Novel * Kurt Vonnegut * Ice-Nine-Apocalypse * 1963
If there’s one problem with stories about the end of the world, it’s that they often take themselves way too seriously. I mean, whatever, society as we know it has ended and millions are dead, but where’s your sense of humor? Well, you can accuse Vonnegut of many things (being a subversive force on morality, being a literary light-weight, etc.) but one thing you can’t say is that he doesn’t appreciate the absurdity of humanity. Cat’s Cradle depicts the final end of the entire planet, and does so with none of the dreadful weight of most apocalyptic fiction. It’s like the polar opposite of The Road. Instead of dwelling on tragedy and darkness, Vonnegut examines religion and science with a light touch, despite the whole apocalypse thing. It is a very silly book.
The story is told by a man who wants to be known as Jonah, but is named John. He is convinced that he was appointed to be in certain places in his life at particular times, and as such is why he now considers himself a Bokononist. That’s not a real thing, by the way, it’s a fictional religion that is integral to the plot of the book. Anyway, John recounts how he got himself caught up in a world-ending situation, which was by trying to write a book called The Day the World Ended. While researching the birth of the atom bomb, he met and became enmeshed in the lives of the children of Felix Hoenikker, the chief scientist responsible for the bomb. Old Felix was one of these absent-minded super-geniuses, you see. During one of John’s interviews, he discovers a project that Hoenikker was working on before he died. This project was intended to study the different crystallization patterns of ice. Hoenikker was attempting to figure out a way to reconfigure ice crystals so that a new ice with an extremely high melting temperature could be created. It would also have a property of self-propagation, so that if this new ice were to come into contact with water, it would immediately turn into this new ice. This theory was termed ‘ice-nine,’ and oh, it turns out it’s a real thing, and slivers of it are in the possession of Felix’s kids.
Cat’s Cradle moves with incredible speed (we’re talking like a chapter a page, and there aren’t that many pages), and once the idea of ice-nine is presented there is little stopping the narrative from moving immediately to a situation where it can come into play. The second half of the novel takes place on the island of San Lorenzo, which is frankly a trash island. It’s really depicted just horribly. The island’s one redeeming value is one of its inhabitants, a man named Bokonon, and his teachings. His religion is founded on the concept of embracing sweet lies. Everyone on the island is a devout Bokononist, despite the religion being outlawed by the dictator of the island (who is himself a devout Bokononist). John arrives on the island in the company of some very silly Americans and the children of Felix Hoenikker. His kids are all very strange. The eldest is his daughter, Angela, who is uptight and unpleasant but can really rock the clarinet. The oldest son is Frank, who is also unpleasant, but is a socially awkward nerd who happens to live on San Lorenzo as the dictator’s second-in-command. For reasons. The youngest son is named Newt, and he’s a little person. That’s his whole thing, it seems. Also this was written in 1963 so Newt is referred to as a midget like 500 times. Anyway, John meets up with all these weirdos and hijinks ensue. If by hijinks you mean facilitate the end of the world.
Cat’s Cradle is Kurt Vonnegut’s reaction to the creation of the atomic bomb. It is an absurd reaction to an absurd event. You see, right around the middle of the 20th century, humanity finally figured out a means to utterly destroy itself. By 1963, nuclear technology was reaching a point where armaments were both strong enough and plentiful enough to pretty much take care of humans as a species (and most other species as well). Even if you acknowledge that people are pretty adaptive and could find a way to survive the initial bombardment and subsequent nuclear winter scenario, global nation-states as we know them would be as immediately vaporized as any city unfortunate enough to be located under a hydrogen bomb. So, that’s something we as a species have been able to do for about sixty years now. And that’s real dumb. Of course, there is a clear, logical train of thought that brought the United States to a place where creating and deploying weapons of such magnitude made sense. At the same time, there was no way to un-make our status as a nuclear power, especially when our chief ideological rivals soon adopted the same technology. Before too long, the world was in a phase of nuclear stalemate where the entirety of the species was being held at the whim of two superpowers. That’s terrifying, but also kind of hilarious. Like, what? One dude could legitimately make a unilateral decision to end… everything? Turns out, yeah, pretty much. It’s this kind of absurdity that Cat’s Cradle is concerned with.
On the surface, it seems that the chief architect of this kind of silliness is science. Specifically, with the amoral practice of it by Felix Hoenikker. It is made clear right up front, and then throughout the narrative, that Felix cared little for other people and was far more interested in seeing where his brain would take him. He was less interested in the practical outcome of these various mind-games and more in the problem-solving itself. He scienced for science’s sake, in other words. Of course, powerful institutions are going to attempt to harness that kind of genius, and that’s where the real problems start. Felix on his own is harmless. Felix, with the resources of the United States government at his disposal, can inadvertently change the world. And of course that’s precisely what happens. Cat’s Cradle is an absurd story about humanity’s ability to destroy itself, but part of that is purely unintended consequence. After all, the only thing the military was after in the case of ice-nine was a means to avoid getting stuck in the mud. What they failed to account for was general human silliness and sloppiness. Once Felix’s children get involved, the means to end humanity is disseminated among world powers almost instantly, in the most sadly sordid ways imaginable. There is an air of inevitability about all of it.
In this light, Cat’s Cradle comes off as almost nihilistic. Its redemptive value is, of course, that Vonnegut doesn’t get all goth and mopey about it. The book demonstrates a kind of gleeful nihilism. Humans are crazy and stupid, they get up to all kinds of silly shit for no particularly good reason, and one day we’re going to inadvertently kill ourselves in the process of being ridiculous. That’s a bleak outlook, for sure, but at least it is presented in a celebratory way. If we all embrace Bokononism, which is to say sweet sweet lies, the actual darkness of humanity’s suicidal impulses won’t suppress us with its overwhelming weight. And that’s gotta count for something.