Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review of Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

It seems that for every ‘good’ piece of technology, a ‘bad’ exists to offset it.  And for every invention developed with the best of intentions, it sure seems able to be put to some awful uses.  Medicine, atomic bombs, television—you name it, it fits within the multi-colored spectrum of humanity’s creations—a spectrum that seems to sum at zero in the end.  Seemingly no chance to avoid the development, use, and misuse of technology, it’s best to take a fatalistic view; whatever happens, happens—at least this is the view I came upon reading Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 Cat’s Cradle.

Cat’s Cradle is the story of the everyday journalist John and his attempts to write a book about what Americans were doing the day Hiroshima was bombed.  Desiring to include the inventor himself, John seeks out Felix Hoenikker, the brain power behind the weapon.  Learning he’s since passed, however, John settles for interviewing his surviving children.  Through the course of getting the interviews and other material for the book, John arrives on the island of San Lorenzo in the Caribbean.  The local dictator not the only strange aspect to life there, a religion called Bokononism permeates society with mysterious precepts shrouded in words such as ‘karass’, ‘foma’, ‘sinookas’, and many others.  John also learns of a secret substance called ice-nine and its radical potential to alter the world in ways humanity never dreamed.  But the biggest surprise of all on San Lorenzo is the dictator’s announcement on his deathbed.   John’s job is about to change. 

If it isn’t obvious, one of the currents flowing through Cat’s Cradle regards the moral responsibility of the application of scientific knowledge.  The atom bomb something difficult to justify the creation of from an ethical point of view, Vonnegut points a satirical finger at Hoenniker—mapped out by the title of the novel.  Ice-nine taking the theme to the next level, however, Vonnegut moves from pointing to stabbing, the resulting humor never blacker.  Or bleaker.

There are many, including Vonnegut himself, who state that Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war piece.  The proof fully evident, it’s difficult to dispute.  But there are additional facets to the novel that get little print.  Taking what was encapsulated in the ubiquitous “And so it goes” into deeper waters, Cat’s Cradle is a more profound expression of fatalism, i.e. the logical step falling after anti- anything.  The climax of Cat’s Cradle occurring perhaps closer to the middle than the end, the denouement goes much further than Slaughterhouse-Five toward indicating that, combating the type of stupidity which has no respect for the potential human use of technology, i.e. ice nine, is futile.  Vonnegut appears to have reconciled himself to the fact that the use of science is beyond the control of humanity, and that with inevitable invention comes inevitable use and misuse, application and misapplication.

In the end, Cat’s Cradle is a highly imaginative work of satire.  Vonnegut honing in on science, particularly scientific application, he first creates a space for discussion on the moral aspects of developing technology that is known will only cause destruction (e.g. the atomic bomb), before moving to the criticism of technology whose use at first appears innocuous, but upon extended examination reveals itself as a game-changer for humanity whether it wanted it to be or not.  A strong sense of fatalism underlying it all, Vonnegut’s creative juices were flowing.  Bokononism one of the great, unheralded fictional ‘religions’, and for that, along with the aforementioned reasons, is one of two novels Vonnegut himself thinks of as his best (Slaughterhouse-Five the other).

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