First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1961.
This story is definitely vintage Vonnegut. It’s got the characteristic sarky and exasperated Vonnegut tone (that’s so appealing to late adolescents), the distinctive character names (United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers) and a colourfully absurd climax. Plus it’s short – what’s not to like about short?
However, I’ve always felt a bit strange about this story. My enjoyment is more than somewhat hampered by a lingering suspicion that the whole thing is horribly right wing.
You must surely know the meat of the tale: in the future everyone is made to be equal by an oppressive government. Vonnegut has some fun with the idea, but that’s all there really is to it. There’s no character growth or significant plot movement. We’re left at the end with the bleak dystopia, unchanged by Harrison’s moment of rebellion.
What it does do is quickly sketch out a dystopian world that sounds horribly familiar.
The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
It’s like a Daily Mail story come to life. It’s ‘death panels’ and ‘Winterval’ and ‘Baa baa green sheep’. It’s a critique of ‘affirmative action’ and the kind of laws that protect the weak and vulnerable from the strong. Indeed, the urge to protect others is shown to be just a sorry excuse for the same desire to dominate.
It is, in fact, political correctness gone mad.
Not surprisingly, this libertarian, even Randian message is hugely popular in the USA and this story is probably the most well-known of the stories in this collection. It’s widely anthologised and studied in US high schools (the text is easy to find on education sites). There are dozens and dozens of versions available on youtube (this looks like a good one but you might just want the text). You can also find will-sappingly dull intellectual discussions like this one explaining what it all means and why it’s all so important (I haven’t bothered myself).
This, of course, not only because it's a right-wing screed: it's a right wing screed with literary cred. Vonnegut is one of the writers who broke free. He got out of the ghetto and into the mainstream world of American letters. In the sixties and seventies he wrote a string of brilliant mainstream novels that sealed his literary reputation and made it possible to enjoy his whimsical fantasies without being concerned about the stigma of popular fiction. As a consequence his stories are treated with a bit more respect than the output of, say, Theodore Sturgeon, who Vonnegut greatly admired and was the model for his SF writer every man, Kilgore Trout. So it goes!
Themes: Dystopia, evil government, satire, the world where everything's just a bit shit.