For nearly 50 years, people lived in dread of the mushroom cloud, plagued by worries of its flattening out entire cities in a blinding flash. Beginning with the Manhattan Project and until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. detonated 1,054 nuclear devices, most of them in a desert stretch, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The paranoia touched just about everyone outside the perimeters of military bases and those not wearing badges of authority. Back during the Cold War, one could, one supposes, choose either to be consumed by fear of radioactive vaporization, or carry on living, knowing that one could, should the need arise, crawl into a fallout shelter and pray.
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” is a smoking satire of, broadly, the nuclear weapons program.
Its first line, “Call me Jonah” (in a nod to Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” which opens with the succinct sentence, “Call me Ishmael”) invites us to join the narrator, on his journey to writing a non-fiction titled, “The Day the World Ended.”
The work was to be a chronicle of the activities that influential Americans were engaged in on the day the U.S. dropped “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima, on December 6, 1945.
That seemingly goes nowhere.
But as this book progresses, he’s bitten by the bug to find out about the existence of a substance called “ice-nine,” a secret invention of the man credited to be the chief architect of the atom bomb, the Nobel Prize-winner, Felix Hoenikker.
That mission too, would’ve hit a cul-de-sac had it not been for a serendipitous discovery in a newspaper.
A blue-white gem, “ice-nine” is an altered, crystalline form of water, which on contact with the regular solvent, anywhere, instantly freezes it solid. The “seed of doom,” as he calls it, is a weapon of mass destruction, he ascertains, but he hasn’t seen it in action.
A burning desire to learn about this elusive and evil compound takes him overseas, to an abjectly poor Caribbean republic of San Lorenzo. Rather, it’s kismet that sends him there, he notes.
So, he pauses to doff his hat to fate, albeit mockingly, at every juncture, peppering his narrative with, “As it happened—as it was supposed to happen.”
On the plane ride, he bumps into members of the peculiar Hoenikker family, a midget painter and his sister, an uncomely giantess, both on their way to attend the wedding of their middle sibling, a wanted man in his own country, yet, a top brass in a foreign dictatorship.
Once in San Lorenzo, Jonah discovers that each of the three Hoenikker kids is in possession of a piece of “ice-nine” and has used it to buy plum favors.
Vonnegut invents the cult of Bokononism and uses its absurd tenets and rituals to pooh-pooh the essence of government, human relationships, religion, and life itself.
The Books of Bokonon begins with the disclaimer: “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” This statement sums up Vonnegut’s attitude to all religions.
Explaining the genesis of Bokononism, Jonah writes, when it became certain that no economic measure could better the lives of the people, “religion became the one real instrument of hope.” It served to sugarcoat bitter truths with layer upon layer of white lies, just so they could bear it.
Though the science is all fictional, the novel isn’t in the conventional sense of the term, a science-fiction, but more a fable that alerts us to the dark side of science and the folly of genius scientists. One would recognize that “ice-nine” is an oblique allusion to fissile materials.
“Science—you have science. Science is the strongest thing there is,” the island’s ailing dictator tells his right-hand man, as he anoints him his successor.
Ironically, it’s “science” that triggers off an environmental Armageddon, brought on by the crashing into the ocean of a corpse.
The world does end, in a manner—but not in the way you’d expect.
“A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between a person’s hands” and is a picture of the meaninglessness and futility of life.
The end is well worth the wait, for it delivers a mind-blowing kicker. Vonnegut reserves the best for the last: “The moist green earth was a blue-white pearl. The sky darkened. The sky was filled with worms. The worms were tornadoes.”