Dr Felix Hoenikker, one of the founding ‘fathers’ of the atomic bomb, has left a deadly legacy to humanity. For he is the inventor of ice-nine, a lethal chemical capable of freezing the entire planet. Writer Jonah’s search for its whereabouts leads him to Hoenikker’s three eccentric children, to an island republic in the Caribbean where the religion of Bokononism is practised, to love and to insanity. Told with deadpan humour and bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction is a funny and frightening satire on the end of the world and the madness of mankind.
Cat’s Cradle is a cynical, comedic, witty, dystopian view of the future, written in tight, economic prose.
From the very beginning of the novel, the reader is made aware that ‘Ice-Nine’ will eventually be the cause of a huge, end-of-the-world scenario and within the plot Vonnegut presents so many obvious opportunities for Ice-Nine’s release into the world, that when the act finally arrives – in the last 25 pages – it almost feels like a relief. In other words, this entire story reads like an anti-weapons-of-mass-destruction manifesto as it seems designed to persuade the reader that if you make such a thing, eventually someone will use it. The other strong message here, is that war is a huge waste of human life:
“They [soldiers] are murdered children…. And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children [dead soldiers] of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.” p.182
Vonnegut also spends quite a few lines satirising the roles of politics, and of religion, in society.
“Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth [poverty] was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies…. He asked McCabe [his friend the President] to outlaw him and his religion, too, in order to give the religious life of the people more zest, more tang…. And [so] McCabe and Bokonon paid a terrible price in agony for the happiness of the people – McCabe knowing the agony of the tyrant and Bokonon knowing the agony of the saint.” pp.123-5
I found Bokonon’s invented religion great fun to read about. His teachings include advice such as “peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God”, information on the practice of boko-maru (the touching of two people’s feet, soul to soul) and other religious rites. The religious terminology is detailed and somewhat endless – forma, granfalloon, stuppa, calypso etc – but I didn’t actually mind that.
“We will touch our feet. yes,
Yes, for all we’re worth,
And we will love each other, yes,
Yes, like we love our Mother Earth.”
Somewhat predictably – because without this approach, Kurt Vonnegut would have found it much harder to mock society and to amuse us – there aren’t any characters in Cat’s Cradle, there are only caricatures. We meet a pushy, entrepreneurial American businessman; a scientist with poor social/life skills; and an extravagant and somewhat insane dictator, for instance. Still, nobody writes banter/dialogue quite like Kurt Vonnegut. Read just one of his books and you’ll want to read them all.
Jonah: “I’m not a drug salesman, I’m a writer.”
Julian: “What makes you think a writer isn’t a drug salesman?”
Jonah: “I’ll accept that. Guilty as charged.”
Julian: “Have you ever seen anyone die of bubonic plague?”
Jonah: “That unhappiness has not been mine.”
Newt: “For maybe a hundred thousand years or more, grownups have been waving tangles of string in their children’s faces…. No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s…”
Newt: “No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”