1969: "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." Kurt Vonnegut, haunted since World War II by his memories of living through the Dresden firestorm, at last finds a way to deal with it in fiction. His acclaimed novel Slaughterhouse-Five counterpoints the horrors and atrocities with manic whimsy as the scenes of time-jumping Pilgrim's life are shuffled out of order, switching between childhood, war years and the ultimate wish-fulfilment of making love to a movie star in an alien zoo on the planet Tralfamadore (where the UFOs come from). Eventually the war fades out in a snatch of birdsong: "Poo-tee-weet?"
2007: The BBC report of Vonnegut's death on 11 April (he was 84) takes a familiar smack at SF: "His first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1951. The story, which describes a world in which machines have taken over, led to the author being dismissed as a science fiction writer."
1952: In Player Piano, the joke is that its revolt against automation is doomed because of humans' fatal ingenuity and big brains. Shortly after the neo-Luddites smash the machines (though only in a few US cities), they're happily tinkering with the bits and putting them together again.
1973: "And so on." That's the repeated chorus of Breakfast of Champions (not Vonnegut's best book), which even ends with a giant scrawled ETC. Somehow he could nail these deceptively simple catchphrases into your head ... most famously in Slaughterhouse-Five, where death after death is marked with the fatalistic words "So it goes." When the bad news hit the net, too many of us found ourselves thinking, "So he went."
2003: Vonnegut, not a religious believer, reminisces about succeeding Isaac Asimov as honorary president of the American Humanist Association. At atheist Asimov's memorial service ... "I said, 'Isaac is up in Heaven now.' It was the funniest thing I could have said to a group of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, 'Kurt is up in Heaven now.' That's my favorite joke." Go on, say it.
1963: Cat's Cradle brings the world to an inconclusive end with Vonnegut's purest SF invention, ice-nine. This alternative ice melts at 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit. When it comes into contact with water cooler than that – in a pond, a sea, a human body – the liquid instantly crystallises. Meanwhile the deeply cynical religion of Bokononism offers new philosophical concepts like wampeters and granfalloons, and above all insists that Bokonon's own teachings are the purest foma, most tactfully translated as "harmless untruths". Unforgettable.
1965: Vonnegut on pigeonholes ... "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'Science Fiction' ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal." This wording wasn't seen until the 1974 book version. Apparently his final noun was too much for the New York Times, which printed "tall white fixture in a comfort station".
1959: The Sirens of Titan is an exuberant black farce, introducing the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. It reveals that the whole of human history was shaped by far-off aliens to produce a spare part for their stranded courier on Titan. His message, which will take another 18 million years to deliver and isn't even addressed to us, consists of one word: "Greetings."
1972: Our man causes enduring pain to librarians with his short story title "The Big Space Fuck".
1967: Vonnegut's on/off relation with science fiction is summed up in his non-SF God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, whose hero Eliot Rosewater drunkenly addresses an SF writers' convention: "I love you sons of bitches. You're all I read any more." Although, on the very next page, "Eliot admitted later that science-fiction writers couldn't write for sour apples ..."
1985: A happy ending for humanity in another satire, Galápagos. Most of us don't make it, but through a series of daft coincidences ten characters survive the end of the world – evolving over the next million years into merry, flippered, seal-like creatures with small brains instead of the big ones that caused all the trouble. He was such a cheerful pessimist.
2007: The front page at www.kurtvonnegut.com shows a simple cartoon of a birdcage, empty, with the door open. "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1922-2007." That's all. Kurt Vonnegut has come unstuck in time. Poo-te-weet.
David Langford read Cat's Cradle while at school and has been haunted by it ever since.