- Kurt Vonnegut, the American novelist best known for his science fiction classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, which begins with the bombing of Dresden during the second world war and goes on to offer a blackly witty investigation of fate and free will, died yesterday. According to his wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, Vonnegut had sustained brain injuries from a fall at his home in Manhattan some weeks earlier.
Vonnegut's writing career spanned more than half a century and saw him produce at least 19 novels (many of which were bestsellers) as well as dozens of short stories, essays and plays. He ranged from the conventional science fiction of his 1963 novel, Cat's Cradle (which hangs around the discovery of "ice-nine", a substance with the properties of water but which is solid at room temperature) to the satirical Breakfast of Champions (1973) and the semi-autobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five, the catalyst for which was his own experience as a soldier with the US 106th Infantry Division and as a prisoner of war during world war two.
Vonnegut's body of work gains internal coherence from the reappearance of key characters, from Kilgore Trout, the unappreciated science fiction writer of Breakfast of Champions, whom Vonnegut described as his alter-ego, to Trout's greatest fan, Eliot Rosewater, who features in several of Vonnegut's novels following his debut as the eponymous hero of God Bless You, Mr Rosewater (1965). Themes and concepts also resurface, from ice-nine to his ongoing occupation with the mess humankind was making of the planet.
Following the publication of his 1997 novel Timequake, which stars Kilgore Trout and in which he returned again to ideas of determinism and free will, he retired from writing novels, although he continued to publish short articles. His 2005 nonfiction collection, A Man Without a Country, in which he gave free rein to his contempt for the Bush administration (whom he described as "upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography"), became a bestseller. He called the book's success "a nice glass of champagne at the end of a life".
Away from writing novels, Vonnegut, a self-proclaimed humanist and sceptic, was an active member of the PEN writers' aid group and the American Civil Liberties Union, and replaced Isaac Asimov as honorary president of the American Humanist Association and worked as a senior editor and columnist for the politically progressive monthly magazine, In These Times, which was published by the Institute For Public Affairs.
Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis on November 11, 1922, and studied chemistry at Cornell University before joining the army. When he returned from the second world war, he married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, with whom he had three children (he also adopted his sister Alice's three children when she died of cancer), and worked as a reporter for Chicago's City News Bureau. He went on to work in public relations for General Electric (a job he reportedly hated). He separated from his first wife in 1970 and later married Krementz, with whom he adopted another daughter.
Vonnegut once said that, of all the ways to die, he would prefer to go out in an airplane crash on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. He often joked about the difficulties of old age, saying in an interview with the Associated Press in 2005 that "when Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon."