Will it be Fire or Ice?
The End of the World is a serious subject. Poets, notably Misters Eliot and Frost , both misquoted above, have commented on it. However, I would like to call your attention to two science fiction novels, one recent and one a golden oldie, that have a somewhat humorous—well, darkly humorous—take on the subject.
 The Gone-Away World / Nick Harkaway
Wu Shenyang, Master Wu of the Voiceless Dragon School of gong fu has a dry wit. He tells his English students in Cricklewood Cove to study the chi of Ella Fitzgerald and gong fu of Isaac Newton . He has them practice to the music of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers and Mozart . He tells them there are no Secret Teachings, no Iron Skin Meditation to turn aside weapons, no Ghost Palm Strike that cannot be avoided or deflected. “The truth is not hidden. It is simple.” But to humor his students he’s willing to tell them a story and make up a Secret Teaching. He also tells them to beware of his sworn enemies, the ninjas of the Clockwork Hand Society.
A decade or so later, these fighting skills are very useful to the SpecialOps forces (of which the narrator is a member) bogged down in a proxy war in Addeh Katir. It’s a small middle-eastern county and an Elective Theater in a very muddled conflict (or un-war) between the six powers involved. If the motives are vague, the high explosives are not, and when the narrator is gouged by shrapnel (friendly fire variety) he is sent behind the lines to a blissful encounter with a very beautiful, if not particularly skillful nurse named Leah. But romantic bliss is interrupted by the fortunes of war. In defiance of the Geneva Accords, someone attacks using poison gas. When news of this atrocity reaches the ears of the government at home the order comes down to use the new secret weapon in retaliation. While the new bomb is not a nuclear device, it does operate by using some basic forces of the universe, but not with a messy explosion—it just make the enemy (and anything surrounding it) Go Away. The enemies, the landscape, the atmosphere just cease to exist. It’s quite a surprise when the bombs go off. It’s followed by another surprise. The enemy also has these bombs, and soon large parts of the planet cease to exist.
Harkaway gives credit to three authors for his story: P. G. Wodehouse , Arthur Conan Doyle , and Alexandre Dumas . But, to me, his exuberantly witty prose, social commentary, and strong characters read like Charles Dickens .
Cat's Cradle / Kurt Vonnegut
“Call me Jonah,” says the chronicler of the end of the world and the novel’s narrator. He had begun with the idea of writing a book about the Atomic Bomb. It was to be a popular history, short sketches of what were people doing and thinking when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He starts with the family and acquaintances of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, in this book, once of the chief inventors of the Bomb. He corresponds with one of his sons and takes a trip to interview Dr. Breed, Hoenikker’s nominal supervisor during the war. Breed tells him that Hoenikker wasn’t much of a people person. He was interested in physics and didn’t care much for human interaction, because this disturbed his thinking. He relates an anecdote about how Hoenikker has dismissed a Marine Corps general who wanted him to get rid of mud, so the marines would have to spend so much time slogging through it. According to Dr. Breed, Hoenikker made up a tale about a crystal form of water that formed at a temperature of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. He called it ice-nine.
Not long after this, Jonah accepts a journalistic assignment to interview an American doctor whose hospital is in the jungle of one of the poorest places on earth, the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo. In preparation for the assignment he discovers that the chief military chief to the island’s absolute dictator is one of Hoenikker’s sons. On the flight there he finds that Hoenikker’s other two children are fellow passengers. When he arrives, he makes his most startling discovery, ice-nine is not a story made up to put off an annoying general; all three of the children carry a crystal of it in a personal thermos bottle. Should one of these pieces come in contact with a body of water, the water would crystallize staring a chain reaction that would freeze the oceans, the atmosphere, and extinguish life on earth.
This is not a tale of suspense, but an incisive satire of the human condition and the state of the world in 1963. It’s bleak, but so were humanity’s prospects the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis . Some especially biting comments are aimed at people blindly putting faith in either Religion or Science. Some of the book’s best lines are given to one of the founders of the fictional San Lorenzo, Lionel Boyd Johnson, known in the local dialect as Bokonon. In order to make life on impoverished San Lorenzo bearable, Bokonon invents a religion that is openly based on falsehoods. As he puts it:
“I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense,
So we could all be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
And I made this sad world
Some of Bokonon’s other thoughts are:
“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”
“In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.
And God said, ‘Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.’ And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. ‘What is the purpose of all this?’ he asked politely.
‘Everything must have a purpose?’ asked God.
‘Certainly,’ said man.
‘Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,’ said God.
And He went away.”