Sunday, 18 October 2015

Penguin no. 2308: Cat's Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut

Cover design by Robert Hollingsworth, using 
La Course de Taureaux by Joan MirĂ³.
     'Newt remained curled in the chair. He held out his painty hands as though a cat's cradle were strung between them. 'No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat's cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X's...'
     'No damn cat, and no damn cradle.'

Felix Hoenikker was one of the (fictional) fathers of the atomic bomb - he excelled at finding ingenious solutions to difficult problems but he hadn't the slightest idea about how to relate to others, including the members of his own family; puzzles interested him, people did not.

As a Nobel prize-winning scientist, Hoenikker had been free to arrange his life to suit himself, but this had implications for those around him: his wife led a lonely existence up until her premature death, and his children grew up to be a little bizarre. And then, after his death, almost all humanity suffers on account of his indifference, for Hoenikker cared about solving problems but not about the implications of the solutions; he was tinkering in an ethical vacuum, and this explains why he created ice-nine.

Ice-nine - a crystallisation of water with a high melting point - is a clever but potentially catastrophic solution to a comparatively trivial problem which faces the army: given a choice, soldiers would prefer to undertake combat on hard terrain and a single crystal of ice nine can render mud solid. But it will also render any substance containing water solid, and this includes animals, people, rivers, lakes and oceans; one crystal of ice-nine could make the Earth uninhabitable in seconds.

Hoenikker delivers his gift to the world on Christmas Eve, and spends the last night of his life playing with his crystal - and toying with the fate of billions - by freezing and unfreezing saucepans full of water. His children divide up the all the unmelted ice-nine when they find him dead, and then each does a deal with the devil. With no concern for the implications, they trade some of their shares of ice-nine for the things they most desire.

The narrator sets out initially to tell the story of the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, intending to title his book The Day the World Ended and to tell the story of what the scientists were doing when the first atomic bomb was dropped. In researching his book, he travels to the despotic island nation of San Lorenzo in search of Hoenikker's eldest son, and there by chance meets all the Hoenikker children and learns of their ice-nine. He also discovers Bokononism which is the principle religion of the island - but it is a religion practised covertly; adhering to Bokononism is punishable by torture and death.

Cat's Cradle is a satire about science as a false religion, and it questions the idea that the pursuits of truth and knowledge necessarily deliver positive outcomes for society and enhance the quality of life. The flaw inherent in the concept of progress is human frailty; the scientists may be discovering more about the world but they are also creating means for its destruction, and they have no way of controlling the use which anyone might make of their inventions. Bokononism, an unquestionably false religion which doesn't pretend to be anything but, is offered as a contrast to scientific research; in the first sentence of The Books of Bokonon it is made clear that nothing described is true. Bokononism, although based on a collection of acknowledged fictions, works: it is the only thing which offers the citizens of the impoverished island of San Lorenzo solace.

Cat's Cradle tells a story which is ludicrous and filled with improbable coincidences, but which is also wonderfully clever and funny. It argues against strict rationalism, for here the truth is destructive or dispiriting, and delusion is constructive.

First published in the U.S.A. 1963. Published in Great Britain by Gollancz 1963. Published in Penguin Books 1965.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Penguin no. 571: The Island of Dr. Moreau
by H.G. Wells

Though I do not expect that the terror of the island will ever altogether leave me, at most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. Then I look about me at my fellow-men. And I go in fear. I see faces keen and bright, others dull or dangerous, others unsteady, insincere; none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal were surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale.

It was generally believed that Edward Prendrick had been drowned when the Lady Vain sank after its collision with an abandoned vessel, but he turned up adrift in a life boat, still alive, eleven months later. No one could believe the account he gave of his adventures during those intervening months, and it was widely suspected that his mental faculties had been addled by his term of solitude. He therefore decided to keep quiet, committing his story to paper but telling no one else about it. The Island of Dr. Moreau purports to be the account of those missing months, apparently found amongst his papers after his death, and brought to the awareness of the public by his nephew.

Of those who had taken to the dinghy after the wreck, Prendrick alone survives long enough to be rescued after his companions fall overboard during a tussle. He is rescued by a ship which chances to pass, and a messenger with some medical training, who chances to be aboard, saves his life by nursing him back to health. Prendrick then finds himself abandoned a few days later by the enraged captain of the rescuing vessel, and adrift once more, this time without any means of manoeuvering his craft or any provisions to sustain his life. He is saved a second time, albeit reluctantly, by Dr. Moreau who is moved by the desperateness of his situation, and who allows Prendrick the sanctuary of his island. This act of compassion is to bring about Moreau's downfall, along with that of his companion Montgomery.

The idea that a person's fate is entirely subject to the vagaries of chance events is a recurring theme in The Island of Dr. Moreau. It is through a series of unlikely events that Prendrick survives the ship wreck and the predations of his companions in the dinghy, and that he is nursed back to health and rescued a second time. It is through happenings no less likely that he is in time able to leave Moreau's island and return to London to commit his tale to paper.  But the randomness of fortune is presented as an oppressive and bleak reality, for when the course of all lives, and the existence of humanity itself, is simply a matter of chance, nothing has any meaning.

It takes some time for Prendrick to work out the secret of Moreau's island, and the explanation for the bizarre human-like creatures which reside upon it. In time he learns that Moreau is an unashamed vivisectionist whose life's work has been focused on perfecting various surgical and psychological techniques which can be used to transform animals from their natural state into something which simulates human form, in an accelerated mimicry of evolution. Moreau is forced to undertake his research far from civilised society, because the concept is an outrage to his contemporaries.

And in this there seems a critique of the contemporary scientist, for Moreau - just like the process of evolution - is indifferent to the fate of those upon whom he experiments. Nothing matters but the pursuits of his research, and this includes the suffering endured by the inadvertent victims of the process he is attempting to perfect, and the difficulties they face in living with the altered conditions. For Moreau, every failure is an abhorrence, and something he turns his mind from: he has no compassion for them, and no concern for what becomes of them, but his island is there to provide a home to the rejected outcomes of his interventions.

In The Island of Dr. Moreau Wells explores the implications of the concepts which underpin the theory of evolution, both the idea of chance as an indifferent driver, and what it means if no distinct boundary exists between animals and humans. It is a well-told and fast-paced story, but also a bleak one, and Prendrick's obtuseness in working out what is going on can be frustrating.

First published by Heinemann in 1896. A film version by Paramount Pictures appeared in 1932. First published as a Penguin Book in 1946.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 151: The Invisible Man
Penguin no. 335: Kipps
Penguin no. 572: Love and Mr. Lewisham


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