Sunday, 18 October 2015

Penguin no. 2308: Cat's Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut

Cover design by Robert Hollingsworth, using 
La Course de Taureaux by Joan Miró.
     'Newt remained curled in the chair. He held out his painty hands as though a cat's cradle were strung between them. 'No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat's cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X's...'
     'And?'
     'No damn cat, and no damn cradle.'

Felix Hoenikker was one of the (fictional) fathers of the atomic bomb - he excelled at finding ingenious solutions to difficult problems but he hadn't the slightest idea about how to relate to others, including the members of his own family; puzzles interested him, people did not.

As a Nobel prize-winning scientist, Hoenikker had been free to arrange his life to suit himself, but this had implications for those around him: his wife led a lonely existence up until her premature death, and his children grew up to be a little bizarre. And then, after his death, almost all humanity suffers on account of his indifference, for Hoenikker cared about solving problems but not about the implications of the solutions; he was tinkering in an ethical vacuum, and this explains why he created ice-nine.

Ice-nine - a crystallisation of water with a high melting point - is a clever but potentially catastrophic solution to a comparatively trivial problem which faces the army: given a choice, soldiers would prefer to undertake combat on hard terrain and a single crystal of ice nine can render mud solid. But it will also render any substance containing water solid, and this includes animals, people, rivers, lakes and oceans; one crystal of ice-nine could make the Earth uninhabitable in seconds.

Hoenikker delivers his gift to the world on Christmas Eve, and spends the last night of his life playing with his crystal - and toying with the fate of billions - by freezing and unfreezing saucepans full of water. His children divide up the all the unmelted ice-nine when they find him dead, and then each does a deal with the devil. With no concern for the implications, they trade some of their shares of ice-nine for the things they most desire.

The narrator sets out initially to tell the story of the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, intending to title his book The Day the World Ended and to tell the story of what the scientists were doing when the first atomic bomb was dropped. In researching his book, he travels to the despotic island nation of San Lorenzo in search of Hoenikker's eldest son, and there by chance meets all the Hoenikker children and learns of their ice-nine. He also discovers Bokononism which is the principle religion of the island - but it is a religion practised covertly; adhering to Bokononism is punishable by torture and death.

Cat's Cradle is a satire about science as a false religion, and it questions the idea that the pursuits of truth and knowledge necessarily deliver positive outcomes for society and enhance the quality of life. The flaw inherent in the concept of progress is human frailty; the scientists may be discovering more about the world but they are also creating means for its destruction, and they have no way of controlling the use which anyone might make of their inventions. Bokononism, an unquestionably false religion which doesn't pretend to be anything but, is offered as a contrast to scientific research; in the first sentence of The Books of Bokonon it is made clear that nothing described is true. Bokononism, although based on a collection of acknowledged fictions, works: it is the only thing which offers the citizens of the impoverished island of San Lorenzo solace.

Cat's Cradle tells a story which is ludicrous and filled with improbable coincidences, but which is also wonderfully clever and funny. It argues against strict rationalism, for here the truth is destructive or dispiriting, and delusion is constructive.

First published in the U.S.A. 1963. Published in Great Britain by Gollancz 1963. Published in Penguin Books 1965.

7 comments:

  1. good to be reminded of ice nine again; i remember hours of argument back in the sixties(i think) about vonnegut's books and how they portrayed society and the human condition. a wonderful, but discouraged, writer he was, but he had the courage to express what to him was the truth. i miss him.

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  2. Very nice review. I don't know if I read this book years ago, but I know this review makes me want to read it now.

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  3. I really like the last Vonnegut book I read - Dead Eye Dick - so am in the market for more. This sounds like a prospect...

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  4. It is one of his best, though I still tend to think of THE SIRENS OF TITAN as his best sf book...BLUEBEARD as his best contemporary/mimetic (though the near-past historical MOTHER NIGHT is a strong contender there).

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  5. Interesting title. This is one I haven't laid my hands on yet. Must read it soon :)

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  6. Hi Karyn,
    have you read every penguin there is? ;-) or will you continue this project? I hope you do and I hope you are ok!
    Thanks, Helen

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  7. I know I read this, when I was around 18, but I can't remember it at all now. It was years ago, when I was reading all the Kurt Vonnegut I could get my hands on, most bought from used book stores. I definitely want to read it again, and I'd like to suggest it to my 18 year old son. Vonnegut turned a light on in my brain that I didn't know existed.

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