“Cat’s Cradle: The Sin of Scientists and Systems” by Ben Berman Ghan

Science Fiction (SF) is a genre often used to explore how scientists and science are a source of evil, potentially leading to the demise of civilization. Works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) have well established the trope of the mad scientist who focuses on unnatural or evil experiments. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) revises the relationship between evil and science. While Vonnegut’s scientists are culpable in the process of birthing scientific advancements that are used for evil, science and scientists are not themselves a source of evil. Writing in the context of the Cold War, when fear of nuclear apocalypse was a constant in the zeitgeist of the world, Vonnegut replaces the notion of the “mad scientist” with the military industrial complex, creating a narrative in which the source of science gone awry is not the scientists themselves, but rather the fault of the monolithic systems of commerce, government, and military that corrupt science for evil ends. In Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, there is no evil “mad scientist,” only corrupt and untrustworthy organized systems.

Cat’s Cradle examines the relationship between scientists and systems, beginning with the fictional religion “Bokonism.” Vonnegut uses the tenets of Bokonism to separate the structured systems of society into two types of categories. Depicting a religion in which “humanity is organized into teams” (Vonnegut 2), Cat’s Cradle begins to emphasize systems that come into being organically, created by the cosmic circumstances of fate. These systems, called a “karass” (2), are groups of people who—intentionally or not—affect each other’s actions and lives. Members of a karass are not formally organized, nor are they even always aware of the karass they are in, ignoring “national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries” (3). These natural systems can be perverted by artificial ideas of a “false karass” (91) known as a “granfalloon” (92). The relationships that are formally created and organized by people are granfalloons, not karass. It is through the concept of granfalloons that Vonnegut proposes the types of systems that can corrupt science for evil.  

This essay was published online by the Terse Literary Journal. You can click here to be taken to their excellent site and read the essay in its entirety right here:  “Cat’s Cradle: The Sin of Scientists and Systems” 

Published by Ben Berman Ghan

Hi! My name is Ben Berman Ghan. I’m Jewish Settler, writer, editor, and academic based in Tkaronto/Toronto, site of Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory, currently working on my MA at Ryerson University's Literatures of Modernity program. I am the author of many short stories, a few essays, and the fix-up novel What We See in the Smoke (Crowsnest Books 2019)

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