Even the most diehard Vonnegut fan may not be familiar with these facts about Cat's Cradle, one of the author's best-known works—and one of the 20th century's most beloved satires.
1. KURT VONNEGUT GOT THE IDEA FOR CAT’S CRADLE WHILE WORKING AT GENERAL ELECTRIC.
A background studying chemistry at Cornell University, mechanical engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee, and anthropology at the University of Chicago—not to mention experience working as a journalist for the City News Bureau of Chicago—led a 25-year-old Vonnegut to, of all things, a job in public relations for General Electric in 1947.
Vonnegut spent his time on the clock interviewing the corporation’s vast array of scientific minds and, as he put it, “asking them what they were up to” in the hopes of capturing a conversation worthy of the public eye. Vonnegut’s collective gatherings ultimately fueled the idea for two of his novels: Player Piano and Cat’s Cradle. Like Vonnegut, the narrator of Cat’s Cradle is a writer swept up in a story about a scientific discovery.
2. THE NOVEL’S MAIN CHARACTER WAS MODELED AFTER A REAL NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING SCIENTIST.
In Cat’s Cradle’s fictional world history, Dr. Felix Hoenikker is a Nobel Prize winner who boasts principal credit for inventing the atomic bomb. Vonnegut invented the character following a particularly rich interaction with Irving Langmuir, a pioneer in atomic theory and himself a Nobel laureate. Vonnegut took special note of Langmuir’s absolute ambivalence about the possibility of his research “falling into the wrong hands.” The author slipped this trait into the characterization of Hoenikker.
3. VONNEGUT BORROWED SOME OF LANGMUIR’S MORE ECCENTRIC QUIRKS FOR THE HOENIKKER CHARACTER.
In a 1977 conversation with The Paris Review, Vonnegut admitted to swiping a few traits directly from the real Langmuir for his novel. “Langmuir was wonderfully absentminded,” Vonnegut said. “He wondered out loud one time whether, when turtles pulled in their heads, their spines buckled or contracted. I put that in the book. One time he left a tip under his plate after his wife served him breakfast at home. I put that in.”
4. MUCH OF THE SCIENCE ILLUSTRATED IN THE NOVEL WAS BASED ON WORK DONE BY VONNEGUT’S BROTHER.
Vonnegut’s brother Bernard, an atmospheric scientist working for General Electric since 1945, was responsible for getting Vonnegut the job at GE in the first place. Bernard Vonnegut was a partner of Langmuir in the pursuit of an understanding, and perhaps the manipulation or synthetic reproduction, of snow.
5. LANGMUIR ORIGINALLY PITCHED THE ICE-NINE STORY TO A DIFFERENT AUTHOR.
Basic characterization is hardly all Vonnegut derived (or, as some would put it, stole) from Langmuir. The ice-nine concept—a chemical bastardization of ice that remains stable at room temperature—was Langmuir’s idea, which he had pitched previously as the premise for a potential science fiction story to writer H. G. Wells. The Time Machine author was uninterested, leaving Vonnegut to snatch the concept for his 1963 novel.
6. VONNEGUT WAS DRIVEN TO WRITE THE NOVEL BY HIS MORAL OBJECTION TO INDIFFERENCE OF THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY.
“I was hideously disillusioned—that is when I lost my innocence, really—when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima,” Vonnegut says in the 1983 BBC Arena documentary Kurt Vonnegut So It Goes. While the World War II veteran’s experiences as a POW are best known for inspiring his later novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s emotional reaction to the United States’ use of the atom bomb on Japan helped shape the themes of Cat’s Cradle.
In the documentary, Vonnegut explains how this cynicism only grew during his stint at General Electric. “It seemed wrong to me, in view of some of (Langmuir’s) discoveries, that he should be so indifferent to what became of them,” he says. “This dreadful substance, which is discovered by a man who is purely interested in truth, finally winds up in the hands of a dictator and—not to leave you in suspense—the world ends.”
7. CAT’S CRADLE EARNED VONNEGUT A MASTER’S DEGREE.
Before he became one of the great voices of American science fiction, Vonnegut earned a reputation at the University of Chicago as a student of little promise. After his original master’s thesis, which compared 19th century Cubist painters with 19th century Native Americans, went nowhere, he started on Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales, which traced how different cultures' stories have their own distinct footprints, providing hints as to their origins. However, Vonnegut left school without earning his degree. Just shy of 25 years later, the institution decided to accept Cat’s Cradle as his submitted thesis, and granted Vonnegut his Master of Arts at last.
8. VONNEGUT COLLABORATED ON AN ORATORIO ADAPTATION OF THE BOOK.
We’re accustomed to seeing great works of literature adapted for film and television, but Cat’s Cradle’s reimagining as an album is pretty unusual. To make matters more interesting, Vonnegut himself was involved in adapting his story. The author wrote and performed the prose lyrics to a nine-track oratorio based on his novel. The project was spearheaded by musician and Columbia University neuroscientist David Soldier (real name: Sulzer), and was released as the studio album Ice-9 Ballads in 2001. The Manhattan Chamber Orchestra and Jimmy Justice contributed to the piece.
9. A MINOR PLANET AND ITS MOON WERE NAMED FOR THE BOOK.
In September of 1999, astronomers David C. Jewitt, Jane X. Luu, and Chadwick Trujillo discovered a cubewano—that is, an object whose revolution extends beyond Neptune’s orbit (a range known as the Kuiper belt)—and its "moon." The trio borrowed the terms “Borasisi” and “Pabu,” which refer to the mythical personifications of the sun and the moon in the fictional language of San Lorenzan featured in Cat’s Cradle, to name their discoveries.
10. FOLLOWERS OF THE BOOK’S FICTIONAL RELIGION MEET EVERY YEAR AT BURNING MAN.
An adamant critic of religion, Vonnegut likely never intended for his creation, Bokononism, to earn a following beyond the shores of the fictional San Lorenzo. Nevertheless, Cat’s Cradle’s ideology of “harmless untruths” is celebrated year after year at California music festival Burning Man. The Camp of Bokonon has become a fixture of the annual event, preaching the bliss of Lionel Boyd Johnson’s embrace of the foma.
11. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW HELPED FUEL VONNEGUT’S RELIGIOUS SATIRE.
Along with the novels of Herman Melville and Mark Twain, a short piece by George Bernard Shaw was a heavy influence on Cat’s Cradle. “To hell with the plays,” Vonnegut joked during a 2003 discussion with The Progressive, emphasizing the impact that reading Shaw’s prefaces, in particular, had on his writing. Vonnegut recalled a religious satire penned by Shaw as a preface to his 1912 drama Androcles and the Lion: “Why Not Give Christianity a Trial?” (incorrectly referred to by Vonnegut in the interview as “Christianity—Why Not Give It a Try?”).
12. VONNEGUT ALMOST QUIT WRITING ALTOGETHER BEFORE HE EVEN BEGAN CAT’S CRADLE.
Following his tenure with General Electric and the publication of his first book, Player Piano, Vonnegut endured a quick, ostensibly agonizing stint as a writer for Sports Illustrated. Frustrated throughout his employ by the banality of his assignments, Vonnegut was brought to his breaking point when told to write a story about a racehorse that had hopped the fence of his owners’ grounds and run away. He wrote only, “The horse jumped over the f-----g fence,” and quit the gig on the spot, believing himself to be done with the written word altogether. Afterwards, Vonnegut spent a similarly brief period managing a Saab dealership in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
13. HE GOT BACK INTO WRITING NOVELS TO SUPPORT HIS THREE NEPHEWS.
Vonnegut took on a new financial burden when he adopted his three nephews following the sudden deaths of their parents (his sister and brother-in-law) in 1958. With three children of his own already, Vonnegut returned to the only career in which he was certain he could sustain employment: writing. Judging himself as unfit for any other line of work and in newly dire need of regular income, Vonnegut engaged once again with his literary passions, turning out novels The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, and Cat’s Cradle over the next five years.
14. CAT’S CRADLE WAS ONE OF ONLY TWO OF HIS OWN BOOKS THAT VONNEGUT GRADED AN A-PLUS.
In the two decades following Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut published a legion of novels, short story and essay collections, and stage plays that attracted mainstream attention and critical acclaim. However, Vonnegut wasn’t especially satisfied with how some of his works turned out. In the eighteenth chapter of the 1981 collection Palm Sunday, Vonnegut took each of his published pieces to task with the assignment of an academic letter grade. He doled out two Ds (for the 1971 play Happy Birthday, Wanda June and the 1976 novel Slapstick), three Cs (for the 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, the 1974 collection Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, and for Palm Sunday itself), one B-minus (for the 1968 collection Welcome to the Monkey House), one B (for the 1952 novel Player Piano), four As (for the 1959 novel The Sirens of Titan, the 1961 novel Mother Night, the 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and the 1979 novel Jailbird), and two A-pluses (for Cat’s Cradle and the 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five).
15. THE NOVEL INSPIRED A GRATEFUL DEAD BUSINESS VENTURE.
In 1970, the popular rock band the Grateful Dead founded a San Francisco-based publishing company named Ice Nine, through which all of its music and lyrics would be copyrighted.