Space (Part II - Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle)

On the Overlap of Postmodernism and Science Fiction, Part II: Kurt Vonnegut, by M. Thomas Gammarino

Image by Wesley Merrit, Début Art

In my last article, I discussed William Gibson's cyberpunk classic Neuromancer as a key text in the convergence between science fiction and postmodernism. This time, I want to stay right on the cusp and consider the case of Kurt Vonnegut, who happens to be the writer who made me want to be one myself someday.

Critic Brian McHale sees the moment in 1973's Breakfast of Champions when Vonnegut manumits Kilgore Trout, his hardcore-sf alter ego, from his cast of characters ("Make me young!" Trout pleads with his maker in one of the most moving metafictional gambits I know) as Vonnegut’s farewell to science fiction, but Vonnegut had explicitly rejected his branding as an sf writer well before that. In a 1965 article in the New York Times, “On Science Fiction,” he wrote, “I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file-drawer labeled ‘science-fiction’…and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a tall white fixture in a comfort station.” He goes on to include himself in the “mainstream” (“as science-fiction people call the world outside the file-drawer”) and to characterize science fiction as an “artificial category.” Still, lest we fall afoul of the intentional fallacy, we'd do well to consult the work itself. After all, Gibson wanted nothing to do with cyberpunk, and yet Neuromancer clearly remains the cyberpunk novel par excellence.

1962's Cat’s Cradle is one of two novels that got an A+ when Vonnegut graded all of his work toward the end of his life, the other being Slaughterhouse-Five. Both novels incorporate common sf tropes. Slaughterhouse-Five brings in time travel and aliens. In Cat's Cradle, Ice Nine--ice with a melting point of 130ºF--is the novum that ushers in the apocalypse. We might see the influence of sf's utopian tributary, too, in the failed Caribbean island-nation of San Lorenzo, which is at the anthropological heart of the novel. But just as a close reading of Slaughterhouse-Five undermines the novel's science-fiction-ness by recuperating all of the aliens and time travel into a realistic account of one man's post-traumatic stress, a close reading of Cat's Cradle reveals a metafictional dimension that's much more closely aligned with the sorts of experiments “mainstream” writers like John Barth and William Gass were conducting in the sixties than with anything that was happening in the sf ghetto at the time.

To quickly unpack a term I've already used twice, "metafiction" refers to fiction that has lost its innocence with regard to representation--that is, as critic Patricia Waugh puts it, "fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality." Sometimes metafiction can seem facile or glib--I think of this as the "Look-at-me-I'm-writing!" school of postmodernism--but in the hands of a master like Vonnegut, it can also be pretty subtle. In keeping with McHale's insistence on the ontological dominant of postmodernist fiction (see my last article), Cat's Cradle gets "meta" by trading heavily in worlds—the one we live in and might well destroy, yes, but also, more generally, the many surrogate worlds--the microcosms--we construct.

For instance, one of the few things we ever learn about John, the first-person narrator of the novel, is that he's a writer. After a veritable Möbius strip of epigraphs--which I’ll come back to in a sec--John gives his account of his early research into a non-fictional book he once planned to write about the lives of “important” Americans on the day the US bombed Hiroshima. John’s quest into the life of the late Felix Hoenikker, father of the A-bomb, provides the narrative structure for the first half or so of the novel. We get various accounts of Dr. Hoenikker, from his kids and his old associates at the General Forge and Foundry, and we might see the novel up to this point as a kind of fictional-historical reconstruction in the spirit of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, with the same sort of epistemological instability implying a commentary on the impossibility of perfect knowledge. As one passage in the novel has it: "‘Write it all down,’ Bokonon tells us. He is really telling us, of course, how futile it is to write or read histories.”

But Cat’s Cradle also deals with more patently fictional forms than history. Indeed we regularly find characters creating miniature worlds to play God to. Frank Hoenikker traps bugs in jelly jars and makes them fight. He builds an elaborate model town in the basement of the hobby shop where he works as a teenager, and later he bribes his way into a government position in a life-sized model of San Lorenzo. After the apocalyptic winter sets in, Frank gives himself over to constructing an ant farm. We learn at one point that Felix Hoenikker’s brother constructs music boxes. And it is no doubt a similar kind of monomaniacal godplay that makes Felix so catastrophically and unreflectively fixated on his work as a scientist.

“Life became a work of art,” John marvels while another character explains to him the calibrated social structure of San Lorenzo. The implied other half of that analogy, of course, is the old Sidneyan artist-as-God trope, and many of the novel’s main characters are artists: Angela plays the clarinet, Mona the xylophone; Newt is trying to be a painter; John himself is a writer.

Pamela Bliss, painter; Frank Espich, photographer

One last form of fiction Cat's Cradle invokes in spades is religion, in particular San Lorenzo’s indigenous Bokonism, which gains much of its power from the “dynamic tension” of never seeking to transcend its status as an elaborate lie, a fiction. Now back to those epigraphs. The first reads, “Nothing in this book is true.” The second, a verse from the Books of Bokonon, reads “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” “Foma” is defined in a footnote as “Harmless untruths.” The implied equation, then, is between Cat’s Cradle, a novel, and “foma," and taking it one step further, critic Jerome Klinkowitz observes that “In Cat’s Cradle he [Vonnegut] lets Bokonism flesh out the metaphors for novel writing. Novels have characters who, willingly or unwillingly, wittingly or unwittingly, work together to create plots and see them resolved. Bokonism parallels this technique by teaching that ‘humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass.'" 

Indeed, in many ways the mythology spun by guru Bokonon can be seen as coterminous with the laws of the fictional universe spun by Vonnegut. Outlandish coincidences, of which there are many—Angela and Newt Hoenikker’s happening to be on the same San Lorenzo-bound plane as John is one example—are naturalized by the Bokonist tenants of the karass and the wampeter ("an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve"). “As it happened” becomes “As it was meant to happen." The world of the novel is filtered through a fatidic Bokonist consciousness, albeit one that knows it’s all a lie, as any good Bokonist must. Insofar as the novel itself is coterminous with the Books of Bokonon, we might say that Vonnegut himself is in some ways coterminous with Bokonon, the supreme fabulator, and indeed, for lots of people who grew up reading him—myself included—a spiritual leader in his own right.

M. Thomas Gammarino is the author of BIG IN JAPAN, JELLYFISH DREAMS, and, most recently, KING OF THE WORLDS.

"If Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams had a baby, it would look a lot like 'King of the Worlds.' With its tongue-incheek humor and intelligent allusions, this is the kind of fiction that playfully reassembles tropes and rejects all labels. It's a dark riot." — Mindy-Lynn Sanico, Honolulu Star-Advertiser

"...hints of other greats like Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace...represent some of the funnest aspects of a novel that takes its fun pretty seriously...It's almost like looking back in time to a literary landscape that is long gone now. Or maybe into the future." — Art Edwards, Entropy Magazine

This dark comedy explores the lost universes of disgraced idol Dylan Greenyears. Dylan had always wanted to live as many lives as he could—that was the appeal of being an actor. But at the end of a brief, bright stint as a Hollywood heartthrob, Dylan loses the lead in Titanic and exiles himself and his wife to a recently settled exoplanet called New Taiwan. For a while, life beyond Earth seems uncannily un-wondrous. Dylan teaches at an American prep school, raises a family with his high school sweetheart, and lives out his restlessness through literature. But then a box of old fan mail (and the hint of a galaxy-wide conspiracy) offers Dylan a chance to recapture the past. As he tries to balance this transdimensional midlife crisis against family life, Dylan encounters a cast of extraordinary characters: a supercomputer with aspirations of godhood; a Mormon-fundamentalist superfan; an android Frank Sinatra; a sampling of his alternate selves; and, once again, the love of his lives. A singularly mind-blowing, genre-bending performance, King of the Worlds is a literary take on science fiction that throws cosmology, technology, 90s pop culture, and religion into an existential blender that is by turns tragic and absurd, elegiac and filled with wonder.

M. Thomas Gammarino
M. Thomas Gammarino

Author of King of the Worlds, 'Big in Japan,' and 'Jellyfish Dreams.' Received the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, Hawaii's highest literary honor. Website: mthomasgammarino.com

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Space (Part II - Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle)