The book was published in 1963 and since then, likely millions of things have been written about it. My aim in adding to this already rich, and potentially saturated, body of responses is not to add anything new and earthshattering. I am not going to attempt to prove that Vonnegut is the greatest writer that ever lived or why you should stop everything and read his oeuvre. There are plenty out there who have already written such things. As for me, I’m not sure I’m swayed by any of them. My intention is instead to simply encourage you to try something new, to pick up a book that you might think is outside of your comfort zone.
To confess my own ignorance, I knew very little about Vonnegut before starting this book. I knew he was writing in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I was aware that his books were satirical, supposedly funny, and had elements of science fiction. I’d heard his works quoted, often without realizing where the attribution belonged. Beyond that, well, I didn’t know much more.
Cat’s Cradle is narrated by a character who calls himself Jonah. He is working on a book about what important Americans had been doing on August 6, 1945, the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. His research leads him to Dr. Felix Hoenikker, an absent-minded and anti-social physicist, who had helped to develop the bomb. The narrator reaches out to Hoenikker’s children, and so begins the chase down the rabbit hole. Later, Jonah travels to the island of San Lorenzo with two of Hoenikker’s three children in search of the third. Here, the reader learns of the island’s distinct culture and religion as Jonah chases down a mysterious and menacing substance, ice-nine, which Hoenikker had left to his children upon his death.
Whether or not Newsweek’s expose proves correct and Dorian Nakamoto, the Japanese American man identified as Bitcoin’s inventor, turns out to be the creator of this new-age digital currency or not, Leah McGrath Goodman’s article is fastened in my memory. When Nakamoto’s daughter was interviewed, she remarked, "I could see my dad doing something brilliant and not accepting the greater effect of it." This quote immediately reminded me of the observations that Felix Hoenikker’s children make about him in Cat’s Cradle.
Additionally, when Nakamoto’s colleague is questioned about taking up work with someone who wanted to remain anonymous, he replied, "I am a geek…I don't care if the idea came from a good person or an evil person. Ideas stand on their own." We see this sentiment quite clearly in Hoenikker’s lab, with the various scientists working on inventions without much or any forethought about the ultimate use and political ramifications of the science. They instead are entranced within their own ideas. Hoenikker hardly seems to react to the effects of the bombing at Hiroshima and the fact that his mind had helped to develop the weapon that had caused so much destruction. Instead, he engages in a game of cat’s cradle with his son, seemingly oblivious to the historical relevance that the day would have.
No matter how dense or bizarre or daunting a book might seem, I really do believe that we grow and learn from what we read. Even if you pick up that novel and only understand one sentence, I think the exercise is worthwhile. I can’t say that I loved this book, I thought it was enjoyable, but it didn’t make me want to run out and read everything Vonnegut ever wrote. But, it gave me a framework for understanding an event that I might have otherwise passed over.