They say laughter is the best medicine, and they might actually be right. And if laughter really is tops in a well-supplied medicine cabinet, then Cat's Cradle is easily the one of the most potent forms of the drug on the market today. Don't worry, though. Shmoop has its prescription pad at the ready, and some of us are even doctors.
Although maybe not the kind you'd want to call in an emergency. Unless you were having a literary emergency.
Anyway, Cat's Cradle dropped into bookstores in 1963. It was the fourth book by the one-and-only Kurt Vonnegut. While no means a runaway success, the novel was a turning point in Vonnegut's career, because it drew more attention than any of his previous works. Graham Greene even called it one of the three best novels of that year. Pretty soon, students on college campuses all across the nation were telling their professors to check out this Vonnegut guy (Source).
The novel tells the story of one John, um, something-or-other. His last name's unimportant. What is important is that he starts the novel attempting to write a novel chronicling what important Americans were doing the day the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. John's research focuses on Felix Hoenikker and his family, leading him to unknowingly discover the existence of Hoenikker's deadly invention, ice-nine.
Although John eventually gives up on his book, it sets him on the path toward a chance encounter with ice-nine and the end of the world as we know it.
And he does, in fact, feel mostly fine.
Vonnegut's story may look to be another tale mixing equal parts comedy and apocalyptic woe, but that's just the sugary coating to help the medicine go down. The medicine? Biting satire about the ability of scientific and technological progress to actually, you know, offer progress. The heart of this satire revolves around a concern of scientific and technological progress. That was pretty serious stuff in the '60s, when the atomic bomb was looming over humanity's head like the axe of an executioner with a twitchy arm.
No wonder the novel was (and is) so controversial. Thanks to Vonnegut's hilarious prose, it also remains a quirky and engaging work of satire. And like all forms of satirical medicine, this one will cure what ails you—although the side effects may include upset stomach, nausea, uncontrollable rage, laughter aches, and death.
Always read the warning label.
Why Should I Care?
Since the dawn of time… okay, that's a bit exaggerated. (Pro tip, Shmoopers: never start your papers that way; your teachers will love you for it.)
Since at least the trial of Galileo (that's better), science and religion have been arguing over whose way of understanding the world is better. Just take the continued bickering over the theory of evolution. The debate has become an intrinsic part of our culture—and Cat's Cradle has its own take on the issue.
Opponents of religion might say that religion is nothing but a pack of lies. In response, Kurt Vonnegut gives them Bokononism, a religion that freely admits that it's a … pack of lies. But it's still a good thing. Its lies help John, his friends, and the natives of San Lorenzo through what amounts to a pretty miserable existence.
And what about opponents of science? People who might insist that science doesn't offer the only path to truth? In Cat's Cradle, the question isn't whether or not science is true—it is, always—but whether it can actually contribute to humanity's progress. If science helps people live better lives, great; but if science creates something that harms or kills people—like the atomic bomb or ice-nine—then it's pointless.
Or worse than pointless.
Should you agree with the worldview as presented by Cat's Cradle? Well, that's up to you. But you should still care about Cat's Cradle, because it really does present an original, honest way to see some of our culture's largest problems in a light distinct from the typical "us versus them" mentality. And maybe that mentality is finally catching on.