When the narrator John sets out to write a book about what important people were doing during the Hiroshima bombing, he begins a journey into human destruction. Through the children of Felix Hoenikker, a co-founder of the atomic bomb, he learns of the mad genius of this nuclear physicist. And stumbles upon the man’s invention, ice-nine, a substance when in contact with water changes it to ice. Like the atomic bomb Vonnegut was alluding, ice-nine can destroy the world. Indeed, it did, changing the seas and oceans into ice, killing anyone whose lips touches it. That potential for human destruction has only increased since Vonnegut wrote the novel. We no longer doubt that we can tilt the earth’s axis, contaminate our food and water, and change the earth’s climates.
The Possibilities of Ice-Nine
When John travels to San Lorenzo, a Caribbean island, he learns about Bokononism, a religion of absurdity and contradictory wisdom, invented by Bokonon, born Lionel Boyd Johnson, a friend of US Marine deserter Earl McCabe, who found the nation of San Lorenzo. Its nihilistic and anti-religious wisdom gives the natives the illusion of hope that they needed so much to endure their poverty, illiteracy and suffering. Absurdity: the government has banned the religion but the dictator practices it. Absurdity: the nation’s official religion is Christianity, but everyone practices Bokononism. Absurdity: Bokonon, the founder of the religion, advised the ruler to ban the religion to instill the people’s fervor for the belief. Indeed, Bokononism succeeds in what institutionalized religions should do: give people hope what reality is too difficult to bear.
San Lorenzo is not much different from other banana republic. Colonialists came upon the natives and took over the land. They set up a government and imposed their religion, language, and values. They left or died off, leaving room for a dictator to seize power and oppress the people. The dictator allies himself with a superpower and can do whatever he wants within his country. But of interest here: the dictator “Papa” Monzano’s ice-nine frozen body drops into the ocean to destroy San Lorenzo and the rest of the world. A symbol that even after he had died, he still could wreck havoc.
Cat’s Cradle is Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian novel. His humor only adds to the novel’s poignancy. The theme is as relevant today as when it was written decades. In trying to advance civilization through science, religion and government, we may instead destroy it. A vision worth considering.