Kurt Vonnegut is a science fiction writer for people who hate science fiction – he’s funny and his stories move faster than speed of light. He wrote 38 novels during his writing career and aced them all. His most poignant work is probably Cat’s Cradle.
Cat’s Cradle is an amazingly quintessential story told in a deceptively simple way. The story in essence is straightforward. A new scientific discovery causes apocalypse on earth. That’s the basic idea, but what Asimov said with 15 novels and a lifetime of writing, Vonnegut does with 300 pages and a couple of jokes.
The story is of a writer, Jonah, who is writing a book on what important men were doing the day Hiroshima was bombed. This project sends him looking for a scientist, Felix Hoenikker, and his family. He subsequently finds himself on a secluded island in the Pacific where, by an extremely strange turn of events, he discovers a religion, Bokonism, and is named successor to the island’s ailing President. You’d think he is an extremely lucky man, but on the day of his inauguration, the earth gets destroyed, by accident, with few survivors. Jonah is one of these few, until after living for a couple of days as a Bokononist, he kills himself. If you read this book, it might take you a couple of minutes to conclude that Jonah does in fact kill himself, but when you do you’ll have an inexplicable urge to laugh out loud.
There are several faces of this lucid idea, each illuminating a different aspect of humanity or of civilization.
A polymorph of water (remember second semester?) called ice-nine has been discovered by Hoenikker who was also a part of the Manhattan Project (in the book). This polymorph has the property that it remains as frozen water at normal temperature and pressure. If it comes in contact with normal water, it will behave as a seed and all the water molecules will begin to stack themselves so to transform into ice nine and thereby remain frozen.
What all of this means is that if this sample of ice-nine comes into contact with surface water on earth, all of it will freeze and there will be no going back. If it comes in contact with our tongues, the water in our bodies will freeze and we will die. Unless this sample remains hidden, there will be apocalypse. You get the idea. That’s the science part.
Bokononism is a non-religious religion that is followed by all the residents of San Lorenzo. The founder of Bokononism is a man named Bokonon who lives in hiding in the jungles of San Lorenzo. The teachings of Bokononism are given in the books of Bokonon.
The books start with the following proclamation: “All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” Do you know of a more truthful religion?
Bokonism is representative of all that people look for in a religion. They look for hope, or meaning, or life after death. People need religion for immense reasons, and each of these can be fulfilled by Bokononsim. The founding principle of this made up, yet enticing religion is this: believe in the foma that makes you happy, healthy and kind. ‘Foma’ in San Lorenzo’s native tongue means harmless untruths.
This means that Bokononism doesn’t merely allow, but encourages followers to have whatever beliefs make them happy. It’s radical. It’s a surprise Bokononism hasn’t become a full-fledged religion in all these years.
The destruction of humanity on earth doesn’t include spaceships or great wars or even laser blasters. This is what happens: Jonah has converted to Bokononism and he stands in the balcony of the presidential fort with his bride and with Hoenikker’s children, each of whom hides in their pockets a vial of ice-nine. As a salute to their next president, the air force of San Lorenzo performs a small air show but one of the planes that spirals into the balcony and causes a vial of ice-nine to fall into the Pacific. The rest is history (in the book). Everything freezes and people die en masse, but Jonah and his bride escape to an underground bunker.
After living in hiding for a week, they return to the surface to find a handful of survivors and mass graves. They know now that most humans are probably dead. Jonah is awash with the complete futility of the circumstances and he goes out looking for the man Bokonon himself. He drives around in the only car left until he stumbles upon a lone wanderer on the ice-caked earth. This man is, surprise, surprise, Bokonon himself and he tells Jonah the final statement for the Bokonon Books.
It is this: ‘If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.’
As it happens, this was also the last sentence of our novel. We travel to the end of humanity and beyond and book ends at this macabre albeit hopeful end.
Why does killing oneself in such style sound hopeful? You’d know what I mean if you were a Bokononist. This is the reason Mona kills herself. This is the reason why we know Jonah eventually kills himself too.
His entire journey’s memoir, which is our novel itself, is the book about the stupidity of humanity. This is the novel that tells us that scientific progress itself doesn’t guarantee a successful society. This is the novel that tells us how a useful a religion can be, but also so lethal. This is the book that Jonah uses as a pillow as he grins at God and swallows the blue-white poison.
Humanity won’t grow wise at the same pace at which science will grow knowledgeable. The trouble with people is that they’re only human. Period. The best we can do is strive for a better state of existence and if we can’t, at least we can laugh at the humongous joke God plays on us and die doing so.
What is the one thing Vonnegut can say to this reduction of philosophy? Only that he’s going to write a book about human stupidity.
[A link to a better life: The Books of Bokonon]