Some classic books are like Atlas Shrugged, where the fact that the story is a wrapper to a complex philosophical ideology is evident, which characters playing the roles of caricatures to make the morals more evident. Other classic books are like Lolita or 100 Years of Solitude, where the plot and characters require each other and form a tight story whose meaning cannot easily be removed from the plot.
I feel like Cat’s Cradle fits in somewhere in the middle. We follow an essentially unnamed character from his attempts at writing a book to eventually moving to a random island in his lust for a girl he saw in an article. The plot is fairly stream-of-consciousness, but there are a few recurring themes that Vonnegut continually resurfaces.
Maybe the most important of all is the question of what makes things meaningful. A large part of the book is centered around Bokononism, a semi-parody religion that many of the natives of the island devoutly follow. Despite Bokononism’s self-contradictory and potentially even despairing nature, those on the island look to it as a source of hope. They engage in foot-locking ceremonies with other practitioners with a sense of devotion, but the whole premise is silly, despite how the characters explain it. It’s not hard to map any nonfiction religion to that premise.
However, the key is that things are meaningful not because there is some inherent meaning given to them, but because human societies give them meaning. Maybe religious ceremonies don’t actually change anything in the world, but the comfort they give people more than makes up for that. The inhabitants of San Lorenzo suffer from a lack of infrastructure and food, but they remain content due to their deep beliefs in their personal religion. The title of the novel also plays into this: cat’s cradle is an ancient game of forming shapes with string. The shapes never actually resemble a cat’s cradle in reality, but mentally that’s a comforting impression one may find in the strings.
On the other hand, the book also argues that things that have inherent meaning are not always a net positive on the world. The book develops the unseen character Felix Hoenikker, an uncaring but brilliant scientist whose contributions led to the (fictional) atomic bomb. Dr. Hoenikker is portrayed as a single-minded scientist, disregarding his children and wife in the pursuit of his curiosity and understanding for science. Science is “magic that works” and has the power to make lives better, but its uncaring and unflattering nature can ruin lives very easily.
Of course, this happens in dramatic fashion at the end of the book, where a crystal of ice-9 falls into the ocean and causes the Earth to freeze up and hearken the apocalypse. Uncaring science hastens the end of the world, and the villagers all die voluntarily huddled together following their religion until their last moments. Science brings pain and religion, however meaningless, can unite.
It’s not hard to see why Vonnegut, someone who lived through World War II and saw the mass deaths caused by the atomic bomb (and subsequent arms race), would have an opinion about the dangers of science when used improperly. Today, almost 80 (!) years after WWII, I think it’s easy to once again get the impression that science and technology are a positive thing in our society. Vonngeut’s book (and the context it was written in) serves as a reminder for checking the limitations of this untamed power.