Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In the early 1930s, H.G. Wells visited General
Electric's research laboratories in Schenectady, a
facility dubbed the
House of Magic by GE’s public
relations department.  
Here the famous author
was hosted by Nobel
Prize-winning chemist
Irving Langmuir, who
suggested an idea for a
story to Wells.

Langmuir described an
alternative form of water
that remained frozen at
ordinary room temper-
ature.  Wells apparently
took little interest in the
concept, which must
have seemed blasé in
comparison to his dramatic plots about alien
invasion and time travel, but in 1947 another science
fiction writer would arrive at the GE facility and
take notice.  The young Kurt Vonnegut, who had
been hired to write press releases and promote the
company's research triumphs to the media, heard
the story about Langmuir and his pseudo-water—
and both would eventually find their way into his
1963 novel
Cat's Cradle.  

"I thought to myself: 'Finders, keepers,'" Vonnegut
later recalled—"'the idea is mine.'"

Cat's Cradle captures a madcap, improvisatory
sensibility that seems at odds with the manuscript's
troubled history.  A decade or more in the making,
Cat's Cradle had been optioned by Scribner's as a
follow-up to Vonnegut's debut novel
Player Piano,
published in 1952.  Vonnegut delivered six chapters
of the book to his editor, but months and then years
elapsed without any further discernible progress.  
When Scribner eventually lost patience, Vonnegut
turned his attention to another sci-fi project,
Sirens of Titan, and for a while it seemed as if Cat's
was a victim of permanent writer’s block.   

A major component of the book dates back to a
short story entitled "Ice-9" that had been rejected
Collier's at an early stage in the author's career.  
Ice-9 was Vonnegut's  version of Langmuir’s
alternative water.   Vonnegut could well have
entitled his story
Fahrenheit 114—which was the
melting point of Ice-9.  This might seem a harmless
novelty, except that Ice-9 has the unfortunate side
effect of spreading its unusual structure and
properties to any other water in which it is mixed
—thus a tiny chip of Ice-9 could freeze all the
oceans and lead to massive death and destruction.  
Vonnegut's novel was published around the same
time that Stanley Kubrick was working on his film
Dr. Strangelove, and like the doomsday device in
movie, Ice-9 serves both as a key driver for a Cold
War-inspired plot and a commentary on the arms
race of the era.  

The narrator Jonah is writing an account of the day
the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and
his research leads him to interview the children of
the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker—based on Lagmuir—
who is presented here as the "father of the bomb."  
Jonah hears about Ice-9 from one of the late
scientist's colleagues, and soon discovers that each
of the surviving Hoenikker children possesses a chip
of the dangerous substance.   

The rambling plot, present over the course of 127
chapters—most of them only a few paragraphs in
duration—follows Jonah through a series of
extravagant, loosely-connected incidents, which
eventually turn him from a amiable author into the
hard-line President of a fiercely pro-US island
republic.  There he finds adventure, romance,
intrigue, even religion…as well the Hoenikker
children with their deadly chips of Ice-9.

As in
The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut invents a new
creed and scripture as part of the story.  
Bokononism plays only a modest role in the main
plot, but is responsible for much of the humor and
caustic social commentary of
Cat's Cradle.  The faith
can is summed up in a short quote from the
of Bokonon
that also serves as the opening epigraph
to Vonnegut's novel:  "Nothing in this book is true.  
Live by the
foma that make you brave and kind and
healthy and happy."  A footnote explains that
are "harmless untruths."  

Boknonism is the dominant belief system on the
island of San Lorenzo, but the religion is banned
and adherents are threatened with the death
penalty—even Bokonon himself, who lives an
undercover existence somewhere in the island’s
interior, and makes only the briefest cameo
appearance during the course of the novel.  But his
songs and pithy quotes appear constantly, and are
for me (and I'm sure many other readers) the best
part of Vonnegut's book.

Long before Bobby McFerrin hit the charts with
"Don’t Worry, Be Happy," Bokonon was sharing a
similar sentiment in his calypso songs.  Here, for
example, he sings about the origins of his religion:

I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense,
So we all could be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
And I made this sad world
A par-a-dise.

Vonnegut adorns his island faith with a colorful
karass, vin-dit, wampeter, granfalloon,
zah-ma-ki-bo and other invented terms add to the
playful quality of
Cat's Cradle—a lighthearted tone
that somehow coexists with a plot that revolves
around weapons, the collapse of civilization and
ecological disaster.  

This may be Vonnegut's most salient virtue: his
ability to take the darkest aspects of modern
society—atrocities, hypocrisies, blind ideologies,
technology run rampant—and drag them into the
light.  There they can disarmed, or at least seen more
clearly, their false fronts pushed aside, their
inconsistencies available for scrutiny and rebuttal.  
And laughter…which is Vonnegut's most
characteristic response to the dark side.    

I suspect that this aspect of
Cat's Cradle may have
been responsible for an unexpected response to the
novel.  Shortly before he took the job at General
Electric, where he got the initial idea for Ice-9,
Vonnegut had been forced to leave the University of
Chicago without receiving his degree—although he
lied about the credential in order to secure the GE
position.  "Twenty years later, I got a letter from a
new dean at Chicago, who had been looking
through my dossier," Vonnegut explained to
Paris Review
.  "Under the rules of the university, he
said, a published work of high quality could be
substituted for a dissertation, so I was entitled to an
M.A. He had shown
Cat's Cradle to the anthropology
department, and they had said it was halfway decent
anthropology, so they were mailing me my degree.
I'm class of 1972 or so."

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.  His
next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford
University Press.

Publication Date: April 5, 2012.  All rights reserved.
Cat's Cradle

by Kurt Vonnegut
conceptual fiction
Click on image to purchase
Check out our sister sites:

The New Canon
Great literary works published
since 1985

Great Books Guide
Reviews of current books

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental  works of mystery &

Fractious Fiction
Radical and unconventional
works of fiction
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.

All rights reserved.