#37 – Cat’s Cradle Summary – Kurt Vonnegut

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Cat’s Cradle is the second Kurt Vonnegut novel on this list and, although I personally would have put The Siren’s of Titan (#57) ahead of this one, I can still see why this book is so highly regarded and is often thought of as one of his best novels. Vonnegut is known for taking on issues of social importance in a humorous and satirical way, and this book is no exception.

The target this time is modern science and the way in which it exists almost as a game for scientists to play, irregardless of the devastating outcomes that their discoveries can have. Through the use of a fictional atomic scientist and a well-meaning but catastrophic invention, Vonnegut is able to show us the irony of a situation in which science tries to improve the quality of life for mankind, yet ultimately helps bring about its destruction.

Cat’s Cradle Summary

The aforementioned scientist is one Felix Hoenikker, preeminent physicist and co-creator of the atomic bomb. The narrator of the book is a man named John who has been researching Hoenikker as part of a book on the bombing of Hiroshima. Although Hoenikker is now dead, John comes into contact with his children while doing research from the book and learns a great deal about the reclusive scientist, including the rumored existence of a substance called “Ice-9” which has the ability to rearrange the molecular structure of water so that it is solid at room temperature.

Originally developed for the military in order to help soldiers navigate easier over muddy terrain, it also has the side affect of converting every drop of water it comes into contact with into this new solid state – something that could have tragic consequences for the world’s water supply. To make matters even more complicated, Hoenikker left the substance to his children (Frank, Angela and Newt) after his death, after which they each traded their shares of the substance away for their own personal gain.

Eventually John, as well as the Hoenikker children (in separate circumstances), find themselves on the poor island nation of San Lorenzo under the watchful eye of the ailing dictator “Papa” Monzano. The residents of the island all practice a peculiar form of religion called Bokononism – characterized by cynical (almost nihilistic) observations about god and life in general (as well as a ritual in which people place the soles of their feet together in order to achieve inner harmony and communion).

It is eventually revealed that Bokononism was originally invented by the island’s previous rulers as a way to control the populace and keep peace in the country. While the practice of Bokononism is officially outlawed in the country, it is also explained that this is merely a way to add the religion an added aura of danger and mystique.

Cat’s Cradle Review

As usual, Vonnegut brings his unique sense of humor and absurdity to the proceedings, making for a deliciously whacked out exploration of the foibles of scientific progress in the modern age. And while he roots his story in the real life fears of the atomic age (the book was published at a time in which the threat of nuclear war was all too real), he also provides a more sinister (and seemingly innocuous) threat to mankind in the form of the substance Ice-9.

In Vonnegut’s mind, it is not only the creation and the existence of the substance that dooms mankind to total destruction, it is the disregard that its creator had for the inevitable consequences that his actions would have – as well as the selfish nature of those entrusted to protect it. Although Vonnegut’s humor livens the story up somewhat, this is ultimately a supremely pessimistic book about the inevitability of mankind’s eventual self-sabotage.

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August 24, 2010

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