Friday, November 22, 2013

Book Review: Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

With Cat's Cradle I expected a satire about science but I didn't expect religion to be an equal target, as well as island nation politics. I was pleasantly surprised. Vonnegut covers a lot of ground.

I found the science to be most entertaining and detailed of Vonnegut's targets. The idea of ice-nine is an excellent foundation for a book like this and Vonnegut's fast pace and occasional poetic interlude among the hilarious-depressing events that follow keep this book going. The visit to the American research lab set a high bar for the rest of the book, and I thought at that point that this might be one of my all-time favorites.

The more he got away from science the less I cared about the story, and the less biting his satire seemed to me. Maybe that's because there's so few writers that really stick it to scientists the way Vonnegut does, yet with a deep understanding of what science really is and (mostly) how it works. Lots of writers satirize voyages and prophets (ever since Jonah?). I have read/seen many island nation satires as well.

Now, I know in satire the characters are supposed to be a little ridiculous, but I found some of the science stereotypes (and the religion stereotypes, for that matter) to be too simplistic and the broadsides a little too broad to really illuminate the topic. I would take the real-life Oppenheimer (or Langmuir) over the fictional Hoenikker any day, and the real person is much more interesting than the caricature. For that matter, the fictional scientist Gale Boetticher in Breaking Bad is more interesting (and realistic) than Hoenikker -- he felt like someone I might meet in a lab, while Hoenikker did not.

The same for the way faith is dealt with. The people with faith that I know are more interesting than the characters in this, when I'd expect that the freedom satire provides could make them more interesting and ring more true, given the outlandish things that the author could contrive for them and their stories. From a classic beginning, the end fell a little flat for me.

The reader may start out thinking Cat's Cradle is about science, but at its heart, it's really about God. And on those grounds I do wish Vonnegut's critique had been just a touch more trenchant. The faith he's satirizing is not recognizable as faith to me, and the science, too, is close but ultimately does not resonate. Job provides a sharper critique than Vonnegut.

Both the science and religion in this book are too broadly drawn. More cutting details would have turned it from a very good book into a great book. But, again, I realize that satire is very much a matter of taste. I'm just surprised that this book wasn't more than the sum of its parts for me. Rather, it was less. Still, it's a classic, and a must-read. Just an "I liked it" rather than "I loved it" must-read.

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