Within the Vonnegut fan-base there are two warring camps: one who believes Slaughterhouse-Five is his greatest novel, and the other which claims such a title is reserved for Cat’s Cradle. The comparison may be unfounded, though, because each book lies in its own plane. While Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel of profound, big-picture thought, its meaning is conveyed by sentiment and not by argument. Cat’s Cradle, though, is far less cryptic. Easy to interpret, and difficult to disagree with, it’s a much bolder work as far as its message is concerned.
The novel follows the first-person narrative of a man named John, who is writing a book about what various Americans happened to be doing on the day the US bombed Hiroshima. His research eventually leads him to track down the three children of Felix Hoenicker, one of the fictional fathers of the atomic bomb. John interviews Hoenicker’s son, Newton, who tells John that, on the day the bombs fell, his father was fascinating himself with a piece of string which he had shaped into a cat’s cradle—a string figure. Delighted with himself, Felix Hoenicker tries to show the shape to Newton, who is disgusted at seeing his aging father up close. Newton is later scolded by his sister for being unable to overlook his father’s ugliness and for being unappreciative of the man who raised him. This scene, so early in the book, illustrates the difficulty many American children face when taught how World War II ended—and afterwards, how they’re guilted into accepting this ending as righteous on pain of being deemed unpatriotic.
John’s interviews also lead him to Dr. Asa Breed, Felix Hoenicker’s former supervisor, who recounts the speech he gave at Hoenicker’s funeral. In the speech, Dr. Breed mourned the ignorance of humankind, expressing a Socratic-like view that all evil in the world was due to lack of knowledge. He promised the attendees of the funeral that if everyone would be more like Felix Hoenicker, and just learn a little bit of science, all would be right with the world—even though such widespread understanding of science would lead to more discoveries like the atomic bomb and, the novel’s central subject, ice-9, a fictional form of water which exists in the solid state at room temperature, transforming all water it comes into contact with into ice-9 as well.
John soon tracks down Hoenicker’s other children to the Republic of San Lorenzo, an island. The society there is a strange one, with most of its inhabitants adhering to a religion called Bokonism, which the government of San Lorenzo has outlawed, even though its leaders are followers of it as well. The religion’s message is a mix between Buddhism and nihilism; it teaches its adherents that, even though everything is meaningless and God, if he exists, is cruel, one should find peace in the inevitable meaningless and cruelness to come. John is soon sucked into the religion as well, and finds himself participating in its various rituals, and his immersion into the community eventually leads him to find Hoenicker’s older son, Franklin, who, like his two siblings, secretly possess a sample of ice-9 he had taken from his father following his death.
The novel ends with a catastrophe created by this compound: (view spoiler) This was, of course, never the intended use of ice-9; it never had any intended use, really. Its inventor was simply interested in the problem presented to him of how to make water behave as a solid at room temperature. Beyond that, Felix Hoenicker hadn’t thought about what such a substance could do. He was a man entirely fixated on his curiosities, which sometimes led to harmless things—such as his study of turtles and how their necks worked—but other times disaster, such as his curiosity over how to split an atom.
Cat’s Cradle’s portentous message concerning science isn’t unique, but it is unique coming from Vonnegut, a humanist, atheist, and freethinker. These qualities aren’t often associated with someone who fears science, but Vonnegut comes at it from a different angle than those who might think digging into the mysteries of God’s creations is a sin. Vonnegut doesn’t deny the beauty of the mechanics that underlie the universe, the wonder and awe understanding the nature around us can inspire: Vonnegut asks whether or not humanity is responsible enough to hold such knowledge. When we science-advocates appeal for better education around the world, we suggest that such efforts will lead to the cure for cancer and the means to adopt renewable energy—but, in our unparalleled love for knowledge and fascination with the natural world around us, we leave discoveries such as nuclear weapons and ice-9 off of the list.