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"Science fiction is the very literature of change. In fact, it is the only such literature we have."
- Frederik Pohl

  A crystalline form of water so stable that in practical terms it would never melt.  

A general had a problem: mud. Marines have slogged their way through it for generations. Is it possible to get rid of mud? Without having to carry anything heavy? Marines already have enough to carry.

Dr. Felix Hoenikker, an original thinker, found the "outside-the-box" answer; a single crystal of Ice-Nine would crystallize every bit of water it touched.

"...suppose, young man, that one Marine had with him a tiny capsule containing a seed of ice-nine, a new way for the atoms of water to stack and lock, to freeze. If that Marine threw that seed into the nearest puddle...?"
"The puddle would freeze?" I guessed.
"And all the muck around the puddle?"
"It would freeze?"
"And all the puddles in the frozen muck?"
"They would freeze?"
"And the pools and the streams in the frozen muck?"
"They would freeze?"
"You bet they would !" He cried. "And the United States Marines would rise from the swamp and march on!"
From Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr..
Published by Random House in 1963
Additional resources -

And where would the freezing stop? Unfortunately, the melting point of Ice-Nine was 114.4 degrees; once the entire planet locked up, it would probably never melt.

Here's what the world looked like after Ice-Nine was released into the environment, crystallizing all water on Earth, locking it into the Ice-Nine configuration.

There were no smells. There was no movement. Every step I took made a gravelly squeak in blue-white frost. And every squeak was echoed loudly. The season of locking was over. The Earth was locked up tight

In fact, there really is a form of ice called Ice-IX. Ice-IX was discovered in 1968. It exists only under high pressure and does not have the properties of Vonnegut's ice-nine (thankfully!). Kurt Vonnegut's brother held a PhD in physical chemistry from MIT; he published papers on silver iodide and ice formation (cloud seeding). So that's one possible source for the idea.

It has also been suggested that, when Vonnegut was working at General Electric (in public relations), he was inspired by a company story relating to H.G. Wells. When Wells visited G.E. in the 'thirties, Nobelist chemist Irving Langmuir was tasked with keeping Wells entertained during his visit. Langmuir came up with an idea about a form of water that was solid at room temperature. Wells never published a story about it, but Vonnegut thought it was worth using.

Crystallized water, or ice, has a greater variety of crystalline structures than perhaps any other material. Ordinary ice (like you might skate on) has a hexagonal structure; water at different temperatures and pressures forms solids that are rhombohedral, tetragonal, cubic, or orthorhombic in structure. Some forms of "frozen" water are disordered (non-crystalline).

Just so you know, the regular ice in your refridgerator is hexagonal ice, Ice-Ih. That's what makes nice hexagonal snowflakes. Aren't you glad you asked?

See the comments for this item to read more about ice-nine and polywater.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Cat's Cradle
  More Ideas and Technology by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  Tech news articles related to Cat's Cradle
  Tech news articles related to works by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Ice-Nine-related news articles:
  - Ice-Nine Modeled In Harvard Computer - We're Doomed
  - Neowater - Like Intracellular Water
  - Ice Formation At Room Temperature Is Possible With New Material

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