The narrator of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle invites his readers to call him Jonah, although his parents called him John. He explains that he used to be preparing a book about what “important Americans” did on the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The book was originally intended to be factual, but he has since learned the “bittersweet lies of Bokonon” and has adopted Bokononism as his religion. The title of his original book was to be “The Day the World Ended.”
The first part of Cat’s Cradle takes part in Illium, where Felix Hoenikker, now deceased, worked on developing the atomic bomb. Felix has three children that survive him. The oldest child, Angela, took care of the family after Felix’s wife died. After a difficult adolescence, the middle child, Frank, left home. Newton Hoenikker, the youngest, is a midget who has gained a measure of notoriety for his affair with a Russian midget who turned out to be a Russian spy. The narrator writes Newton, or Newt, asking for any anecdotes that he might be able to share about his father, particularly those related to the day that America dropped atomic bombs on Japan.
Newton writes back that he remembers that his father, Felix, was playing with string on the day that the bomb was dropped and that Felix also made a cat’s cradle. Felix asked whether Newt saw the cat and the cradle. Normally, Felix Hoenikker had no use for rules and games that others made up. When he received the Nobel Prize, Hoenikker explained that he
never stopped dawdling like an eight-year-old....Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn.
Newton shares that his father actually asked him to play cat’s cradle with him, but his father’s cigar smoke smelled like the “mouth of hell.” In that moment, Newton saw his father as the ugliest thing he had ever seen and ran outside.
Newt shares another story from that day. His reaction to his father’s cigar smoke and appearance, Newton’s sister Angela would later claim, was hurtful to Felix. However, Newton explains that he was not convinced of that because Felix Hoenikker was never interested in people. For example, when he ran away from his father, he went into the backyard and found his brother, Frank, who was capturing bugs and forcing them to fight in a glass jar. When Angela caught her two brothers, Frank punched her in the stomach. Although Angela tried to call upon her father for help, when Felix looked out the window and saw his children crying, he remained disinterested and returned to his study.
The narrator later interviews Dr. Asa Breed, who was Felix Hoenikker’s supervisor at the General Forge and Founder Company. Breed explains that his team had always done “pure research.” However, when the narrator asks him questions that “implied that the creators of the atomic bomb had been criminal accessories to murder most foul,” Dr. Breed disagrees. General Forge and Founder Company offers its scientists the freedom to do “pure” research, and he explains that there is great value in knowledge. After all, “the more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.” Breed urges the narrator to explain how Felix Hoenikker had the ability to approach problems with a fresh perspective.
Take “ice-nine” for example. When ice-nine touches water, it becomes a “seed crystal” that causes the molecules to turn to a unique form of ice—ice that remains solidified while at room temperature. Although it was never produced, ice-nine was a perfect illustration of how Felix Hoenikker responded originally to conventional problems. The problem, in this case, was that mud was a great irritation for the American military. Soldiers hate to march in mud, so why not create a substance that would eliminate the mud and create a smooth solid path? The marines would be able to march much more easily. The solution, Hoenniker suggests, is ice-nine.
However, the narrator points out that ice-nine would rearrange the molecules of water to the point that all of...