Recently, Dan Wakefield and Jerome Klinkowitz stumbled across an until-now unpublished short story by Kurt Vonnegut, one of five the pair discovered while developing a comprehensive collection of his short stories. The other four will be published in Complete Stories—that comprehensive collection I mentioned—but The Drone King has been released for free through a variety of media.
The story is good; even though it’s one of his first short stories, it’s still Kurt Vonnegut through and through. It demonstrates a straightforwardness in its delivery that’s so straight and forward that you’re forced to consider themes in a way you never did before. Vonnegut hides his messages in plain sight, which is great, while most writers tend to dress up their meaning in literary ways to greater and lesser effects. And, while his later works were certainly a more perfect expression of that technique, The Drone King serves as another example of it.
The story itself is fun to read, but its frankly weird that we’re reading it all. The exciting thing about it is that its previously unpublished. There’s a sense of discovering a hidden treasure. We’ve discovered a new proto-human skeleton that upturns our understanding of when it all really started. It’s the extra six-pack in the fridge when we thought we drank it all. It’s a new old story. But if the author didn’t publish it, did he want it to be read? Because that question is, for all practical purposes, about a decade too late to be asked, I would be inclined to lean towards “no.”
Writing is mostly throwing things away. Good writers don’t put their thoughts down verbatim and make a fantastic piece of writing that they produced in brilliant moments of inspiration that they are disposed to experience more frequently and deeply than us poor ungifted folks. Most writing sucks, and it goes into the garbage can so the writer can get on with writing the good stuff they could only write when the bad stuff is out of the way.
So, The Drone King is pretty good. It’s not nearly as good as some of Vonnegut’s other short stories, and, considering this was early in his career, there’s probably a reason why he didn’t choose to publish it. He likely tried to publish it and was rejected at first, but with the kind of success he experienced, he probably could have published it after Slaughterhouse Five or Sirens of Titan. But he didn’t.
We have a lot of trouble with the idea that some things are best left alone. Examples like this are everywhere in writing—think about last year’s “new” Beatrix Potter, JRR Tolkein, and Michael Crichton. Musically, this looks like played out septuagenarian rockers filling Fenway. Film is the most egregious example. Everything is sequelized, repeated, and rebooted until it quits making money. The trouble is, sequels make a lot of money. If dollars are votes, sequels count among our very favorite things in the world.
We like old things brought back to life, like time never passed. Frankenstein’s not a bunch of corpses stapled together, he’s vintage people. The return of the 80s sound, TV, and style has produced some great stuff, but it’s a little disturbing when the generation returning to all that is one faced with a drastically evolving climate, increasing inequality, and rising rates of incarceration.
Uncertainty about our future is what drives us to glom onto older stuff, anything that is tried and tested or close enough to that. The problem is that selectively picking the best parts of the past isn’t really representative of that time, it’s representative of what we want it to be like. Our understanding of the big picture won’t get any clearer if we selectively pick parts of the past that weren’t meant to picked at all. While discovering some new old Kurt Vonnegut stuff can make us feel like it’s the first time we’re reading him all over again, it can be tempting to treat that like a kind of sedative.
Rather than return to the happier moments when we consumed media in the past, consider casting a vote for new movies, innovative sounds, and literature that’s based on the present moment. This is the stuff that’s meant to help people filter the world and its issues into manageable narratives: building a retro Frankenstein can’t teach you how to deal with the world in the 21st century.