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.
What are the human consequences of invention? This question underlies Strand's (Killer on the Road) account of the early life and turbulent times of Kurt Vonnegut and his brother, Bernard, a chemist. After tracing their childhood in an intellectual and pacifist Midwestern family and Kurt's trauma as a POW who survived the firebombing of Dresden, Strand focuses on the brothers' shared post-WWII experience working for General Electric. Bernie delights in high-profile weather modification research led by celebrity scientist Irving Langmuir. Kurt grinds at his publicist day job while struggling to establish himself as a writer. Strand recounts Kurt's dismay as the world polarizes and scientific discoveries even Bernie's weather research are co-opted by an increasingly grim and assertive military-industrial complex. The book goes on to show how Kurt reworked his GE experience, his brother's research, and the figure of Langmuir in short stories and novels such as Player Piano and Cat's Cradle that examined "progress and the dark side of it no one wanted to discuss." Strand tells two good stories, the rise and fall of the science of weather modification and the development of Kurt Vonnegut as a writer, although each story might be better told in a book without so much of the other. Nevertheless, this engaging book raises many still-relevant questions about the uses of technology and nature.