Possible spoilers below!
You are unlikely to find a more famous American satirist from this century than Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five is, among other things, one of the best anti-war novel of our time. Cat’s Cradle, his first commercial success—and the book which earned him his master’s degree—remains one of his most well-known and oft-used.
Cat’s Cradle is a book about human stupidity. Putting it that way sounds much more simple than it really is, but if I had to summarize it in a sentence, that would be it. The book tracks the progress of the narrator, John, as he researches a book about the first atomic bomb. His search leads him to correspondence with the children of the late Dr. Hoenikker, the “father of the atomic bomb,” who is a conflation of several well-known scientists, including Oppenheimer (the real “father of the atomic bomb”). This correspondence leads him to meet with Dr. Hoenikker’s former colleage Dr. Asa, who informs him—more or less—that Hoenikker, before he died, made an experimental allotrope of water called “Ice-Nine” which could act as a “seed” that changed the chemical properties of any water molecules it touched to be a solid at room temperature. The implication is that a single molecule of Ice-Nine could destroy the earth. See where this is going?
Finally, John’s travels take him to the island of San Lorenzo, a grimy little third-world country with clear parallels to Cuba, unites him with all of the Hoenikker children, and introduce him to the self-parodying religion of Bokononism, the invention of an old calypso singer of the island which purports to be better than all other religions because it at least admits that everything it says is a lie, and thus provides a framework of the metaphysical without any self-righteousness. Vonnegut’s treatment of religion in Cat’s Cradle has all the bells and whistles, outlining a complex belief structure that is at once as absurd as it is realistic. Like many works by Vonnegut, the reader exists in a state where he is both aware of the patent absurdity of the author’s created world and made uncomfortable by the lines he can draw to his own reality (and the ones Vonnegut clearly draws for him).
Interestingly, it is science which is the main vehicle for destruction here. Like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the harbinger of the apocalypse is inevitably Man’s careless use of its own technological creations—ironically, the seemingly harmless “ice” that could bring about utter destruction is also the creation of the man who created the atomic bomb. Hoenikker is an entirely amoral creature, blind to all consequence, caring only about solving technological puzzles—a characterization in which Vonnegut implicates many scientists.
Everyone in the book, including the deified Bokonon, is turned inward—selfish scheming. The three Hoenikker children, having barely known their father or happy childhoods, are stupidly self-serving in their search for happy adulthoods, ultimately the locus for the widespread destruction of the novel’s end. Dr. Asa, Hoenikker’s colleague, is self-centered in his view of science as the ultimate arbiter of meaning1.
Vonnegut, I believe the master of sociopolitical satire in the second half of the 20th century, is razor-sharp in Cat’s Cradle, relentless lampooning all that is wrong with the apparently nature of humans. It’s little wonder that this little book launched his career.
- The story of his commencement speech at the local high school illustrates just such an example: he refers to the search for the “key to life,” and reveals that this is a protein. This might be a key to biological life, but not to Life-with-a-capital-L in any meaningful sense.[↩]