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The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic

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Worlds collide in this true story of weather control in the Cold War era and the making of Kurt Vonnegut In the mid-1950s, Kurt Vonnegut takes a job in the PR department at General Electric in Schenectady, where his older brother, Bernard, is a leading scientist in its research lab--or "House of Magic." Kurt has ambitions as a novelist, and Bernard is working on a series of Worlds collide in this true story of weather control in the Cold War era and the making of Kurt Vonnegut In the mid-1950s, Kurt Vonnegut takes a job in the PR department at General Electric in Schenectady, where his older brother, Bernard, is a leading scientist in its research lab--or "House of Magic." Kurt has ambitions as a novelist, and Bernard is working on a series of cutting-edge weather-control experiments meant to make deserts bloom and farmers flourish. While Kurt writes zippy press releases, Bernard builds silver-iodide generators and attacks clouds with dry ice. His experiments attract the attention of the government; weather proved a decisive factor in World War II, and if the military can control the clouds, fog, and snow, they can fly more bombing missions. Maybe weather will even be the "New Super Weapon." But when the army takes charge of his cloud-seeding project (dubbed Project Cirrus), Bernard begins to have misgivings about the harmful uses of his inventions, not to mention the evidence that they are causing alarming changes in the atmosphere. In a fascinating cultural history, Ginger Strand chronicles the intersection of these brothers' lives at a time when the possibilities of science seemed infinite. As the Cold War looms, Bernard's struggle for integrity plays out in Kurt's evolving writing style. The Brothers Vonnegut reveals how science's ability to influence the natural world also influenced one of our most inventive novelists.


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Worlds collide in this true story of weather control in the Cold War era and the making of Kurt Vonnegut In the mid-1950s, Kurt Vonnegut takes a job in the PR department at General Electric in Schenectady, where his older brother, Bernard, is a leading scientist in its research lab--or "House of Magic." Kurt has ambitions as a novelist, and Bernard is working on a series of Worlds collide in this true story of weather control in the Cold War era and the making of Kurt Vonnegut In the mid-1950s, Kurt Vonnegut takes a job in the PR department at General Electric in Schenectady, where his older brother, Bernard, is a leading scientist in its research lab--or "House of Magic." Kurt has ambitions as a novelist, and Bernard is working on a series of cutting-edge weather-control experiments meant to make deserts bloom and farmers flourish. While Kurt writes zippy press releases, Bernard builds silver-iodide generators and attacks clouds with dry ice. His experiments attract the attention of the government; weather proved a decisive factor in World War II, and if the military can control the clouds, fog, and snow, they can fly more bombing missions. Maybe weather will even be the "New Super Weapon." But when the army takes charge of his cloud-seeding project (dubbed Project Cirrus), Bernard begins to have misgivings about the harmful uses of his inventions, not to mention the evidence that they are causing alarming changes in the atmosphere. In a fascinating cultural history, Ginger Strand chronicles the intersection of these brothers' lives at a time when the possibilities of science seemed infinite. As the Cold War looms, Bernard's struggle for integrity plays out in Kurt's evolving writing style. The Brothers Vonnegut reveals how science's ability to influence the natural world also influenced one of our most inventive novelists.

30 review for The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic

  1. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    By telling the story of the Vonnegut brothers Ginger Strand not only delivers a biography of their early careers, she illustrates the national culture of the immediate post-war years and shows the influence of Kurt’s early employment at General Electric on his fiction. Bernard Vonnegut was a 1940’s/1950’s “man of science”. Like his father he got a degree from MIT after which he landed a scientist’s dream job at GE where he could pursue pure science without restraint. His brother Kurt swam agains By telling the story of the Vonnegut brothers Ginger Strand not only delivers a biography of their early careers, she illustrates the national culture of the immediate post-war years and shows the influence of Kurt’s early employment at General Electric on his fiction. Bernard Vonnegut was a 1940’s/1950’s “man of science”. Like his father he got a degree from MIT after which he landed a scientist’s dream job at GE where he could pursue pure science without restraint. His brother Kurt swam against the tide in majoring chemistry when his heart was in writing. He went off to war where he had an horrific experience as a POW. After the war, through Bernie’s help, Kurt was hired to write publicity for GE. Today’s corporate world would never tolerate GE's “House of Magic” where scientists followed their own whims. Management (and the public) believed in serendipitous breakthroughs and that all science was progress. The world was not so liability conscious. Bernie joined the House of Magic's “Operation Cirrus”team which was working on seeding clouds. Kurt watched his brother’s unrestrained colleagues as they created floods with blithe disregard for its victims. He saw how GE dodged accountability. Against the 1950’s red scares, you see Bernie’s brave call for government regulation of cloud seeding, and Kurt facing editorial censorship as he tries to establish his writing credentials. The book is mostly tight, with the author not taking more words or space than needed to get the points across. The exception, for which I’ve eliminated a star, is telling of the plots of the Vonnegut novels. Out of a 250 pages of narrative maybe 20-25 pages are devoted to the characters and plots. Each of these could be reduced to half the space or less. Otherwise, this book is a gem. The recent biography And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life shows the subsequent years of Kurt Vonnegut. He did not age well. In both books, Jane Vonnegut is shown as the ultimate wife and team player. Like the scientists he created, Kurt Vonnegut ignored the impact of his behavior on others, most egregiously his post-fame treatment of his wife.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Mal Warwick

    Four years ago a superb biography of Kurt Vonnegut called And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields was published. Shields focused on his subject’s character, the ups and downs of his troubled inner life, and the rapidly shifting fortunes of his writing career. Now Ginger Strand has produced an equally engrossing book, The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic, a dual biography of Kurt Vonnegut, the writer, with his older brother, Bernard, a brilliant sc Four years ago a superb biography of Kurt Vonnegut called And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields was published. Shields focused on his subject’s character, the ups and downs of his troubled inner life, and the rapidly shifting fortunes of his writing career. Now Ginger Strand has produced an equally engrossing book, The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic, a dual biography of Kurt Vonnegut, the writer, with his older brother, Bernard, a brilliant scientist and inventor. The two books are very different. They complement each other. Exploring the sources of Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction Strand’s book is largely devoted to the brothers’ lives in the 1940s and 50s and is focused on exposing the roots of Kurt’s fiction. What stands out most clearly in her work is the powerful influence that Bernard played in Kurt’s life and his writing. Shortly after World War II, when Kurt moved to Schenectady, New York, to take a PR job at General Electric, he was following his older brother, who was employed as a research scientist at the then-famous GE Research Lab. Kurt’s miserable years at GE, churning out press releases while he faced a torrent of rejection slips for his short stories, provided him with rich fodder for his novels. GE figured so obviously and in such an unfavorable light in his early fiction that no bookstore in Schenectady would carry his first novel, Player Piano. Many of the characters in his books were modeled after scientists and executives at GE, including Bernard himself. At times, even their names were similar. An equally powerful influence on Kurt’s writing was his first wife, Jane. They had been childhood sweethearts in Indianapolis. Though Kurt was a mediocre student who dropped out of Cornell after two years as a chemistry student and later abandoned the University of Chicago short of obtaining a degree in anthropology, Jane excelled at school. However, she too dropped out, to give birth to the couple’s first child in 1947. Though Shields emphasizes Kurt’s shabby treatment of his wife, Strand sees their relationship differently. It is clear in The Brothers Vonnegut that Kurt would never have persisted as a writer, much less succeeded, had it not been for Jane’s abiding faith in his genius and the many years during which she submerged her own considerable talents to support his instead. The man who would control the weather Bernard Vonnegut was marked for a brilliant career in science from an early age. At General Electric, he quickly came to the attention of the lab’s sole Nobel Prizewinner, Irving Langmuir. Along with Langmuir’s remarkable assistant, Vincent Schaefer, Bernard became a pioneer rainmaker. However, Langmuir and Schaefer focused on the use of dry ice to “seed” clouds and stimulate the production of snow and rain. Langmuir made wildly exaggerated claims for the effectiveness of dry ice. He claimed that the lab’s efforts in seeding clouds had changed the weather on a continental scale, triggering floods and shifting hurricanes off course — much to the chagrin of GE’s top executives, who were on the receiving end of numerous lawsuits filed as a result. Langmuir’s claims notwithstanding, it was Bernard who discovered silver iodide as a catalyst, which proved to have far superior properties. That discovery has played the major role in rainmaking in later decades. The prospect of changing weather patterns by conscious effort early came to the attention of the Pentagon. Over time, the military managed to co-opt GE’s research in the field, classifying most of their findings. Years later, it was discovered that “the CIA had been using cloud seeding as a weapon of war. Since 1966, U.S. planes had flown more than twenty-six hundred cloud-seeding missions over Indochina, spraying the clouds of Vietnam and Laos with aerosolized silver iodide.” That revelation led to a UN treaty that banned this practice in war. The ethics of science GE’s increasing closeness to the U.S. military became deeply troubling to both Vonnegut brothers. They had been raised as pacifists, and Kurt regarded himself as a socialist. Both had been emotionally involved with efforts in the 1940s to establish a world government that could assume control of all nuclear weapons. Though the advent of the Cold War and the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1940s and 50s soon scotched those efforts, both Bernard and Kurt remained convinced that marquee scientists such as Edward Teller and John von Neumann, as well as many of Bernard’s colleagues at GE, were tragically misguided in serving the military and the weapons industry. Strand emphasizes the importance of these moral qualms in the lives of both brothers. For Bernard, it was a major factor in his decision to leave GE and, eventually, to turn to academia to avoid having to work for the Pentagon. For Kurt, the failure of scientists to be guided by moral precepts became a major theme in his novels, from Player Piano to Cat’s Cradle to Slaughterhouse-Five. Did Kurt Vonnegut write science fiction? As Strand tells the tale, Kurt had a love-hate relationship with science fiction. In the 1950s, when he was eagerly sending one story after another to unreceptive magazine editors, he seemed comfortable being called a science fiction writer: he was desperate for recognition of any sort. Later in life, once he was established as one of the leading writers of his time, he resisted the label. No wonder, since most of the public associates science fiction with spaceships and alien monsters. In fact, the field is rich with imaginative, brilliantly written tales that illuminate the human condition. About the author Wikipedia describes Ginger Strand as “an American essayist, novelist, environmental writer, and historian.” The Brothers Vonnegut is her third nonfiction book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Amy Sturgis

    This is a fascinating history of how the science of Bernard Vonnegut and the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut sprang, in some senses, from the same place, influenced each other, and reflected both men’s experiences with World War II, Cold-War America, and in particular the corporate culture of General Electric. I had hoped the book would shed light on the evolution of Kurt Vonnegut’s vision and works, and it did this and much, much more! It’s a wonderfully readable snapshot of a moment in history, captu This is a fascinating history of how the science of Bernard Vonnegut and the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut sprang, in some senses, from the same place, influenced each other, and reflected both men’s experiences with World War II, Cold-War America, and in particular the corporate culture of General Electric. I had hoped the book would shed light on the evolution of Kurt Vonnegut’s vision and works, and it did this and much, much more! It’s a wonderfully readable snapshot of a moment in history, captured through the lives and careers of two remarkable men who happened to be brothers. Recommended!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jean

    Strand wrote a meticulously researched dual biography of scientist Bernard Vonnegut (1914-1997) and his brother fiction writer Kurt (1922-2007). The primary focus of the book is late 1940’s to the early 1950’s when both brothers worked at General Electric Company. Bernie left MIT research meteorology laboratory in 1942 and went to work for GE on the “Project Cirrus” a weather modification research project. After returning from the War (“Slaughterhouse Five” was his War novel), in 1947 Kurt went Strand wrote a meticulously researched dual biography of scientist Bernard Vonnegut (1914-1997) and his brother fiction writer Kurt (1922-2007). The primary focus of the book is late 1940’s to the early 1950’s when both brothers worked at General Electric Company. Bernie left MIT research meteorology laboratory in 1942 and went to work for GE on the “Project Cirrus” a weather modification research project. After returning from the War (“Slaughterhouse Five” was his War novel), in 1947 Kurt went to work at GE in the PR department. At the time GE wanted journalist who could place stories in the New York Times and other key publications. When Bernard realized that manipulations of the weather were seen as a potential weapon he pressed for government oversight of the project. Kurt complained that many scientists, at GE and elsewhere, seemed indifferent to the consequences of their discoveries. In my opinion, Kurt’s novel “Cat’s Cradle”, makes more demanding claims about the ethical responsibilities of scientists than Strand acknowledges. Strand claims that the origin of many of Kurt’s concerns regarding, ethical responsibilities of science, started with his employment at GE. Strand’s thoughtful history, drawn from abundant archival sources, recounts the brothers’ repeated frustration and disillusionment as they confronted the unsettling ethical questions of the time. I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. Sean Runnette does a good job narrating the book.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Thom

    Quite good, this history bounces between writer Kurt Vonnegut and his brother Bernard, contrasting writing and reality. An interesting behind the scenes for both scientist and writer, with excellent pacing. Contains a full set of notes and bibliography of sources. Recommended! I really enjoyed both the look behind Kurt's stories and the science behind Bernard's research. Cloud seeding is a really interesting topic, though a full scientific explanation would require more depth. Also interesting we Quite good, this history bounces between writer Kurt Vonnegut and his brother Bernard, contrasting writing and reality. An interesting behind the scenes for both scientist and writer, with excellent pacing. Contains a full set of notes and bibliography of sources. Recommended! I really enjoyed both the look behind Kurt's stories and the science behind Bernard's research. Cloud seeding is a really interesting topic, though a full scientific explanation would require more depth. Also interesting were the connections between GE and the government in these research programs. Anytime a book drives me to read multiple additional books, I know it's good. I look forward to reading more about weather and also diving into Timequake, Kurt's last book.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kevin McGuire

    How did I not know about cloud seeding?

  7. 4 out of 5

    Erin Cataldi

    Strand (Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate) beautifully illustrates the juxtaposition of the Vonnegut brothers, Bernard and Kurt in this compelling narrative of their lives and contributions in their respective fields. During WWII while Kurt was hunkered down beneath a slaughterhouse surviving the firebombing of Dresden (later a basis for his bestselling novel, Slaughterhouse Five), his brother Bernard, a scientist, was flying in the air testing out cloud seeding and produc Strand (Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate) beautifully illustrates the juxtaposition of the Vonnegut brothers, Bernard and Kurt in this compelling narrative of their lives and contributions in their respective fields. During WWII while Kurt was hunkered down beneath a slaughterhouse surviving the firebombing of Dresden (later a basis for his bestselling novel, Slaughterhouse Five), his brother Bernard, a scientist, was flying in the air testing out cloud seeding and producing rain. The brothers led vastly different lives, but shared the similar experience of both working for GE (General Electric), which back then was lovingly referred to as the "house of magic." While there, Bernard studied the sky and experimented with weather control and Kurt reveled in all the fantastic things he saw and heard, many of which become the basis for his later novels and short stories. What happens when science is no longer used for good, but for evil; are scientists compelled to be moral or just make progress for progress's sake, regardless of the consequences? Strand breaks down Bernard's science and Kurt's stories and it produces a fascinating look at two different, yet very similar, brothers. Compellingly narrated by Sean Runnette, this eye opening read is perfect for both fans of science and Kurt Vonnegut. A must read.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ross Blocher

    We all associate the name Vonnegut with the famous author, Kurt, but it was his older brother Bernard who carried the family's hopes and expectations. Bernie was the star student who earned his PhD at MIT and went on to discover silver iodide cloud seeding at General Electric. Kurt struggled at school, was taken as a prisoner of war in Germany, couldn't complete his degree when he got home, and wrote one rejected story after another while trying to escape his work as a publicist at GE, where his We all associate the name Vonnegut with the famous author, Kurt, but it was his older brother Bernard who carried the family's hopes and expectations. Bernie was the star student who earned his PhD at MIT and went on to discover silver iodide cloud seeding at General Electric. Kurt struggled at school, was taken as a prisoner of war in Germany, couldn't complete his degree when he got home, and wrote one rejected story after another while trying to escape his work as a publicist at GE, where his brother was stationed in the research lab with top scientists. Ginger Strand's telling jumps quickly back and forth from brother to brother. There is little in the way of transition, and yet the book flowed and held interest. It's fascinating to learn the many factors - the culture of GE, the promising science of weather control, and the uncomfortable 1950s mixture of modernism and war - that seeded Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s ideas for the stories that would eventually make him famous. I must confess that I've only read one of Vonnegut's books: Cat's Cradle. I will read Slaughterhouse-Five next, and I think I will enjoy it all the more for knowing the events, ideas, and long process that led to its publication.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Charlie Webster

    If you're looking for a complete biography of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s life this book is not it. However, for the Vonnegut enthusiasts out there, this book provides a lot of interesting background information. The book is a dual biography of the adult lives of Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut. The book alternates between analysis of Kurt's burgeoning writing career and Bernie's scientific career. Some of the writing on cloud-seeding was a little dull, but it is a topic that is generally interesting. The boo If you're looking for a complete biography of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s life this book is not it. However, for the Vonnegut enthusiasts out there, this book provides a lot of interesting background information. The book is a dual biography of the adult lives of Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut. The book alternates between analysis of Kurt's burgeoning writing career and Bernie's scientific career. Some of the writing on cloud-seeding was a little dull, but it is a topic that is generally interesting. The book provides great insight into: Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five and Vonnegut's short stories. Of particular importance is all the information about Kurt Vonnegut's time in Schenectady at GE. I would highly recommend this book for all you Vonnegut nerds out there. Alternately, this might be an interesting book to climate/weather science enthusiasts.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    This was a 5 star book for me. If you are fascinated by atmospheric science and love Kurt Vonnegut, this book is amazing. If not, I think it may get a bit boring. Great insights into the life and struggles of KV though.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sooz

    I read my first sci-fi book sometime around the age of ten. It was NOT one of the classics ... it wasn't even very good, but man I was hooked. In my early teens I found Bradbury and Vonnegut and pretty much made my way through everything they had written. I loved both of them equally. Bradbury for his beautiful lyrical dream-like descriptions and Vonnegut for his sharp satirical nightmarish bite. “Poo-tee-weet?” I am only one chapter into Strand's book but so far I love her writing style and am o I read my first sci-fi book sometime around the age of ten. It was NOT one of the classics ... it wasn't even very good, but man I was hooked. In my early teens I found Bradbury and Vonnegut and pretty much made my way through everything they had written. I loved both of them equally. Bradbury for his beautiful lyrical dream-like descriptions and Vonnegut for his sharp satirical nightmarish bite. “Poo-tee-weet?” I am only one chapter into Strand's book but so far I love her writing style and am optimistic that this book is going to be a real treat to read. I soon realize the depths to which Strand dives into the weather experiments of brother Bernard are way beyond what I am interested in learning. It is very apparent that she has done her homework and if you are so inclined, you can follow all the nuances of his experiments as she details them and have a wealth of information on the subject at your fingertips. or - if you are more like me in this regard- you can skim through all the details of implementing the experiments, get the gist of it and move on. I certainly didn't have to focus on all that detail in order to understand the implications of weather control during the cold war. Kurt Vonnegut has a place in my heart, and I loved reading about his days at G.E. and how that culture -along with the weather experiments of his brother- permeated his writing . For the most part Strand's book feels like a research project, documenting all the influences that went into making Vonnegut the satirist he was .... so I was surprised when I found the ending -the epilogue- so moving. so sad. It sometimes feels life's only aim is to break your heart again and again. And then it's done. Over. And if we are very very lucky we might get the epitaph Billy Pilgrim thought fitting: Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt. I am so glad we had Vonnegut. The world would be so much less than it is if he had never written his novels. “Poo-tee-weet?”

  12. 4 out of 5

    Yard Gnome

    This is a hell of a story, do not be fooled by the time it took me to finish it. February is not a good month for reading. I have no evidence to support that, and since this book is partly about a scientist, I'll confess I probably should have just spent more time reading it. Kurt Vonnegut and Bernard Vonnegut were born 9 years apart and followed strangely similar yet ultimately divergent paths in life. Both were raised to appreciate science and knowledge, Bernard following his interest from an This is a hell of a story, do not be fooled by the time it took me to finish it. February is not a good month for reading. I have no evidence to support that, and since this book is partly about a scientist, I'll confess I probably should have just spent more time reading it. Kurt Vonnegut and Bernard Vonnegut were born 9 years apart and followed strangely similar yet ultimately divergent paths in life. Both were raised to appreciate science and knowledge, Bernard following his interest from an MIT degree to the "house of magic" at General Electric in Schenectady, New York, Kurt making an attempt at a Chemistry degree at Cornell, only to find himself in the Battle of the Bulge and a prisoner of war in Dresden. By 1947, they were both employed at GE, Kurt in the PR department, Bernard studying weather and how to manipulate it. Ginger Strand has published a meticulously researched and beautifully written account of how both brothers came to be suspicious of scientific research, or at least a society unconcerned with the potential ramifications of it. The story is detailed but suspenseful, anyone looking for an in depth account of the red scare climate of America during the late 40's/early 50's or a harrowing account of a young author trying to get off the ground will be rewarded. Most importantly, Strand does a wonderful job of describing the complicated relationship between the two brothers without sounding invasive, choosing to tell a real story rather than a dramatic one. It's a skill that most modern writers are lacking, in my always humble opinion. I myself managed to answer a reference question that had been dodging me for a month from this story (Kurt Vonnegut was on a road trip with some high school friends from Indianapolis to Denver when he found himself having drinks in Oklahoma on the night Hitler invaded Poland). I would make this review longer, and add more quotes, but the review would go on forever, and you're better off reading it yourself.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Critterbee❇

    Very interesting read about Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut, though at times a bit scattered. There is a lot about the weather experimentation, and documentation that really underscores the attempt to weaponize everything by the governments in the twentieth century. Scary stuff. Most happened so long ago that things can not still be classified, yet the facts are disturbing. The book starts with a very sensationalist sentence, and it turned me off immediately. It got much better after that. Worth readin Very interesting read about Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut, though at times a bit scattered. There is a lot about the weather experimentation, and documentation that really underscores the attempt to weaponize everything by the governments in the twentieth century. Scary stuff. Most happened so long ago that things can not still be classified, yet the facts are disturbing. The book starts with a very sensationalist sentence, and it turned me off immediately. It got much better after that. Worth reading for people interested in Kurt Vonnegut, weather manipulation and weather science. Bernard and Kurt were against war, and against using science to develop more ways to destroy life. I really liked this book.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    I struggled with this book. I couldn't really care about the characters. Although the book touches on the lives of the two brothers, it focuses on when Bernie was working at weather control and Kurt was becoming a struggling writer. This part of their lives didn't interest me, I wanted to know more about Kurt as he grew as a writer. Disappointing.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth (Literary Hoarders)

    It's interesting - I chose this book because I wanted to know more about Kurt Vonnegut, and I wound up far more interested in the narrative about his older brother, Bernard. While Kurt's writing career was an excellent lesson in never giving up, his brother's scientific advances were fascinating. Shame on me for not knowing about cloud seeding until this book - was I living under a rock??

  16. 4 out of 5

    Steve Joyce

    Impeccably researched (just check out the bibliography) and written with competence. I didn't find the subject matter intrinsically interesting for most of the early chapters but things picked up steam. This is probably a book more for Vonnegut completists but worthwhile to others nonetheless.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Shawn

    Pretty science-y, but not over your head science-y. Interesting insight to Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut’s relationship and how Bernard’s career as a research scientist impacted Kurt’s writing. The next time it rains, you’ll wonder if it was Mother Nature or the military.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Adam Floridia

    Strand has done a wonderful job presenting a new perspective of Kurt Vonnegut. Interweaving Kurt's biography with his brother Bernard's made for a unique look at my favorite author. The majority of the book focuses on the brothers' time at GE, which is very pre-fame Kurt, so there is definitely enough new stuff there even for a Vonnegut obsessive. Getting a very clear picture of GE and what was going on there also gave me new insights into where so many of Kurt's ideas and themes germinated. Plu Strand has done a wonderful job presenting a new perspective of Kurt Vonnegut. Interweaving Kurt's biography with his brother Bernard's made for a unique look at my favorite author. The majority of the book focuses on the brothers' time at GE, which is very pre-fame Kurt, so there is definitely enough new stuff there even for a Vonnegut obsessive. Getting a very clear picture of GE and what was going on there also gave me new insights into where so many of Kurt's ideas and themes germinated. Plus, the Bernard portion of the biography were equally interesting and, having no knowledge of cloud-seeding, vastly more informative. This includes military use of science and the debate over morality in science. Early on, one thing that bothered me were moments of seeming omniscience on Strand's part, instances where she projected her subjects' thoughts. Only later did I discover the extensive "Notes" section at the end and the very carefully documented sources she used. Excellent research! This made it all the more impressive since she presented all of the research into a very, very readable non-fiction book. A couple things I learned: I did not know that Kurt's unit "the 106th, was the last American infantry division to be mobilized in WWII" (7). A "fun fact" that adds one more layer to the role chance and chaos (or fate depending on one's leaning) play in a life replete with seemingly-random tragedy. I did not know the concepts of Newtonian vs Bergsonian Time. A favorite quotation: "It was as if some people forgot the most basic truths of being human: we are frail, imperfect, vulnerable creatures always in need of other humans for support. Technology was evil if it was used to make some people fabulously comfortable and toss others out with the trash. It was evil if it made that cruelty seem rational. It was evil if it removed individuals from their humanity, if it suppressed the fundamental insight that we're all in this together" (168).

  19. 5 out of 5

    MisterLiberry Head

    Who knew? Brothers Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut worked at GE at the same time, one in PR and the other as a top-echelon research scientist? And who remembers that the “military-industrial complex” (of which Dwight Eisenhower warned) aggressively explored the wartime applications of weather control in the mid-1950s even as the world wrestled with the emergence of the atomic bomb? Ginger Strand has brought to light the fascinating true story of GE scientists doing government-sanctioned weather-contro Who knew? Brothers Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut worked at GE at the same time, one in PR and the other as a top-echelon research scientist? And who remembers that the “military-industrial complex” (of which Dwight Eisenhower warned) aggressively explored the wartime applications of weather control in the mid-1950s even as the world wrestled with the emergence of the atomic bomb? Ginger Strand has brought to light the fascinating true story of GE scientists doing government-sanctioned weather-control experiments without heed of the consequences to ordinary folks or of their “duty to humanity.” The bench-scientist older brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. blithely invented silver iodide cloud-seeding at GE – “the main legacy of Project Cirrus” (p246). Meanwhile, Kurt’s increasingly unhappy stint as a GE flack provided “a rich vein of characters, settings and concepts he could mine” (p154) in his fiction, particularly in his first novel, PLAYER PIANO (1952). Well-sourced and presented from the points of view of both brilliant siblings (who remained close), THE BROTHERS VONNEGUT shows how Cold War weather control became a dead end, except for its influence on the making of an influential and unique – if these days somewhat out of fashion – creator of hard-to-classify fiction.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    I don’t talk much about a book I’m reading when I don’t think many others would appreciate it. But I talked about Brothers Vonnegut with almost everyone. Even if I didn’t think they were a Kurt Vonnegut fan, or interested in the chemistry of cloud seeding, it made interesting conversation to think about the mindset(s) of the nation after WWII ended, the various reactions to the existence of nuclear weapons, attitudes towards how society could prevent their use, basic scientific research being fu I don’t talk much about a book I’m reading when I don’t think many others would appreciate it. But I talked about Brothers Vonnegut with almost everyone. Even if I didn’t think they were a Kurt Vonnegut fan, or interested in the chemistry of cloud seeding, it made interesting conversation to think about the mindset(s) of the nation after WWII ended, the various reactions to the existence of nuclear weapons, attitudes towards how society could prevent their use, basic scientific research being funded at companies like GE, what the “military-industrial complex” meant in practice, how GE was cutting edge by having an extensive PR department that fed press releases to news outlets in an attempt to control and promote their image; how serendipity, politics, personalities, and power interplay to shape the progress of science – such as cloud seeding; attitudes toward using weather modification as a weapon of war (did you know it was tried?). “Brothers Vonnegut” raises these and other larger questions while telling the personal stories of Kurt and Bernie Vonnegut who both worked at GE and played roles in shaping the post-war world. And if you enjoy Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, it is fun to get inside of his head and see where his ideas came from.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    I absolutely loved this book about Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut. It centers around their time at GE (Bernard as a scientist, Kurt in the PR department, a job he got because of his big brother) in Schenectady (where I live) and how much that shaped Kurt's fiction. But this really isn't just about the more well-known brother. It's also truly about Bernard. GE science research could, itself, be considered a third major character. As a resident of Electric City, and as a huge fan of Kurt's fiction, thi I absolutely loved this book about Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut. It centers around their time at GE (Bernard as a scientist, Kurt in the PR department, a job he got because of his big brother) in Schenectady (where I live) and how much that shaped Kurt's fiction. But this really isn't just about the more well-known brother. It's also truly about Bernard. GE science research could, itself, be considered a third major character. As a resident of Electric City, and as a huge fan of Kurt's fiction, this is an excellent read (well, listen, in my case) that brought together different interests of mine. It was really neat to be taking my daughter for a walk through the very "GE realty plot" the book is describing. The book also asks the big questions Kurt always asked in his fiction as well, questions about science & tech, about ethics, about human nature. It is such an informative, interesting book. You don't necessarily have to be a Kurt Vonnegut fan to enjoy it, though you'd probably seek his writing out after! I sense a Kurt Vonnegut kick will begin soon.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Darryl Updegrove

    I really knew almost nothing about Kurt Vonnegut except having watched a little of the movie "Slaughterhouse Five" so I didn't know what I was in for. It was an interesting biography of both Kurt and his older brother, comparing and contrasting their lives. I liked that the author discussed enough details of his short stories and books that I didn't feel the need to have to read them to understand the context as it applied to this book. Additionally, she goes through the revisions of the books s I really knew almost nothing about Kurt Vonnegut except having watched a little of the movie "Slaughterhouse Five" so I didn't know what I was in for. It was an interesting biography of both Kurt and his older brother, comparing and contrasting their lives. I liked that the author discussed enough details of his short stories and books that I didn't feel the need to have to read them to understand the context as it applied to this book. Additionally, she goes through the revisions of the books so you understand his writing process and how he adjusted his story lines as events in his own life influenced him. Maybe not much more than a footnote in history, but a very interesting story that I am glad I read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kai Schreiber

    Very interesting details on the early career stages of both brothers, including many fascinating insights into weather research, cloud seeding and GE politics, as well as the politics of the era. And then the book, after spending a lot of time on this period, jumps ahead by a few decades and suddenly ends. Just as Billy Pilgrim got unstuck in time, so seemingly did the author, which leaves an interesting story of science and fiction interacting on a private as well as intellectual level constrict Very interesting details on the early career stages of both brothers, including many fascinating insights into weather research, cloud seeding and GE politics, as well as the politics of the era. And then the book, after spending a lot of time on this period, jumps ahead by a few decades and suddenly ends. Just as Billy Pilgrim got unstuck in time, so seemingly did the author, which leaves an interesting story of science and fiction interacting on a private as well as intellectual level constricted to what feels a bit like an episode in a much longer story. Still, a very interesting read about one of my favorite writers.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Chris Ruggeri

    I have to admit that part of the appeal of this book for me was that I found a copy of it's unpublished galleys by accident in a used bookstore while looking for old crime novels. There was a handwritten note tucked into the front cover from a sales coordinator at macmillan, urging someone named Herbert to give her a call if he had any questions about the book. In a time when those of us who treasure physical books seem to be losing the war, it was refreshing to come across evidence that the stu I have to admit that part of the appeal of this book for me was that I found a copy of it's unpublished galleys by accident in a used bookstore while looking for old crime novels. There was a handwritten note tucked into the front cover from a sales coordinator at macmillan, urging someone named Herbert to give her a call if he had any questions about the book. In a time when those of us who treasure physical books seem to be losing the war, it was refreshing to come across evidence that the stubborn gears of the publishing industry might not have conceded just yet. Also, I had never read a book in galley form before. I can now say, definitively, that the experience is very similar to that of reading a published book, except that galleys have a few more typos and formatting hiccups. Good to know. I absolutely loved this book. As someone who only utters Kurt Vonnegut's name in hushed, reverent tones, I was captivated by Strand's portrayal of his early career and the myriad of insights she painstakingly compiles from a variety of sources, painting an incredibly vivid picture of how he grew into the writer he ultimately became: his wartime experiences, the nuclear and Cold War societal tensions, the looming shadow of GE and the culture it espoused, the heartening impact of his wife, Jane, and, no surprise if you happen to read the title, the influence of his brother, Bernard. Strand bounces back and forth between the two brothers, but their lives are never quite so distant. They both work at GE for a good portion of the book, and while there doesn't seem to have been a great deal of direct overlap between their daily functions, it is fascinating to see their juxtaposition and follow along as Bernard's work with cloud seeding, combined with the larger events of the day, helps to shape Kurt's perspective and the stories he writes. Bernie's work with cloud seeding is also compelling all by itself. The ramifications of weather control on the American psyche, its potential as a weapon for war, what it reveals about capitalism and the role of science and scientists in the world is all fertile soil for Strand to play in. Plus I had never heard about any of this cloud seeding stuff before, so it was interesting just from the perspective of wanting to know what the hell happened to it. How did such a potentially huge thing like controlling the weather gain such momentum, and then just sort of fizzle out, with little to no footprint in the modern culture? (Not that I'm complaining, mind you. At least for now, it sounds like this was at least one potentially armageddon-inducing clusterfuck that we managed to avoid.) Putting aside Kurt's influences and Bernard's inventions, the real treat of this book for me was getting a glimpse of Kurt's path to becoming an author. The trials and setbacks, the risks, perseverance and successes, and most poignantly, his relationship with his wife, Jane. There is a passage I keep going back to, about Kurt and Jane and The Brothers Karamazov. Strand masterfully threads it through the whole book to spectacular and ultimately bittersweet effect. It has compelled me to add The Brothers Karamazov to my To Read List, which, listed at 824 pages on amazon.com seems daunting enough on its own, but is small potatoes compared to the much more daunting impulse I suddenly have to reread every book, short story, play and speech Vonnegut ever wrote. Thanks a lot, Ginger. "It was all an ocean. That was one of Jane’s favorite sayings, from a book Kurt hadn’t read: The Brothers Karamazov. The priest Father Zossima says it to the youngest Karamazov brother, Alyosha. The elderly monk is explaining why someone would ask forgiveness of the birds. “It’s all an ocean,” he says, meaning the birds, the sky, the clouds, even himself; it’s all part of one big surging life force, and the name of that force is God.” “It’s all an ocean!” Jane would cry when she was struck by how everything was interconnected. It made her happy to believe, fervently, in things that lent mysterious magic to the world. She thought Dostoyevsky’s treatise on human need for that magic was the most brilliant book ever written. She suggested Kurt start reading it on their honeymoon. … Jane said they could build a life of poetry and art and beauty. They could go back to school, leaving science to others, and throw themselves into the study of the human soul. They could have friends and raise kids and build a home filled with music and books, rich conversation and a well-stocked bar. They could make paintings and write stories and make those things their life, a life that, in its own small way, would help change the world. She showed him another of her treasures, a slip of paper given to her by a professor who copied a quotation for each student at semester’s end and tucked it into a walnut shell. Jane’s quotation was “Some good sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.” Right there on their honeymoon, Kurt painted his first painting. For his subject he chose a chair—something solid, and homey, and redolent of possibility. And he started reading The Brothers Karamazov. “My brother asked the birds to forgive him,” Father Zossima told Alyosha. “That sounds senseless, but it was right for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.”

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Dube

    The storytelling structure helped maintain the intrigue of the topic and I believe that the subject matter is inherently unique. Although it was a bit anti-climatic to hear that the weather modifications were most likely due to chance rather than manipulation, it was an interesting exploration of a truly revolutionary idea. This book was a random read, I knew nothing of the author nor the subject but I found that I learned quite a bit about an important time in history.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Joe Artz

    A biography of two people at once, this book is about brothers Kurt and Bernard Vomnegut, so different yet so linked to one another throughout their lives. It's also a history of the research lab at General Electric, where Bernard was a lead researcher, and which figured heavily in Kurt's stories and novels.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ian

    a book that shows where Kurt Vonnegut got some of his inspiration from. And a lot was from his brother and others who were doing experiments with cloud seeding. Now I want to go visit Indiana and find the library that has his drafts

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kathi

    I learned a lot about things I didn't expect. Fascinating, in depth account of Bernie and Kurt Vonnegut and how their lives and careers developed. It gives me a different perspective on the books of one of my favorite American authors.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Watkins

    Delightfully written and informative. I was a bit disappointed that it ended so soon after the publishing of Player Piano, but with the thesis of the book thought of as “how did Kurt and Bernie’s relationship to each other and to GE shape their lives” the book is a resounding success.

  30. 4 out of 5

    John E

    I'm sure I read this because of my liking of Kurt Vonnegut's writing. I learned of the brother Bernard who seeded clouds while Kurt bent minds and both tried to be good. To me however there was too much about Bernard's colleagues and work and not enough about Kurt. So be it.

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