Saturday, July 04, 2009

book review - Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

This book is going to rank as one of my favourites of the year; it is certainly one of the best of the first six months.

The reason why is because of the clever mix of satire, wit and science-fiction that are weaved together by Kurt Vonnegut. He manages to describe the end of the world in a way that both horrifies and amuses which is no mean feat. The way he does so is to describe and develop a select cast of odd balls that have the power to destroy the world left to them by a man who almost did just that.

The idea of a writer following through what happened to the fictional co-creator of the atom bomb Felix Hoenikker on the day the bomb was dropped on Japan is where the book starts. But quickly the narrator moves away from his original purpose and starts to follow the threads of Hoenikker’s dysfunctional family. The scientists three children are all damaged by an upbringing starved of love and normality. One has become a dictator’s aide on a remote island in the Caribbean, another a strict repressed clarinet playing housewife and the last is a dwarf who has a history with the circus and an equally small Russian spy.

What ties them together is their father’s last deadly discovery, Ice-9, which has the power to turn water instantly to ice. The impact of using it would be to freeze the oceans and rivers and bring about an environmental catasprohe not too far removed from nuclear war.

And that is the point because this is set against a backdrop of the cold war and the horror that a bunch of idiots in positions of power could, as easily as mistakenly dropping a chunk of ice-9 into the sea, press the button and end the world.

What keeps you reading is the humour and the various sub-plots with a primitive religion holding sway on the island making the remote Caribbean world seem like a million miles away from civilisation.

Underneath the occasional oddity and incredibly imaginative story lies a biting commentary on the era. Even down to the cycle factory owner who is relocating from Chicago to the Caribbean to exploit cheap labour this book is picking big targets including consumerism, nuclear war, and the shallowness of power and the dangers of science.

Just because it is possible to invent something in a lab that can destroy the world is not necessarily a reason to unleash it on the world. The lethal mix of science, politics and war which became so visible with the mushroom clouds is a fear that might have been acutely heightened in the 1963, when Vonnegut published this book, but they still speak to us now.

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