Why I Need to Talk About “The Manned Missiles”

Hello, Vonnegut fans. I’m Emma Jones, and I’m an intern this summer at KVML, and I desperately need to talk about Welcome to the Monkey House. Chances are you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, it’s Vonnegut’s best-known collection of short stories. These stories were first collected in 1968, when Vonnegut was 46 and still not the household name he would become after the publication of Slaughterhouse Five the next year. The stories were published between 1950 and 1966, and there are 25 of them. One of them is one of the best short stories ever written, at least if I’m the judge. It’s called “The Manned Missiles.”

I’ll bet my college tuition you’ve either never heard of that story or you forgot about it a short time after reading the entirety of Welcome to the Monkey House. (If I’m wrong, feel free to contact Hanover College and claim your prize.) I’ve already had a number of conversations with Vonnegut readers about this story, and I’ve had to retell it to almost all of them. That story is why I am working for this library, and no one remembers it. How can that be?

I’m massively underqualified to answer that question. I’ve only got half an English degree and a brain which, if you ask Indiana state law, is insufficiently developed to drink, purchase, or share a room with alcoholic beverages. But here’s my take: the best-known of Vonnegut’s short stories are known not just because they’re well-written, but because they’re weird. Their premises are freakish, unsettling, far different from the hunky-dory post-war decade in which many of them were written.

For example, if you know a single Vonnegut short story, it’s probably “Harrison Bergeron.” As one of my coworkers says, it’s read by every seventh grader in America. It’s about a futuristic America where “everybody was finally equal.” But the underprivileged aren’t brought up; the privileged are weighed down. Literally. Strong people wear weights. Beautiful people wear masks. Smart people have chips in their ears that beep every twenty seconds to make them forget what they’re going to say.

In this still from 2081, a short film version of “Harrison Bergeron,” these poor dancers have both masks and weights. They must be both beautiful and strong.

The other day, a high school student in the museum said his favorite story in this book was the title story, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” This, too, describes a futuristic society; its claim to fame is mandatory medicine that drains all the fun out of sex by making people numb from the waist down. One of my coworkers’ favorites is “Unready to Wear,” about a future where people can buy and inhabit new bodies.

These stories have merit; they wouldn’t be so well-known and well-liked if they didn’t. They accomplish just what Vonnegut’s most famous novels accomplish – questioning the way our world runs by transporting us to a crazy fictional world – and they do it within the same genre, science fiction.

A photo of Vonnegut from the 1950s, around the time he wrote “The Manned Missiles.”

In Vonnegut’s younger days – in other words, before people knew who he was – he also wrote realistic stories. He seemed to stop once he found his sci-fi niche, which is too bad, because he was good at it. He could make any Hallmark-movie plot palatable, no postmodernism or existentialism necessary. There are plenty of stories in Welcome to the Monkey House that are free of these isms: “Who Am I This Time?”, “The Kid Nobody Could Handle,” “Adam,” “Miss Temptation.” My favorite is “The Manned Missiles.”

This is the beginning of this story I love so much: “I, Mikhail Ivankov, stone mason in the village of Ilba in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, greet you and pity you, Charles Ashland, petroleum merchant in Titusville, Florida, in the United States of America. I grasp your hand.”

This sentence has a lovely foreign cadence to it, and not because it’s crudely written or has too many spelling mistakes. The Muse-invocation-level formality proves the narrator isn’t a habitual practitioner of American English. But it was the “I grasp your hand” that got me. If there’s a more beautiful way to express sympathy, I don’t know what it is. (Dostoyevsky uses a version of this phrase in one of his letters: “I greet you, gentlemen, and, if you will permit me, grasp your hands.” Maybe Vonnegut listened to his first wife, Jane, when she told him The Brothers Karamazov was the best novel in all the world.)

As the letter continues, we learn Mr. Ivankov, besides being a Russian and a stonemason, is a father. His younger son, Alexei, is translating the letter into English for him. His elder son, Stepan, is dead. He was an astronaut, the first in the world, and his death was a tragic accident. But the Russian and American media are trying to blame it on the American Bryant Ashland, the second astronaut in the world, who crashed into Stepan’s “baby moon,” killing them both. But Mr. Ivankov refuses to hate a boy so much like his son, or the boy’s family, and he’s writing to Mr. Ashland, Bryant’s father, to tell him so. The second half of the story is Mr. Ashland writing back to say much the same thing. He finishes the same way Mr. Ivankov started: “I grasp your hand.”

Maybe you could call “The Manned Missiles” science fiction, at least in terms of when it was first published. In 1958, there weren’t any people in space, but I’ll tell you what there was: the Cold War. That means this story and its attack on blind hate, especially against Russians, were just as boundary-pushing and radically different as “Harrison Bergeron” or “Welcome to the Monkey House,” just in a different way.

I know more about Kurt Vonnegut now than I did when I first read this story, and that makes it even better than it was on the first read. “The Manned Missiles” is so clearly the product of a man who would go on to befriend the Russian woman who translated his books and fight for over a decade to get her permission to visit him. It’s the product of a man who would take in three extra children when his sister died, who would divorce his wife but stay friends with her until she died. And it’s the product of a man who would watch people die all around him all his life – soldiers, his sister, his parents, his ex-wife – and still be able to make jokes.

Because believe it or not, “The Manned Missiles” will make you laugh when you aren’t bawling your eyes out. I know I laughed when Alexei tries too hard to put his two cents in the letter and his father puts him in his place: “He is talking very much, and would like to compose this letter himself. He thinks that a man forty-nine is a very old man, and he does not think that a very old man who can do nothing but put one stone on top of another can say the right things about young men who die in space.”

I also laughed at this story about Bryant, called Bud:

“When Bud and Charlene were about eight, why I came home one night with a fish bowl and two goldfish. There was one goldfish for each twin, only it was impossible to tell one fish from the other one. They were exactly alike. So one morning Bud got up early, and there was one goldfish floating on top of the water dead. So Bud went and woke up Charlene, and he said, ‘Hey, Charlene – your goldfish just died.’ That’s the story Charlene asked me to tell you, Mr. Ivankov.”

Believe it or not, that kid who pawned off a dead goldfish on his sister grew up to be a pretty decent guy. In life and in fiction, Vonnegut had hope for the next generation. In a speech he gave at a college commencement, “How to Make Money and Find Love,” Vonnegut said, “The members of your graduating class are not sleepy, are not listless, are not apathetic. They are simply performing the experiment of doing without hate . . . They have sensed correctly that hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide. This is a very exciting thing they are doing, and I wish them well.”

If “The Manned Missiles” doesn’t squeeze your heart till it bleeds like it did mine, but something else by Vonnegut does, I am truly happy for you. If you read the story and love it because of me, I’m humbled, and I thank you. And if you find yourself tearing up a bit because the story reminds you of someone you know, or someone you miss, or a big bundle of hate you just wish the world would get rid of, I feel just the same. Kurt Vonnegut and I grasp your hand.

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