gave and still gives [...]: “Be patient. Smile. Be confident. Everything will turn out for the best somehow.”





What was so thought provoking about all sorts of Galápagos finches to young Charles Darwin, though, was that they were behaving as best they could like a wide variety of much more specialized birds on the continents. He was still prepared to believe, if it turned out to make sense, that God Almighty had created all the creatures just as Darwin found them on his trip around the world. But his big brain had to wonder why the Creator in the case of the Galápagos Islands would have given every conceivable job for a small land bird to an often ill-adapted finch? What would have prevented the Creator, if he thought the islands should have a woodpecker-type bird, from creating a real woodpecker? If he thought a vampire was a good idea, why didn’t he give the job to a vampire bat instead of a finch, for heaven’s sakes? A vampire finch?




If “the Nature Cruise of the Century” had come off as planned, the division of duties between the Captain and his first mate would have been typical of the management of so many organizations a million years ago, with the nominal leader specializing in sociable balderdash, and with the supposed second-in-command burdened with the responsibility of understanding how things really worked, and what was really going on.

The best-run nations commonly had such symbiotic pairings at the top. And when I think about the suicidal mistakes nations used to make in olden times, I see that those polities were trying to get along with just an Adolf von Kleist at the top, without an Hernando Cruz. Too late, the surviving inhabitants of such a nation would crawl from ruins of their own creation and realize that, throughout all their self-imposed agony, there had been absolutely nobody at the top who had understood how things really worked, what it was all about, what was really going on.

26 As long as they killed people with conventional rather than nuclear weapons, they were praised as humanitarian statesmen. As long as they did not use nuclear weapons, it appeared, nobody was going to give the right name to all the killing that had been going on since the end of the Second World War, which was surely “World War Three.”




Even at this late date, I am still full of rage at a natural order which would have permitted the evolution of something as distracting and irrelevant and disruptive as those great big brains of a million years ago. If they had told the truth, then I could see some point in everybody’s having one. But these things lied all the time!




A computer over which he had no control, once he had turned it on, had determined the exact moment of release, and had delivered detailed instructions to the release machinery without any need of advice from him. He didn’t know all that much about how the machinery worked anyway. Such knowledge was for specialists. In war, as in love, he was a fearless, happy-go-lucky adventurer.

The launching of the missile, in fact, was virtually identical with the role of male animals in the reproductive process.

Here was what the colonel could be counted on to do: deliver the goods in an instant.

Yes—and that rod which became a dot and then a speck and then nothingness so quickly was somebody else’s responsibility now. All the action from now on would be on the receiving end.

37 Why so many of us a million years ago purposely knocked out major chunks of our brains with alcohol from time to time remains an interesting mystery. It may be that we were trying to give evolution a shove in the right direction—in the direction of smaller brains.



Book Two

And the Thing Became

[...] if she came up with an idea for a novel experiment which had a chance of working, her big brain would make her life a hell until she had actually performed that experiment.

That, in my opinion, was the most diabolical aspect of those old-time big brains. They would tell their owners, in effect, “Here is a crazy thing we could actually do, probably, but we would never do it, of curse. It’s just fun to think about.”

And then, as though in trances, the people would really do it—have slaves fight each other to the death in the Colosseum, or burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities, or to blow up whole cities, and on and on.



text checked (see note x6) Aug 2009

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