About seventy years ago, our species made an interesting decision. We tested the first nuclear weapon. These days, we’ve managed to forget a great deal about this choice. But Kurt Vonnegut was a close contemporary to these events, and was one of a breed of Americans who once took existential questions very seriously. In fact, the idea of these weapons once pulled people into the streets in violent protest against governments wielding armageddon as though it were an instrument of foreign policy. After all, a nuclear bomb is the single most destructive thing in our arsenal. It cannot be deployed tactically, it cannot be used in a limited fashion, and all it does is destroy everything. A few of them could effectively end life as we know it. And collectively, humans have built tens of thousands of them, and we like to wave them around at groups that we believe follow the wrong religion or build the wrong kind of government.
It is probably the most insane idea that we’ve ever had. Nuclear weapons are designed to ensure the last word. Though they really don’t care about what’s being said.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote Cat’s Cradle in the early days of this terror. The novel, while technically satire, is only funny because its themes feel so outlandish – the threat of complete annihilation, the insanity of politics and of religion, the smallness of individual human lives – all of these things dance around in the background of this small but fascinating book. The story follows the last days of a journalist who is writing a book about one Felix Hoenikker, a scientist who helped to invent the nuclear weapon. The writer, John (or Jonah as he prefers), sets out to reconstruct this scientist’s life on the day that the first bomb was dropped on Japan. Through a serious of interviews and introductions, John eventually learns that Fenix perfected a second doomsday weapon called Ice Nine – a chemical that would change all of the water on earth solid, ending life as we know it. Before he dies, he gives his samples to his children. Needless to say, by the end of the book, the world has ended.
It’s important, I think, to devote some thought to the consequences of our cleverness. And Vonnegut did just that. However, I didn’t read this as the work of an angry luddite seeking to vilify the culture of scientific empiricism that has made modern life possible. Vonnegut’s criticism would appear, at first blush, to be leveled at the scientists themselves. After all, the character of Hoenikker is portrayed as an unserious man. His laboratory is full of toys, he doesn’t really have a relationship with his children, and even his Ice Nine was developed on the whim of a random marine corps general. But never does he stop to consider the ramifications of his discoveries.
But this is a mistake, and not the real subject of Vonnegut’s ire. The real villains (such as there are villains) in Cat’s Cradle are those who inherit Felix’s legacy. After all, Felix was the discoverer. The nuclear bomb and even the fictional Ice Nine were always there simply waiting to be discovered. The scientist is no more at fault for discovering the principles of nuclear fission than Columbus was for the existence of the New World. The consequences arise from what the children do with such a discovery. The world today lives on the permanent threat of total destruction thanks only in part to the work of these men. The real danger to our survival comes down to our choices moving forward. And that is a scary thought.
Nuclear destruction is practically assured in the future. At some point, some polity with an underdeveloped moral sense will win office and use them. Worse, some cohort back home will cheer when they do. Vonnegut’s book is designed to remind of that fact. After all, the logic of a nuclear weapon assumes that the user must possess the moral authority to destroy the world. It is a weapon for priests and nationalists. Owning them is a promise that, in the end, we are so assured of our own beliefs or lifestyles that we would sooner destroy everything rather than suffer change. That is a terrifying idea, especially in a world of radical nationalism and extremist religions. But there is nothing to be done; the genie is out of the bottle. Now the problem is a lack of moral imagination. The problem is the yawning paradox of poverty and victimhood. The problem is tribalism.
And sometimes, we need to be reminded of what we really hold in our hands.