Monday, June 1, 2009

70. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

July 2007
History: A 1963 science fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It explores issues of science, technology, and religion, satirizing the arms race and many other targets along the way.
Plot: At the opening of the book, the narrator, an everyman named John, describes a time when he was planning to write a book about what important Americans did on the day Hiroshima was bombed. While researching this topic, John becomes involved with the children of Felix Hoenikker, a fictional Nobel laureate physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. As the novel progresses, John learns of a substance called ice-nine, created by the late Hoenikker and now secretly in the possession of his children. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. When a crystal of ice-nine is brought into contact with liquid water, it becomes a seed crystal that 'teaches' the molecules of liquid water to arrange themselves into the solid form, ice-nine.
Felix Hoenikker, although dead, is in some ways the central character of the book. It is the narrator's quest for biographical details about Hoenikker that provides both the background and the connecting thread between the various subsections of the story. Hoeniker himself is depicted as amoral and apathetic towards anything other than his research, a genius who does not care how his research is used, as in his role of "Father of the Atomic Bomb", and in his creation of "ice-nine", something he saw as a mental puzzle (suggested by a Pentagon general) which ends up destroying life on Earth.
John and the Hoenikker children eventually end up on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, one of the poorest countries on Earth, where the people speak a barely comprehensible Creole of English. For example "twinkle, twinkle, little star" is rendered "Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store". It is ruled by the fictional dictator, "Papa" Monzano, who threatens all opposition with impalement on a giant hook, although it is revealed later on that the hook is only actually used once every two years.
The religion of the people of San Lorenzo, called Bokononism, encompasses concepts unique to the novel. The supreme act of worship of the Bokononists is called 'boku-maru', which is an intimate act consisting of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of the feet of two persons.
It is supposed to result in peace and joy between the two communicants. Though all native San Lorenzans are Bokononists, following the religion is punished with death by the dictator when detected. Ironically, the dictator himself approves of and practices Bokononism. Two men landed on the island, one of them founded the religion, and the other became the island's first dictator. The two men worked to spread the religion, while officially the dictator banned it. Now that the people have to suffer for their beliefs, the founders believe their subjects will value those beliefs more. This new dictator is hailed as "one of Freedom's greatest friends" by representatives of the American government. The founder of the religion is rumored to still be alive and roaming the island somewhere, but the Bokononists' peculiar philosophies permeate the story.
The dictator has given Felix Hoenikker's son, Frank, a high government appointment in exchange for a piece of ice-nine, and the dictator uses the ice-nine to commit suicide as he lies dying from inoperable cancer. Consistent with the properties of ice-nine, the dictator's corpse instantly turns into a block of solid ice at normal room temperature. A sudden airplane crash into the dictator's seaside palace causes his still-frozen body to tumble into the ocean, at which point all the water in the world's seas, rivers, and groundwater also turns into ice-nine in a gigantic chain reaction, which destroys the ecology of the earth and causes the extinction of practically all life forms in only a few days.
John manages to escape from the desolation to a bomb shelter with his wife, "Papa" Monzano's adopted daughter Mona. John and Mona later discover a mass grave where all the surviving San Lorenzans had killed themselves with ice-nine, on the facetious advice of the apparently alive and resurfaced founder of Bokononism, Lionel Boyd Johnson (better known as Bokonon). Through a mix of grief and resigned amusement, Mona kills herself as well. John takes refuge with several surviving acquaintances, including an American expatriate couple and two of Felix Hoenikker's children, and lives in a cave for several months, during which time he writes a memoir, which is revealed to be the preceding novel itself. John eventually decides to climb the tallest mountain on the island, and on his way, comes across the weary and dying Bokonon. In the conclusion of the book, Bokonon advises John to climb the mountain and lie down on the summit with a book about the history of human stupidity (i.e. the book he's just written, Cat's Cradle) as his pillow, and kill himself by eating ice-nine, while "grinning horribly, and thumbing [his] nose at You Know Who."
The title of the book derives from the string game "cat's cradle". Early in the book, we learn that Felix Hoenikker was playing cat's cradle when the atom bomb was dropped. The game is later referenced by Newt Hoenikker, Felix's midget son.
Irving Langmuir came up with the idea of ice-nine as a way to entertain H.G. Wells who visited Schenectady in the 1930s. In terms of characterization, however, Hoenikker is a composite figure assembled from Stanislaw Ulam and Edward Teller, the two scientists who finalized the mathematics for the H-Bomb.
Review: Another hilarious book. This is really just a satirical outlook about post nuclear America, the character that built the bomb, and then the narrator meets him on an island and the natives speak this funky language. It just goes on and on.
Opening Line: “Call me Jonah.”
Closing Line: “If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mt McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue and white poison that makes , statues of men, and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, thumbing up my nose at You Know Who.”
Quotes: "Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?'
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand."
“Nothing in this book is true.”
Rating: Okay

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