EDITOR’S NOTE: In his 1981 autobiographical collage Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut pondered, “What was the dirtiest story I ever wrote?” His answer: “Surely ‘The Big Space Fuck,’ the first story of literature to have ‘fuck’ in its title.” Originally published in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), Vonnegut’s short sci-fi story appropriately (or inappropriately) set a minor literary landmark with its titular use of “Fuck,” which, given the story’s depiction of “a period of great permissiveness in matters of language,” seems cleverly meta; although Kurt Vonnegut’s better known for his less explicit (yet still somewhat heathenish) novels Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut died in 2007, leaving behind an impressive literary legacy — and so it goes.
“The Big Space Fuck” by Kurt Vonnegut
IN 1977 IT BECAME POSSIBLE in the United States of America for a young person to sue his parents for the way he had been raised. He could take them to court and make them pay money and even serve jail terms for serious mistakes they made when he was just a helpless little kid. This was not only an effort to achieve justice but to discourage reproduction, since there wasn’t anything much to eat any more. Abortions were free. In fact, any woman who volunteered for one got her choice of a bathroom scale or a table lamp.
In 1979, America staged the Big Space Fuck, which was a serious effort to make sure that human life would continue to exist somewhere in the Universe, since it certainly couldn’t continue much longer on Earth. Everything had turned to shit and beer cans and old automobiles and Clorox bottles. An interesting thing happened in the Hawaiian Islands, where they had been throwing trash down extinct volcanoes for years: a couple of the volcanoes all of a sudden spit it all back up. And so on.
This was a period of great permissiveness in matters of language, so even the President was saying shit and fuck and so on, without anybody’s feeling threatened or taking offense. It was perfectly OK. He called the Space Fuck a Space Fuck and so did everybody else. It was a rocket ship with eight-hundred pounds of freeze-dried jizzum in its nose. It was going to be fired at the Andromeda Galaxy, two-million light years away. The ship was named the Arthur C. Clarke, in honor of a famous space pioneer.
It was to be fired at midnight on the Fourth of July. At ten o’clock that night, Dwayne Hoobler and his wife Grace were watching the countdown on television in the living room of their modest home in Elk Harbor, Ohio, on the shore of what used to be Lake Erie. Lake Erie was almost solid sewage now. There were man-eating lampreys in there thirty-eight feet long. Dwayne was a guard in the Ohio Adult Correctional Institution, which was two miles away. His hobby was making birdhouses out of Clorox bottles. He went on making them and hanging them around his yard, even though there weren’t any birds any more.
Dwayne and Grace marveled at a film demonstration of how jizzum had been freeze-dried for the trip. A small beaker of the stuff, which had been contributed by the head of the Mathematics Department at the University of Chicago, was flash-frozen. Then it was placed under a bell jar, and the air was exhausted from the jar. The air evanesced, leaving a fine white powder. The powder certainly didn’t look like much, and Dwayne Hoobler said so—but there were several hundred million sperm cells in there, in suspended animation. The original contribution, an average contribution, had been two cubic centimeters. There was enough powder, Dwayne estimated out loud, to clog the eye of a needle. And eight-hundred pounds of the stuff would soon be on its way to Andromeda.
“Fuck you, Andromeda,” said Dwayne, and he wasn’t being coarse. He was echoing billboards and stickers all over town. Other signs said, “Andromeda, We Love You,” and “Earth has the Hots for Andromeda,” and so on.
There was a knock on the door, and an old friend of the family, the County Sheriff, simultaneously let himself in. “How are you, you old motherfucker?” said Dwayne.
“Can’t complain, shitface,” said the sheriff, and they joshed back and forth like that for a while. Grace chuckled, enjoying their wit. She wouldn’t have chuckled so richly, however, if she had been a little more observant. She might have noticed that the sheriff’s jocularity was very much on the surface. Underneath, he had something troubling on his mind. She might have noticed, too, that he had legal papers in his hand.
“Sit down, you silly old fart,” said Dwayne, “and watch Andromeda get the surprise of her life.”
“The way I understand it,” the sheriff replied, “I’d have to sit there for more than two-million years. My old lady might wonder what’s become of me.” He was a lot smarter than Dwayne. He had jizzum on the Arthur C. Clarke, and Dwayne didn’t. You had to have an I.Q. of over 115 to have your jizzum accepted. There were certain exceptions to this: if you were a good athlete or could play a musical instrument or paint pictures, but Dwayne didn’t qualify in any of those ways, either. He had hoped that birdhouse-makers might be entitled to special consideration, but this turned out not to be the case. The Director of the New York Philharmonic, on the other hand, was entitled to contribute a whole quart, if he wanted to. He was sixty-eight years old. Dwayne was forty-two.
There was an old astronaut on the television now. He was saying that he sure wished he could go where his jizzum was going. But he would sit at home instead, with his memories and a glass of Tang. Tang used to be the official drink of the astronauts. It was a freeze-dried orangeade.
“Maybe you haven’t got two million years,” said Dwayne, “but you’ve got at least five minutes. Sit thee doon.”
“What I’m here for—” said the sheriff, and he let his unhappiness show, “is something I customarily do standing up.”
Dwayne and Grace were sincerely puzzled. They didn’t have the least idea what was coming next. Here is what it was: the sheriff handed each one of them a subpoena, and he said, “It’s my sad duty to inform you that your daughter, Wanda June, has accused you of ruining her when she was a child.”
Dwayne and Grace were thunderstruck. They knew that Wanda June was twenty-one now, and entitled to sue, but they certainly hadn’t expected her to do so. She was in New York City, and when they congratulated her about her birthday on the telephone, in fact, one of the things Grace said was, “Well, you can sue us now, honeybunch, if you want to.” Grace was so sure she and Dwayne had been good parents that she could laugh when she went on, “If you want to, you can send your rotten old parents off to jail.”
Wanda June was an only child, incidentally. She had come close to having some siblings, but Grace had had them aborted. Grace had taken three table lamps and a bathroom scale instead.
“What does she say we did wrong?” Grace asked the sheriff.
“There’s a separate list of charges inside each of your subpoenas,” he said. And he couldn’t look his wretched old friends in the eye, so he looked at the television instead. A scientist there was explaining why Andromeda had been selected as a target. There were at least eighty-seven chronosynclastic infundibulae, time warps, between Earth and the Andromeda Galaxy. If the Arthur C. Clarke passed through any one of them, the ship and its load would be multiplied a trillion times, and would appear everywhere throughout space and time.
“If there’s any fecundity anywhere in the Universe,” the scientist promised, “our seed will find it and bloom.”
One of the most depressing things about the space program so far, of course, was that it had demonstrated that fecundity was one hell of a long way off, if anywhere. Dumb people like Dwayne and Grace, and even fairly smart people like the sheriff, had been encouraged to believe that there was hospitality out there, and that Earth was just a piece of shit to use as a launching platform.
Now Earth really was a piece of shit, and it was beginning to dawn on even dumb people that it might be the only inhabitable planet human beings would ever find.
Grace was in tears over being sued by her daughter, and the list of charges she was reading was broken into multiple images by the tears. “Oh God, oh God, oh God—” she said, “she’s talking about things I forgot all about, but she never forgot a thing. She’s talking about something that happened when she was only four years old.”
Dwayne was reading charges against himself, so he didn’t ask Grace what awful thing she was supposed to have done when Wanda June was only four, but here it was: Poor little Wanda June drew pretty pictures with a crayon all over the new living-room wallpaper to make her mother happy. Her mother blew up and spanked her instead. Since that day, Wanda June claimed, she had not been able to look at any sort of art materials without trembling like a leaf and breaking out into cold sweats. “Thus was I deprived,” Wanda June’s lawyer had her say, “of a brilliant and lucrative career in the arts.”
Dwayne meanwhile was learning that he had ruined his daughter’s opportunities for what her lawyer called an “advantageous marriage and the comfort and love therefrom.” Dwayne had done this, supposedly, by being half in the bag whenever a suitor came to call. Also, he was often stripped to the waist when he answered the door, but still had on his cartridge belt and his revolver. She was even able to name a lover her father had lost for her: John L. Newcomb, who had finally married somebody else. He had a very good job now. He was in command of the security force at an arsenal out in South Dakota, where they stockpiled cholera and bubonic plague.
The sheriff had still more bad news to deliver, and he knew he would have an opportunity to deliver it soon enough. Poor Dwayne and Grace were bound to ask him, “What made her do this to us?” The answer to that question would be more bad news, which was that Wanda June was in jail, charged with being the head of a shoplifting ring. The only way she could avoid prison was to prove that everything she was and did was her parents’ fault.
Meanwhile, Senator Flem Snopes of Mississippi, Chairman of the Senate Space Committee, had appeared on the television screen. He was very happy about the Big Space Fuck, and he said it had been what the American space program had been aiming toward all along. He was proud, he said, that the United States had seen fit to locate the biggest jizzum-freezing plant in his “l’il ol’ home town,” which was Mayhew.
The word “jizzum” had an interesting history, by the way. It was as old as “fuck” and “shit” and so on, but it continued to be excluded from dictionaries, long after the others were let in. This was because so many people wanted it to remain a truly magic word—the only one left.
And when the United States announced that it was going to do a truly magical thing, was going to fire sperm at the Andromeda Galaxy, the populace corrected its government. Their collective unconscious announced that it was time for the last magic word to come into the open. They insisted that sperm was nothing to fire at another galaxy. Only jizzum would do. So the Government began using that word, and it did something that had never been done before, either: it had standardized the way the word was spelled.
The man who was interviewing Senator Snopes asked him to stand up so everybody could get a good look at his codpiece, which the Senator did. Codpieces were very much in fashion, and many men were wearing codpieces in the shape of rocket ships, in honor of the Big Space Fuck. These customarily had the letters “U.S.A.” embroidered on the shaft. Senator Snopes’ shaft, however, bore the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.
This led the conversation into the area of heraldry in general, and the interviewer reminded the Senator of his campaign to eliminate the bald eagle as the national bird. The Senator explained that he didn’t like to have his country represented by a creature that obviously hadn’t been able to cut the mustard in modern times.
Asked to name a creature that had been able to cut the mustard, the Senator did better than that: he named two—the lamprey and the bloodworm. And, unbeknownst to him or to anybody, lampreys were finding the Great Lakes too vile and noxious even for them. While all the human beings were in their houses, watching the Big Space Fuck, lampreys were squirming out of the ooze and onto land. Some of them were nearly as long and thick as the Arthur C. Clarke.
And Grace Hoobler tore her wet eyes from what she had been reading, and she asked the sheriff the question he had been dreading to hear: “What made her do this to us?”
The sheriff told her, and then he cried out against cruel Fate, too. “This is the most horrible duty I ever had to carry out—” he said brokenly, “to deliver news this heartbreaking to friends as close as you two are—on a night that’s supposed to be the most joyful night in the history of mankind.”
He left sobbing, and stumbled right into the mouth of a lamprey. The lamprey ate him immediately, but not before he screamed. Dwayne and Grace Hoobler rushed outside to see what the screaming was about, and the lamprey ate them, too.
It was ironical that their television set continued to report the countdown, even though they weren’t around any more to see or hear or care.
“Nine!” said a voice. And then, “Eight!” And then, “Seven!” And so on.
And so it goes.