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Literature: Cat's Cradle

"There are lots of good anecdotes about the bomb and Father ... For instance, do you know the story about Father on the day they first tested a bomb out at Alamagordo? After the things went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, 'Science has now known sin.' And do you know what Father said? He said, 'What is sin?'"

"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 and look at all those X's..."

"And?"'

"No damn cat, and no damn cradle."

Cat's Cradle is a 1963 novel by Kurt Vonnegut. The protagonist, who introduces himself to us in the first person narration as simply "John", begins the story intending to write a book about the atomic bomb. In his research, he comes to learn about the family of one of the chief scientists who created it: Dr. Felix Hoenikker. His research also uncovers the possibility that the man went on to create something else that could wipe out all life on Earth.

Some time afterwards, John winds up on the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where he meets all three of Dr. Hoenikker's children, as well as the woman of his dreams. He also learns about the history of the island, and a man known as Bokonon, who has created a strange religion that almost every resident of the nation seems to practice, despite it being outlawed by the country's eccentric military dictatorship.

And then everything goes completely to hell.


Tropes in this book include:

  • Absent-Minded Professor / Married to the Job: The only thing that interests Felix Hoenikker is his scientific work. He barely even notices his wife and children. Once, after a breakfast, he gave his wife a tip.
  • Aliens in Cardiff: Ice-nine is invented in Illium, NY.
    • There's no such place, but "Ilium" was another name for "Troy", and there is a Troy, NY.
  • All Crimes Are Equal: The island of San Lorenzo has only one punishment for any crime: death by impalement on a giant hook.
  • Apocalypse How: Planetary-scale, and is implied to cause the eventual extinction of all life on earth (although this is not depicted). Except for ants, that is.
  • Arc Words: Bokononism has a lot of them. That Other Wiki has a full list.
    • "See the cat? See the cradle?"
  • Artistic License - Biology: After ice-nine is released into the ocean, turning all the seas into ice and destroying the world, the protagonist sees ants gathering around some ice-nine and melting it with their collective body heat for sustenance. Ants are too cold-blooded to do that, but it makes a nice twist of "life struggles on, at least a little".
  • Artistic License - Chemistry: Ice-nine. Formed of ordinary oxygen and hydrogen, it is able to freeze all liquid water that it touches into identical crystals of ice-nine via chain-reaction—eventually freezing all water on Earth. This is impossible in the real world due to the simple state of hydrogen-bonds that form liquid H2O and ice, preventing any such strange isomer-crystal. There are crystals that can react that way, just not water; the ice-nine crystal is supposed to "teach" any liquid water it comes in contact with to freeze as ice-nine.
    • Scientists have actually found new ways for water molecules to arrange themselves in crystals and have named these forms with the same convention (ice-one, ice-two, etc). So there is an ACTUAL ice-nine at this point, but neither it nor any of the other man-made ice-crystal formations have the apocalyptic features of the one in the book.
  • Author Tract: Readers of this book will not have a hard time figuring out how Vonnegut feels about the atomic bomb, or about scientific research without giving any consideration to the possible consequences.
  • Banana Republic: San Lorenzo.
  • Becoming the Mask: This happens to President Earl McCabe. Lampshaded by Bokonon in "Between Time and Timbuktu" when Bokonon repeats a line from the beginning of Mother Night: "We are who we pretend to be, so we must be very careful who we pretend to be."
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Bokonon and Earl McCabe, rulers of the fictional West Indian country San Lorenzo, create a new religion, Bokononism, in order to ease the suffering of the people. To increase the new religion's appeal to the masses by giving them some entertaining drama, McCabe outlaws its practice upon pain of death (while practicing it in secret), whereupon Bokonon "flees" into the jungle, a "wanted" man. Over time, however, the two men become so habituated to their respective roles in the charade that they go insane and become enemies for real. Though when "Papa" Monzano (Mc Cabe's successor) dies, he rejects the Christian Last Rites - having declared Christianity the official religion of San Lorenzo — because "I have always been a Bokononist."
  • Bittersweet Ending: Everyone on Earth dies, but at least John finds out his final purpose in life.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Dr. Felix Hoenikker. He was so easily distracted that, at one time, he completely abandoned the development of the atomic bomb to study the skeleton of turtles. His daughter suggested his desperate colleagues to simply remove anything turtle-related from his laboratory, and he'd forget about his fascination with them completely (they did, he did).
  • Chekhov's Gun: Played with when it comes to Ice-Nine, as the moment it's mentioned the narrator explains its importance, even though he didn't know it himself at the time.
  • Crapsack World: Starts bad, gets worse.
  • Dark-Skinned Blonde: Mona.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Castles and Newt Hoenniker.
  • Death World: After the release of Ice-Nine.
  • Depopulation Bomb: Ice-Nine instantly freezes any moisture it comes in contact with and turns it into Ice-Nine (including moisture contained within a living body), creating an unstoppable chain reaction. Some Ice-Nine ends up falling in the ocean.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Mona.
  • Driven to Suicide: Mona, after she sees that everything has been or will be destroyed by Ice-Nine. The ending very strongly implies the state of the world drives the narrator to suicide as well.
  • Even The Gays Want Her: Mona is just that captivating.
  • Foregone Conclusion: John converts to Bokononism, the Mintons die together, and mentioned later on, nearly everyone else too.
  • Foreshadowing: Bokonon tells the protagonist what he would do if he were "a younger man"...such as the protagonist. It is heavily implied that John does exactly what Bokonon says. We know for a fact that he does part of it by the end of the book.
  • For Science!: Dr. Felix Hoenikker's invention of ice-nine. He was conducting basic research and essentially motivated by curiosity, disregarding the potential disaster that his invention could cause.
  • Genius Ditz: Dr. Felix Hoenikker. A scientific genius, he worked on the atom bomb and created ice-nine, but for life outside science his wife looked after him the same as their children.
  • Humans Are Bastards: One of the central themes of the book, especially when it comes to the outlandishly cynical philosophies of Bokonon.
  • In Mysterious Ways: The Bokononist religion says that all living beings are arranged by God in groups called a karass, arranged around a person or object called a wampeter (in this case, ice-nine), in order to advance the divine will. The members of a karass may never even know each other, and their work may overlap in bizarre, coincidental ways, but they work together for a single purpose that they'll never know.
    • Bokonon also teaches that one should never decline travel suggestions from strangers, these are said to be God's dance directions.
  • Ivy League For Everyone: John's a Cornell alumnus, and Newt flunked out of the university.
  • Just Before the End: Having loaded Chekhov's Gun with the ice-nine, it was inevitably going to go off in everyone's face.
  • Lensman Arms Race: The Americans, Soviet Union, and San Lorenzo all want to be the first to have ice-nine in their arsenal.
    • And by all accounts, they all DO have it by the time the protagonist arrives in San Lorenzo. The story points out the problem with this kind of Mutually Assured Destruction deterrent scenario: sooner or later somebody nuts (or about to die anyway) can get their hands on the doomsday device.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds: Dr. Hoenikker is completely oblivious to the fact that his puttering around in the lab inventing whatever pops into his head might have undesirable consequences, and if somebody were to point this out to him he seems to lack the ability to understand the seriousness of it or to care.
  • Minovsky Physics
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The main character is a writer. In the beginning he's doing research for a book. He later gets assigned to write an article about San Lorenzo, which necessitates him traveling there.
  • Mundane Utility: As revolutionary (and potentially destructive) as ice-nine is, it was only created so that American soldiers wouldn't have to spend so much time slogging through the mud and getting their boots dirty. It eventually ends up wiping out all life on Earth. Whoops...
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The quote at the top of the page provides an example of at least one scientist feeling this way.
  • Parental Neglect: Felix Hoenniker hardly ever showed any interest in his children. They were raised by their mother, and after her death, the oldest child, Angela.
  • Posthumous Character: Felix Hoenniker and to a lesser extent Earl McCabe.
  • Promotion to Parent: Angela Hoenniker has to take care of her two brothers and, to an extent, her father after her mother dies.
  • Sacred Scripture: The Books of Bokonon, which start with the handy warning: "All of the true facts I am about to tell you are shameless lies."
  • Self-Proclaimed Liar: The first thing written in the books of Bokonon is that it's all made up. This doesn't stop it being a workable religion.
  • Science Is Bad: Or at least, science for its own sake is bad, because it doesn't know or really care about the consequences of what it creates.
  • Stealth Pun: Boko-maru, the only real ritual of the Bokononists, is described as a meeting of souls. It is performed by having the two participants remove their footwear, and then press the soles of their feet together.
  • The End of the World as We Know It
  • Together in Death: Horlick and Claire Minton die in this way.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The entire human race. From the beginning, we get the sense that humans are stupidly rushing themselves toward destruction and that it's just a question of how and when it happens.
  • True Companions: See In Mysterious Ways.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Newt and Angela both get played like violins in the back-story by people looking to get control of some Ice-Nine.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: "Papa" Monzano, twice. The first time when he commits suicide by swallowing the ice-nine, dramatically raising the risk of it getting into the world's water supply, and the second time when the ceremony arranged by him prior to his death results in an airplane crashing into his home and sending his ice-nine-infected corpse tumbling into the sea.
  • What Does She See in Him?: People don't understand why Emily Hoenniker, who was a very beautiful and popular woman, married Felix, who only cared about science and barely noticed her.
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alternative title(s): Cats Cradle
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