In Cat’s Cradle, the world ends. Of that there is no doubt. There is no hopeful rebuilding, there is no promise of tomorrow. Jonah survives only with a few of his fellow Hoosiers and Bokonon himself. The world does not end because of nuclear weapons but instead because of a substance called ice-nine. It ends in a terrible storm that comes as a result of all the water on earth freezing and the subsequent death of any life touching this new type of ice. It is distinctive that Vonnegut ends the world this way, in part because it is an ode to Langmuir and Bernard. However, Vonnegut is also pointing to a larger problem that he sees with technology, that a technology can be created to fix a problem and becomes a weapon later. There is not always a dangerous intent to technologies. Hoenikker creates ice-nine after hearing about the problem of mud on the battlefield. It is only later that it becomes a technology with dangerous implications. The Bomb exists in the world of Cat’s Cradle. Felix Hoenikker is one of the masterminds of the atomic project, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are events in the Cat’s Cradle timeline. His reaction to a testing of the bomb is memorialized by his son, Newt. “After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has now known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said, ‘What is sin?'”[1]

The Bomb is what Jonah intends to write about when he begins his account in Cat’s Cradle. “When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended. The book was to be factual. The book was to be an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. It was to be a Christian book. I was a Christian then.”[2] He is trying to track the human element behind the Bomb, both the making of it and everything that lead up to its use on a civilian population. “My book is going to emphasize the human rather than the technical side of the bomb.”[3] Felix Hoenikker is the character behind the making of the Bomb whom he chooses to study, and it is that choice that leads him to San Lorenzo and ultimately to the events that end the world.

Vonnegut chose not to end the world using the Bomb, but instead something that was not inherently dangerous. It shows a level of recklessness within science and the scientists themselve, and shows the hubris of scientists who think they can control things that they have no hope of ever controlling. This reflects the connection between Irving Langmuir and Felix Hoenikker. While Langmuir did not work on the Bomb during World War II, he did work closely with the United States military, on projects aimed at improving radar technology and de-icing airplane wings. The latter project acted as a stepping stone for Langmuir’s work which he enlisted Bernard’s help on “Project Cirrus.” Langmuir’s project of choice, at the end of his long career at General Electric, was work on weather control and cloud seeding, so it is no coincidence that the character Vonnegut creates to model after Langmuir in Cat’s Cradle creates a substance which can fundamentally change the weather of the entire planet.[4]

In Cat’s Cradle and Player Piano, Vonnegut portrayed corporations as influential as the military. He was not alone in his unease at the scientific militarism of the 1950s; President Dwight Eisenhower expressed the same discomfort. Eisenhower, however, accommodated himself to its ideas and embraced the paralyzing notion that corporate prosperity and the proliferation of weapons technology were two sides of the same ideological coin.[5] While there were many scientists who were opposed to the use of nuclear weapons and to their very existence, it would be incorrect to make the assertion that all scientists shared the belief of those who worked on the text One World or None. Americans had to evolve their technology because they were caught in a merciless evolutionary process. Thus, throughout the 1950s, as growing concerns about fallout and the arms race were expressed by the public, Cold Warriors argued that the continuation of testing and proliferation were necessary to continue the search for “cleaner” weapons.[6]

The first people to hear the news of the atomic bomb were the people likely to be at home in the middle of the day on a Monday, and thus near a radio (the elderly, children, housewives). Thus, the Bomb became part of American life from the moment it was used in Japan. After the initial shock, Americans seemingly rallied and took the atomic bomb in stride. Comedians (not all of them professionals) strained to find humor in the new weapon. A radio newscaster commented that Hiroshima “looked like Ebbetts Field after a game between the Giants and the Dodgers.”[7] Others joked that Japan was suffering from “atomic ache.”[8] Only the radio entertainer, Milton Berle, explicitly refused to make jokes about the atomic bomb. While many Americans had, and still have, no real understanding of the science behind the bomb, or exactly what makes the bomb so terrifying, there seemed to be at least a general fascination of the object shared by most Americans, as well as a sort of primal fear. This primal fear of extinction cut across all political and ideological lines, from the staunchly conservative Chicago Tribune, which wrote bleakly of an atomic war that would leave Earth “a barren waste, in which the survivors of the race will hide in caves or live among ruins,” to such liberal voices as the New Republic, which offered an almost identical vision of a conflict that would “obliterate all the great cities of the belligerents, [and] bring industry and technology to a grinding halt,…[leaving only] scattered remnants of humanity living on the periphery of civilization.”[9]

Isaac Asimov later said that science-fiction writers were “salvaged into respectability” by Hiroshima.[10] Asimov would seem to be correct in this assertion, since the period when Vonnegut published his first four novels and countless short stories saw a revival of American science-fiction. Asimov’s most famous collection of stories, I, Robot, was published only a few years before the publication of Player Piano, in 1950. Many pieces of fiction dealt with the pure destructive aspect of nuclear bombs. Often films end with the Bomb going off and no screen time about the after-effects of the Bomb. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is the most notable of this type of film. However, some books, such as 1984 (1949) by George Orwell, Limbo (1952) by Bernard Wolfe, and Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury, intimately deal with the after-effects of the Bomb. These works are similar because they imagine a world where atomic weapons are routinely dropped on civilian populations, and the society that arises from the destruction is usually authoritarian in some manner.[11] These books also bear some similarity to Vonnegut’s writing for the pessimism which they display regarding the connection of humans to technology. Literary scholars M. Keith Booker in Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964 (2001) and David Seed in “The Flight from the Good Life: Fahrenheit 451 in the Context of Postwar American Dystopias” have pointed to this connection. Booker points to the ways which fiction like Vonnegut’s captures a crucial mood held by many Americans about our relationship to technology and the ease with which we could end the world. It is as simple as pressing a button, and humanity virtually has the power to destroy itself.[12] Vonnegut was not alone in his pessimism.

Philip K. Dick, probably most well-known for his work in the 1960s, namely The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), as well as the prestigious science-fiction award bearing his name which has been awarded since his death, spent the 1950s pondering the effects of the Bomb in The World Jones Made (1954), Eye in the Sky (1955), and Time Out of Joint (1958). These three novels deal intimately with the Bomb but in vastly different ways. The World Jones Made is set in a dystopian future, the year 2002, decades after a nuclear war has occurred, and deals with the aftermath of human society after nuclear fallout. This is quite a bit different from both Eye in the Sky and Time Out of Joint, which deal with nuclear weapons in a more roundabout manner. Both take a premise that there is some sort of looming technology or threat that is alien to humans, and that this threat could cause the end of civilization as we know it. It is only at the end that the reader is brought to the truth that this alien technology is nuclear weapons and that rather than being otherworldly, it is a threat made entirely by humans themselves. Alien invasion as a metaphor for the Bomb is a common trope during the 1950s, including in Vonnegut’s own work, The Sirens of Titan (1959), and many of the films of the era.[13]

Vonnegut wrote The Sirens of Titan between Player Piano and Cat’s Cradle, and he is playing with science fiction tropes in the text. It is his second novel and is overwhelming considered to be in the science fiction genre. Much of the story revolves around a Martian invasion of the Earth, however, it also deals in some themes which Vonnegut explores in his later works. One character, Winston Rumfoord, is unstuck in time, a theme which Vonnegut returns to most famously in Slaughterhouse-Five. The reader is also introduced to the alien race of the Tralfamadorians, who make being unstuck in time possible. The novel also contains the dark comedy and pessimism about humanity that Vonnegut expresses in his early novels. But, most important for this discussion, Vonnegut describes a war between humans and Martians (who closely resemble humans) where there is technology on both sides that could utterly destroy all life, similar to other alien invasion stories of this period. Unlike in Cat’s Cradle, aliens create the end of the world in The Sirens of Titan, not humans. In this 1950s novel, Vonnegut is admitting to Americans that science and technology cannot fix everything.

Vonnegut could not help but to express horror at the technologies associated with war.

But for me it was terrible, after having believed so much in technology and having drawn so many pictures of dream automobiles and dream airplanes and dream human dwellings, to see the actual use of this technology in destroying a city and killing 135,000 people and then to see even more sophisticated technology in the use of nuclear weapons in Japan. I was sickened by this use of technology that I had had such great hopes for. And so I came to fear it. You know, it’s like being a devout Christian and then seeing some horrible massacres conducted by Christians after a victory. It was a spiritual horror of that sort which I still carry today.”[14]


In Vonnegut lies some of the darkest reflections of these technologies and musings about this specific age in human scientific endeavor. Vonnegut’s pessimism and dark humor are defining characteristics of his writing, often noted by those who study him as the hallmark of what makes Vonnegut worth studying.[15] However, that pessimism combined with his skepticism of general twentieth century technology, and his fear more specifically of military technologies, Vonnegut offers something different in his views of world ending technologies. Vonnegut sees that once the technology, in this case ice-nine, is created, it is inevitable that it will be used to destroy the world. There is no escaping it. The world will end by our own hand once we create technologies that can complete that very task.

For Vonnegut, though, the end of the world is more than just the inevitability of the path that these new forms of twentieth century science and technology will take us down, it is a means for him to truly understand human beings and ultimately himself. In A Man Without a Country Vonnegut states, “total catastrophes are terribly amusing, as Voltaire demonstrated. You know, the Lisbon earthquake is funny.”[16] To Vonnegut, there is humor in the darkest hours. That is what makes us undeniably human: our ability to cope with tragedy and chaos. After Mona has committed suicide, and Jonah has watched the world literally end, he muses about the beauty of nature that still surrounds him. He has experienced utter loss, and yet curiosity and wonder engulf him, and importantly Jonah’s fascination with science stays with him, even as he has watched science fail him. Life fails in a heartbreakingly yet adorably lovable manner. There is no hope, of course, but we sympathize with the effort, and are amused.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle. (New York: Dial Press, 2010): 17.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] David Hayman, David Michaelis, George Plimpton, and Richard Rhodes, “Kurt Vonnegut, the Art of Fiction.” In The Paris Review No. 69 (Spring 1977): 37.

[5] Patrick McGrath. Scientists, Business and the State, 1890-1960 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002): 158.

[6] Mark Greif. The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015): 61.

[7] Paul Boyer. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985): 10.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] Paul Boyer. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985): 15.

[10]Paul Boyer. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985): 257.

[11] Though, this is much like the question of the chicken and the egg as to which came first. Were the societies already authoritarian and then they used nuclear weapons, or was it the use of the Bomb that caused authoritarian regimes to be built out of the ashes? It is not particularly clear in any of the texts.

[12] M. Keith Booker. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001): 2.

[13] Most notably: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Beginning or the End (1947), The Day the Sky Exploded (1961), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962), The Day the Earth Ended (1956), and various adaptations of The War of the Worlds that were recreated throughout the 1950s. The presence of aliens took on a new meaning in conjunction with nuclear weapons.

[14] Robert Musil. “There Must be More to Love than Death: Interview with Kurt Vonnegut” in The Nation (August 1980): 69.

[15] He has been compared to Mark Twain for this use of humor, though is a much darker way.

[16] Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without a Country. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005): 3.