Cat’s Cradle is an incomparable satirical comedy on modern man and his undertakings. However, it must be said that the novel was only acceptable because of Kurt Vonnegut’s use of humor. Cat’s Cradle takes on two heavy and relatively uncorrelated themes- religion and man’s inevitable misuse of science and explores them in the most twisted way possible, with remarkable (or unremarkable) characters and a terrifying apocalyptic ending.
Cat’s Cradle begins with a journalist’s attempt to pen the life of scientist Felix Hoenikker, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. John’s curiosity leads him to the discovery of Ice-Nine, Hoenikker’s final and most dangerous chemical invention, capable of freezing the entire world. On his journey, John ends up on San Lorenzo, an island that imitates such utopias ruled by dictators as in Haiti or the Dominican Republic, meeting several families living on the island and Hoenikker’s three children- a midget, a plain girl with a proclivity for the clarinet, and a genius with a similar detachment to the world as his father. However, John’s journey is short-lived, as Hoenikker’s Ice-Nine is released just one day after arriving, freezing the entire world, an interesting contrast to Hoenikker’s original research in bombs.
I absolutely admired this book for its interesting exploration into and owning up to humanity’s faults. The terrors of science is not a new concept, but Vonnegut depicts the quest for knowledge itself as vain and dangerous. Indeed, a philosophy the protagonist comes to live by is to “…beware the man who works hard to learn something… [as] he is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance”. Of course, I personally believe that new knowledge is always useful and that it’s humanity’s responsibility to decide what to do with it. However, Vonnegut argues that humans will never have the discretion to earn that responsibility, noting that “…any man can call timeout, but no man can say how long the timeout will be.” Indeed, each of Hoenikker’s children, entrusted with a piece of Ice-Nine when their father died, sold their shareIce-Nine, because of insecurity, curiosity, or materialism. I can’t say for sure whether I would do any better.
Religion is presented through Bokononism in San Lorenzo. Although all citizens know that their religion consists of lies and its practice is punishable by death, they find comfort in it nonetheless, perhaps more effectively than any other religion we know today. Vonnegut presents religion in an interesting light that I haven’t thought of before – it’s not about whether religion is true or not, but whether it can offer value and comfort and a sense of self, just as zodiac signs offer a sense of identity despite having little scientific meaning. For example, one citizen, Mona, watched as the dictator of San Lorenzo came down with sickness, but “…death, if there was going to be death, did not alarm her.” Just as Vonnegut’s constant humor makes this story tolerable, Bokononism brings peace to the San Lorenzans, despite their miserable lives.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle offers an incredibly interesting look into two varying aspects of mankind. Hoenikker’s and Dr. Breed’s devotion to science and knowledge made them more devout than any observant San Lorenzan that allowed God to guide them through life.