John, a cynical freelance writer, describes a journey that began with his attempt to write a book that he wants to call “The Day the World Ended.” John’s subject is the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II. His research leads him to Newton “Newt” Hoenikker, son of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the bomb’s chief scientists. Newt shares memories of his father, a brilliant physicist who had seemed completely detached from humanity.
John then travels to Ilium, New York, where Hoenikker had lived and worked, and interviews Dr. Asa Breed, a fellow scientist and former colleague of Hoenikker. Breed tells him about ice-nine, a theoretical project Hoenikker reportedly had been working on near the end of his life. Originally conceived as a way to keep soldiers from having to fight in mud, ice-nine rearranges the molecules of water so that it freezes, even in extreme heat.
Though Breed insists that ice-nine remains only a theory, it turns out that it actually exists. Hoenikker had been playing with a chip of ice-nine on the day he died, and his three children divided the chip between them. John’s investigations suggest that the Hoenikker siblings, all unpopular outcasts as children, have used the precious substance to buy themselves status and companionship. Gawky Angela has acquired a handsome husband; Newt, a “midget,” had a brief liaison with Zinka, a Ukrainian dancer later revealed to be a spy; and Frank, a high school dropout whose only talent seems to be model making, becomes Major General Franklin Hoenikker, the minister of science and progress with the Republic of San Lorenzo.
Assigned to do a story about Julian Castle, a millionaire who had founded a free clinic in San Lorenzo, John flies to the island nation. On the airplane, he meets Angela and Newt Hoenikker; Horlick Minton, the U.S. ambassador to San Lorenzo, and his wife, Claire; and H. Lowe Crosby, a bicycle manufacturer who plans to start a factory in San Lorenzo, and his wife, Hazel, who takes a liking to John because they both are Indiana Hoosiers.
John tells his story from the perspective of Bokononism, a frankly false religion invented by Lionel Boyd Johnson, a World War I veteran who, along with a U.S. Marines deserter named Earl McCabe, had been shipwrecked on the island of San Lorenzo. McCabe had set himself up as the island’s ruler, and Johnson, known as Bokonon in island dialect, had styled himself a religious prophet. Although Bokononism is now outlawed on San Lorenzo, it is practiced by nearly everyone there, including Miguel “Papa” Monzano, the dictator who had replaced McCabe as ruler.
A central tenet of Bokononism is the formation of the karass, a group of seemingly unrelated people brought together by God to accomplish...
(The entire section is 1160 words.)