Cat's Cradle

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For other uses see Cat's cradle (disambiguation).
Cat's Cradle  

First edition hardback cover
Author Kurt Vonnegut
Original title Cat's Cradle
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Satire, Science fiction novel
Publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston
Publication date 1963
Media type print (hardcover & paperback)
ISBN ISBN 0-385-33348-X

Cat's Cradle is a 1963 science fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It explores issues of science, technology, and religion, satirizing the arms race and many other targets along the way. After turning down his original thesis, the University of Chicago, in 1971, awarded Vonnegut his Master's degree in anthropology for Cat's Cradle.[1][2]


[edit] Background

After World War II, Kurt Vonnegut worked in the public relations department for the General Electric research company. GE hired scientists and let them do pure research, and his job was to interview these scientists and find good stories about their research. Vonnegut felt that the older scientists were indifferent about the ways in which their discoveries might be used. A man his brother worked with at GE, Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir, became the model for Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Vonnegut said in an interview with The Nation that "Langmuir was absolutely indifferent to the uses that might be made of the truths he dug out of the rock and handed out to whomever was around. But any truth he found was beautiful in its own right, and he didn’t give a damn who got it next".[3]

[edit] Plot summary

At the opening of the book, the narrator, an everyman named John, describes a time when he was planning to write a book about what important Americans did on the day Hiroshima was bombed. While researching this topic, John becomes involved with the children of Felix Hoenikker, a fictional Nobel laureate physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. As the novel progresses, John learns of a substance called ice-nine, created by the late Hoenikker and now secretly in the possession of his children. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. When a crystal of ice-nine is brought into contact with liquid water, it becomes a seed crystal that 'teaches' the molecules of liquid water to arrange themselves into the solid form, ice-nine.

Felix Hoenikker, although dead, is in some ways the central character of the book. It is the narrator's quest for biographical details about Hoenikker that provides both the background and the connecting thread between the various subsections of the story. Hoeniker himself is depicted as amoral and apathetic towards anything other than his research, a genius who does not care how his research is used, as in his role of "Father of the Atomic Bomb", and in his creation of "ice-nine", something he saw as a mental puzzle (suggested by a Pentagon general) which ends up destroying life on Earth.

John and the Hoenikker children eventually end up on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, one of the poorest countries on Earth, where the people speak a barely comprehensible creole of English. For example "twinkle, twinkle, little star" is rendered "Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store". It is ruled by the fictional dictator, "Papa" Monzano, who threatens all opposition with impalement on a giant hook, although it is revealed later on that the hook is only actually used once every two years.

The religion of the people of San Lorenzo, called Bokononism, encompasses concepts unique to the novel. The supreme act of worship of the Bokononists is called 'boku-maru', which is an intimate act consisting of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of the feet of two persons.

It is supposed to result in peace and joy between the two communicants. Though all native San Lorenzans are Bokononists, following the religion is punished with death by the dictator when detected. Ironically, the dictator himself approves of and practices Bokononism. Two men landed on the island, one of them founded the religion, and the other became the island's first dictator. The two men worked to spread the religion, while officially the dictator banned it. Now that the people have to suffer for their beliefs, the founders believe their subjects will value those beliefs more. This new dictator is hailed as "one of Freedom's greatest friends" by representatives of the American government. The founder of the religion is rumored to still be alive and roaming the island somewhere, but the Bokononists' peculiar philosophies permeate the story.

The dictator has bribed a son of Felix Hoenikker with a high government appointment (which Frank offers to the narrator) in exchange for a piece of ice-nine, and he uses it to commit suicide as he lies dying from inoperable cancer. Consistent with the properties of 'ice-nine' the dictator's corpse instantly turns into a block of solid ice at normal room temperature. A sudden airplane crash into the dictator's seaside palace causes his still-frozen body to tumble into the ocean, at which point all the water in the world's seas, rivers, and groundwater also turns into ice-nine in a gigantic chain reaction, which destroys the ecology of the earth and causes the extinction of practically all life forms in only a few days.

John manages to escape from the desolation to a bomb shelter with his wife, "Papa" Monzano's adopted daughter Mona. John and Mona later discover a mass grave where all the surviving San Lorenzans had killed themselves with ice-nine, on the facetious advice of the apparently alive and resurfaced founder of Bokononism, Lionel Boyd Johnson (better known as Bokonon). Through a mix of grief and resigned amusement, Mona kills herself as well. John takes refuge with several surviving acquaintances, including an American expatriate couple and two of Felix Hoenikker's children, and lives in a cave for several months, during which time he writes a memoir, which is revealed to be the preceding novel itself. John eventually decides to climb the tallest mountain on the island, and on his way, comes across the weary and dying Bokonon. In the conclusion of the book, Bokonon advises John to climb the mountain and lie down on the summit with a book about the history of human stupidity (i.e. the book he's just written, Cat's Cradle) as his pillow, and kill himself by eating ice-nine, while "grinning horribly, and thumbing [his] nose at You Know Who."

In Vonnegut's own words: (from Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons)

Dear Reader: The title of this book is composed of three words from my novel Cat's Cradle. A wampeter is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. Foma are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An example: "Prosperity is just around the corner." A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings. Taken together, the words form as good an umbrella as any for this collection of some of the reviews and essays I've written, a few of the speeches I made.

The title of the book derives from the string game "cat's cradle". Early in the book, we learn that Felix Hoenikker was playing cat's cradle when the atom bomb was dropped. The game is later referenced by Newt Hoenikker, Felix's midget son.

Irving Langmuir came up with the idea of ice-nine as a way to entertain H.G. Wells who visited Schenectady in the 1930s.[4] In terms of characterization, however, Hoenikker is a composite figure assembled from Stanislaw Ulam and Edward Teller, the two scientists who finalized the mathematics for the H-Bomb.

[edit] Characters

The Narrator: An unsuccessful writer named John who describes the events in the book with humorous sarcastic detail. It is when he is writing a book on the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where he first becomes involved with the Hoenikker children. He begins the book by stating "Call me Jonah", alluding to the first line of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. In a way, John and Ishmael, the narrator for Moby Dick, share the same traits as both a protagonist and a minor character at the same time.

Felix Hoenikker: The "Father of the Atom Bomb", Felix Hoenikker was proclaimed to be one of the smartest scientists on Earth. An eccentric, emotionless man, Felix often showed no care for his family and no care for what he was working on; just as long as he had something to keep him busy. He developed Ice-Nine after being "challenged" by a military advisor to develop a substance that could freeze and compact mud so soldiers could run across it more easily.

Emily Hoenikker: The beautiful wife of Felix Hoenikker, who died during the birth of Newt.

Frank Hoenikker: The son of famed scientist Felix Hoenikker, and Major General of San Lorenzo. He is the brother of both Newt and Angela Hoenikker.

Newt Hoenikker: The midget son of famed scientist Felix Hoenikker, and a painter. He is the brother of both Frank and Angela Hoenikker.

Angela Hoenikker: The daughter of famed scientist Felix Hoenikker, and a clarinetist. She is the sister of both Frank and Newt Hoenikker and is married to Harrison C. Connors.

Bokonon: The founder of San Lorenzo along with Edward McCabe. He created the religion of Bokononism, which he asked McCabe to outlaw.

Edward McCabe: A cofounder of San Lorenzo and a marine deserter, who ruled San Lorenzo for many years.

"Papa" Mozano: The ailing dictator of San Lorenzo who was the first human to die of Ice-Nine. He is the adopted father of Mona Mozano.

Mona Mozano: The adopted daughter of "Papa" Mozano, who marries John before dying of Ice-Nine.

Julian Castle: The multi-millionaire owner of Castle Sugar Cooperation, who John travels to San Lorenzo to interview.

H. Lowe Cosby: A bicycle manufacturer who John meets on a plane to San Lorenzo.

Hazel Cosby: The wife of H. Lowe Cosby, who asks all the Hoosiers she meets around the globe to call her "Mom".

Philip Castle: The son of Julian Castle, and the operator of the hotel Casa Mona on the island on San Lorenzo.

Horlick Minton: The new American ambassador to San Lorenzo, who John meets on a plane.

Claire Minton: The wife of the new American ambassador to San Lorenzo.

[edit] Terms introduced in the novel

[edit] Terms of Bokononism

The religion of the people of San Lorenzo, called Bokononism, encompasses concepts unique to the novel, with San Lorenzan names such as:

  • karass - a group of people who, often unknowingly, are working together to do God's will. The people can be thought of as fingers in a Cat's Cradle.
  • duprass - a karass of only two people, who almost always die within a week of each other. The typical example is a loving couple who work together for a great purpose.
  • granfalloon - a false karass; i.e., a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. An example is "Hoosiers"; Hoosiers are people from Indiana, and Hoosiers have no true spiritual destiny in common, so really share little more than a name.
  • wampeter - the central point of a karass
  • foma - harmless untruths
  • wrang-wrang - Someone who steers a Bokononist away from their line of perception. For example the narrator of the book is steered away from Nihilism when his Nihilist house sitter kills his cat and leaves his apartment in disrepair.
  • vin-dit - a sudden shove in the direction of Bokononism
  • saroon - to acquiesce to a vin-dit
  • duffle - the destiny of thousands of people placed on one "stuppa"
  • stuppa - a fogbound child
  • sin-wat - a person who wants all of somebody's love for themself
  • pool-pah - wrath of God, "shit storm"
  • Busy, busy, busy - words Bokononists whisper when they think about how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is
  • boku-maru - the supreme act of worship of the Bokononists, which is an intimate act consisting of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of the feet of two persons.
  • Borasisi and Pabu, the Sun and Moon; the binary trans-Neptunian object (66652) Borasisi and its moon (66652) Borasisi I Pabu bear their names.
    • Borasisi, the Sun, held Pabu, the Moon, in his arms and hoped that Pabu would bear him a fiery child. But poor Pabu gave birth to children that were cold, that did not burn...Then poor Pabu herself was cast away, and she went to live with her favorite child, which was Earth.

[edit] References or Allusions

[edit] References to actual history, geography and current science

  • A few years after the publication of Cat's Cradle, Soviet scientists announced the discovery of polywater, a substance that seemed eerily similar to ice-nine. The fervor around polywater lasted a few years but subsided when the initial results were shown to have been caused by impurities.
  • The town of Ilium is based on Schenectady, NY, where Vonnegut worked as a publicity man for General Electric after World War II. The town appears in many of Vonnegut's works.[citation needed]

[edit] References in other works

In the 2003 film The Recruit Walter Burke (Al Pacino) references Cat's Cradle when explaining to James Clayton (Colin Farrell) that a computer virus the CIA has developed behaves in a manner similar to ice-nine, in that it transmits through electrical systems.

At the conclusion of The Family Man actor Nicolas Cage opens the book Cat's Cradle to review a glimpse he has had of a possible turn of events, and decides to change his life. He woos his true love to fill a void in his life that was constituted 13 years ago.

The first, eponymous album by the rock band Ambrosia includes a track titled "Nice, Nice, Very Nice" which is adapted from two of the Calypsos in the Books of Bokonon. Vonnegut cooperated in the project.

A song titled "Kurt Vonnegut" by the band Born Ruffians quotes a calypso from "Cat's Cradle"

Judge Richard Posner, ruling in a patent case involving the crystalline structure of paroxetine hemihydrate, noted the similarity of the polymorph to Vonnegut's ice-nine.[5]

[edit] Awards and nominations

Cat's Cradle was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1964.

[edit] Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

[edit] References in pop culture

-The band Ice Nine Kills named themselves after the deadly substance in this book.
-The Al Pacino movie The Recruit references "ice nine" several times throughout the film.
-The Grateful Dead's music publication rights are held under Ice Nine Publishing.
- Joy Lass reads this novel in the TV series Dead Like Me.

[edit] References

  1. ^ Katz, Joe (April 13, 2007). "Alumnus Vonnegut dead at 84". Chicago Maroon. Retrieved on 2007-04-17. 
  2. ^ David Hayman, David Michaelis, George Plimpton, Richard Rhodes, "The Art of Fiction No. 64: Kurt Vonnegut", Paris Review, Issue 69, Spring 1977
  3. ^ Musil, Robert K. (1980-08-02). "There Must Be More to Love Than Death: A Conversation With Kurt Vonnegut". The Nation Vol. 231 (Issue 4): p128–132. ISSN 00278378. 
  4. ^ McGinnis, Wayne D. (November 1974). "The Source And Implications Of Ice-Nine In Vonneguts Cat'S Cradle". American Notes & Queries Vol. 13 (Issue 3): p40. ISSN 00030171. 
  5. ^ SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Apotex Corp., 247 F. Supp. 2d 1011 (N.D. Ill. 2003).
  6. ^ "NAMES & FACES". Washington Post. 2005-07-10;. pp. Page D03. Retrieved on 2008-05-17. 
  7. ^ "Cat's Cradle, a calypso musical based on the book by Kurt Vonnegut". Retrieved on 2008-05-17. 

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