Cat's Cradle

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Cat's Cradle
Cat's Cradle (1st ed. cover) - Vonnegut.jpg
First edition hardback cover
Written by: Kurt Vonnegut
Central Theme:
First published: 1963
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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..."
"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, and 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 used in Cat's Cradle include:
  • Aliens in Cardiff: Ice-nine is invented in Illium, NY.
  • All Crimes Are Equal: The island of San Lorenzo has only one punishment for any crime: death by impalement on a giant hook.
  • 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 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.
      • But that was the point, water doesn't work that way on its own (even melted ice-nine will behave like ordinary water), but the ice-nine crystal is supposed to "teach" any liquid water it comes in contact with to freeze as ice-nine.
        • Assume ice-nine has a lower energy state than water or other ices, and catalyzes crystallization like ice condensation nuclei. It works. After reading this book, scientists became legit worried about "polywater" for a couple years.
    • Scientists have actually found new ways for water molecules to arrange themselves in crystals and have named these forms with the same convention (ice-I, ice-II, etc). So there is now an actual ice-IX, 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: Because there is nothing of value in San Lorenzo, there's no way to provide a good life for the people there. It's been run by alternating imperialists and tinpot dictators its entire history. McCabe sets up the latest version, but with Bokonon's help, as he cautions everyone not to try to become dictator.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The narrator wishes he could have Mona all to himself, and not have her be intimate with any other man. He gets what he asks for when basically everyone else dies.
  • Becoming the Mask: This happens to President Earl McCabe. Lampshaded by Bokonon in "Between Time and Timbuktu" when Bokonon repeats the line, "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 (McCabe'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."
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Dr. Felix Hoenikker
  • 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.
  • Con Lang: Most of the Bokononist words and island dialect.
  • Crapsack World: Starts bad, gets worse.
  • Darkskinned Blonde: Mona.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Castles and Newt Hoenniker.
  • Depopulation Bomb: Yeah, ice-nine again. It Was His Sled.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Mona.
  • Even The Gays Want Her: Philip Castle's obsessed with Mona, writing and painting all about her. But according to Claire Minton, professional indexer, the way he wrote the index in his history of the island indicates he is a homosexual.
  • Fetish Fuel: A foot fetishist would probably really dig the Bokonist practice of boku-maru (not that a fetish is strictly necessary).
  • 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 that he does part of it by the end of the book.
  • 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 the Real Monsters: All of the nations wanted to their hands on ice-nine, even though they had atom bombs already.
  • 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 who's crazy (or about to die anyway) can get their hands on the Doomsday Device.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: And most of them in the narrator's karass. Don't worry, he'll tell you right away if they are.
  • Magnum Opus: This or Slaughterhouse-Five. Also applies in-universe to the narrator, who wrote the book
  • Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds: Dr. Hoenikker is not a Complete Monster. Rather, he 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: Ice-nine. But let's break it down a bit:
    • Ice-nine is theoretically possible, but it's implausible for a lower-energy, stable phase of water to be discovered on a planet with as much water as this one.
    • This is fairly obviously inspired by Kurt's brother, Bernard Vonnegut, who discovered the use of silver iodide for cloud seeding. Ice nucleation means ice clouds really do grow from tiny seeds -- in the atmosphere. The presence of the seed catalyzes the deposition of ice outside of when it would occur from temperature alone, but still well below the freezing point. (This Troper is a meteorologist.)
    • Bernard's research collaborator, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir, was the inspiration for Dr. Hoenikker -- he discovered that dry ice could be used for cloud seeding.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The quote at the top of the page provides an example of at least one scientist who feels this way... and one who does not.
  • Posthumous Character: Felix Hoenniker and to a lesser extent Earl McCabe.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: The golden boat will sail again when the end of the world is near.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: This was published the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • 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.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Bokonon's prophecy that Mona would marry the next dictator of San Lorenzo means that she's willing to marry whoever becomes the dictator, because she loves everybody. This is why the narrator agrees to become dictator.
  • Shout-Out: The book begins with "Call me Jonah," but then proceeds to tell you the Narrator's real name is John, but he feels like a Jonah. Begins just like that whale of a tale, Moby Dick, via a Bible reference.
  • 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. If you missed it the first few times, Vonnegut eventually spells it out for you in a crazy poem.
  • Streisand Effect: Long before the effect was named, McCabe and Bokonon purposely decide to ban Bokonon's work to get the islanders to believe it. It works all too well, even getting the themselves into Becoming the Masks.
  • Taken for Granite: What happens when a person touches ice-nine. Yes, ice is a rock. Also, foreshadowed by the discussion of the wax museum.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: The end, of course. Ice-nine gets in the ocean, which freezes across the world in seconds, then freezes every river and stream. Then it freezes the water in the ground, And it freezes any animal or plant or human touching it. It freezes the raindrops. And then the week of tornadoes starts. Afterwards, all that's left is a hot, dry, icy desert of a planet.
  • 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.
  • Wax Museum Morgue: The top of Mt. McCabe when everyone still alive kills themselves. Not a typical example, but hey, still horror. Bonus foreshadowing points for mentioning that McCabe got the idea for The Hook from a medieval torture exhibit at a wax museum.