Review: Cat’s Cradle

Book: Cat’s Cradle

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recommended for: Fans of fun, thought provoking novels, those going through an existential crisis, anyone who likes the idea of challenging science and/religion, fans of other Vonnegut works as this is often called his best.

It seems like a lot of people read this book in high school – it certainly would have been an easy classic to digest as a high schooler compared to some of the thicker tomes we were forced to read. I, unfortunately, was never introduced to Kurt Vonnegut in my younger years and it wasn’t until I read Slaughterhouse Five last year that I knew anything about his works. It’s a shame too, because Vonnegut does a marvelous job keeping me entertained while also making me question some of the things I would have considered staunch beliefs. This was no different in his novel Cat’s Cradle, a 127 chapter novel about the end of the world.

The plot follows the story of a man named Jonah as he collects material for a book called The Day the World Ended, “an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan”. The story starts with him collecting material on a fictional father of the atom bomb, Dr. Felix Hoenikker. You see, Dr. Hoenikker had long since passed away, so Jonah contacts his three children in hopes of getting material for his book. In the process, he discovers that Dr. Hoenikker had also invented an isotope of water called Ice-Nine that is capable of destroying all life on Earth. Soon Jonah finds himself on the island of San Lorenzo with the three Hoenikker children and a host of other ridiculous characters and the events that follow lead to the death of almost all life on Earth. Ironic, as his journey started while writing a book called The Day the World Ended. Then again, with Vonnegut, irony is the name of the game.

Above all, this book was ridiculous and fun to read. As I mentioned, it consists of 127 chapter and yet the book itself is less than 300 pages long. This makes it very digestible and easy to read – which, I assume, is why it is a favorite for high school classrooms. Vonnegut has a way of making a novel entertaining and funny while simultaneously making the reader think about serious questions and issues.

One of the main themes here is that life is essentially without purpose and therefore, humankind has seen fit to try and give life some kind of meaning. As a result, some people turn to religion while others turn to science. Both have their problems and Vonnegut’s overall point is that it is ridiculous to try and give meaning to life.

Science, while providing countless benefits to society such as modern medicine, has also given the world the atom bomb and other terrible ways to kill and oppress people. Science and the search for truth without pause is a dangerous force that we often use without nary a thought for the side effects. Combine this search for truth – personified in Felix Hoenikker, a brilliant scientist who viewed his work on the atom bomb in the same way he might have viewed the discovery of a new kind of ultra-efficient toothpaste – with the military industrial complex and you have a recipe for disaster (ice-nine). Reckless abandon in scientific pursuits can have devastating results for humanity.

The fictional religion of Cat’s Cradle, Bokononism, is a religion based on lies. When Bokonon, the prophet of said religion, arrived on the island of San Lorenzo he saw the people there had no hope for a better existence so he created this religion to give them some shred of hope. The religion itself is all lies, as it states, and while everyone on the island practices Bokononism and accepts the fallacy of it, they still derive some shred of hope from believing in it. This is Vonnegut’s way of showing the ridiculous nature of all religion, and the teachings of Bokonon poke fun at many real religions practiced throughout the world. Throughout the book, Bokononism is used as satirical humor to dismantle the idea of religion, culminating in a very fitting ending for its followers. This was perhaps my favorite part of the whole book.

More than anything, this book is about human purpose. This is shown most prevalently through the story of the three Hoenikker children. Each of them possesses a small fragment of the world’s only sample of ice-nine. As they each search for purpose and meaning, whether that be through love, family or a successful career, they make stupid decisions that result in some of the great world powers gaining access to fragments of ice-nine. This inevitably spirals into a conclusion where ice-nine destroys the world. Funny how that works, huh?

Cat’s Cradle is a really fun and thought provoking read that I think everyone should tackle at some point. Old or young, the messages here are hidden behind layers of satirical humor and irony, but they aren’t hard to decipher. Let me know your own thoughts below!

“What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experiences of the Past Million Years?”

“Nothing.