Wednesday, April 25, 2012

157. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's Cradle (Dial Press, 1963; 287) by Kurt Vonnegut takes a humourous look at science and religion and how scientists, even with the best of intentions, cannot in any way predict the effects of their inventions. It also provides a clear presentation of what is meant by religion being the opium of the masses. Vonnegut, through his ability to poke fun at will, treats his themes with all the apocalyptic concerns they deserve. His exploration into the dangerous effects of religion and science is germane even in today's world where the nuclear race is subtly raging and countries with such weapons have refused to completely denuclearised, using it as a bargaining chip - cleaning its innards anytime they want to flex their military prowess, and those without are eagerly acquiring it through any possible deception they can spin. Today, woe betides the country without nuclear weapons, a country incapable of destroying the world with one missile. For such countries, they move when others tell them to move. Another reason that makes Cat's Cradle a great novel, almost half a century after publication, is the raging conflict between science and religion and the leaps and bounds at which scientific knowledge is growing. It is interesting to note that almost always, when scientists obtain a breakthrough, the first application is toward saving lives and improving the lives we live; yet, in the end, it becomes a weapon to kill the masses with.

In Cat's Cradle, John Hoosier - who refers to himself as Jonah - had set out to write a book titled The Day the World Ended which was meant to chronicle what people were doing the day America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In his research, John came across the Nobel Laureate, Physicist Dr Felix Hoenikker, who was part or head of the team that developed the atom bomb. He took interest in Dr Hoenikker but because the man had died he set out to interview his three eccentric children: the midget Newton who was the youngest and had been thrown out of pre-med at Cornell, the giantess Angela who was taken out of high school by Felix when his wife died to help keep the home and have a woman around him, and Franklin who was good at building models (cars, planes, etc.). John's investigations also took him to Dr. Asa Breed, a colleague of Felix, of whom it was speculated fathered Felix's three children; for it was said of Felix that he had no interest in people. His singular focus was his research and inventions. It was in a conversation with Dr Breed that John heard of ice-nine. The Marines had approached Felix with a problem: they want something that would make it easy for them to move out of mud or muck; they are tired of the dirt. Dr Hoenikker had found a way around this problem and that was ice-nine, which was a chemical grain capable of rearranging the water molecules in a way to quickly solidify it even at room temperature. But there is one significant problem: every water source close to or that fed the mud will freeze and this will continue infinitely, which means that every water source on earth could freeze including the rains. However, Dr Breed did not believe that Dr Hoenikker moved beyond the concept of its possibility to its development. But he did.

And on the day he died, having already told his children what he had produce, the three children divided the ice-nine amongst themselves and each went his/her way. Angela used hers to get herself a husband after years of incarceration. Dr Conners, having been told of the existence of ice-nine, began producing it on large scale to the American government. Part of Newt's (Newton) share was stolen by the Ukrainian midget with whom he had fallen in love with for a brief period and had had a brief vacation with at his father's Cape Cod residence. It turned out that the midget was a spy for the Russians. Franklin (Frank) had used his ice-nine as a bargaining chip to become the Major-General in a poor Caribbean country called San Lorenzo. John, after leaving Dr Breed's, found out in the supplementary papers of the New York Times that Franklin was in San Lorenzo. It was also here that he realised that the ice-nine was produced and had been shared amongst Felix's children.

San Lorenzo is a small country with only one city that had been colonised by every possible developed country, from the French to the Danes. It has one city, Bolivar, and one taxi service. Almost all the properties on the island belong to Julian Castle and his son, Phillip, and the president. The people speak a certain kind of patois. The recent founders of the country were: Lionel Boyd Johnson and Corporal McCabe. Because the land is not fertile enough and there are no jobs and no ways of improving the living standards of the people, McCabe and Johnson threw out all religions and created a new religion, Bokononism. Thus, Johnson became known as Bokonon. And in order to give the religious life of the people more zest, the two connived to ban Bokononism and Bokonon. People zealously and seriously became Bokononists and even though it was banned people secretly practiced it. To show how serious a crime it was to be one, the de facto president McCabe erected a hook where once every two years someone is impaled, to increase enthusiasm. When McCabe died his major-domo, "Papa" Monzano was made the president. "Papa", as he is known and referred to, was a staunch ally of America and abhors Communism to the core. He regards any opposition as a communist. When John was making his way into San Lorenzo, on the transit plane, he met Angela and Newt on their way to attending Franklin's engagement to "Papa" Monzano's adopted daughter, Mona Aamons Monzano. Also on the plane were the new American Ambassador to San Lorenzo and his wife and a bicycle-making businessman who is eager to invest in the country. They were met on arrival by "Papa" himself. But he was sick, suffering from cancer.

"Papa" collapsed and was rushed to Dr Von Koenigswald who was doing penance for all the people he killed during holocaust. But "Papa" later committed suicide with ice-nine (and his body turned solid) and that was when the apocalypse began. Because people were unaware of what had suddenly killed him; they knew not how to protect themselves and anyone who touched any infected substance and touched his mouth suddenly froze and died. That same time there were rockslides and tornadoes that destroyed the castle where "Papa" was and which further spread the ice-nine. The seas became solid and so too did the sky and the sun and every water body. John and Mona escaped into an oubliette "Papa" had built and were protected against the poison. Three days later, when John and Mona left their hideout and were surveying the damage caused by the storms and the poison, they realised that everybody above ground had either been killed by the poison or by thirst; they also came across a group of dead bodies whose hands were stuffed into their mouths. A note by Bokonon and stuck to a boulder and addressed to 'whom it may concern' suggested that the people had caught him and had asked of him what exactly God wanted to do and he had told them that God wanted them to die because he was through with them. And lo and behold, the people committed suicide. Mona upon reading the note also touched the solid surface and touched her mouth. And she died. Later, John would find out that others like him had survived: Newt, H. Lowe Crosby (the bicycle manufacturer) and his wife Hazel.

All through the book, Bokonon told the people that he was fake, that his books - The Books of Bokonon - were full of lies and no one should believe them. He even told them of how he left the government and how the religion was created. In fact a warning on the title page of the book reads:
Don't be a fool! Close the book at once! It is nothing but foma
and 'foma' is 'harmless untruths'. The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon reads:
All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies
Regardless of these, the people worshipped Bokonon and followed some of what he said, the ones that enslaved and harmed them but not those that informed them of the uselessness of their beliefs. In fact, "Papa" Monzano, the president who was to enforce the ban against Bokonon, was himself a Bokononist and requested their ritual of feet-rubbing when he was about to die. However, there was some kind of insistence, some kind of eagerness to get Bokonon destroyed so that the people will learn science as science is the magic that works. But John who had early on been made the president, because Frank was afraid of the publicity, was willing to enforce the ban because of his helplessness and inability to improve the standard of living of the people. 

In some way Vonnegut's story is about science fulfilling religious prophecies about the final cataclysm, the apocalypse mentioned in all religious books that will destroy everything even if they were false prophecies; for instance, Dr Hoenikker manufactured and his children distributed the ice-nine, which ended up fulfilling Bokonon's prophecies about the end of the world and how God will take everything back.
Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,
And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.
And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,
Why go right ahead and scold Him. He'll just smile and nod. 
[A Bokononist Calypso]
Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle is a very interesting, albeit gloomy, kind of book; a dystopia if you wish but the gloominess is always lightened by his adept use of satire. It shows how uncontrolled scientific exploration when mixed with religious fundamentalism can cause extreme catastrophes much wider and more serious than Hiroshima.
"What hope can there be for mankind," I thought, "When there are such men as Felix Hoenikker to give such playthings as ice-nine to such short-sighted children as almost all men and women are?"
      And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?"
      It doesn't take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
      This is it:
The question today is for how long will the nuclear bombs remain inert? It takes one mad fundamentalist president or a fanatical iconoclast to change history's trajectory and the path of the human race. There were other themes other than these. The issue of rights and overstretched labour issues, which leads to no productivity were also raised and it was that which forced Mr Crossby to move into San Lorenzo.  This could be a commentary on misplaced priorities. America's fanaticism with itself as an omnipotent and impeccable entity - incapable of making mistakes - and therefore should be loved at all cost by all was treated with fun in the lives of Horlick Minton and his wife Claire when a letter Claire wrote in the New York Times was considered to exhibit softness toward communism and so cost her husband his job at the State Department. This part reminded me of Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values wherein he mentioned that a career diplomat's passionate hatred for Cuba is a sure way of getting promoted.

This book is recommended. 

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