I am not sure I can think of a more quintessentially 60’s novel than this. It is madcap, millennial (think Dr Strangelove), anarchic and at times plain weird. The plot, such as it is, involves a first person narrator who is researching a biography of the (fictional) inventor of the nuclear bomb, Felix Hoenikker. In this course of this investigation he finds out that Hoenikker stumbled across – out of pure academic curiosity – a way of converting water into a crystalline form – ice-nine. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. When a crystal of ice-nine contacts liquid water, it becomes a seed crystal that makes the molecules of liquid water arrange themselves into the solid form, ice-nine. If ice-nine were to come into contact with a river or sea, all the world’s water would freeze in one shuddering bang.
The Cold War and the nuclear arms race between America and the USSR loom heavily over this novel. Ice-nine is a simple substitution for nuclear weapons – with huge destructive potential, not properly controlled, and with a strong presentiment that its use is only a matter of time. To fully appreciate the significance of this metaphor you need to cast your mind back to the early 1960’s in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when arguably the world never came closer to all out nuclear war. Vonnegut is entirely pessimistic about mankind’s ability to survive with this sword hanging over its head – sooner or later the cord will break and the end will come.
Religion is given short shrift as a consolation in this world. The people of San Lorenzo, a desperately poor Caribbean island where the narrator’s researches take him, follow a made up religion (although aren’t all religions made up in one sense or another?) called Bokonism. Bokonism is banned in San Lorenzo, but that ban makes it all the more popular. Followers are threatened with a grisly execution, but this has little effect, and it appears that the only reason it is banned it to encourage its followers and to give their worship an illicit thrill.
There is an element of clumsy racism in Vonnegut’s portrayal of the people of San Lorenzo – their island is valueless, literally worthless, and they are lead by fraudsters and crooks. They live in utter poverty and listlessly accept their fate. They embrace a religion which is transparently nonsensical.
There is a strong, almost overwhelming sense of despair running through ‘Cats Cradle’ which is quite depressing. Science is going to kill us, religion is a distraction designed to control us, and there is no hope. Bokonon sums it up thus:
“The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”
It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it: “Nothing.”
‘Cats Cradle’ is a period piece, a novel of its time that at this distance seems anachronistic. Does it really take 200 pages to tell us we are all doomed, and that suicide is the only rational choice? If you enjoy black humour then this novel is an interesting companion piece to ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ – but I am not sure it adds much to the overall experience.