6 September 2017

Book Review: Cat's Cradle

Title: Cats' Cradle
Author: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
First published in 1963 by

I read the SF Masterworks edition by Orion Group Publishing.

Source: Malmö City Library

"Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut's cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, 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's the inventor of 'ice-nine', a lethal chemical capable of freezing the entire planet. The search for its whereabouts leads to Hoenikker's three eccentric children, to a crazed dictator in the Caribbean, to madness. Felix Hoenikker's Death Wish comes true when his last, fatal gift to humankind brings about the end, that for all of us, is nigh..." 

Don't be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!"

Cat's Cradle is a classic, and after hearing so much about it, I was expecting something in line with Nineteen Eighty Four, Fahrenheit 451, or The Man in the High Castle. You know, a grim look at a dystopian/apocalyptic world. Cat's Cradle is none of those things. It's apocalyptic alright, but not in the way I expected it to be.

In Cat's Cradle we follow a man named Jonah, who wants to write a book about what important Americans were doing on the day that Hiroshima was bombed. One of those important Americans is Dr. Felix Hoenikker, aka. one of the fathers of the atomic bomb.

Jonah's research eventually takes him to the impoverished republic of San Lorenzo, ruled by an ailing dictator, and where everybody practises Bokononism, a pseudo-religion named after its founder. 

It's on San Lorenzo that things start spinning out of control, and Jonah becomes less concerned with his writing project and more concerned with Ice-9 - a deadly substance created by Hoenikker, as well as Bokononism, and the leadership of San Lorenzo.

In short, Cat's Cradle is satire. Here, Vonnegut rips at religion, science, politics, and at mankind itself. The characters here are mostly caricatures. Parodies of... well, real life people.

The book is cynical, and it basically claims that life is meaningless. That nothing matters. That there is no grand scheme, no purpose to us being here. Things just happen. Take the main hero, Jonah, who starts out with a clear goal but is instead swept up in the events that lie outside of his control, and that eventually lead to him writing this story instead. Things happen to him, and he just reacts to them.

Then there's Bokononism, the bogus religion that Bokonon made up as an ironic joke. Or, foma, as he calls it, which means a "harmless untruth". This foma is nonetheless adapted by the entire population of San Lorenzo, and ultimately, by Jonah himself. But even though Bokonon explicitly states hat he just trolled everyone with his made-up religion, the people of San Lorenzo take it seriously, and practise it even under the threat of death. Bokonon's so-called teachings, which he commemorates in The Books of Bokonon, are one of the best parts of the book. 

But the most ironic thing about this pseudo-religion is that, when shit hits the fan, and the people of San Lorenzo are in dire need of comfort, and guidance, Bokononism offers them neither. Ultimately, The Books of Bokonon don't have anything of importance to say about anything, and this very elaborate prank has no pay-off. Which is, kind of, the point.

I posted a link to the complete Books of Bokonon at the end of this review, but I want to post a few verses here, just to give you a taste.

Upon discovering Bokononism, Jonah becomes convinced that some of the people he meets on his journey belong to his karass:

"If you find your life tangled up with somebody else's life for no very logical reasons that person may be a member of your karass."

And no karass is complete without a shared purpose, the so-called wampeter:

"No karass is without a wampeter, just as no wheel is without a hub."

And then there's the granfallon, which can be described the "false karass". For instance, in the story, Jonah, who is originally from Indiana, meets another Hosier couple. These people immediately assume that just because they all come from the same state, they share a special bond, and must be loyal to each other. That is the perfect example of a granfalloon.    


"If you wish to study a granfalloon,
Just remove the skin of a toy balloon."

Cat's Cradle goes further into committing to its claim about the randomness and absurdity of life by not having a coherent plot structure. Instead, it consists of separate, short vignettes. There is the main story with Jonah, San Lorenzo, and the Ice-9, but some of these vignettes don't have any direct ties to the main story, and are instead just random anecdotes about Felix Hoenikker, Bokonon, and the other characters. And the most amazing thing is that it all comes together almost seamlessly. At the very least, these anecdotes help us understand the characters, and the crazy hyper-reality that they inhabit. For instance, did I need to know that Dr. Hoenikker kept potted plants in his car? No, but that little factoid contributes so much to understanding what kind of man Dr. Hoenikker was, and why he developed Ice-9 in the first place that I'm glad it's there.

Let's talk about Dr. Hoenikker, as he is the engine that drives the story. In an interview (link below), Vonnegut said that he was once a firm believer in the technological and scientific progress but that he became very disillusioned with science, and with scientists in particular when Hiroshima was bombed.

And what Vonnegut wanted with Cat's Cradle was to write about the apathetic scientists who didn't care how they their research was being used. In fact, Dr. Hoenikker was based on a real scientist that Vonnegut had once worked with.

Hoenikker himself isn't portrayed as the "mad scientist", but as a man who is completely apathetic to anything that doesn't directly concern his research. Even his own family exists in the background, and in those rare instances when he does interact with his children, he ends up frightening them with his eccentric behaviour.

"Sometimes I wonder if he wasn't born dead. I never met a man who was less interested in the living. Sometimes I think that's the trouble with the world: too many people in high places who are stone-cold dead." 

And this is why the "absent-minded, apathetic scientist" is a much more interesting character than the classic frizzle-haired, bug-eyed "mad scientist" (I'm not sure if the latter was ever interesting). Hoenikker is apathetic to the world around him, but he isn't evil. What makes him dangerous is not that he's ambitious, or that he's only "doing science for the sake of science", not caring if his inventions will fall into the wrong hands. He's dangerous because he lacks empathy. Because he's so oblivious to the people around him, he doesn't stop to think that his work can potentially hurt billions of people. Hence, the atom bomb and the much more terrifying Ice-9.

So, nothing matters. Life is meaningless, and the Universe is indifferent to the plight of the human race. Irresponsible science leads to disastrous consequences, and religion offers no answers. In other words: life's a bitch, and then you die. 

When you put it like that, Cat's Cradle seems like a real downer of a book. And maybe there is some truth to that. This isn't an optimistic book. And yet, this is one of the funniest books I have ever read, ever. I was laughing hard almost the whole time I was reading it. And that doesn't happen often. 

Cat's Cradle's cynicism is hard to miss, and I can't say that this book has a heart. In fact, I don't think that any book where the cat and the dog get killed can have a heart, even if the deaths are only mentioned. But it definitely has the humour. This humour many not be for everybody. The thing with Cat's Cradle is that you either buy Vonnegut's absurdity or you don't. I personally like the absurd humour, and the non-traditional storytelling, so Cat's Cradle was an easy sell to me. 

And yet, with all the jokes, and all the goofiness, you can still read Vonnegut's disappointment between the lines. Especially towards the end, when he drops all the pretences, and all the forced optimism (if there was any to begin with), and just gives up on the human race. And even though for the most part, I don't agree with his ideas in this book, I certainly understand where he's coming from.

Well, this was my review of Cat's Cradle. It's a book that really appeals to my cynical, darker side, and it's definitely one of those books that demands at least one re-read. It's funny how such a short book can have so many layers, and hidden messages to be discovered.  

My rating

Plot: 5 stars
Story: 5 stars
Characters: 4 stars
Language: 5 stars 

Average: 4,75 stars

Minus 1 star for killing both the cat and the dog.

Final rating: 3.75 stars. 

Here are the links that I promised:

The Kurt Vonnegut Interview

In other news, I'm still listening to Stephen King's It, because I really want to see the movie. Oh, and because the book is very interesting. So now, I bid you adieu because, as Bokonon says, 

"It's never a mistake to say goodbye." 

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