Cat’s Cradle, Ice Nine and Bokononism

cover of book
Cover of the first edition of the novel in 1963

Cat’s Cradle is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut that I read in my high school years (though not as part of the school curriculum!) and I had the opportunity to teach it to high school students.

It is Vonnegut’s fourth novel and was published in 1963. It is a satire of science, technology, religion, and the nuclear arms race, often through the use of black humor. Not surprisingly for a Vonnegut book, it is funny and it is serious.

The narrator of the novel is an author writing a book about the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima entitled The Day the World Ended. He begins the book by stating “Call me Jonah” – alluding to the first line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) and to the Biblical Jonah and the whale. But the writer’s name is actually John. In a way, this narrator and Moby-Dick‘s narrator Ishmael share some traits. They are simultaneously a narrator and a protagonist within their own stories. Though the book is more than 60 years old, no spoilers, but maybe their ultimate fates are also similar.

Researching the book, the narrator travels to Ilium, New York, the hometown of the late Felix Hoenikker. He was a co-creator of the atomic bomb and a Nobel laureate physicist. He becomes involved with the Hoenikker children when he interviews them along with Felix’s coworkers, and acquaintances.

He learns of a substance called ice-nine, created for military use by Hoenikker and now likely shared by his three adult children. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. It also acts as a seed crystal and upon contact with any liquid water it causes that liquid water to instantly transform into more ice-nine.

Dropping ice-nine into a pond would freeze the pond and any surrounding wet land. If a human was in the pond, the liquid water in them would also instantly change into ice-nine. It would be a more destructive weapon than any nuclear bomb as it would eventually freeze the entire planet and everything living on it.

Cats-cradle.svg
“Cradle”, the opening position of Cat’s cradle

The novel’s title comes from a story that Hoenniker’s younger son, a dwarf named Newt, tells the narrator. When asked what Felix was doing when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, Newt says that he was just idly playing the string game “cat’s cradle.” Cat’s cradle is played by two or more people playing cooperatively.  John notes that there is no cat and there is no cradle.

The novel takes the threat of nuclear destruction during the Cold War as one of its main themes. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of mutual assured destruction in 1962 and was certainly part of Vonnegut’s motivation. In the move, possessing some Ice Nine becomes it own arms race and a person or small country can have great power by having it.

I taught Vonnegut’s novel along with another nuclear satire, The Mouse That Roared, which was a 1955 satire about an imaginary country in Europe called the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. Grand Fenwick is known for its wine, but a California winery creates a cheap version of it. Economically threatened, Grand Fenwick decides to declare war on the United States. Obviously, if they attack the U.S. with their tiny and ill-equipped (with bows and arrows) army they will be quickly defeated. They invade New York City.

It seems like a stupid plan but what they expect is that after being quickly defeated they can rebuild their economy since the United States always pumps millions or billions of dollars into its vanquished enemies. Think of what the U.S. did for Germany through the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II.

Through a series of accidents and coincidences during the invasion of New York City, the Grand Fenwick army comes into possession of a “quantum bomb” being developed in a secret lab there. The Q-Bomb is a prototype doomsday device created by Dr. Kokintz, a rather absent-minded professor. This bomb has a theoretical explosive potential greater than all the nuclear weapons of the United States and the Soviet Union combined. Though no one knows if it would actually work because, obviously, it can’t be tested. Having the bomb makes Grand Fenwick a major world power overnight.

The book is funny and was made into a comedy film starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles. But the novel is also a commentary on the politics of the time, the nuclear arms race, and the politics of the United States.

Nuclear war doesn’t get the attention today that it had in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not that the world powers have disarmed or that there is no threat, but somehow it has moved back in world issues.

Kurt
Vonnegut in 1972

Another big theme in the novel is Vonnegut’s take on religion. He describes a religion secretly practiced by the people of the island nation of San Lorenzo. There are many San Lorenzo places in the world – none of them is Vonnegut’s fictional Caribbean island nation. Officially, San Lorenzo is a Christian nation but it also has its own native religion, Bokononism.

Bokonism is based on enjoying life through believing “foma” which are harmless lies, and by taking encouragement where you can. Bokononism was founded by Boyd Johnson (whose name is pronounced “Bokonon” in San Lorenzan dialect). The religion is outlawed. Bokonon himself conceived this outlawing because he knew that forbidding the religion would only make it spread quicker.

Bokononism secretly is the dominant religion of nearly everyone on the island, including the leaders who outlawed it. Many of its sacred texts, collectively called The Books of Bokonon, are written in the form of calypso songs. Bokononist rituals are often absurd. Their supreme religious act is for two worshippers to rub the bare soles of their feet together. This merging of soles (souls) is meant to inspire spiritual connection.

Here are some Bokononist terms:

karass – A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.

duprass – a karass of only two people, who almost always die within a week of each other. A common example is a loving couple who work together for a great purpose.

granfalloon – a false karass, such as a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. An example given is is “Hoosiers” – people from Indiana, who have no true spiritual destiny in common and share little more than a name. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. If you want to know about a granfalloon, just look inside a balloon, sings the Bokonists.

I like their term sinookas which are the intertwining “tendrils” of peoples’ lives. I believe in that part of their religion.

Maybe you know the string game. Maybe you’ve heard the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle” (in which I see no connection with the novel). The book has more directly influenced others in many creative works. I wrote elsewhere about a band called Ice Nine Kills.

But the allusion to Vonnegut’s Ice Nine that I discovered that was most interesting – and most frightening – is “Ice IX.”

Ice IX is an actual form of solid water that has been created.  I learned that there is also ice II, ice III, and all the way to ice XVIII. The “ordinary” water you freeze for drinks is known as ice Ih. All the forms of water have been created in the laboratory at different temperatures and pressures. And you thought you learned in school that water could be a liquid, solid, or gas and that was all of it.

I hope none of them work like Vonnegut’s imagined weapon and no one ever develops his Ice Nine.

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Ken

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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