A history of human stupidity

Cat’s Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut.
Penguin Books, 1965 (1963).

“Why should I bother with made-up games when there are so many real ones going on?” — Felix Hoenikker

In early 1961 the world teetered on the brink of nuclear destruction at the height of the Cold War. Barely a decade and a half before this the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been virtually annihilated by atomic bombs, those supposed children of theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

Meanwhile, another scientific polymath – Irving Langmuir, with whom Vonnegut’s brother worked – was developing techniques in the 1940s to de-ice aircraft wings and to seed clouds for the purpose of inducing rainfall (though Langmuir’s attempts to lessen the force of a hurricane only succeeded in increasing its intensity). Around the same time, as a prisoner of war Kurt Vonnegut famously survived the 1945 Allied firebombing of Dresden by sheltering in a slaughterhouse’s meat locker. Motifs from all these historical events, along with much more, will find their way into Cat’s Cradle (1963).

The author, born in November 1922, had lived through momentous times, and unsurprisingly this novel reflects them. But it also has an extraordinary historical footnote of its own: in 1970 Vonnegut persuaded the University of Chicago to accept Cat’s Cradle in place of the thesis for his master’s degree in anthropology which he’d never completed. In effect it was a “history of human stupidity” such as that referenced in the final sentence of the novel.

Das Eismeer’ (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

When the protagonist John introduces himself he tells us he’d been collecting material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended, an account of the day the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. In this alternative history the “father of the bomb” is the now deceased polymath Felix Hoenikker, and John attempts, with mixed success, to contact Felix’s children for their memories of that day in August 1945. They are Angela, Franklin and Newton.

It won’t have escaped your notice that the boys have been named after scientists. And that leads us to one of the leitmotifs here: innovative scientists who don’t take full responsibility for the implications and applications of their inventions and discoveries. Hoenikker had come up with a crystalline polymorph of water called ice-nine which on contact with liquid water will turn it immediately to ice. This his legacy could be even more destructive of life on earth than the proliferation of atomic bombs but unfortunately he is somewhat cavalier with his seed crystals.

Cat’s Cradle is an exploration of how human stupidity and cupidity could get humankind to this point of no return. It’s a savage Menippean satire, and like all such satires it is both humorous and surgical. Illusion, pretence, self-delusion are all presented as if at a post mortem examination; and while one character avers that “Science is magic that works” we’re constantly reminded that when things most appear substantial and no-nonsense, and are given labels and names, they can be at their most insubstantial and prove to be utter nonsense. Take the cat’s cradle game: Newt physically demonstrates to John its true nature:

‘A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s . . .’
‘And?’
‘No damn cat, and no damn cradle.’ — Newt Hoenikker

Chapter 74

He reiterates this theme a couple of times, as in chapter 80: “See the cat? See the cradle?” Of course the reticulation contains nothing.

Lies too are slippery things, as the Cretan philosopher Epimenides showed in his famous paradox, “All Cretans are liars.” And where better to observe lies than in organised religions? On the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where the narrator arrives from New York state, there is a religion explicitly founded on lies: Bokononism. Its founding principle is the epigraph of the novel: Nothing in this book is true. It seems to posit the converse of all other religions in their scriptures, for The Books of Bokonon with their declared falsehoods may in fact represent profound truths.

If words can be now truth, then lies, what about musical sounds? There’s an odd focus on instruments in this story, principally a xylophone (I wonder if Vonnegut had a marimba in mind?) and jazz clarinet. These are the preferred instruments of two of the principal female characters, as if to ensure they aren’t merely token women or pure ciphers in the author’s scheme. And the text is peppered with the words of West Indian calypsos composed by Bokonon himself, compounding the music motif.

Then there’s the Calypso of Greek myth who lived in Ogygia, on which island this nymph held Odysseus captive for seven years with the promise of immortality. The Odyssey is one of several literary subtexts in the novel, with the narrator perhaps a stand-in for Odysseus: John leaves the fictional town of Ilium, NY (Ilion or Ilium being the original name of Troy) to travel to a fictional island where if he’s lucky he may be detained by a nymph in diaphonous clothing.

Have I time to also mention Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the protagonist of which kills a wandering albatross as a prelude to visiting a land of snow and ice? And let’s recall Melville’s Moby-Dick which, among other parallels, is slyly alluded to in the opening words, Call me Jonah; and of course Revelations in the Bible with its apocalyptic visions, to which we can compare Vonnegut’s “The sky was filled with worms. The worms were tornadoes.”

Cat’s cradle-like artwork by Kurt Vonnegut 1985 (credit: Nanette Vonnegut / Kurt Vonnegut Trust)

Ultimately we come back to games, both made-up and real, to cat’s cradle as well as to deadly international posturing. In the postwar years fears grew of a nuclear winter following global nuclear conflict, and Vonnegut’s concept of ice-nine crystallisation may echo that; but though Cat’s Cradle may reflect the anxieties of the sixties, its message remains relevant because of accelerating climate change resulting from political and corporate refusal to cede ground or in any way accede to environmental concerns.

Perhaps all that’s available for us is to lampoon human stupidity until the end inevitably arrives. As François Rabelais is reputed to have said as he lay dying, Tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée. “Draw the curtain, the farce has ended.”

Life really does feel farcical a lot of the time.


@imyril and @deargeekplace

Completed for the tenth anniversary of SciFiMonth and the centenary of Kurt Vonnegut‘s birth on 11th November 1922

17 thoughts on “A history of human stupidity

    1. It’s not certain at present how much impact the Mauna Loa eruption will have, Alicia, although the alert level was early on upgraded from an “advisory” to a “warning”, the highest classification apparently.

      As regards the Ice-Nine event in this story, the terraforming (‘aqua-forming’ really, I suppose) is accidental and catastrophic as it immediately sets off a chain reaction, all down to “human stupidity”.

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      1. That’s this story, the Ice-9.

        SF in general believes in the concept of going somewhere to a planet with potential (Mars is currently undergoing evaluation), and making it more Earth-like by capturing water, changing the atmosphere, getting rid of poisons, etc.

        No one goes into detail, because that part of the equation can take many years, and is often started by some volunteers who go out way before the main event. Also, we don’t even know how to affect rain on our planet (other than by seeding clouds if they are already there) on any scale (or California would be an earthly paradise already). It’s just one of those constructs taken almost for granted. So Earth people can move there.

        It is what was being done on Dune. And fiction with a human life-time scale has to skip a lot of the details. It’s only terraforming if it proceeds from scientific principles and is controllable; otherwise it’s usually something going wrong. I don’t doubt it will be scientifically possible some day – after all, most of those processes happened on Earth – but it’s a joke on the time scale because humans can’t seem to keep the same goal in mind for a whole day sometimes.

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        1. “Humans can’t seem to keep the same goal in mind for a whole day sometimes.” Yes. And it’s a weakness, too, of democracies with two-party systems dominant, with policy directions changing and even reversed from one election to another (or even midway between elections).

          Anyway, terraforming: if humans collectively can’t seem to control pollution from plastics or copious amounts of noxious gases changing atmosphere and global temperatures I can’t see terraforming of planets being anything but pie in the sky, do you?

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          1. The exercises are all speculative, to ignore the very vast distances between the stars and the light years it would take to get from one to another; and the damage done by cosmic radiation, no matter how good the shielding.

            Humans are now capable of doing damage on a planet-wide scale. Will they use this in any helpful capacity? That is the real question. The will is not there most of the time, and the cost is enormous. The benefit is for the few (people don’t really think we’re going to Mars, do they, or the Moon?)

            We should definitely take care of our own problems with that money, first. Prove we can provide energy, food, and clean water for most of us – and education. Show control of those plastics – actually a resource that is being wasted. None of us asked to be born, though, and we just have to do the best we can in our short time at the helm. Some things ARE better than 100 or 1000 years ago – like vaccines. I still can’t believe so many people won’t use them.

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            1. I can’t say I disagree with any of this, Alicia. Still, I’d happily send Elon Musk and a few other megalomaniacs on a one-way trip to Mars – perhaps the eight billion of us worldwide could stump up a little cash each to help them on their way?

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    1. It is sad and frightening, and depressing and distressing. And then there’s also a hubristic streak in many of those in power who seem to think that they can continue to defy the consequences of their policies with impunity, a streak which also infects a lot of those without power.

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    1. Yes, sixty years on from this was first published and, despite many positive things in the interim, we’re in some significant ways a lot worse off. Still, a brilliantly thought-through and sharply satiric tale, worth a read!

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  1. Pingback: A history of human stupidity – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

    1. Thanks, Emma, I’d be very interested in your reaction to this – it’s a real Pandora’s box story, with Hope (unless it’s the novel itself) yet to make an appearance.

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