As John, the narrator, researches the background for his book on the atomic bomb, he becomes fascinated by Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Hoenikker is the archetypal scientist, isolated from human contact, dedicated to his work, and completely without moral awareness. Like the child’s game cat’s cradle, which is meant to amuse but only terrifies his son, Hoenikker’s scientific games are anything but harmless.
Ironically the atomic bomb is not even Hoenikker’s most devastating creation. Working on the rather innocuous problem of how to get soldiers out of the mud, he synthesizes “ice-nine,” which is both better and worse than expected: It would freeze the water so soldiers stuck in the mud could lift themselves out, but this freezing action would continue until every bit of water on earth was turned into solid ice-nine.
At his death Hoenikker’s secret substance is entrusted to his children, who are predictably irresponsible and use the power of ice-nine only for their personal advantage. Vonnegut shows sympathy for Newton, Angela, and Frank Hoenikker, frail human beings who are simply incapable of the moral strength and wisdom demanded of them, but this makes the satire even more powerful: Mankind continually refuses to acknowledge what may be called its terminal stupidity and therefore perpetually threatens its own existence.
There are a few positive forces in the novel, but each is undermined. Love, for example, is presented as a worthy but impossible, even comical ideal, symbolized by Mona Monzano and her insatiable habit of making love only...
(The entire section is 647 words.)