Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Harrison Bergeron" (1961)

Read story by Kurt Vonnegut online.

The premise of Kurt Vonnegut's story is a type of Devastating Wry Dystopic Satire that feels typical to me of its New Frontier times. It riffs on a straw man, an argument I don't think anyone is making or has ever made. Setting that aside, it's a great example of what a sharp and chiseled writer Vonnegut could be. In the future of this story people have gone mad for equality. Society has evolved a counterbalancing system wherein the most gifted are formally handicapped. Strong people are burdened with extra weight. Smart people are fixed with buzzers that sound off in their ears every 20 seconds to interrupt concentration. And so forth. As a view of coming attractions I do think it's unlikely. As a joke, however, Vonnegut has a few good ways to work it. It's a very short story with lots of dialogue, which enables it to establish rhythms that start to work almost musically and can be funny. It's also comical to see such mediocrity as the accepted norm. In this world excellence is an affront of arrogance. George and Hazel Bergeronn are parents of the anti-equality revolutionary Harrison, a Nietzschean superman if ever there was one. George and Hazel are watching a ballet performance on TV. But the dancers are not very good. George and two of the ballerinas have ear buzzers, which are synchronized. George and Hazel have an absent-minded conversation. One of George's best recurring lines is "Um." So the comedy is pretty rich and it's fun to read. But put it down a second and think about it and it starts to be annoying. Perhaps it's the mood I'm in at the moment, but it's hitting me as another privileged indictment of "identity politics." The year this was published the Civil Rights movement was on the rise, and a renewal of feminism just over the horizon. "Harrison Bergeron" can too easily be read as mocking such movements by willfully misunderstanding them. No one who wants to protect civil rights is trying to take anything but unfair opportunity away from anybody. The issue is equality of opportunity and fair treatment, not literal equality. This was originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Make of that what you will. It's still fun to read. Set a timer on a buzzer so you don't have to think about it too long.

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

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