Toward the end of my time as an undergraduate, one of my creative writing professors gave me a copy of Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut as a reward for perfect attendance (probably the only class that has ever been true for). In the front cover, she inscribed a short message essentially saying that she believed I would like the novel because Vonnegut and I had similarly dark imaginations. I hadn’t read much Vonnegut by that point, but now that I’ve read around a dozen of his books, it doesn’t surprise me that she made that connection. None of the stories I submitted in that class could have reasonably been described as “upbeat.”
(Here is your obligatory spoiler alert. But seriously, the book was published in 1963. What are you waiting for?)
What Vonnegut does with his fiction, particularly in Cat’s Cradle, is almost exactly what I strive for in my own stories. Using dark humor to make his stories palatable, he writes about the more ridiculous aspects of human nature with a heavy focus on one of the most tragic topics imaginable—war. Of course, Cat’s Cradle isn’t as focused on that particular subject as Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-5, but the scars of his experience as a POW in World War II are still clear to see.
At its core, Cat’s Cradle is Vonnegut’s critique of mankind. The story revolves around the narrator, John, who is writing a book on what the relevant individuals in the development of the atom bomb were doing when the first of them was dropped on Hiroshima. The main subject of John’s interest is the late Felix Hoenikker, who is referred to as “The Father of the atomic bomb.” John ultimately ends up a participant in a quasi-family reunion with Hoenikker’s three bizarre children on the island of San Lorenzo, a banana republic ruled by the dictatorial President “Papa” Manzano. John later discovers that the three siblings possess Hoenikker’s final curse on humanity, a material called Ice-9 which instantly freezes any water it touches.
Hoenikker’s offspring are all outcasts in their own way, so they individually decide to use their allotments of the Ice-9 as bargaining chips to assuage their loneliness or otherwise improve their lives.
Through the three siblings as well as a rich cast of supporting characters Vonnegut satirizes nearly the whole of humanity, along with some of its most revered institutions. The richly imagined characters are really what makes the humor in this story work too. Although you may find yourself chuckling every few minutes while reading Cat’s Cradle, there are few one-liners in this story–the comedy is all grounded in character. One of the best examples of this is the Ugly American H. Lowe Crosby, who proclaims patriotism but decides to move his bicycle factory to San Lorenzo to take advantage of the island’s non-existent labor regulations.
Even subjects like science and religion—which are so often portrayed as being in stark opposition to each other—are equally skewered by Vonnegut’s satiric wit. Hoenikker is essentially a caricature of scientists who care little for the ramifications of their research (like those who developed the atom bomb), and San Lorenzo’s dominant religion, Bokononism, is clearly designed to force the reader to think about the nature of religious belief.
Ultimately though, it is the carelessness and selfishness of ordinary people that brings humanity to the brink of collapse when the Ice-9 given to “Papa” Manzano by Felix’s oldest son falls into the ocean and freezes almost all of the water on Earth. The warning from Vonnegut is clear: when you combine modern technology (and weapons specifically) with humanity’s seemingly boundless capacity for thoughtlessness and stupidity, disaster is inevitable.
Perhaps it seems counter-intuitive, then, that Cat’s Cradle is the book I most often turn to when I am feeling cynical about humanity. But this is the power of Vonnegut’s fiction–he forces us to confront the things we most fear or dislike about life and then laugh in their faces.