Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle was my third Vonnegut novel after Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night. It was published in 1963, a few years before Slaughterhouse-Five was published and Vonnegut became a household name. From a biographical perspective, it was one of his earlier novels that helped to define his style and approach.
Consequently, the book is ridiculous, absurd, amusing, dark, and self-referential as you would expect. It follows a writer who is trying to track down what famous Americans were doing the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The narrator gets caught up following information about a fictional scientist Felix Hoenikker and his now grown children, and the novel ends up on the fictional Caribbean island nation of San Lorenzo, which is ruled by a stalwart anti-communist and American allied dictator. The islanders are nonetheless uninterested in geopolitics and are instead obsessed with an invented nihilistic religion that everyone apparently follows, despite its official (and ignored) ban, punishable by death.
My thoughts on the book were mixed, but not strong; it’s probably good if you are already a large Vonnegut fan, otherwise, I’d probably opt to skip it. It is funny, in the bizarre Vonnegut way, but the bizarreness sometimes veers too far. I would often find the characters unrelatable. Nonetheless, there are some ideas that I did find historically interesting which I would like to discuss.
Having read Starship Troopers this year as well, these two novels capture the overriding sense of doom in the Cold War that we just don’t have any more. Heinlein’s response to what he saw as this existential and inevitable conflict with the Soviets was to argue for a hardline military response to save civilization. Vonnegut saw the destruction of the second world war and then the creation of the nuclear bomb and the arms race as a trend in human history towards greater destruction. His response was to write black comedies and satirize the entire ridiculousness that humans were so technically intelligent yet so tribally stupid as to create the gadgets of their own destruction. Given humanity was stupid enough to fight the deadliest war in human history less than 20 years prior, it was inevitable that the next war would come and prove even more horrific. It’s a powerful view and I’m sure made a lot of sense at the time. Cat’s Cradle in this context is fascinating.
Felix Hoenikker is a ridiculous character; he just tinkers and builds without any regard for the consequences of his actions, inventing an ice crystal that will turn any water that touches it into room temperature ice. Its application as a superweapon becomes apparent, but Hoenikker is so short sighted that he leaves it out for his children to find without any thought. In turn, when his children take the ice crystal, they are swindled out of it, allowing both the US and USSR access to it. I found this whole narrative pretty weird and silly, but from Vonnegut’s perspective this “what-are-social-consequences” caricature of the scientists who created the atomic bomb must have been compelling. As a general techno-optimist, I’m not so sure I agree. Trying to stop technology from advancing seems pretty difficult, and had the US not pursued a nuclear program, it seems unlikely that the Soviet Union would also have followed after having captured German scientists.
Moreover, reading this book in 2018, I have a similar critique to what I said about Heinlein; both author’s worries seem to have been incorrect. The Soviet Union collapsed without us fighting a war as Heinlein thought and without us destroying ourselves as Vonnegut seemed to expect in Cat’s Cradle. Is this just luck or actual evidence they were wrong? It’s hard to know.
But whereas Heinlein’s book also established the “space war” genre, meaning it remains a staple of science fiction, Cat’s Cradle is pretty meh outside of the social commentary. There are a lot of references to the invented religion of San Lorenzo (which parodies actual religion, which perhaps is also invented), called Bokononism. Such references are strewn with made up words and some of the made up San Lorenzen dialect. I’m not an absolutist when it comes to inventing words and language, but I feel that any invention of made-up words comes at a cost of reader understanding. The payoff is usually in terms of world-building, but Cat’s Cradle‘s world is ridiculous and constantly absurd, emphasizing its bizarreness. There is no world-building going on, and so I don’t feel like I bought into it as a reader, and thus the invented words were just annoying.
On the plus side, this book made me wonder what narratives seem obvious and ridiculous to us today will be forgotten about in 20 or 30 years. For example, we all know social media is creating fake news and promoting vile extremism and trolling. Our country is being divided and politicized and there may be no escape. Cat’s Cradle suggests instead we may not have any idea what our future problems will be like.