The metaphor at the heart of Cat’s Cradle is the titular cat’s cradle, a mess of string criss-crossing into a web of X’s. But why the name? Where’s the cat? Where’s the cradle? This confusion and disarray represents the post-war politics of the time, the mess of religion and morals and science strung up by the terrible nature of the nuclear arms race.
Unlike that central metaphor, Cat’s Cradle is tight and focused; a sharp satire that largely eschews the playfulness of Vonnegut’s best work (while retaining the wit) to target directly the appalling absurdity of nations playing games with world-ending weaponry. The key characters of Cat’s Cradle – the children of the man who developed the atomic bomb – fight for control of a meaningless postage stamp of a country because they possess ice-nine: a chemical formula with the potential to freeze every drop of water on the planet.
Instead of treating it with the necessary gravitas, they regard this doomsday concoction as a tool to buy influence and – wherever possible – love. Vonnegut takes a more balanced approach; the book quakes with fear at the all-too-plausible notion of nuclear devastation, but isn’t above making light of the situation. Insightful and incisive.