Sunday, September 16, 2007

Cat's Cradle: Here's One that's Not Overrated

A while back I seriously annoyed people with a post that claimed Heller's Catch-22 is the most overrated novel of the twentieth century. Today I thought I'd point out a beloved novel from the same era, similar in themes and tone, which I think is not overrated at all, but deserves its status as a classic. (Warning: not only does this post contain spoilers, but I will also say a couple of negative things about the book. I can't help myself!)

From about 1960 to 1963, I was a member of the Doubleday science fiction book club. When I joined up, I got an omnibus volume that included a reprint of Alfred Bester's then-recent The Stars My Destination. During the following years, the monthly selections included Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and Glory Road, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Poul Anderson's Trader to the Stars, L. P. Hartley's sadly neglected little masterpiece, Facial Justice -- and perhaps most remarkable of all, Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle.

(Yes, it was a golden age. If there is anything nearly this interesting going on in scifi today, I would sure like to know about it. A glance at what the book club is offering today suggests that things have steeply fallen off.)

Reading this book as a teenager, I was dazzled. It made a strong impression on me intellectually. When I read it a second time last week, I still found it a brilliant piece of work.

It is a sort of rollicking satirical end of the world fantasy. It has to satirical foci. One centers on the imaginary religion of Bokononism. Bokonon, the founder of this religion, teaches that people ought to live in accordance with foma, which I guess I would translate as "expedient falsehoods." The point here seems to be that truth as a good is much overrated.

The other focus is political and centers on the fictional scientist Felix Hoenikker, "the father of the atom bomb." Just for the heck of it, as a sort of hobby, Hoenikker develops ice-9, a crystalline form of water which, if dropped into any ocean, lake or stream, will instantly transform all the water on earth so that its freezing point is 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit -- in other words, it will become solid. I think you can guess what happens.

Here the point is a very clever attack on the idea of pure research, the notion that knowledge as knowledge is an unqualified good, out of any relation to the needs of human life. At first Hoenikker is an appealing character. He says in his Nobel acceptance speech that he was just an eight-year-old boy dawdling on the way to school. He aimlessly follows the lead of his curiosity regardless of consequences. Long before his last discovery destroys the world, you realize that this cute old guy is an inhuman monster who should have been murdered in his crib.

I found this aspect of the book very convincing. Having been influenced by people like Plato and Aristotle, I have a certain tendency to lapse into thinking of knowledge and truth as context-free unlimited goods. This book is an effective cure for that error.

Having said that, I can't resist pointing out that Vonnegut seems clearly wrong on one point. He seems to think that the pure-research point of view is what created the atom bomb and, thereby, subjected humanity to the threat of nuclear annihilation. Nowadays, every schoolboy knows that this is not true. "The Bomb" was invented by social idealists like Robert Oppenheimer, who hated Hitler and wanted to blow him to smithereens, not by Aristotelian seekers after pure theoria. In other words, it was created by people who resembled Kurt Vonnegut a lot more than they resembled Felix Hoenikker.

More later...

[Tip o' the sombrero here to Ruchira for her Second Glance post.

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