Author Kurt Vonnegut
Country United States
Language English
Subject(s) Philosophy
Genre(s) Satire
Publisher Dial Press Trade Paperback
Released 1963
Pages 304
ISBN ISBN 038533348X

Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle is a 1963 science fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Published as 'Ice Nine' in some territories, it explores issues of science, technology and religion, satirizing many targets along the way. Having turned down his original thesis, in 1971 the University of Chicago awarded Vonnegut his Master's degree in anthropology for Cat's Cradle.


At the opening of the book, the narrator is planning to write a book describing what important people were doing when Hiroshima was bombed. While researching this topic, the narrator becomes involved with the children of Felix Hoenikker, the fictional Nobel laureate physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. As the novel progresses, the narrator learns of a substance called ice-nine, created by the late Hoenikker and now secretly in the possession of his children. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. When a crystal of ice-nine is brought into contact with liquid water, it becomes a seed that 'teaches' the molecules of liquid water to arrange themselves into the solid form, ice-nine; this is similar to the actual process of freezing of normal water. However in the case of 'ice-nine' this process is not easily reversible, as the melting point of ice-nine is 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit (45.8 degrees Celsius).

Note: Vonnegut's fictional ice-nine is not to be confused with the real substance Ice IX (also pronounced "ice-nine"), which does not have the properties of Vonnegut's fictional ice-nine. See the article on ice for more details.

Felix Hoenikker, although dead, is in some ways the central character of the book. It is the narrator's quest for biographical details about Hoenikker that provides both the background and the connecting thread between the various subsections of the story. Hoenniker himself is depicted as amoral and apathetic towards anything other than his research, a genius who does not care how his research is used, as in his role of "Father of the Atomic Bomb", and in his creation of "Ice Nine", something he saw as a mental puzzle (suggested by a Pentagon general) which ends up destroying life on Earth.

The narrator and the Hoenikker children eventually end up on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, one of the poorest countries on Earth, where the people speak a barely comprehensible dialect of English. For example "twinkle, twinkle, little star" is rendered "swenkul, swenkul lit poor stor". It is ruled by the fictional dictator "Papa" Monzano, who punishes all opposition with impalement on a giant Hook.

The religion of the people of San Lorenzo, called Bokononism, encompasses concepts unique to the novel, with San Lorenzan names such as:

The supreme act of worship of the Bokononists is called 'boku-maru', which is an intimate act consisting of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of the feet of two persons.

It is supposed to result in peace and joy between the two communicants, and when detected, is of course punished with death by the dictator, who wishes his people to be as scared, isolated and oppressed as possible. This dictator, ironically, is hailed as "one of Freedom's greatest friends" by representatives of the American government.

The dictator has bribed a son of Felix Hoenikker with a high government appointment, in exchange for a piece of Ice Nine, and he uses it to commit suicide as he lies dying from inoperable cancer. Consistent with the properties of 'ice-nine' the dictator's corpse instantly turns into a block of solid ice - at normal room temperatures! An accident in the disposal of the dictator's body causes it to fall into the sea, at which point all the water in the world's seas, rivers, and groundwater also turns into ice-nine in a gigantic chain reaction, which destroys the ecology of the earth and causes the extinction of practically all life forms, including humans, in only a few days.

In Vonnegut's own words: (from Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons)

Dear Reader: The title of this book is composed of three words from my novel Cat's Cradle. A wampeter is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. Foma are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An example: "Prosperity is just around the corner." A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings. Taken together, the words form as good an umbrella as any for this collection of some of the reviews and essays I've written, a few of the speeches I made.

The title of the book derives from the string game "cat's cradle." Early in the book, we learn that Felix Hoenikker was playing cat's cradle when the atom bomb was dropped. The game is later referenced by Newt Hoenikker, Felix's midget son.

The scientist Felix Hoenikker is a loose amalgam of the H-Bomb developers Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam, and the Hoenikker family also shares some characteristics with Vonnegut's own. As the novel's setting shares a number of similarities to the landscape and history of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, it could be argued that the novel's dictator, "Papa" Monzano, is probably based on both Haiti's François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and The Dominican Republic's Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina.

The nature of ice-nine inspired the phrase "Ice-9 Type Transition".

A few years after the publication of Cat's Cradle, Soviet scientists announced the discovery of polywater, a substance eerily similar to ice-nine. The fervor around polywater lasted a few years but subsided when the initial results were shown to have been caused by impurities.

The book was adapted into script form by Richard Kelly, the writer and director of Donnie Darko. A film adaptation of "Cat's Cradle" is expected in 2007, supposedly starring Leonardo DiCaprio.


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