This is a classic by Kurt Vonnegut, who weaves together a wide range of fields to produce a remarkably interesting, entertaining, and simply fascinating work of literature. He has a sterling reputation, and I would say this book certainly supports that description. It wasn’t the first writings of his that I have read, but it’s all been quite a while, and was fun to read. I definitely recommend it for an escape, a different perspective on the world, and as a way to expand your mind in interesting ways.
Vonnegut begins the story with a statement: Nothing in this book is true. He then proceeds to tell a fantastic tale of an American who travels to San Lorenzo, an imagined island in the Caribbean, where nations have conquered and traded ownership for centuries. It’s a dismal place, but they have a quasi-religious belief system called Bokononism — established, naturally, by Bokonon. This belief structure is referenced throughout the book, and acknowledges both the absurdities of human existence as well as the necessity of having a belief system. John, the American, is traveling to research one of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb. Through this, he weaves fascinating scientific insights and theories into the mixture. Upon his arrival, he finds a dictatorship, though the people have been ruled by so many different groups, they don’t particularly care or perhaps even pay attention anymore — thus begging questions about governance and leadership structures. This interweaving of politics, religion, and science into an entertaining story is what in my mind makes it a true masterpiece.
His exploration of politics is insightful, though travels a path that has been worn by others, and is simply a good reminder that the politics we get upset over on a regular basis could be better or worse — depending both on what happens next as well as our fundamental perspective. The scientific insight that is most fun is exploring ideas that supposedly come from the genius who worked on the atomic bomb. In explaining how he came up with the theories for the atomic bomb, he basically explains that he had to teach the molecules how to be different than they once were. Once they figure that out, they have nuclear material. He alludes to a separate government contract, where he tries to find ways to keep soldiers out of mud. Rather than focusing on individual avoidance, he thinks about how to eliminate mud itself. The challenge, as he sees it, is in teaching the water molecules, which are in liquid form in normal circumstances, to reorganize themselves into a solid. He explains that by raising the temperature at which ice melts, elevating it above the normal freezing point, they could simply ‘teach’ mud how to become solid. He iterates through a few steps of this process, and ends up talking about how ice-nine (a key conceptual takeaway) could freeze until hitting ~115 degrees Fahrenheit. John eventually learns that before his death, the genius achieved this feat, and passed it along to his three less-than-genius children.
While this scientific exploration is taking place, Vonnegut interweaves Bokonon and his ideas into the book. The Books of Bokonon have many silly and insightful lines, such as that which opens the book: “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” (*foma is defined as ‘harmless untruths’) It is both asinine to base life on falsehoods, while simultaneously a brilliant way to achieve those highly desired traits of bravery and kindness and health and happiness, as they are difficult to obtain through an objective view on the world. Other references talk about how to act in life, how to engage with others, and how a community should be — with all of this prefaced with the same statement that begins the book: nothing in this book is true. So it offers insightful words of wisdom and genuinely interesting ways of approaching life (paraphrasing Jesus with “Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn’t have the slightest idea what’s really going on.”), all the while living under the caveat that none of it is true. The fascinating part of this, to me, is that it is both so close and so far away from today’s religions. The guidance on how to live and operate is very similar; the insights are real and can offer honest perspective on how to live a happy life. And yet the foundation of modern religions is that they offer the Truth: we are right, everyone else is wrong. By flipping that around, and saying Bokononism is not truth, there is no claim to the highest moral ground — just insights that the reader can either take as useful or reject as fanciful. Which, I think, is how many people approach religious guidance anyway, aligning with some beliefs and personally rejecting or opposing others.
It’s a fun, engaging book, and I’m happy to have read it. I think anyone with a curiosity about the world and how things work will greatly appreciate it as well.