"Hunger is good discipline." -Ernest Hemingway
“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 at all those X’s …”
“No damn cat and no damn cradle.”
Do you know what the product is of mixing the soul of a writer and a man with a scientific education? Pressurize the system with World War II, throw in some high-explosives as a catalyst, and you’ll find Kurt Vonnegut on the other side of your equation arrow.
After surviving the Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945, Kurt returned home and began studying Anthropology at the University of Chicago. (Prior to enlisting in the Army, he studied chemistry and engineering, but did not complete either program.)
Though he did eventually receive a Master’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Chicago (using Cat’s Cradle as his dissertation), Vonnegut is the first to dispel any rumors that he is a scientist:
“I’m no scientist at all. I’m glad, though, now that I was pressured into becoming a scientist by my father and my brother. I understand how scientific reasoning and playfulness work, even though I have no talent for joining in. I enjoy the company of scientists, am easily excited and entertained when they tell me what they’re doing. I’ve spent a lot more time with scientists than with literary people, my brother’s friends, mostly. I enjoy plumbers and carpenters and automobile mechanics, too.”
(This is an excerpt from a Paris Review interview of Vonnegut with himself. It’s worth a read.)
I don’t have a fun summary and analysis video to share for this book, so you’ll have to bear through my recap. You can see Vonnegut talk briefly about his novel in the video below, though.
Cat’s Cradle (deemed by the University of Chicago to be “halfway decent Anthropology,” and by many others to be wholly decent science fiction) tells the story of Jonah who is writing a book about the American bombing of Hiroshima. Cat’s Cradle follows Jonah as he seeks to interview the children of Felix Hoenikker, the late Father of the Atomic Bomb. In his quest for information about Hoenikker (based on this man), Jonah discovers another of Hoenikker’s creations, a substance called ice-nine, which has the potential to be even more destructive than the atomic bomb.
“Now suppose that there were many possible ways in which water could crystallize, could freeze. Suppose that the sort of ice we skate upon and put into highballs – what we might call ice-one – is only one of several types of ice. Suppose water always froze as ice-one on Earth because it never had a seed to teach it how to form ice-two, ice-three, ice-four … ? And suppose that there were one form, which we will call ice-nine – a crystal as hard as this desk – with a melting point of let us say, one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit, or, better still, a melting point of one-hundred and thirty.”
Jonah’s journey leads him to San Lorenzo, a fictional Caribbean island where one of Hoenikker’s sons is the Major General. Jonah’s narrative simultaneously reveals the tenets of Bokononism, the religion of the citizens of San Lorenzo. All three Hoenikker children and Jonah end up in San Lorenzo at the same time. (Ah, sweet serendipity. Err… zah-mah-ki-bo.) While the main characters are in San Lorenzo, a bit of ice-nine makes its way into the Caribbean Sea, freezing all of the world’s water. The quest for surivival ensues.
Cat’s Cradle is an entirely charming, tongue-in-cheek exploration of the fallacies of both science and religion, the two systems that humans have created to understand and explain their own existence. In the face of “how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is,” neither system can act as a fail-safe at the end of the day, and indeed, one may be the basis for our ultimate demise. Kurt Vonnegut has a way of forcing you to think about all of the things you don’t want to, of making you realize “the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it,” but making you smile and maybe even feel a little hopeful despite the futility. And if you’re left wondering what a meaningful endeavor is in a potentially pointless world, Vonnegut offers the following in a 1974 commencement address:
I am about to make my own ancestral guess as to what life is all about, and what young people should do with it. I will again issue the caveat that I am as full of baloney as anybody, and that anybody who says for sure what life is all about might as well lecture on Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and Tooth Fairies, as well.
What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.
Now I don’t know about you, but if I’m staring down an apocalypse, I’m probably going to want a drink. I’m really no good at crafting cocktails, so below you’ll find a “recipe” for cracking a coconut. It might actually prove to be a life-preserving skill if you find yourself in dire straits in a tropical locale… and happen to be equipped with a chef’s knife. Of course this is useful for many occasions, but we’re cracking this one to hold our drinks. It may be a harmless untruth, but I think they taste better that way.
“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”