In the early 1930s, H.G. Wells visited General Electric's research laboratories in Schenectady, a facility dubbed the House of Magic by GE’s public relations department. Here the famous author was hosted by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir, who suggested an idea for a story to Wells.
Langmuir described an alternative form of water that remained frozen at ordinary room temper- ature. Wells apparently took little interest in the concept, which must have seemed blasé in comparison to his dramatic plots about alien invasion and time travel, but in 1947 another science fiction writer would arrive at the GE facility and take notice. The young Kurt Vonnegut, who had been hired to write press releases and promote the company's research triumphs to the media, heard the story about Langmuir and his pseudo-water— and both would eventually find their way into his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle.
"I thought to myself: 'Finders, keepers,'" Vonnegut later recalled—"'the idea is mine.'"
Cat's Cradle captures a madcap, improvisatory sensibility that seems at odds with the manuscript's troubled history. A decade or more in the making, Cat's Cradle had been optioned by Scribner's as a follow-up to Vonnegut's debut novel Player Piano, published in 1952. Vonnegut delivered six chapters of the book to his editor, but months and then years elapsed without any further discernible progress. When Scribner eventually lost patience, Vonnegut turned his attention to another sci-fi project, The Sirens of Titan, and for a while it seemed as if Cat's Cradle was a victim of permanent writer’s block.
A major component of the book dates back to a short story entitled "Ice-9" that had been rejected by Collier's at an early stage in the author's career. Ice-9 was Vonnegut's version of Langmuir’s alternative water. Vonnegut could well have entitled his story Fahrenheit 114—which was the melting point of Ice-9. This might seem a harmless novelty, except that Ice-9 has the unfortunate side effect of spreading its unusual structure and properties to any other water in which it is mixed —thus a tiny chip of Ice-9 could freeze all the oceans and lead to massive death and destruction. Vonnegut's novel was published around the same time that Stanley Kubrick was working on his film Dr. Strangelove, and like the doomsday device in movie, Ice-9 serves both as a key driver for a Cold War-inspired plot and a commentary on the arms race of the era.
The narrator Jonah is writing an account of the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and his research leads him to interview the children of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker—based on Lagmuir— who is presented here as the "father of the bomb." Jonah hears about Ice-9 from one of the late scientist's colleagues, and soon discovers that each of the surviving Hoenikker children possesses a chip of the dangerous substance.
The rambling plot, present over the course of 127 chapters—most of them only a few paragraphs in duration—follows Jonah through a series of extravagant, loosely-connected incidents, which eventually turn him from a amiable author into the hard-line President of a fiercely pro-US island republic. There he finds adventure, romance, intrigue, even religion…as well the Hoenikker children with their deadly chips of Ice-9.
As in The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut invents a new creed and scripture as part of the story. Bokononism plays only a modest role in the main plot, but is responsible for much of the humor and caustic social commentary of Cat's Cradle. The faith can is summed up in a short quote from the Books of Bokonon that also serves as the opening epigraph to Vonnegut's novel: "Nothing in this book is true. Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy." A footnote explains that foma are "harmless untruths."
Boknonism is the dominant belief system on the island of San Lorenzo, but the religion is banned and adherents are threatened with the death penalty—even Bokonon himself, who lives an undercover existence somewhere in the island’s interior, and makes only the briefest cameo appearance during the course of the novel. But his songs and pithy quotes appear constantly, and are for me (and I'm sure many other readers) the best part of Vonnegut's book.
Long before Bobby McFerrin hit the charts with "Don’t Worry, Be Happy," Bokonon was sharing a similar sentiment in his calypso songs. Here, for example, he sings about the origins of his religion:
I wanted all things To seem to make some sense, So we all could be happy, yes, Instead of tense. And I made up lies So that they all fit nice, And I made this sad world A par-a-dise.
Vonnegut adorns his island faith with a colorful lexicon—karass, vin-dit, wampeter, granfalloon, zah-ma-ki-bo and other invented terms add to the playful quality of Cat's Cradle—a lighthearted tone that somehow coexists with a plot that revolves around weapons, the collapse of civilization and ecological disaster.
This may be Vonnegut's most salient virtue: his ability to take the darkest aspects of modern society—atrocities, hypocrisies, blind ideologies, technology run rampant—and drag them into the light. There they can disarmed, or at least seen more clearly, their false fronts pushed aside, their inconsistencies available for scrutiny and rebuttal. And laughter…which is Vonnegut's most characteristic response to the dark side.
I suspect that this aspect of Cat's Cradle may have been responsible for an unexpected response to the novel. Shortly before he took the job at General Electric, where he got the initial idea for Ice-9, Vonnegut had been forced to leave the University of Chicago without receiving his degree—although he lied about the credential in order to secure the GE position. "Twenty years later, I got a letter from a new dean at Chicago, who had been looking through my dossier," Vonnegut explained to The Paris Review. "Under the rules of the university, he said, a published work of high quality could be substituted for a dissertation, so I was entitled to an M.A. He had shown Cat's Cradle to the anthropology department, and they had said it was halfway decent anthropology, so they were mailing me my degree. I'm class of 1972 or so."
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
Publication Date: April 5, 2012. All rights reserved.