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Remembering author Kurt Vonnegut, who would have turned 100 on Friday

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born 100 years ago today. He's the author of many books, among them "Slaughterhouse-Five." It's the story of an American who'd been taken prisoner in World War II and survived the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. This was a story Vonnegut himself had experienced in real life.

His son once said that Kurt Vonnegut lived the rest of his days with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress. He came home from the war and worked regular jobs until his odd, sometimes science fiction-ish novels built a huge following. He became the kind of writer some kids are assigned in school - not all kids. His books are sometimes banned.

But I first read one of his stories when I was attending high school in Vonnegut's home state of Indiana. I eventually read every Vonnegut book I could find. And not long before his death, I got to interview him. I think about this conversation all the time. So on this anniversary, I'd like to play some of it for you. His political references ranged from socialism to the Sermon on the Mount. And though the interview is 16 years old, much of it feels current.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KURT VONNEGUT: You know, Karl Marx got a bum rap, as all he was trying to do was to figure out how to take care of a whole lot of people. Of course, socialism is just evil now. It's completely discredited, supposedly, by the collapse of the Soviet Union. But I can't help noticing that my grandchildren are heavily in hock to Communist China now, which is evidently a whole lot better at business than we are. You know, you talk about the collapse of communism or Soviet Union. My goodness, this country collapsed in 1929. I mean, it crashed big time. And capitalism looked like a very poor idea.

INSKEEP: Mr. Vonnegut, you're fortunate and rare in a way, in that more than a half a century ago, you began writing novels, some of which were classified as science fiction or seemed to be a kind of cockeyed forecast of the future. And then you've had time to look back and see if any part of those predictions came true. I'm thinking of your first published novel "Player Piano," where...

VONNEGUT: Well, I was working for General Electric back then as a publicity man. Incidentally, it was a great company, General Electric was then, as I saw America - industry at its best.

INSKEEP: Well, you wrote about a world in which things were still being produced, but they were being done automatically. So there weren't jobs for most people, and they were just given allowances and reduced to being nothing but consumers. People didn't exist to do anything except buy consumer products and keep the economy going. Has any of that turned out to be true?

VONNEGUT: All of it. Where have you been? No - when I worked for General Electric - again, this was soon after the Second World War - you know, I was keeping up with new developments. And they showed me a milling machine. And this thing worked by punch cards. That's where computers were at that time. And everybody was sort of sheepish about how well this thing worked because, in those days, machinists were treated as though they were great musicians, as they were virtuosos on these machines. And after that demonstration, everybody was thinking, what's going to happen to these wonderful men who have been so useful to us? We have to give people something to do with life.

INSKEEP: There was another novel that you wrote called "Slapstick." And part of that novel was that the United States had Balkanized. It had become a series of feudal societies. The Duke of Oklahoma was fighting wars against the King of Michigan. And obviously, that hasn't literally happened. But is there any way that metaphorically it has happened?

VONNEGUT: Well, we are terribly divided politically, yes. And, you know, I don't mean to intimidate you and your listeners, but I have a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

INSKEEP: I'll try to get over my awe. Please, continue.

VONNEGUT: So did Saul Bellow, incidentally, from the same department.

INSKEEP: OK. Now I'm intimidated. Go ahead.

VONNEGUT: But anyway, it was obvious throughout the human experience that extended families and tribes are terribly important. We can do without an extended family as human beings about as easily as we can do without vitamins or essential minerals. With - where you can see tribal behavior now is in this business about teaching evolution in a science class, and intelligent design. It's - the scientists themselves are behaving tribally because...

INSKEEP: How are the scientists behaving tribally?

VONNEGUT: They say, you know, about evolution, it surely happened, as the fossil record shows that. But look, I - my body and your body are miracles of design. The scientists are pretending they have the answer. It's how we got this way, when natural selection couldn't possibly have produced such machines.

INSKEEP: Does that mean that you would favor teaching intelligent design in the classroom?

VONNEGUT: Look, it's what we're thinking about all the time. If I were a physics teacher or a science teacher, it'd be on my mind all the time, is how the hell we really got this way. It's a perfectly natural human thought. And, OK, if you go into the science class, you can't think this? Well, all right. As soon as you leave, you can start thinking about it again without giving aid and comfort to the lunatic fringe of the Christian religion. Also, I think that, you know, if it's tribal behavior, I don't think that Pat Robertson, for instance, doubts that we evolved. He is simply representing a tribe.

INSKEEP: There are tribes on both sides here, in your view?

VONNEGUT: Yes.

INSKEEP: May I ask what tribes, if any, you have belonged to over the years?

VONNEGUT: Well, it's an ancestral tribe. And these were immigrants from north of Germany who came here about the time of the Civil War. But anyway, these people called themselves freethinkers. They were impressed, incidentally, by Darwin. They're called humanists now, people who aren't so sure that the Bible is the word of God.

INSKEEP: Who are denounced by some religious people as secular humanists.

VONNEGUT: Well, that's exactly what I am. The trouble with being a secular humanist is that we don't have a congregation. We don't meet. So it's a very flimsy tribe. But I - well, there's a wonderful quotation from Nietzsche. Nietzsche said, only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism. It's - something perfectly wonderful is going on. I do not doubt it. But I - the explanations I hear do not satisfy me.

INSKEEP: Our 2006 conversation with Kurt Vonnegut. This weekend, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis is holding events to mark his birth 100 years ago. His birthday is today, November 11, Veteran's Day, the name of which Vonnegut never liked. He preferred the old name Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I, a day of peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELIZABETH COTTON'S "VASTOPOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.