WHO WROTE IT: Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an American writer whose career lasted over 50 years. He wrote five non-fiction books, five plays, fourteen novels, and three short story collections. Though not specifically known for being a science fiction writer, a lot of his most famous works have a science fiction-y bent to them—most notably Slaughterhouse-Five, which (if you haven’t read it) is about a World War II soldier who survives the firebombing of Dresden only to get whisked off to another planet by aliens and put in a zoo. Or something. So it goes.
I’ve read exactly three of Kurt Vonnegut’s works (Slaughterhouse-Five, The Sirens of Titan, and this short story, “Harrison Bergeron”), but what little I’ve read has been sinfully good. Nobody writes quite like Vonnegut does: mournful, morbid, humorous, insightful, satirical in the extreme, tragicomic, irreverent, hilarious, lyrical. Thanks to Vonnegut’s journalism training, his prose is concise and clean. While his works do have a sharp political slant (Slaughterhouse-Five is about as anti-war as it’s possible to get, right up there with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22), the story and prose don’t take a backseat to it. If you put Dalton Trumbo, Mark Twain, and a couple packs of cigarettes into a blender and reconstituted the resulting bloody stew into a functioning writer, you’d probably get something close to Vonnegut.
WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1961.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: It’s the year 2081. Recent amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments, to be exact—have made it a federal crime to be smarter, stronger, more beautiful, or more talented than any of your fellow citizens. If you’re lithe and athletic, the office of the U.S. Handicapper General will ensure that your body is laden with weights and chains which you can never take off, to make sure you’re just as weak as the next person. If you have a beautiful face, snap! An iron mask is locked around your head for the rest of your natural life. And woe betide you if you’re cleverer and more intelligent than the average human being: a device will be inserted into your ear which will disrupt your thoughts with a loud noise every few seconds, just to make sure you don’t get any bright ideas.
Hazel and George, a married couple, are watching a ballet on television. George is having trouble concentrating on the ballet, because he has a radio transmitter in his ear which blasts loud noises at him every couple of seconds to disrupt his more-intelligent-than-average thoughts. He also wears a 47-pound bag of weights around his neck to counter his higher-than-average strength. Hazel, being of “average intelligence” (i.e., stupid), has no such handicaps. The ballet dancers on the television have difficulty pulling off their arabesques and soubresauts because of the weights, chains, and masks they’re wearing.
Then, a man named Harrison Bergeron—Hazel and George’s son, taken away from his parents at the age of 14 due to his sky-high physical beauty, strength, and genius—bursts into the television studio, rips off his weights and mask, and declares the government of the United States to be unjust and pronounces himself the new Emperor. He then tears the weights and mask off one of the ballerinas, proclaiming her to be his Empress, and the two engage in a wild, frenetic dance that entrances Hazel and George. As the dance reaches its climax, Diana Moon Glampers, the U.S. Handicapper General, marches into the studio with a double-barreled shotgun…
I won’t spoil the ending, but you’ll probably hate it.
BIG QUESTIONS IT ANSWERS: I was born in 1986, and grew up during the nineties. As I got older, I remember being dully surprised by the mentality of some adults about their children, especially when it came to sports and academia.
I was the oldest of two children, so I got special privileges: I got to stay up a half-hour later than my brother, my allowance was a dollar more per week, and I could stay home alone.
When I was in elementary school, I started playing tee-ball. By the time I was in middle school, I was playing baseball and soccer. Having been raised to believe that certain people were intrinsically superior to others (physically and mentally), it was jarring for me to see everybody on my team getting a trophy at the end of every season, regardless of whether they contributed meaningfully or not. I never understood this. Were my peers’ egos really so fragile that their parents thought they had to give all of us trophies, or risk traumatizing us? Though I was decades away from reading my first book on Stoic philosophy, I couldn’t understand why a child my age would be so heartbroken about not getting a trophy. We’re just playing stupid games! There’s always next season!
“Harrison Bergeron” takes this fatuous preoccupation with fairness and equality to its ludicrous conclusion. In the future society Vonnegut envisions, individuals will no longer be allowed to be any more exceptional than any other person. They will be impeded, inconvenienced, and burdened until no one is stronger, smarter, or prettier than anyone else. The story asks the question, “What if human beings were forbidden by law to excel?”
WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT: People in politics and the press these days love to talk about “fairness.” Words like “inequality” and “privilege” get tossed around like they’re going out of style. A lot of people—particularly the progressive left—seem to think America was built on injustice, and intrinsic prejudices and biases (like racism and sexism) permeate the fabric of our society. I think that’s a lot of horse puckey. Therefore it amuses me to read stories like “Harrison Bergeron,” which demonstrate the slippery slope upon which the left’s definitions of “fairness” and “equality” reside. It seems like America’s short-sighted social justice warriors want absolute equality. They believe that once it’s achieved, it will result in a kind of social utopia, a heaven on Earth for people of every creed and color. But the truth is closer to what Vonnegut envisioned in “Harrison Bergeron.” The harder we try to make life fair for someone, the more unfair and inconvenient and miserable it’ll be for everyone. With all these college kids, pundits, hack comedians, and brain-dead celebrities virtue-signalling about “justice” and “fairness,” Vonnegut’s story about a federally handicapped American society couldn’t be more relevant or timely.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: First of all, it’s short—maybe the shortest sci-fi story I’ve ever read. It’s only 2,200 words. You can read through the whole thing in less than ten minutes, depending on your reading speed. Moreover, it’s as classic a piece of dystopian science fiction as you’re ever going to find, and it was written by one of the greatest 20th-century American writers who ever lived. Why are you not Googling it right now?
WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: The story was anthologized in Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of 25 of Vonnegut’s short stories published in 1968. If you’re too lazy to order it, however, you can read “Harrison Bergeron” in its brief entirety here.
Now get off the Internet that’s distracting you and start writing awesome sci-fi (before they make it illegal)!