Kurt Vonnegut's fourth novel (Holt, Rinehard & Winston, 1963). One of his best, and an excellent starting point for new readers. See for yourself...

The story is told from the perspective of a writer, identified only as John, who sets out to write a book about the first atomic bomb and the day it exploded. He travels to upstate New York to meet the children of nuclear physicist Dr. Franklin Hoenikker, and learns that the scientist had another fascination: he had discovered a way to make water form crystals at high temperatures, resulting in a material called ice-nine, with a melting point of 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Naturally, such a substance has great possibilities as a doomsday weapon, which makes it dangerous by the mere potential for its existence.

Before his death, the scientist had bequeathed his new secret to his three children, each of whom goes on to use it to improve his or her life in some fashion. The oldest son Frank winds up as a government official on the tiny island nation of San Lorenzo.

As it happens, the protagonist soon finds himself traveling to San Lorenzo - partly because he is assigned to write a magazine article about the island, but also because he has fallen in love with a photograph of the island's most beautiful woman, the adopted daughter of strongman "Papa" Monzano. The island is also home to the "spurious holy man" Bokonon, whose religion is outlawed by the island's government but devoutly practiced by every one of its citizens.

On the island, our hero takes up with a group of tourists, diplomats and other foreigners. As it happens - "as it was supposed to happen," Bokonon would say - the group also includes all three children of Dr. Franklin Hoenikker, who carry with them three chips of ice-nine, and with it the potential to destroy all the world.

At this point I will end the synopsis, since I do not want to spoil the party. If you wish to know the rest of the story, you should read the book rather than a clumsy recapitulation like this one.

So what does all this mean? Well, as someone already mentioned, the book is most definitely a parable about religion, and its place in politics and society. Bokonon's curious faith certainly forms of the cornerstones of the story. The prophet freely admits that his religion is nothing but lies, or foma, and that his chief purpose is to serve as a good-guy foil to the island's bad-guy dictator, to the ultimate benefit of their society.

In the book, Bokonon is an alumnus of the Charles Atlas school of "Dynamic Tension" muscle-building. Thus, the basis of his idea: just as muscles can be strengthened by pulling against one another, societies can be strengthened by the constant pull of good against evil, of establishment versus revolution, of faith versus authority. Bokonon knows this, and so too does the island's dictator: he will pursue his "nemesis" only hard enough and long enough to keep his subjects interested.

The plot element of ice-nine seems to be one of Vonnegut's jabs at science, especially the cold-war science of "doomsday weapons." He describes Dr. Hoenikker as a gentle, almost childish old man with an insatiable curiosity about everything, and contrasts this with his ability to conceive of devices that could be capable of massive destruction. This probably stems from Vonnegut's post-war employment as a publicity writer at the General Electric company (Progress Is Our Most Important Product!), where he saw scientists push the boundaries of "progress" as far and as fast as they could, apparently without regard for the consequences. Furthermore, the author's older brother Bernard was a pioneer in the field of atmospheric science, so Dr. Hoenikker's seeming ingenuous childishness possibly stems from this influence.

Finally, much like its predecessor The Sirens Of Titan, Cat's Cradle puts forth the fatalistic idea that every event in history happens just "as it was supposed to happen," as Bokonon would say. Vonnegut drops a few tenets of the Bokononist faith into the story, and many of these deal with the idea that humans are put here on Earth to accomplish very definite, if ineffable, tasks. The protagonist speaks again and again of the feeling that something is guiding his path, an idea around which Bokonon has based his entire religion, even inventing names for the invisible forces and groups that the Almighty uses to get his chores done. Vonnegut's writing is famed for its apparent nihilism and cynical darkness, and rightly so, but every one of his books, even this one, has a small but solid core of humanism.



"Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."
        – bokonon

Brought to you by The Content Rescue Team. Info from my brain, and also from http://www.duke.edu/~crh4/vonnegut/.

Sometimes I like to play a little game in my head, where I multiply and divide time. I will take an event, think how long ago it occurred, and then compare it another event even equally distance in the past. For example, I was born about halfway between the end of World War II and the present day. This game can be both amusing and revealing.

The relevancy to this to Cat's Cradle is that it is now fifty years since Cat's Cradle was published. The world that Cat's Cradle was written and published in---the world of the early 1960s---is as distant from the present day as it is to the pre-World War I world when airplanes and automobiles were curiosities. And in literary terms, the 50 years between now and Cat's Cradle is just a little less than the 56 years between Cat's Cradle and the last novel that Mark Twain published in his lifetime. (And the 61 years between Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano and the present is shorter than between the end of Twain's career and the beginning of Vonnegut's, but I digress).

Kurt Vonnegut was probably the most important writer for the counter-culture of the 1960s. His books directly addressed most of the topics that were so important at that time. However, topical fiction can age rapidly, most of the topics that Vonnegut was addressing directly have now gone by the wayside---but then even more of the topics that Mark Twain wrote about have also done so. And yet people still read Mark Twain.

This is a work about the Cold War and the arrogance of American society and foreign policy. This is a work about the affectlessness and carelessness of the scientific establishment in the 1950s. And this is a book about the sillyness of Christianity as it was practiced during that time. And in all of those matters, matters that would be repeated over and over again in the 1960s, this book is somewhat quaint. And parts of it seem almost embarrassing: in the book, the only female characters are either shrews or sex objects. And while it was meant to be sympathetic, the portrayal of the people of San Lorenzo certainly seems a bit racist. And the book's description of the end of the world seems both prescient and backwards: because the world is destroyed by climate change, but it is destroyed by one person's carelessness and arrogance in an instant, instead of (as now seems to be the case), by the grinding inability of people who know there is a problem to admit there is a problem.

But for all that some of these specific topics seem dated, the book is still valuable. First off, the breezy, conversational tone of the book still seems fresh and lively. Although Vonnegut was more known for his substance, his style is still great: the first person narration is easy and comfortable to read because I feel like I am being addressed directly. That is why this book, with its short chapters and rapid action, is so easy to get into. But apart from the style, the other message of the book is about, as the title suggests, the fact that people come up with patterns to make life more comfortable. The threat of the Cold War might be gone, but people continue to have things that threaten them, and continue to come up with "comforting lies" to make them go away. The comedy of Bokonon, the religious man who makes up a religion and helps outlaw it so the religious struggle makes life meaningful is still a great idea. So too is the idea, which neither the narrator or Vonnegut seem to totally disavow, that God forms people into teams centered around objects, to carry out his purposes. The humor of a world where you can never tell what is a joke, and where understanding some things might depend on not taking them seriously, is still a great idea.

So while many of the specific things that made this a topical novel for 1963 are gone, it (along with most of the rest of Vonnegut's body of work) has probably aged well into being a classic. At this point, we can probably guess that people will be reading Cat's Cradle and Huckleberry Finn together in 2100. Long after the Cold War has become something in the history books, people will still be reading Cat's Cradle for its affectionate look at human absurdity.

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