by Kurt Vonnegut
Satire, Tragicomedy, Science Fiction
Satire openly mocks people, communities, or even entire societies. But the point isn't to act the schoolyard bully to any particular group—that shouldn't be the point at any rate. The point is to make the targeted group shape up. When presented with its own follies in a comical fashion, the target group might just realize its shortcomings and decide to change its ways.
You know, like if your boyfriend gently teases you about the way you always leave your stuff lying around, instead of yelling at you about being a slob.
So, what person, community, or society is Vonnegut targeting in Cat's Cradle?
Well: what group isn't he targeting? Cat's Cradle has its sights set on religion, science, America, the middle class, the upper class, capitalists, communists, conservatives, liberals, dictators, colonialism, altruism, and on and on. Heck, even bodybuilder Charles Atlas gets some of that satirical love.
The point isn't that all these groups are full of bad people. Rather, Vonnegut wants to show us how ridiculous these groupings and ideologies really are. He satires the very notion of constructing people in an "us" and "them" mentality.
Readers often expect these two genres to be at opposite ends of the genre spectrum. Tragedy is a sad, solemn affair while comedy is lighthearted and funny. But is there really much of a difference? Hamlet tells a tragic series of events beginning with a "murder most foul" (I.v.27). Arsenic and Old Lace details the comedic happenings beginning with a murder slightly less foul.
So, anything, even murder, can be either tragic or comedic depending on the tone of the work. And Vonnegut wants to have at his murderous cake and eat it too. Cat's Cradle presents the same events as both tragedy and comedy simultaneously—a tragicomedy if you will.
On the one hand, the ice-nine apocalypse is pretty tragic—what with civilization shattered and humankind near extinction and all that noise.
On the other hand, it's pretty hilarious how the survivors deal with their reconstructed world. Mrs. Crosby knits an American flag to put on Mount McCabe, even though there's no America left for the flag to represent. John tries to have a honeymoon with Mona, even though their bridal suite is a bomb shelter. And, while the ending isn't exactly happy, it could also be argued that the characters aren't any worse off than before.
It's funny…and also sad…but pretty funny…oh, and so sad. Forget love: tragicomedy is truly like a rollercoaster, baby.
Allow us to turn the floor over to Kurt Vonnegut. Mr. Vonnegut:
I became a so-called science fiction writer when someone decreed that I was a science fiction writer. I did not want to be classified as one, so I wondered in what way I'd offended that I would not get credit for being a serious writer. I decided that it was because I wrote about technology, and most fine American writers know nothing about technology. (Source)
Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut.
We'll leave it up to you whether or not you want to call Cat's Cradle science fiction or not. Sure, the novel doesn't revolve too heavily around out-of-this-world technology like transporters, ray guns, or those pills containing entire dehydrated meals. But it does focus on technology's importance to our society, specifically ice-nine as a symbol for the atomic bomb.
Also, with all due respect to Mr. Vonnegut, science fiction has come a long way in the "serious literature" department since the 1960s. Today, many science fiction writers find themselves included in classes alongside any other great writers. So long as you're reading and engaging in the story as you would any other work of art, we don't think Vonnegut would mind either way.