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.

“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.

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.

Burning Slaughterhouse-Five

book burning
Photo by Movidagrafica Barcelona from Pexels

On November 10, 1973, school officials in Drake, North Dakota, burned copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

If you haven’t read the novel – and you should – it is the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who survives the bombing of Dresden. On February 13, 1945, allied aircraft dropped 4,500 tons of high-explosive and incendiary “firebombs” that devastated an area of around 13 square miles of that city.

Vonnegut enlisted in January 1943, three months after his mother’s suicide. He was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner in Dresden. He and some of his fellow POWs survived because they had been herded into an underground slaughterhouse meat locker called “Schlachthof-Funf.” Vonnegut called Dresden “possibly the world’s most beautiful city” and writing 20 years after the event he did not even try to describe the bombing because it was so horrific.

After the war, he went to graduate school (anthropology) worked as a publicist at General Electric, got married and had three kids and adopted three more, and tried writing novels. Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t a well-known novelist but he had published five novels before Slaughterhouse-Five. He had received some recognition for two sci-fi satires, Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, but it was Slaughterhouse-Five that made him an internationally-known writer.


The novel was a best-seller and received critical acclaim and eventually began to be taught in colleges and some high schools. It has also been banned many times, for being obscene, violent, and for what is sometimes seen as an unpatriotic description of the war.

In the North Dakota case, a young high school English teacher assigned Slaughterhouse-Five to his students. Most of them later said that they liked the book and some thought it was the best book they had read in school. When they were still reading and discussing the novel, one student complained to her mother about the obscene language. The parent went to the principal, who took the complaint up the chain of command. The school board voted that it should be not only confiscated from the students but also burned.

Some students didn’t want to give up their books, but officials searched lockers and confiscated all copies. A custodian at Drake’s combination elementary and high school put 32 paperback copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in the furnace beneath the school gym.

The school board also reviewed the English department’s reading list and decided to burn Deliverance by James Dickey and a short-story anthology.

Vonnegut wrote a letter to one of the members of the Drake school board:

Dear Mr. McCarthy:
I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school. […]
If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. […]
If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books — books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.
Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

I do recommend the novel. If you’re not a reader, there is a film version from 1972 directed by George Roy Hill. I wonder if any school board members had seen the film. I suspect they did not read the novel. And none of us can judge a novel by a film adaptation.

The film version of Slaughterhouse 5 does make clear the non-linear structure of the novel and the mixing in of science-fiction elements with the autobiographical WWII scenes. Billy Pilgrim lives segments of his life for a few minutes and sometimes gets unstuck in time and jumps years or decades into the past or future. Those jumps are not uncommon in films and in modern novels. Billy is a POW, then back to his work as an optometrist, then he is a plane crash survivor and then he’s a new father and even a UFO abductee. Vonnegut’s sci-fi is a big part of the novel as Billy is abducted by a race of fourth-dimensional beings called Tralfamadorians, who select him as an Earth specimen in their menagerie of lifeforms from across the universe.

But this is not a book review. This is the cautionary tale of censorship. A figurative firestorm hit Drake via the media in 1973. This little town of 650 people is still infamous for having burned those copies of what is more often considered to be a classic. The bannings of the novel continue.


“There is a planet in the Solar System where the people are so stupid they didn’t catch on for a million years that there was another half to their planet.” – Kilgore Trout

The timequakes keep happening to me in my reading and viewing.

I finished Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. which is a tough book to categorize. It is labeled as a novel and there are some parts credited to Kilgore Trout that are stories or fragments of stories. But Kurt enters frequently as himself adding passages that are autobiographical. It is a bit of a memoir, but since he treats fictional author Trout as a real person that he interacted with in life, the line is blurry.

“And so it goes…”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. published this in 1997 and it is his last “novel.” He died in 2007. Vonnegut described the book as a “stew” and it is that. Less of a novel and more of him summarizing a novel he had been trying to put together for years.

All that makes it sound like the book is a mess, but it’s not. I enjoyed it. Not as much as his other novels but three-star Vonnegut is still more enjoyable than a lot of other writing.

“And so it goes…”

What is a timequake? It is a repetition of actions. A quake in the continuum of Time.

The timequake in the book has quaked citizens of the year 2001 back in time to 1991. This global time travel is Einsteinian in that everyone is forced to repeat every action they undertook during that time. Kilgore Trout writes all over again every story he wrote the first time

So, in this story, Vonnegut is pondering free will, which after the timequake does not exist. Maybe it didn’t exist before. Vonnegut has explored determinism in earlier works.

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”

Kilgore Trout is a fictional character created by Vonnegut who is an unsuccessful author of paperback science fiction novels. We are told here that Trout died in 2001, at the Xanadu retreat in Rhode Island. Perhaps Kurt knew that his own end was near or was just thinking and preparing for it.

He said that he wasn’t happy with the first version of this book and so he went back and rewrote it and included more of his personal thoughts, anecdotes about his family and death. The deaths of Trout and also loved ones, and the last words of people.

He also brings in lots of depression and sadness that comes from observing our own bad choices and those of other people. There might be some relief after the timequake because then we would know that there was no free will. You can’t blame yourself for what happens if you don’t have the tree will to make those decisions. Can you?

“I didn’t need a timequake to teach me being alive was a crock of shit. I already knew that from my childhood and crucifixes and history books.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

Vonnegut has played with time before. People famously became “unstuck” in time in Slaughterhouse-Five, and here people have to watch loved ones die again. A drunk driver will again get drunk and cause a fatal accident.

When the timequake ended you might think people were happy, but no. Now they have control, free will, and it’s all up to them to screw up on their own.

“And so it goes…”

Kilgore Trout is not as sad or apathetic as others and he keeps telling people “You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.”

“My wife thinks I think I’m such hot stuff. She’s wrong. I don’t think I’m such hot stuff.
My hero George Bernard Shaw, socialist, and shrewd and funny playwright, said in his eighties that if he was considered smart, he sure pitied people who were considered dumb. He said that, having lived as long as he had, he was at last sufficiently wise to serve as a reasonably competent office boy.
That’s how I feel.”

* All quotations are Kurt Vonnegut


I have been rereading some of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut books lately. (Cat’s Cradle this past weekend.)

I wonder how he would feel about Kindle versions of his books? Would the sci-fi side of him embrace them?

It’s great that in his book Palm Sunday, Vonnegut “graded” his own writing saying that the grades “do not place me in literary history” and that he is comparing “myself with myself.”

The grades are:

Player Piano: B
The Sirens of Titan: A
Mother Night: A-plus
Cat’s Cradle: A-plus
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A
Slaughterhouse-Five: A-plus
Welcome to the Monkey House: B-minus
Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D
Breakfast of Champions: C
Slapstick: D
Jailbird: A
Palm Sunday: C

His ungraded titles include Armageddon in Retrospect, Timequake, Bluebeard: A Novel, Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction, A Man Without a Country, Fates Worse Than Death, Galapagos: A Novel, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, Deadeye Dick: A Novel,


There are a number of quotes sites that have Vonnegut quotes – and he’s very quotable – but here are a few of my favorites.

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. (Mother Night)

And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.  So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.  (A Man Without a Country)

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.  –  Slaughterhouse-Five

Cat's Cradle

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.
from Cat’s Cradle

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. (A Man Without a Country)

Dear future generations:
Please accept our apologies.
We were rolling drunk on petroleum.

2006 A.D.

And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.

Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you’ll look back and realize they were big things.

Dance Like No One is Watching.
Love Like You Have Never Been Hurt Before.
Go to Work Like You Don’t Need The Money.

If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way to make life more bearable. (A Man Without a Country)

Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning do to do afterward.

Hello babies,
Welcome to Earth.
It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
It’s round and wet and crowded.
On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here.
There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

Out of Print Slaughterhouse Five Book Women's Vintage Inspired T-Shirt

How nice–to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.

Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter could be said to remedy anything.

Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.  So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.   (Slaughterhouse-Five)

Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before: Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.

I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.    The Sirens of Titan

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops. –  Slaughterhouse-Five

Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music. I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.

Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.

I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did.

Welcome to the Monkey HouseSlapstick or Lonesome No More!: A Novel

A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.

Make love when you can. It’s good for you. – Mother Night

If you can do no good, at least do no harm. – Slapstick