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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cat's Cradle

The twelve hours I spent in a car yesterday went quicker than they otherwise might have thanks to Kurt Vonnegut. I listened to Cat's Cradle in its entirety. I hadn't read it in over thirty years, but my belief in its greatness remains unchanged.

One of the central characters of the book, Felix Hoenikker, is described as "the father of the atom bomb." He invents "ice-nine," a type of ice which only melts at 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It also sets off an instantaneous chain reaction converting any water it comes into contact with into ice-nine, meaning that if it comes into contact with any large body of water that pretty much means the end of the world. As his legacy he has left each of his three children a tiny sliver of the ice.

Vonnegut had fought in WWII, and several of his books, most notably Mother Night, deal with the horrors of war. While listening yesterday I thought that Hoenikker must have been based on either J. Robert Oppenheimer or Edward Teller, and that the idea of ice-nine was inspired by the doubts about the very first atomic bomb test at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. (Scientists were originally unsure as to whether the nuclear explosion would set off a chain reaction which would incinerate the entire world.)

But upon reading Wikipedia this morning, it turns out that Vonnegut's inspiration for Hoenikker was neither of those men, but rather Irving Langmuir, a scientist he had come into contact with while working in General Electric's PR department after the war. Langmuir had evidently actually originated the concept of ice-nine himself, as a way to amuse H. G. Wells, whom he had met in the 1930's.

Vonnegut's characterization of Hoenikker as a man who lives on a different plane than most humans, and who is emotionally uninvolved, even with his own children, is actually a perfect description of someone with Asperger's Syndrome, that mild form of autism which has only become widely recognized in the past two decades. (Vonnegut wrote the book in 1963.) Some people with Asperger's, partly because of their intense focus on one thing, are capable of tremendous insights. (It is thought that Einstein may have had Asperger's.)

Vonnegut's understanding of a syndrome as yet unclassified, as well as his insights into the essential silliness of social status, institutional association, mindless patriotism, and even romantic love, are all evidence of his genius. His ability to tie all these things together into an entertaining story is why he deserves to be re-read.

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