The Short Version: John (or Jonah, as he calls himself) is writing a book on Felix Hoenikker, one of the co-creators of the atomic bomb, when he discovers that Hoenikker created something called ‘ice-nine’ before died and that his children now hold the remaining pieces. This horrific weapon, as well as the children and Jonah, end up in San Lorenzo. Hilarity, chaos, and apocalypse ensue.
The Review: At the urging of my girlfriend, I’m adding Mr. Kurt Vonnegut to the “Ten Year Catch Up” – but I’m, as befits such a wacky writer, mixing it up a bit: over the course of however many years, I’m gonna read these books. Because Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time, right?
I read Slaughterhouse Five in high school, maybe even late middle school – but I don’t really remember it. And so I opted to (at the suggestion of my girlfriend as well as several others) to start here: Cat’s Cradle.
And while this line comes late in the novel, it was the moment where I was brought, 100% and irrevocably, into the Vonnegut camp: “The sky was filled with worms. The worms were tornadoes.”
Hilarious! I mean, also terrifying. Absolutely terrifying, especially in the context of the story – but the writing is just so fresh and fun and almost child-like, in a way. That way that, as telling a story, a little kid might be like “So there was a sky full of worms! But the worms were TORNADOES!” It’s a certain kind of joy that is, I think, sorely lacking from so many writers today; everything is so goddamn serious. And I don’t mind the seriousness – and I’ll get to the seriousness that definitely underlies this novel in a bit – but sometimes it’s nice to see an author who is, even in the midst of heady topics, having a bit of fun. We read to have fun and Vonnegut feels, from the very first page of this novel, like an author who writes to have fun. It is delightful and Vonnegut’s voice is almost instantly distinctive – as though you could hear him drollly recounting this altogether ridiculous set of circumstances. There are a few moments where the madcap pace does feel a little hobbled by Vonnegut’s even-handed steady flow – but I also think throwing the throttle completely open would lead to an uncontrollable farcical quality and that’d do Vonnegut’s satirical intentions a disservice.
Because this novel (as, apparently, are most of his works) is satire – vicious, fierce satire. The humor is there and bountiful, but the teeth are deceptively sharp behind it. We must remember that this novel came out in 1963: we were in the thick of the heady early days of the Cold War, less than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. And so Vonnegut tackles the arms race, that relentless drive towards having an ever-more-deadly (and simultaneously ever-more-ridiculous weapon.
The weapon he comes up with here, ice-nine, is just outside the realm of possibility (a molecularly altered form of regular old ice/water that, when exposed to any liquid, turns all nearby liquid into solid. In a flash. Kapow. Kind of dangerous stuff, no? Not the sort of thing that you’d want to fall into the hands of a maniac, right? Or really anyone?
So of course it ends up in the hands of three damaged kids, who all trade it away for one reason or another – all of them pretty ridiculous, of course. And of course it ends up causing something like the end of the world. The satire wouldn’t be effective if it didn’t – and fast as it comes, ridiculous as it seems, it’s only ridiculous because that’s how your brain has to react in order not to totally flip a wig over how terrifying/horrifying/scary it is, conceptually. Because while ice-nine might not be real, there are plenty of other things that you could put into this story and suddenly things feel potentially very real.
The last note I’ll make about this book comes from a line that just blew me away, considering the state of the world these days. At a big national celebration in San Lorenzo, the new ambassador from the US gets up and makes the following point: “…if today is really in honor of a hundred children murdered in war, is today a day for a thrilling show?”
Chilling sentiment, isn’t it? Horrifying, really. It reminded me of a moment in Richard Nelson’s play Sweet and Sad, which played at the Public in 2011 and opened the day it was set: Sept. 11, 2011. And a character, recounting a conversation he’d had that morning with his buddies, says essentially “can’t we be done? Hasn’t there been enough of this?” Because there’s something that, when you think about it or look at it too directly, feels just shudder-inducing about the sort of grief-porn that comes from these big celebrations, these parties, these presentations. Why do we throw these pageants when the more fitting thing might be a moment of solemn, silent reflection? Vonnegut is asking the question (this and so many more questions, actually) – it’s just up to the reader to determine how they want to answer them.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A brilliant introduction to a brilliant author. The novel moves along at a steady (although very fast) clip and Vonnegut is clearly having fun. He balances humor with incisive commentary in a way that only the best satirists can pull off – and he manages, too, to hide just how sharp his teeth really are while still sinking them in deep. If you aren’t looking for the anger and the ferocity, you might miss them; but they’re there, make no mistake. We might not have ice-nine (well, this kind of ice-nine anyway) in the world but that doesn’t mean the lesson isn’t a worthwhile one. There are so many other things that could tun the sky to worms. And the worms are tornadoes.