Cat’s Cradle: Filled with bitter irony and playful humor

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut speculative fiction book reviewsCat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

“Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”

Like all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, Cat’s Cradle (1963) is very easy to read but fiendishly difficult to review. It’s basically about two main themes: 1) Some scientists are completely unconcerned with what their research and inventions are used for, as long as they given the opportunity to pursue their own research. 2) Religion is a bunch of lies, but at the same time it can make you happier and less angst-ridden about life. It’s filled with bitter irony and playful humor, and it’s frequently hard to distinguish the two. Are you supposed to laugh at man’s foolishness and hubris, or feel sympathy for his plight, which is the same for all of us? Some detractors believe Vonnegut is the most bitter of cynics, while his fans view his outlook on life as the most honest and humanistic among modern authors.

Like many others, I read Cat’s Cradle back in high school for English class. Basically all I could recall after 20 years was that Felix Hoenikker invented ice-nine, and that it had disastrous consequences for the planet. Everything beyond that was completely gone from memory, other than that I liked the book. After that I read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), which was a very powerful statement about the absurdity of war that really stuck with me, far more than Cat’s Cradle. So I decided to give this book another try, this time with the audiobook narrated by Tony Roberts. I’d say that the narrator took a very unobtrusive approach, letting Vonnegut’s work speak for itself. There are some narrators that try very hard to distinguish characters with distinct accents, but this often has the effect of feeling forced. Especially for a writer like Vonnegut, whose sentences are short and unadorned, I feel like that is the best approach. This was opposite to Tom Hollander, the narrator for A Clockwork Orange, who absolutely nailed the unique NadSat language created by Burgess. Here Tony Roberts never got in the way, and that was a good decision.

Cat’s Cradle is a story about a writer, John, researching about what some Americans were doing when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He soon becomes interested in the family of Felix Hoenikker, a fictional physicist who helped develop the bomb. As he gets in contact with Hoenikker’s children, he soon learns that Felix was an absent-minded scientist utterly indifferent to other human beings, including his own family, and who only cared about science as a series of puzzles to be solved. He is a classic Aspergers-type personality, and it’s frightening to think that scientists like this invented atomic bombs, nerve gas, chemical weapons, etc. This theme certainly struck home for me, as my father was a linguistics professor who was very absorbed with his life’s work and sometimes seemed pretty distant from family life, but then again his field of study has far less destructive potential than nuclear physics.

The second part of the novel involves John’s travels to San Lorenzo, a fictional banana republic in the Carribbean Sea, to track down one of Felix Hoenikker’s children. Frank Hoenikker has become the right-hand man of the ailing dictator of the island, President “Papa” Monzano. John also encounters a number of other oddball characters, and more importantly the local religion, known as Bokononism. It’s an offshoot of Christianity, but the founder freely admits that it’s a pack of lies intended to make people better behaved and happier. It’s probably the invented terms of Bokononism that are the greatest invention of Cat’s Cradle, and many of the terms have became embedded in popular culture after the book gained popularity.

The most famous concepts of Bokononism are probably “foma” (harmless lies that make you live a better life), “karass” (a group of people linked in some mysterious entwining of fates), “duprass” (a karass of two people, such as a long-married couple), “grandfalloon” (a false karass, like the concept of Hoosiers, i.e. people connected with something superficial like being from the same home state), and “wampeter” (the underlying theme or reason that unites a karass; often unclear to the members). The book is sprinkled with various snippets of Bokononist wisdom, which mostly take an irreverent attitude towards god and life, but essentially amount to “don’t take life so seriously — it doesn’t make all that much sense. But try to be a good person anyway.” It’s certainly fair to imagine that this isn’t far from the life philosophy of Vonnegut himself.

Vonnegut’s prior novel The Sirens of Titan (1959) also features the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, so it’s fairly easy to see a connection here. Even though the concepts of Bokononism are appealing and humorous, since Bokonon admits they are all lies, is Vonnegut telling us that religion serves a useful purpose if it makes us behave more compassionately to each other? I don’t think he is merely a cynic who debunks all human endeavors as pointless. Instead, he is telling us that while there may be no divine presence looking out for and directing our lives, it’s still within our power to create meaning in our lives. And just like The Sirens of Titan, he uses his unique brand of absurdist humor to cushion this otherwise hard-to-swallow idea. Can you imagine a Vonnegut book with the same message but without the humor? That would be just awful.

Having now listened to The Sirens of Titan and read Mother Night (1961), I’d say my favorite of the three books is Mother Night, which I felt was the most personal and powerful in its message and characters, and far less absurdist than the other two books. I’ll be listening to Slaughterhouse-Five narrated by Ethan Hawke next, and as that was my favorite back in high school, I’m really wondering if I’ll still like it as much this time around.

Cat’s Cradle (1963) is Vonnegut’s most ambitious novel, which put into the language terms like “wampeter”, “karass” and “granfalloon” as well as a structured religion, Boskonism and was submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for a Master’s Degree in anthropology, and in its sprawling compass and almost uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) invention, may be Vonnegut’s best novel. Written contemporaneously with the Cuban missile crisis and countenancing a version of a world in the grasp of magnified human stupidity, the novel is centered on Felix Hoenikker, a chemical scientist reminiscent of Robert Oppenheimer… except that Oppenheimer was destroyed by his conscience and Hoenikker, delighting in the disastrous chemicals he has invented, has no conscience at all. Hoenikker’s “Ice 9” has the potential to convert all liquid to inert ice and thus destroy human existence; he is exiled to a remote island where Boskonism has enlisted all of its inhabitants and where religion and technology collaborate, with the help of a large cast of characters, to destroy civilization. Vonnegut’s compassion and despair are expressed here through his grotesque elaboration of character and situation and also through his created religion which like Flannery O’Connor’s “Church Without Christ” (in Wise Blood) acts to serve its adherents by removing them from individual responsibility. Vonnegut had always been taken seriously by science fiction readers and critics (a reception which indeed made him uncomfortable) but it was with Cat’s Cradle that he began to be found and appreciated by a more general audience. His own ambivalence toward science, science fiction, religion and religious comfort comes through in every scene of this novel.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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2 comments

  1. What I remember about Cat’s Cradle is that there is one thing you aren’t supposed to be able to do with a first-person narrator, and Vonnegut does it.

    Since this book was published, of course, people have found all kinds of other ways to do it but I think he was the first.

  2. Yes, Vonnegut has always taken his own approach to narrators and the author’s role in the story. Billy Pilgrim was not a surrogate for Vonnegut’s own experiences in Dresden – he was actually in the same slaughterhouse with Billy. And the narrative device of “getting unstuck in time” allows him to flit back and forth through Billy’s life with total abandon.

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