Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

In September 2011, prompted by the many references to science fiction novels in Jo Walton's Among Others, I ran a poll on the blog asking with classic of the genre I should read first. The list featured books by Samuel R. Delany, Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson and Arthur C. Clarke. I've read all of these by now and reviewed some. The only one I hadn't read yet is Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. It is one of Vonnegut's better known books, although perhaps not quite as popular as Slaughterhouse-Five. It's also the first book by Vonnegut I've ever read. I think I'm going to have to find some more, I really appreciate Vonnegut's gallows's humor.

Several years after the death of scientist Felix Hoenikker, one of the fathers of the nuclear bomb, narrator John - whose full name we'll never get to know - decides to write a book about him. He never seems to get anywhere with the actual book but in the process of researching it, he does meet many of the people who knew Felix. As it turns out, the atomic bomb is not the only horrible device Hoenikker created. A seed crystal of a substance called Ice-nine, has been distributed among his children. If set loose on the world, all water on the planet would freeze at a temperature of  114.4 °F (or  45.8 °C in a less archaic and more practical scale). As it turns out, Hoenikker's children haven't been as responsible in keeping the stuff save as they might. The end of the world is upon us.

From what I understand of Vonnegut, his writing was severely impacted by his personal experiences during the second world war. Events that also shaped his opinion on events later in the twentieth century. He was not religious, a pacifist, a humanist perhaps. Cat's Cradle is a book that shows many of the follies Vonnegut was seeing in the world around him. He uses a very dark sense of humor and often absurd scenes to write about them. Nobody with a superficial knowledge of twentieth century history can escape the bitter irony in the text. I think it is a kind of humor not all readers will appreciate, but if you do, I don't think you could find many novels that handle it better.

Vonnegut is a writer who worked in the area of the literary spectrum where science fiction and mainstream fiction meet. Cat's Cradle has a clear science fictional element in Ice-nine. Vonnegut gives a technical explanation for it but other than that, it is not that important to the plot. Ice-nine is but one of the many absurd things people come up with in this book. It is as much a satire as a science fiction novel really.

A satire or not, Ice-nine is actually a pretty scary idea. Water can take several different forms when it turns to ice. Vonnegut describes a form of ice that until this point was unknown on earth but could easily be introduced with a seed crystal; a tin bit of crystal from which a larger one can be grown. The concept is a scientific only although no crystalline form of water exists that conforms to Vonnegut's description. Ice-nine does exist but only under extremely low temperatures and extremely high pressures. What is even more scary about the book is the almost whimsical way in which Hoenikker creates the stuff. He is well aware of the possible dangers but once the idea seizes him, he makes the stuff anyway in pursuit of knowledge. Clearly Vonnegut's commentary on the creation of the nuclear bomb.

Religion is another area where Vonnegut's confidence in humanity's intellect has reached absolute zero. In the novel he introduces a belief system called Bokononism, the first rule of which is: "All of the true things that I am about to tell you are  shameless lies." One could certainly wish more religions would practice this kind of honesty. Bokononism is a satire of organized religion really. Many of the seemingly humorous quotes from the religion's holy book hide a lot of anger and disappointment at the state of human affairs. Interesting enough Bokononon's world views does allow narrator John to face the end of the world in a very upbeat mood.

Bokononism also has a very special relationship with the nation it hails from. The tiny (fiction) republic of San Loranzo is ruled by a brutal dictator, a man who puts all opposition 'on the hook', an invariably fatal punishment, and has outlawed Bokononism. Later, the narrator finds out the dictator both persecutes and privately adheres to the religion.So much insanity is too much to grasp for our poor narrator but later in the novel he comes around to this kind of thinking. One of the many absurdist twists in the tale. Bokononism helps the local people deal with a type of government that is somehow seen as the only way that an island lacking any kind of resources can be ruled. It's twisted and thoroughly depressing to think about.

Cat's Cradle was published in 1963 and it is a book of it's time. Cold War thinking is pervasive, the threat of a nuclear war almost tangible and the fall out from the second world war very present. In that respect the novel is a bit dated but in others, it still feels very relevant. Let's face it, humanity isn't any less foolish than it was fifty years ago. The novel is at the same time intensely sad and hilarious. Perhaps not the most flattering portrayal of humanity but the novel is written with an irresistible kind of dark humor. Vonnegut has written a pretty concise novel by today's standards. Maybe his bleak outlook on the world would start to grate in a longer work but at barely 200 pages, he doesn't overdo it. Cat's Cradle is a little gem of a novel. I'm not surprised it ended up on so many recommended reading lists.

Book Details
Title: Cat's Cradle
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 203
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-575-08195-6
First published: 1963

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