Sunday, 5 May 2013

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

What is it about Vonnegut's authorial voice? It's simultaneously wry and tender, sarcastic and gentle. I don't know of any other authors that can manage that particular combination. And here, writing about the end of the world in so many different ways, it is on full display. 

The narrator is a journalist, writing a book about "The End of the World" - people's remembrances of the day the first atomic bomb was dropped. In the course of his research, he seeks out one of the main scientists, Dr. Hoenikker. Dr. Hoenikker has since passed, but the narrator corresponds with his children and colleagues. In the process, he learns about the good doctor's next project.

And is drawn to the small island nation of San Lorenzo, and its native religion, Bokononism, built on comfortable lies and good stories. Vonnegut seems to imply that this is as good an excuse for religion as any. Bokononism is about recognizing the simple humanity of others, and the sheer ridiculousness of the world. 

That is one of the things I love about Vonnegut - he recognizes the ridiculousness of people, their failings and flaws and pettinesses and short-sightedness, yet it doesn't make him sour about them. Slightly exasperated about them, but not nasty. That that warmth can survive gives me hope. 

And those frailties are in full supply. Without ever entirely meaning to, people keep doing things that lead to very bad outcomes! They fail to think through their actions, they fail to take responsibility for what they're doing, one scientist treats a new technology that could end the world as a game, and another bridles when the narrator suggests that maybe such an attitude is immoral. 

"It's not my responsibility, I just did this one thing!" echoes through the pages. People are short-sighted and defensive and insecure and jealous - but not evil. And yet, it doesn't take evil for terrible things to occur. It just takes flawed humanity and bad luck.

What can one do in the midst of such ridiculousness? Laugh and thumb your nose at god, Vonnegut suggests. Sometimes it does seem like the only response.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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