Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1961.

I’m a big Vonnegut fan. Like a lot of people I went on a massive Vonnegut kick when I was in my late teens and early 20s, and The Breakfast of Champions remains one of my favourite books ever.

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.


  1. I haven't actually read the story, but I have seen it argues that it's actually an attempt to satirise the Randian outlook. Do you think that theory has any legs?

  2. Not really. It looks like a pretty trad 'if this goes on...' SF satire to me, albeit one with an especially ridiculous scenario. I suspect KV just had a funny idea and ran with it. The ending in particular goes so far over the top that it's hard to see it as a sober political commentary of any kind.

    What's happened to the story since isn't really something KV could control - I suspect that many readers take the implied threat the story identifies way more seriously than KV did when he wrote this.

    You possibly could read it as a parody of the 'if this goes on...' story type. The best of these stories make a chilling sense while the world of Harrison Bergeron makes no sense at all.

    Against this reading, though, I can't see any pointers in the text. You'd have to get there on your own, and i don't think that KV's the type of writer to be that subtle. Part of his appeal to younger writers is that he doesn't deal in that kind of irony - he rages and rails rather than smirks and hints and this story definitely rages and rails at its explicit target than any implied whatnot.

    This is a shorty and the text's widely available - you ought to give it a read. Here you go:


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