Cat's Cradle: Essay Q&A

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  1. In what ways can Cat’s Cradle be called speculative fiction?

The novel has been called science fiction and dystopian fiction. Science fiction uses science as a basis for speculative stories about the future or rational alternative possibilities to present society. Cat’s Cradle uses the popular motif of the end of civilization through a scientific catastrophe. Science fiction novels and films began to take off in popularity after World War II because of rapid scientific advances and the fears created by the Cold War. In the 1960s, the films Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Planet of the Apes (1968) continued to bring Cold War fears of annihilation and loss of freedom to the public. Vonnegut’s character, Kilgore Trout, appearing in many of his novels, is a science fiction writer who claims that science fiction is a response to the intolerable conditions of life on earth.

Another kind of speculative fiction is called the utopian novel. A utopian fiction imagines an ideal society and is named after Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). Other utopias are presented in Plato's The Republic (c. 380 BCE), Samuel Johnson's The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759) and Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872). The main point of a dystopia, the opposite genre, is to challenge the idea that humans can be perfected or create an ideal order on earth. Dystopias are based on the common fears threatening society, such as nuclear war and an apocalyptic scientific accident in Cat’s Cradle. San Lorenzo begins as a utopian experiment by Johnson and McCabe but turns into a dystopian nightmare. Bokonon’s Seventh Book warns against the futility of utopias, pointing out that humans don’t have enough imagination. They will always start out their utopias with “a chain of drug stores, a chain of grocery stores, a chain of gas chambers,  and a national game” (Chpt. 126, p. 285).

Other famous dystopian novels are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), and the films Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), and The Matrix (1999).

  1. In what ways is Cat’s Cradle a satire?

Cat’s Cradle, is a bitter satire on human failings. Satire attacks the practices of society through ridicule, exaggeration irony, burlesque, and humor. One of Vonnegut’s favorite satirists was Mark Twain, whom he called an American saint. The novel itself makes reference to other famous satires such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), by comparing the midget Newt to Gulliver and his father to a gross giant, a Brobdinagian. The novel parodies many of the plot and character devices of Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville. Twain, Swift, and Melville were dark satirists like Vonnegut. Like him, they had a deep distrust of human nature and exposed its worst follies and illusions. Vonnegut also uses black comedy, bringing up topics and events that are usually regarded as taboo or tragic but are made funny. The atom bomb, death, racial persecution, torture, cruelty, democracy, Christianity, and American patriotism are some of the topics Vonnegut treats irreverently or flippantly to prove a point. In an interview, Vonnegut said, “The telling of jokes is an art of its own, and it always rises from some emotional threat. The best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful” (McSweeney’s, September, 2002). One of Bokonon’s sayings explains why Vonnegut favors satire and humor: “Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything” (Cat’s Cradle, Chpt. 88, p. 198).

  1. What is the history of the atomic bomb?

Just before World War II, Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt about Nazi Germany’s efforts to build an atomic bomb by purifying uranium-235. The United States began what it called the Manhattan Project (1939 to 1945), spending over two billion dollars to build an atomic bomb before the Germans did. The fictional character Felix Hoenikker in The Cat’s Cradle is recruited to work on this project and is called one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. The real fathers were the most brilliant scientific minds of the time: Robert Oppenheimer, David Bohm, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Otto Frisch, Rudolf Peierls, Felix Bloch, Niels Bohr, Emilio Segre, James Franck, Enrico Fermi, Klaus Fuchs and Edward Teller.

The three main sites were the plutonium-production facility at what is now the Hanford Site in Washington state, the uranium-enrichment facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the weapons research laboratory at Los Alamos.

The final product was assembled and tested at Los Alamos, New Mexico on July 6, 1945. The light of the explosion was seen by a blind girl 120 miles away. Several participants were so appalled they signed a petition never to use the bomb, but they were ignored. Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Indian holy text, the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." In Cat’s Cradle, a scientist turns to Hoenikker and says, “Now science has known sin” (Chpt. 7, p. 17).

The atomic bomb has only been used twice as a weapon. On August 6, 1945, a bomb known as “Little Boy” weighing four and a half tons was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Around 66,000 people were killed instantly and 69,000 injured. Everything burned in a diameter of two and a half miles. On August 9, 1945, a second bomb (“Fat Man”) was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. It leveled half the city. Japan surrendered on August 10, 1945. Thousands of those who were not killed immediately died of radiation poisoning or passed on genetic diseases to the next generation, such as leukemia.

The debate continues whether it was necessary to drop the bombs to end the war. Ambassador Minton delivers a anti-war message to the San Lorenzans on the day celebrating The Hundred Martyrs: “they are murdered children” (Chpt. 114, p. 254). Cat’s Cradle was a cult favorite in the 1960s among anti-war protestors during the Vietnam War (1959–1975).

  1. How does Cat’s Cradle reflect the Cold War?

While some Americans may have been shocked, the terrible legacy of the atomic bomb was hardly understood at first. It had been thought that the bombs would be used in mining operations. Instead, the military applications of atomic science increased during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the United States competing in nuclear tests and the creation of atomic missiles.

The Cold War (1945–1991) was a continuing state of political tension after World War II between the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, with proxy smaller wars like Vietnam and Korea. The conflict was indirect and took place through a weapons race, a space race, propaganda wars, technological competition, and espionage. Bomb drills in schools, and the building of bomb shelters (like the one Monzano built in the castle dungeon), were common features in an age that feared imminent nuclear war. The Crosbys’ hate of Communists was a normal feature of American patriotism, and Vonnegut’s spoofing such obsessions made him appear as an extreme leftist. The concern that there would be a trigger-happy overreaction to implied threats and the possible annihilation of civilization on earth by the military-scientific complex was a topic in much Cold War fiction and film, such as Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964), and Fail-Safe (1964).

The Republic of San Lorenzo represents those third world countries that were the victims of the Cold War, caught in the polarization between democracy and communism. Every nation was compelled to line up on one side or the other, hence the comic speech by Papa Monzano assuring the Americans how much they are loved and how the San Lorenzans had duly sent off their Hundred Martyrs to die for democracy. In return, they are rewarded with financial aid and fighter bombers.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963) occurred in the same year Cat’s Cradle was published. Uncannily, the narrator Jonah originally declines being president of San Lorenzo for fear of being assassinated. The assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was married to a Russian woman and thought to have Communist connections, and this fed the national fear.

  1. Why does Vonnegut describe himself as a “humanist”?


Humanism is a secular philosophy that puts humans in the center rather than a church or divine being. It focuses on ethics, and emphasizes human dignity, freedom, and rationality.  A philosophy associated with the classical philosophers of Greece and Rome and many Renaissance thinkers, its modern version stands for human rights, social justice, and the separation of church and state.

Vonnegut came from a family of German freethinkers, and humanism was a natural fit. He served as honorary president of the American Humanist Association (AHA). In a letter to the AHA, Vonnegut explained: "I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead."

Cat’s Cradle presents a humanist perspective through the religion of Bokonon, for whom only man is sacred (Chpt. 94). No one has a right to control another, as when Mona reprimands Jonah for wanting an exclusive ownership of her love. She was taught to love everyone the same she says. The other humanists in the book are Julian and Philip Castle. Julian was a selfish capitalist until the age of forty when he devoted his life to others with his hospital in the jungle of San Lorenzo. There Bokonon tutored the young Philip and Mona who are beautiful, educated, and independent freethinkers.

Jonah compares Julian to the philanthropist Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), a humanist who had a hospital in West Africa. Schweitzer was appalled at the hypocrisy of Christians who talked about brotherhood but did not practice it. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of Reverence for Life based on the ethics of Jesus. This contrasts to Hoenikker’s winning the Nobel Prize for killing people with his bomb. Schweitzer took Jesus as a human model, not a divine being. He felt people had to atone personally for past cruelty, with service to others. In this same way, Castle is atoning for being an oppressive capitalist to the natives. The ex-Nazi doctor von Koenigswald is at the hospital to make atonement for the Holocaust.

As a humanist, Vonnegut did not reject science, only its misuse. Ironically, it was at the time Cat’s Cradle was being written that Rachel Carson’s scientific study of another sort of ice-nine, DDT, set the standard for a more humane kind of science to come (Silent Spring, 1962).

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