“Cat’s Cradle: The Sin of Scientists and Systems” by Ben Berman Ghan

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Science Fiction (SF) is a genre often used to explore how scientists and science are a source of evil, potentially leading to the demise of civilization. Works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) have well established the trope of the mad scientist who focuses on unnatural or evil experiments. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) revises the relationship between evil and science. While Vonnegut’s scientists are culpable in the process of birthing scientific advancements that are used for evil, science and scientists are not themselves a source of evil. Writing in the context of the Cold War, when fear of nuclear apocalypse was a constant in the zeitgeist of the world, Vonnegut replaces the notion of the “mad scientist” with the military industrial complex, creating a narrative in which the source of science gone awry is not the scientists themselves, but rather the fault of the monolithic systems of commerce, government, and military that corrupt science for evil ends. In Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, there is no evil “mad scientist,” only corrupt and untrustworthy organized systems.

Cat’s Cradle examines the relationship between scientists and systems, beginning with the fictional religion “Bokonism.” Vonnegut uses the tenets of Bokonism to separate the structured systems of society into two types of categories. Depicting a religion in which “humanity is organized into teams” (Vonnegut 2), Cat’s Cradle begins to emphasize systems that come into being organically, created by the cosmic circumstances of fate. These systems, called a “karass” (2), are groups of people who—intentionally or not—affect each other’s actions and lives. Members of a karass are not formally organized, nor are they even always aware of the karass they are in, ignoring “national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries” (3). These natural systems can be perverted by artificial ideas of a “false karass” (91) known as a “granfalloon” (92). The relationships that are formally created and organized by people are granfalloons, not karass. It is through the concept of granfalloons that Vonnegut proposes the types of systems that can corrupt science for evil.  

Vonnegut was a left-leaning author who later wrote extensively on his political beliefs as a liberal and a socialist. But when he was writing Cat’s Cradle during the Cold War, SF was entering what The Science Fiction Handbook classifies as the “New Wave,” of SF literature (Thomas & Booker 9).  Vonnegut was one of many New Wave authors who chose to turn their “critique of American capitalism into […] science fiction to avoid censorship” (Thomas & Booker 8). The examples of false systems in Cat’s Cradle largely take their cue from the fears that left-wing Americans like Vonnegut held at the time, such as “The Communist Party […], the General Electric Company, […] – and any nation, anytime, anywhere.” (Vonnegut, 92). This reflected a more global trend against nationalism, and the resistance against the bourgeoning military industrial complex. It is through these granfalloon systems of politics and corporations that the role played by the mad scientist shifts away from the individual. The fear is no longer of scientists, but of how powerful collectives might utilize new forms of science.

The New Wave of SF to which Cat’s Cradle belongs was dominated by character-driven stories and was “more concerned with the social and political ramifications of technological developments than with the technologies themselves” (Thomas & Booker 9). According to Ginger Strand’s biography The Brother’s Vonnegut, when the earliest draft of Cat’s Cradle was submitted for publication as “Ice-9” (236), SF editors were attempting “to make SF more sophisticated in terms of literary style as well as content” (Thomas & Booker 9). As later drafts of Cat’s Cradle became less interested in the details or believability of its science and more interested in the characters behind the science, a more complex type of individual than previous eras of SF could develop.

The character chosen to represent Vonnegut’s deviation from the mad scientist trope is Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Hoenikker is a fictional addition to the Manhattan Project, “one of the so-called ‘fathers’ of the first atomic bomb” (Vonnegut 6). Through the guise of doing research for a book on the creators of the atomic bomb called “The Day the World Ended” (1), Vonnegut’s narrator creates a long sketch of Felix Hoenikker as the antithesis to the traditional “mad scientist” focused on creating evil out of science. His character was inspired by “versions of stories about Irving Langmuir” (Strand 236), a Nobel Prize winning chemist who did research at the General Electric Company (GE), where both Kurt and his older brother Bernard worked while Cat’s Cradle was written. While the real Irving Langmuir was “GE’s celebrity scientist” (Strand 24), Vonnegut’s fictional Dr. Hoenikker fills a similar position at the “Research Laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company” (Vonnegut 21), where different granfalloons would “suggest projects” (42) to change the nature of the scientists’ work. Specifically, “[a]dmirals and generals” (42) came to try and corrupt the work of the research laboratory. This reflects Vonnegut scholar P.L. Thomas’ argument in Case for SF and Speculative Fiction: an introductory consideration, that Cat’s Cradle “suggests that less danger exists in science than in who pursues that science and why” (Thomas 17).

The traditional mad scientist acts with agency and purpose. Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein actively seeks out dangerous and unnatural experiments. He feels “an enthusiasm which elevates [him] to heaven, for nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose” (Shelley 22). The mad scientist is often focused, or obsessed with their work: the pursuit of harmful or unethical inventions. The idea of ‘madness’ in the traditional mad scientist is this reckless abandon when it comes to doing harm on the part of the individual. The traditional mad scientist exemplified in Dr. Frankenstein doesn’t need to be encouraged or manipulated by any public or private system to pursue evil, as they are driven by “the determined heart and resolved will of man” (Shelley 27). But Shelley’s Frankenstein presents a mad scientist working alone, to have his work opposed by the mob, or granfalloon, which fears what he has done.

In contrast, Vonnegut presents an alternative to the trope of “mad scientist” in having Hoenikker pursue science only for the sake of discovery, with no thought to application or power. Vonnegut removes the classic desire for power—more specifically, the desire to change the natural order that drives the traditional mad scientist. Instead, “the main thing with Dr Hoenikker was truth” (Vonnegut 54). In his innocent curiosity, Hoenikker is presented as the antithesis of the traditional mad scientist. He is not evil or insane, only a man who does not understand “human responsibilities” (Vonnegut 225), and is manipulated by systems which intend to use his science for destructive ends.

Hoenikker has no evil intentions with his research. Without the influence of the granfalloons around him, Vonnegut’s scientist would have been left to simply “wonder about turtles” (15). As opposed to a scientist’s single-minded drive towards a goal, it is the work of the granfalloons that force Hoenikker to research destructive fields.  

If Hoenikker attempted to research anything but what the systems needed from him, then the systems would redirect him. When Hoenikker stopped working on the Manhattan Project, the military went “into his laboratory and stole his turtles” (Vonnegut 16). Hoenikker, with his childlike mind, “came to work the next day and looked for things to play with and think about, and everything there was to play with and think about had something to do with the bomb” (16). The responsibility and the fear of science tampering with the “recesses of nature” in a quest for “unlimited power” (Shelley 51), is shifted from the scientist to the military. In Vonnegut’s novel, it has become the systems that want to use science as a tool to violate the laws of nature, while the individual who is merely on a quest for knowledge can be abused and manipulated by those around them.

When Cat’s Cradle inserts Dr. Hoenikker into the history of the atom bomb, it illustrates the extent of his naiveté. Vonnegut allows Hoenikker to respond to Robert Oppenheimer’s acknowledgement of his own responsibility in the deaths caused by the atom bomb. As Oppenheimer proclaims “science has now known sin” (Vonnegut 17), Hoenikker can only ask “What is sin?” (17). Vonnegut presents a scientist who is incapable of understanding how his work has contributed to the evil of the systems that use it. Hoenikker cannot be the active agent of evil or the willful creator of monsters as the classic trope requires. Hoenikker is a man of science, at the mercy of “who is governing that science” (Thomas 18).

Though Felix Hoenikker is already dead at the beginning of Cat’s Cradle, much of the novel serves as a biography of the fictional scientist. The novel details how Hoenikker’s scientific creations are manipulated by industrial and military systems. Ultimately these systems, or granfalloons, use Hoenikker’s invention “ice-nine” (Vonnegut 46)—originally created to help “get Marines out of the mud” (44)—to destroy the world. Inspired by Vonnegut’s older brother Bernard’s experiments with weather manipulation, ice-nine is “the last gift Felix Hoenikker created for mankind” (Vonnegut 50), a substance capable of freezing all liquid on earth permanently. Even members of the granfalloon at the General Forge and Foundry acknowledged that if ice-nine was ever unleashed “that would be the end of the world!” (50). As science fiction in the new wave, Cat’s Cradle exists in what P.L. Thomas identifies as “the context of the threat of nuclear holocaust or disaster” (Thomas 18). A key difference between The Manhattan Project—into which Felix Hoenikker was fictionally inserted—and the use of ice-nine, is that the creators of the atomic bomb understood what they were undertaking. Hoenikker neither has any inclination towards using his creation for violence, nor is he alive to give consent to those who use ice-nine to destroy the world, in a parable to the effects of nuclear winter.

After Felix Hoenikker dies, his three children take possession of ice-nine and split it between them. While the siblings should all be considered a proper Karras, it is through them that ice-nine falls into the hands of the granfalloons of government and military. The oldest child, Frank Hoenikker, is given a position of power in trade for giving the government of San Lorenzo “something more powerful than the atom bomb” (Vonnegut 241). The other two children give up their thirds of ice-nine to the granfalloons of “the United States of America, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” (244). It is not the scientist, but the systems which stole his work—albeit from his children—that take his science into the realm of evil. Papa Monzano, the military dictator of the Island Nation San Lorenzo and the head of a granfalloon system that gains ice-nine, destroys the world with science.

Vonnegut portrays scientists as individuals interested in theory, who believe that what they are doing is about discovery. The scientists of General Forge and Foundry believe that science is “the exact opposite of magic” (Vonnegut 36). Science is not a tool to pervert nature, but a way to understand it. The granfalloon of San Lorenzo and other nations that receive ice-nine think “science is magic that works” (218). With this notion, Vonnegut’s granfalloons are willing to do what his scientists are not, to pervert nature for destructive ends. Felix Hoenikker did not understand how his creations could be used for violence. Hoenikker was simply trying to learn. When the leader of San Lorenzo commits suicide by swallowing ice-nine and freezing the planet, he says, “Now I shall destroy the whole world” (238). In effect, the president of San Lorenzo is the mad scientist that Felix Hoenikker could never be, who exists as the result of the military-government—the granfalloon that has sustained him. He pursues science because he wants to challenge the laws of nature for selfish reasons, and uses science for unnatural destructive ends. The role of the mad scientist has moved from the individual who pursues science to the systems that will abuse science for harm.

Felix Hoenikker is not entirely blameless. He is still culpable in the creation of the atomic bomb and ice-nine, even if he did not fully comprehend the consequences of his actions. Hoenikker is guilty of ignorance, and of failing to think of the potential for harm that his creations possessed. But Vonnegut has shifted tropes of “evil science” from a mad scientist who is responsible for the misuse and abuse of science, to individual scientists who pursue science for its own sake within systems that corrupt science for violent ends. Vonnegut has reached a point in history where it is no longer believed that companies who employ people are benevolent, nor that governments who run society have the populace’s best interests at heart. Cat’s Cradle is set in a world that has become too large and interconnected to fear the work of mere individuals. Living in the shadow of the nuclear bomb—which was the product of many systems working together—no individual’s actions can be enough to elicit such fear. Vonnegut has refocused the fear of a scientist creating evil to the evil that can be done by a monolith. In a society where scientific progress is steered by the interests of granfalloons such as industry and military, the mob of people in Shelley’s Frankenstein no longer fear the monster, they control it. It is no longer Doctor Frankenstein or Felix Hoenikker’s inventions which threaten the wellbeing of the world, but the granfalloons that control them.




Works Cited

Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. Dial Press Trade Paperback ed., New York, Random House Publishing Group, Sept. 1998.

Vonnegut, Kurt. A Man Without A Country. 1st ed. [London]: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014. Print.

Booker, Keith M., and Anne-Marie Thomas. The Science Fiction Handbook. Malden, MA, Wiley-Blackwell (an imprint of John Wiley & Sons Ltd), 31 Mar. 2009.

“Irving Langmuir – Biographical”. Nobelprize.org. N. p., 2017. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Joravsky, David. “Sin and The Scientist”. The New York Review of Books. N. p., 1980. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Thomas, P. L. “A Case for SF and Speculative Fiction: An Introductory Consideration.” Science fiction and speculative fiction: Challenging Genres. Ed. P L Thomas. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 12 July 2013. 15–27. Print.

“Military-Industrial Complex Speech, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961”. Coursesa.matrix.msu.edu. N. p., 2017. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Strand, Ginger. The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic. First ed., United States, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 17 Nov. 2015.

Shelley, Mary, and Diane Johnson. Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus. New York, Random House Publishing Group, 1 May 1984.



Ben Berman Ghan is an author and editor from Toronto, finishing an HBA with a major in English Literature, and minors in Philosophy, and Writing and Rhetoric at The University of Toronto. His next book What We See in the Smoke occurs in the place where the ideas of classic science fiction meet the interpersonal concerns of all literature.

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