Cat’s Cradle is a remarkably discursive book, full of loose ends, unexplained events, and characters who appear in focus for a moment only to vanish without apology. It does center, however, on one single object: the sliver of ice-nine created by Dr. Felix Hoenikker and divided after his death by his three children, only to bring about the end of the world almost simultaneously with the end of the book.
In Vonnegut’s theory, ice is only one of the many possible ways in which water can crystallize. If there were other ways, ice of different kinds would be created, including a kind which would melt not at 32 degrees Fahrenheit but at as high as one hundred degrees or 130 degrees—in the case of ice-nine, at 114.4 degrees. Furthermore a single seed of this ice, introduced to ordinary water in crystalline form, could act as a catalyst, instantly freezing the entire body of water with which it came in contact. The purpose of such an object (a Marine Corps general suggests) would be to eliminate mud, and allow the United States Marines to fight in relatively congenial circumstances. The side effects, however, would be that anyone who touched ice-nine would freeze solid instantly; while, furthermore, any crystal not scrupulously isolated could, in one single chain reaction, freeze solid all the oceans of Earth and bring life almost immediately to an end. The basic plot of Cat’s Cradle is that a journalist researching a book on Dr. Hoenikker, “the father of the atom bomb,” discovers that the latter has created ice-nine, finds himself (as a result of a chain of improbable coincidences) on a plane bound for the island republic of San Lorenzo with two of Hoenikker’s children, there to meet the third, and in the process of becoming the president of San Lorenzo releases crystalline ice-nine into the ocean (in the form of the frozen body of a previous president), thus precipitating, literally, the end of the world. One very minor irony is that the book on which the journalist-narrator was working was to have been called The Day the World Ended and was supposed to have been about events on the day that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In a sense, though, Cat’s Cradle is about the day the world ended; yet this was caused by ice-nine, not atomic bombs, and it would conceivably not have happened at all if the narrator had not started research on the book that he never wrote.
Such ironies, coincidences, and elements of humor are best treated by the philosophy of Bokonon, to which the narrator is converted, and which he spends much of the novel expounding.
Cat’s Cradle is narrated by “Jonah,” or John, who originally intends to write a book about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima called “The Day the World Ended.” The book he ends up writing is the present one, which could have the same title, although it is about a different apocalypse. John sets out to interview “Newt,” the son of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the “’Fathers’ of the first atom bomb.”
There are three Hoenikker children: Frank, the oldest; Angela, a tall musician; and the diminutive Newt. The father has left each of his children a vial of crystals of ice-nine, a compound that turns water to ice at room temperature. Angela has used hers to buy a “tom cat husband” who turns out to be a United States agent, Newt has turned over his to a tiny dancer from the Bolshoi Ballet who is a Soviet agent, and Frank uses his to gain his position as chief adviser to Papa Monzano, dictator of the island of San Lorenzo, where most of the plot is set.
Also on San Lorenzo is a fugitive preacher named Bokonon, founder of a religion called “Bokononism,” which has been invented as a panacea for the population of an island so destitute that no economic system can possibly help them. Bokononism is outlawed but practiced by virtually everyone on the island. Its tenets are contained in the Books of Bokonon, which begin, “All of the true things I am about to tell you...
(The entire section is 2,816 words.)