Cat’s Cradle: Kurt Vonnegut (Long Version)

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Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut front cover

For those of you in a reading mood:

In true Vonnegut style this a pretty weird book. This was the first full length story I have read by him and unlike his shorter works which are fast paced and where every word counts, Cat’s Cradle is actually a fairly lengthy read where very little happens till near the end. That said, within the very little that happens, lots happens: with Vonnegut tackling issues of fate, religion and scientific exploration without messing it up with plot but with it still CONTRIBUTING to the plot, if that makes sense. Not sure it does.

[Short version: Main Character is a chap called John. He is writing a book about the scientist who invented the Atomic Bomb. He finds out lots of stuff about him and his family and meets some people. Briefly mentioned throughout is a discovery said scientist had of ‘Ice Nine’ sort of the scientific Midas touch – anything Ice Nine touches turns to ice. It does not exist. Only it DOES exist and is kept by this scientist’s kids. John goes to a Caribbean island called San Lorenzo, more stuff happens and the leader consumes some Ice Nine to commit suicide. A plane explosion casts the leader into the ocean, the ocean freezes – end of world. John survives with a few other people. – the exciting bit only lasts a couple of chapters]

The short version, however, does not really do the book justice, as it is mostly the character interaction and ideas and concepts throughout the book that make Cat’s Cradle good. So here is the longer version:

Our main character – John – is a chap who used to be a Christian until he discovered Bokononism, which is slowly revealed throughout the book to be a religion centred on the teachings of Bokonon – a black Caribbean explorer who helps take over the island of San Lorenzo. Bokonon teaches that everything he says is lies, but that people need lies to function. He teaches that most of what we think is pointless, including national boundaries and social groupings, but that the only real type of grouping is in a Karass – people from every background, who may have nothing in common, but revolve around one key mutual thing or idea – anything from a tree to an ideal to a duty and in forming a Karass do God’ will. In Cat’s Cradle we meet John’s Karass – those who unknowingly revolve around the idea of Ice Nine.

John recounts the story of how he was led to Bokononism and became involved with Ice Nine, beginning with his intention of writing a book about where famous people were when the Atomic Bomb went off in Japan. John is trying to get in contact with relatives of Felix Hoenikker  – the creator of the atomic bomb  – to see what Hoenikker (deceased) was doing when his bomb went off. He initially contacts one of his 2 sons – Newton Hoenikker – who was only a toddler when the bomb detonated. John is informed that Felix was an eccentric scientist (anyone who is a Pratchett fan – think Leonard of Quirm) who was not a people person, but had an exceptional mind when it came to science. Very little plot goes by after this, but John goes to visit the labs where Hoenikker worked and, among many other things, is informed of a bizarre idea Felix had of creating ‘Ice Nine’ – a seed particle of water which infected other water and caused it to freeze at room temperature.

The idea of Ice Nine came about after a visit to Hoenikker by a Marine who wanted Hoenikker to ‘do something about the problem of mud’ and Hoenikker devised the idea of Ice Nine – that it could restructure water particles and therefore cause water to freeze at room temperature. This is described like stacking oranges – the base layer of oranges dictates how all the other oranges will stack, therefore, create a particle of water that freezes differently and all the water around it will turn the same. John points out that this would be deadly, as all water the ice-nine-water touched would turn to ice nine and the world would eventually end. The scientist John is talking to gets quite angry about this, pointing out that it is only an idea and is impossible.

Very little now happens for a while – John discovers issues surrounding fate – that every small encounter seems to be driving him towards Bokononism and Ice Nine, but the plot stays pretty still. We learn a bit about the other two Hoenikker children who are Angela – a tall, rather boring woman who has married, but who previously looked after the two younger siblings after their mother died – and Frank, who seemed to be a bit of a creepy kid growing up – forcing insects to fight and reading dirty magazines, but who is now presumed dead after getting in with a bad crowd. We also discover Newton (Newt) is a midget.

The next major bit of plot is John’s invite to the island of San Lorenzo to do an article on Julian Castle, an ex-millionaire, who has now set up a medical centre in the middle of the San Lorenzo jungle. John discovers that Frank Hoenikker is not dead, but is now the second in command of San Lorenzo – under ‘Papa’ Monzano, the island’s leader. John also falls madly in love with the ‘cover girl’ of San Lorenzo – Mona Monzano, a half-caste beauty, with chocolate skin and radiant blonde locks, who happens to be ‘Papa’s adopted daughter.

On the flight over John meets numerous people. He meets the Mintons, who are a Karass of two ( A Duprass). Mr Minton is the new Ambassador to San Lorenzo but he seems less than thrilled about the post. We also meet the Crosbys. H. Lowe Crosby is a bicycle manufacturer who is intending to move to San Lorenzo as he believes it will be a cheap and hardworking workforce.  He is not a fan of lots of people. His wife, Hazel is a massive fan of Hoosiers (of which John is one) and insists he call her ‘Mom’. Weird bunch. We then discover that Angela and Newt Hoenikker are also on the flight, as their brother is getting engaged to Mona – much to John’s upset.

They get to San Lorenzo. Papa Monzano turns out to be very unwell, and Mona is caught by John playing footsie with a guard. The population live in poverty, and it turns out that this has been the case always, whoever leads the country. This is part of the success of Bokononism – an opiate for the masses. Bokononism is forbidden by Papa Monzano, but it turns out that the entire population is Bokononist anyway, including Papa, but that it gives the population fervour in their worship. The penalty for being found worshipping Bokonon is The Hook. We learn that Bokonon and the previous ruler of San Lorenzo were good friends, but when they started leading the country they learned that the only way to help the populace (as the country was unprofitable and doomed to poverty always) was to create a tension between good and bad, with Bokonon taking the role of good and his friend Earl McCabe taking the roll of bad. Papa has continued this legacy. Deep! We also meet other characters who actually for the purposes of the rest of the plot are not important.

Frank calls John in a panic and asks him to meet him at his house. John goes to the house – a very nice sounding house.  Newt and Angela are also there, Newt has been painting and lots of deep and meaningful shit is also mentioned. Frank asks John to take over leadership of San Lorenzo as Papa is dying and Frank is not cut out for leadership, being more of the ‘behind the scenes kind of chap. John is understandably reluctant.

John ‘NO WAY’
Frank ‘You can totally marry Mona’
John ‘When do I start?’

John agrees and it is decided that they will announce the decision the following day during a celebration. During the celebration, before John’s speech, Papa Monzano is discovered dead by a doctor – frozen ridged.  While Frank and John are investigating, the doctor becomes infected with Ice Nine and shatters on the floor. It is at this point that John discovers that each of the Hoenikker children has a shard of Ice Nine. Frank gave it to Papa Monzano in return for his cushy lifestyle, and Newt and Angela have also gives some of theirs to others as well. They manage to clean up most of the mess – flame throwering the shards to melt it back to water, but leaving Papa Monzano there until later. BIG MISTAKE. This is where it gets exciting.

During the celebration an air display occurs. One of the aeroplanes crashes and explodes over the castle, causing some of the building to crash into the sea, killing the ambassador and his wife. We then see (I imagine in slow motion) the body of Papa Monzano slide out of the wreckage and into the sea. WOOMF! The entire sea turns to Ice Nine. Cue hurricanes and twisters. Everyone runs for safety. John and Mona end up in a bomb shelter designed for Papa and live out the storms in comfort for a good while. They have sexy times, but Mona does not seem very into it and states she would rather not as it could bring about children at a rather inconvenient time. Eventually they emerge. Everyone and everything is frozen. They discover Newt and Frank as well as the Crosbys who are still alive. Mona commits suicide and most of the native population are discovered to have done the same. John and the remaining people muse over everything that has happened and manage to live a fairly ok life. The End.

Wow, I have written quite a bit there! This book would make a terrible film (minus the last paragraph I wrote – which would actually make an EPIC film). The world ending through Ice Nine is a really cool idea, unfortunately most of the book is lead up, introducing characters that have little to do with the main plot but more to do with little sub-plots or who are there to represent stereotypes or ideas etc. The exciting bit only happens at the very end of the book, which is a shame, but I guess Vonnegut is more interested in social commentary than he is in writing an apocalyptic action novel.

I’m sure this book is deep in many ways I am missing, however the bit that I really like is its reference to mud. The Marine who talks to Felix at the beginning about ‘solving the problem of mud’  is interestingly contrasted with Bokonon, who teaches that everything was made out of mud by God. Therefore Ice Nine, which was intended to get rid of LITERAL mud, also gets rid of figurative mud – the entirety of humanity pretty much. Deep.  Bokononism is also a pretty interesting concept. You can tell Vonnegut took a lot of time thinking about the ideas of Bokononism and there is much commentary within the book about religion and belief. Further to that is lots of deep stuff about Latin America and Cuba and Castro and Communism and Dictatorships etc etc. Read the book for all that – I have written WAAAY too much already!

If you are a member of a book club, or are studying Communism, or American History/Politics/Literature or contemporary religion, religious issues, social issues etc READ THIS BOOK – it is very good and has lots to unpick. If you just want a good read about the world ending- maybe skip it…

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