Told with deadpan humour and bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon and, worse still, surviving it…
Dr Felix Hoenikker, one of the founding ‘fathers’ of the atomic bomb, has left a deadly legacy to the world. For he is the inventor of ‘ice-nine’, a lethal chemical capable of freezing the entire planet. The search for its whereabouts leads to Hoenikker’s three ecentric children, to a crazed dictator in the Caribbean, to madness. Felix Hoenikker’s Death Wish comes true when his last, fatal gift to mankind brings about the end, that for all of us, is nigh…
Vonnegut’s 1963 novel of the Cold War has become a classic novel for disaffected teenagers, with its nihilism and pessimism feeding into such disaffection with society; but Cat’s Cradle is also much more than that.
The novel focuses on Judah, our mononymous narrator, journalist and would-be biographer of Felix Hoenikker, referred to throughout the novel as the father of the bomb; we follow Judah as he meets and learns about the children and colleagues of Hoenikker, and through that lens about Hoenikker himself. Cat’s Cradle is not sympathetic to the men who created the bomb; instead it sees them, and indeed scientists generally, as risking the fate of the world for the purpose of satisfying curiosity. Indeed, Vonnegut seems to see scientists as completely detached from concerns about consequences, and non-scientists as unable to challenge that no matter how hard they try; this is an interesting position given the deep concern the actual creators of the bomb had with the consequences of their creation, of course.
Mostly, though, Cat’s Cradle is a satire of anything Vonnegut could lay his hands on, from the banana-free banana republic of San Lorenzo, a rock without value to those not living on it run by the heirs of a pair of stranded First World War soldiers, with an entirely artificial – and knowingly so – conflict between Bokononism, the self-statedly false religion founded by one, and the professedly Christian state run by the other. Through this, Vonnegut creates an excellent critique of the way the state creates its own enemies and then requires them to continue to survive, an especially telling point in the context of the modern Western panic over “Islamism” and “jihadism”. Of course, Cat’s Cradle also critiques a number of other issues, especially around American interactions with the world; an American couple are shown to be clueless, offensive, and racist, without any redeeming features, almost caricatures of the American abroad. Indeed, that they are racist by the standards of the book is itself arguably rather impressive; Vonnegut, writing during the civil rights movement, wrote a novel which has white saviours (albeit not the most successful saviours) and black islanders who fit all the stereotypes one might expect.
The central point of the novel, though, is its apocalyptic vision. Cat’s Cradle is really about the way science is bringing about the end of the world; hence Hoenikker inventing the apocalyptic ice-nine with the power to freeze all the water in the world. But it’s also about how that world-ending thing could actually end the world – by farcical accident, by horrible, random chance; Vonnegut doesn’t believe in intentionality controlling fate, but rather in the ultimate purposelessness of whatever we do, the in-the-end uncontrollable nature of fate.
Cat’s Cradle is a meditation on the world ending with a whimper, not a bang, and on the bleak, black humour that inheres to such an ending; it’s about the stupidity of humanity, and our failure to understand the idea of our actions having consequences. It’s not “great literature” in the sense of concern with interiority or emotion, but it speaks to us all the same, and wonderfully so.