Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I won this book through a giveaway at Roof Beam Reader. It's the first full-length Kurt Vonnegut book I've read. I was unprepared. Though, I'm not sure any amount of preparation would've been enough.
Our unnamed narrator is researching material for a book about the day the atomic bomb first went off, from the perspectives of family members of Dr. Hoenikker, one of the scientists who invented it. In the course of his research, he learns of a substance called ice-nine, which can change the properties of water so that it needs a much higher temperature to melt, invented by Hoenikker. He notes its potential for worldwide catastrophe, then thinks nothing of it. Nothing, that is, until he winds up in an island nation where the inventor's three children converge, and our narrator is drawn to events that lead to ice-nine's release into the world.
Throughout the book, the narrator describes a philosophy he's taken on in the place of the Christian religion, called Bokonism. It posits the uselessness of religion and the meaning behind seeming coincidence. At first, the reader is led to believe this is a longstanding belief he's been assimilating for years. It's only as the book goes along that one realizes how recently he picked it up, and that, when he speaks about events most people would assume will happen after the book wraps up, he's foreshadowing.
The book is told in satiric, rapid-fire prose. The chapters are short, and they read as vignettes saturated in irony. Bokonon teaches our narrator that man is the only thing worthy of being regarded as divinity, but the behavior of human beings in this story is far less than divine. People are selfish and greedy, and, above all, hypocritical. The island nation our narrator visits has outlawed Bokonism and is sworn to execute its founder, but it turns out that all its citizens practice it in secret, even the leaders who've made it a crime worthy of painful execution.
I can't remember the last time I read speculative fiction written in this time period that didn't evoke the Cold War. This one makes its analogue plain as day, evoking the atom bomb from the very start. The message is clear: people are self-destructive by nature. Giving them a weapon that could destroy us all can't end well.
There are some aspects of the book that made me uncomfortable. I couldn't tell if Vonnegut didn't realize he was being racist, or if he was making fun of the sort of people who'd say such things. The way he presents comments about Newt's height make me think it's the latter, but it's a close thing.
This is an odd book, but not an unpleasant read. It goes at a nice clip, and it has plenty of wry satire to entertain. It seems a bit preoccupied with its satire rather than characterization or language, but it can be forgiven. I'd liken it to the movie Dr. Strangelove, at least in tone. I'm glad I got the chance to read it, so I can quit treating Vonnegut like an obstacle to overcome, and instead view him as a writer I'm sometimes in the mood to read.
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