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 with 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.