I See No Cat, I See No Cradle

So, I guess I was on a bit of a surrealist bent this past week because after Saunders I picked up Vonnegut. And that man is just plain weird sometimes. I’d only ever read Slaughterhouse 5 before, but I’d always heard that Cat’s Cradle was one of his best. So I ventured into the world of Ice-Nine and was properly unsettled.

In Cat’s Cradle, we follow the an author on his quest to write a biography of Felix Hoenikker, a (fake) father to the atomic bomb. He’s trying to get the story of the man, not the bomb-maker, and has such contacted his children in an effort to hear their stories. Through all of this he (spoilers!) ends up on a tiny tropical island, is named president, and–through a series of unfortunate accidents–manages to freeze all the water on the surface of the planet with a polymorph crystal called Ice-Nine.

This novel is presented in classic Vonnegut form, with distinct small sections working in concert with each other. Perhaps a lot more small sections (90 some to less than 200 pages) than usual, but still broken up so the stream of consciousness-ness of the novel doesn’t become overwhelming.

There were two aspects of the book though that I found quite interesting and engaging. The first of which is the reason it has the title of Cat’s Cradle. Hoenikker was said to have been playing with a cat’s cradle when the bomb went off, and there are several references to the fact that the game looks nothing like a cat and nothing like a cradle. I think of it as applied to things like Separation of Church and State. I see no cat, I see no cradle, meaning that the separation is a joke and there really is no such thing.

A step in the string game called cat's cradleThe other concept of interest in this novel is the fake religion, Bokononism. Bokononism is an admittedly fake religion developed by one of the patriarchs of the island to provide their starving and depressed people with a constant struggle between good (the religion) with bad (the government). Through it, however, we are given an interesting look at some theories on the interconnectedness of the universe, and constructs such as karasses which, in themselves, resemble enormous Cat’s Cradle type connections between groups of people. Now, here’s the question, how many hipsters claim to be Bokononists? How many people have decided that this interconnected theory of religion is their thing and seriously adopted it? I know there’s got to at last be a few…

The last concept in the book that actually had to go do a little research on was the Ice-Nine polymorph crystal. I was a little bit freaked out by it and had to reassure myself that nothing of the kind exists. And while nothing of the potency of Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine exists, there are such things as polymorph crystals. No, we can’t freeze over the entire world unless we significantly changed the pressure and temperature of said world, but we can force crystals to form differently during manufacturing and lab work with the introduction of a differently formed seed crystal. So…less freaked out by the possibility of freezing over the earth by accident, and more intrigued by an aspect of physics I was unaware of. It really is too cool.

If you’re already a fan of Vonnegut, I say pick this one up, it’s worth a read. And if you’ve never read Vonnegut and are not used to his style, you may be better off starting with a different one, as I feel this one requires a bit of experience with him before jumping in feet first. But it is quite an excellent short read.

Cover of Cat's Cradle