As an author, Kurt Vonnegut has received just about every kind of praise an author can receive: his works held the same sway over American philosophy as did those of Jack Kerouac or J.R.R. Tolkein; his writing has received acclaim from academics and the masses alike; and three of his books have been made into feature films. Society has permanently and noticeably been altered by his writing. Through accessible language and easily-understood themes, Vonnegut has created works subtle, engrossing, and familiar. His main method for doing this is by exploiting a theme with which everyone is familiar and about which everyone has his own opinion: religion.
Not many people are more qualified to explore this theme than Vonnegut. He was born in 1922 on Armistice Day (November 11), a holiday celebrating peace, in Indianapolis. His family was moderately wealthy until the onset of the Great Depression, when they lost everything. In 1944, Vonneguts mother committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Soon afterwards, he joined the army and fought in the Second World War. Vonnegut was captured as a POW and kept prisoner in Dresden. Soon after his capture, Dresden, an entirely civilian town, was bombed heavily. Vonnegut survived the bombing, came home, and became a writer. His first book, Player Piano, received very little notice at the time it was written, 1952. When he published Sirens of Titan in 1959, it also was largely ignored. In 1969, Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse Five, which was an immediate commercial and academic success. Slaughterhouse Fives success brought attention to his other works, and though Vonnegut was not as popular after the 60s, he continued to publish successful books (http://www.duke.edu/crh4/vonnegut/).
Vonneguts works have been classified as science fiction, but that hardly does them justice. His works are significantly influenced by that genre, but contain strikingly relevant commentaries about contemporary American society which set him apart from other science-fiction writers. His use of science fiction draws a humorous contrast between the all-important significance of the nature of the universe and of reality, and the insignificance of human life and society. All of his works emphasize the enormous forces acting on his characters, not the least of which is fate. As his writing progressed and matured, this stylistic nuance became more and more evident. In his book Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut describes his own style by means of Tralfamadorians, an alien race for whom time is nonexistent, and whose literature reflects this:
Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation,
a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the oth-
er. There isnt any particular relationship between all the messages ex-
cept that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at
once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and
deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral,
no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time (88).
Indeed, Vonnegut has dismissed temporal continuity in his writing, and has thus eliminated suspense. Characters are often aware of their own inevitable destiny, as in The Sirens of Titan, and are helpless to stop it from coming to pass. Vonnegut makes it clear that modern society is much like this – people can see where theyre headed, but are too powerless or apathetic to prevent it.
In his book Cats Cradle, Vonnegut mocks peoples mindless, apathetic acceptance of their fates by portraying a situation in which unimaginably powerful forces toss around people desperate to escape them. He presents civilizations attempt to commit suicide (Hocus Pocus, 72), the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima, and ends the book with all of the water on earth freezing as the result of a substance called ice-nine, and thus civilization successfully committing suicide. Ironically, the man who created the atomic bomb also created ice-nine, a man not diabolically evil, but merely absent-minded. In this, Vonnegut portrays not only the amazing influence the forces of the universe have on us, but also the influence a select few of us have on the forces of the universe.
In Cats Cradle, Vonnegut describes an amazingly intricate means by which to accept the the whims of the universe. It is a parody of religion, and is what religion would be if it were stripped of all ritual and dogma. It is called Bokononism, and it reveals just how human it is to permit fate to have its way, and just how futile it is to fight against it. The basic tenet of Bokononism, according to Vonnegut, is that people should live by whatever foma (harmless untruths) make them happy. People, according to Bokononism, should do this so that fate seems much less prevalent in their lives, and so that they feel that their own free will is the main force in their lives. Vonnegut argues that such self-deception is one of the most integral aspects of humanity (Understanding Kurt Vonnegut, 53-65).
Cats Cradle was published in 1963, at a time in American history when free will seemed to be the only force guiding anyone. People were tired of war, and tired of the threat of war. People were on the verge of losing faith in government. It is in this environment that Vonnegut put forth his attack on religion and on the human situation. The thought of ice-nine was just about as frightening as the very real threat of nuclear attack, so people could easily relate to Cats Cradles plot. Vonnegut describes government in Cats Cradle as effective only when an enemy exists, and he portrays Bokononism as governments enemy. When the tension between good and evil is high, says Vonnegut, the people can be kept happy and under control. When the line separating them becomes blurred, people quickly become disillusioned and rebellious. Though Vietnam, in which the line between good and evil was almost nonexistent, did not bring about the end of civilization, domestic rebelliousness did alter American life, just as Vonnegut predicted. In this particular instance, Bokononism can be likened to Communism – the perpetual enemy perceived, perhaps wrongly, to be the most dangerous force in the world.
Cats Cradle is not the only one of Vonneguts works which has such an undertone of angst and urgency; indeed, it is one of the defining features of his work. The tension between the forces acting on the human race is higher than it has ever been, and if one force should give way, life as we know it will end. The only way to carry on is to convince ones self that life is not this treacherous, and that each individual can affect the outcome. This, according to Vonnegut, is the most necessary foma of all, and it might be able to save civilization.