2013-09-29

Book Review: Cat's Cradle

Before I read Cat's Cradle, all I knew about author Kurt Vonnegut is that he was a famous and highly praised master of 20th Century fiction. At some point, I had picked up a copy of Slaughterhouse Five to be read later. If I'm not mistaken, I was using up a gift certificate at a book store. Then I packed it into a box and moved to Texas. The book is still in a box, somewhere.

Fast forward a year and a half, and I found myself at the airport in Denver, looking for some reading material for the flight back home. The book selection at airports has gone decidedly downhill since the introduction of e-readers and Amazon Kindle. This is understandable. Still, for at least an hour out of every flight (30 minutes during the ascent, and 30 minutes during the descent), keeping e-readers on is against the rules. Thus, the paper book still fills an important space in my entertainment world.

At any rate, one thing you can always count on being able to purchase at an airport bookstore is a Kurt Vonnegut book. Having already stowed away a copy of Slaughterhouse Five, I chose one of his other books, mostly at random. What I picked up was Cat's Cradle. I'm glad I did.

Cat's Cradle tells the story of a man whose fate puts him in contact with the three children of Nobel Prize winning physicist Felix Hoenikker. Initially intending to write a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the story's narrator seeks out the Hoenikker children, travels to their home town, interviews former classmates and colleagues, and ultimately loses interest in the story; but not before learning about a mysterious substance called ice-nine. Ice-nine is, in essence, a special crystalline form of ice that causes a chain reaction whenever it comes into contact with water, turning all water it touches into ice-nine.

The narrator's fate further takes him to a Caribbean island, where he meets the islands despotic leader, "Papa" Monzano and his beautiful daughter, Mona. Along the way, he also meets the U.S. ambassadors to the island, a captain of the bicycle industry, the founder of the island's major unofficial religion, and a series of zany characters.

At its heart, Cat's Cradle is a story about human nature, our obsessive need for scientific knowledge, our less obsessive - though no less destructive - need for religion, and the ultimate fate of a humanity that refuses to learn its lesson, no matter how much destruction and misery we cause. The story is told with a remarkable level of wit and humor, yet still manages to capture the essence of the sci-fi doom-and-gloom social commentary of the first half of the 20th Century. I found the book fully engrossing and impossible to put down.

Suffice it to say, I am moments away from prying open the boxes in my closet, in search of Slaughterhouse Five. Cat's Cradle will not be my last Vonnegut book.