At the opening of the book, the narrator, an everyman named John (but calling himself Jonah), describes a time when he was planning to write a book about what important Americans did on the day Hiroshima was bombed. While researching this topic, John becomes involved with the children of Felix Hoenikker, a Nobel laureate physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. John travels to Ilium, New York, to interview the Hoenikker children and others for his book. In Ilium John meets, among others, Dr. Asa Breed, who was the supervisor "on paper" of Felix Hoenikker. As the novel progresses, John learns of a substance called ice-nine, created by the late Hoenikker and now secretly in the possession of his children. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. When a crystal of ice-nine contacts liquid water, it becomes a seed crystal that makes the molecules of liquid water arrange themselves into the solid form, ice-nine. Felix Hoenikker's reason to create this substance was to aid in the military's plight of wading through mud and swamp areas while fighting. That is, if ice-nine could reduce the wetness of the areas to a solid form, soldiers could easily maneuver across without becoming entrapped or slowed.
John and the Hoenikker children eventually end up on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, one of the poorest countries on Earth, where the people speak a barely comprehensible creole of English (for example "twinkle, twinkle, little star" is rendered "Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store"). It is ruled by the dictator, "Papa" Monzano, who threatens all opposition with impalement on a giant hook.
San Lorenzo has an unusual culture and history, which John learns about while studying a guidebook lent to him by the newly appointed US ambassador to the country. He learns about an influential religious movement in San Lorenzo, called Bokononism, a strange, postmodern faith that combines irreverent, nihilistic, and cynical observations about life and God's will with odd, but peaceful rituals (for instance, the supreme act of worship is an intimate act consisting of prolonged physical contact between the bare soles of the feet of two persons, supposed to result in peace and joy between the two communicants). Though everyone on the island seems to know much about Bokononism and its founder, Bokonon, the present government calls itself Christian and practicing Bokononism is punishable by death on "the hook."
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that San Lorenzo society is more bizarre and cryptic than originally revealed. In observing the interconnected lives of some of the island's most influential residents, John learns that Bokonon himself was at one point a de facto ruler of the island, along with a US Marine deserter. The two men created Bokononism as part of a utopian project to control the population. The ban was an attempt to give the religion a sense of forbidden glamour, and it is found that almost all of the residents of San Lorenzo, including the dictator, practice the faith, and executions are rare.
When John and the other travelers arrive on the island, they are greeted by President "Papa" Monzano, his adopted daughter Mona, and around five-thousand San Lorenzans. It becomes clear that "Papa" Monzano is extremely ill, and he intends to name Franklin Hoenikker his successor. Franklin, who finds it hard to talk with people, is uncomfortable with this arrangement, abruptly hands the presidency to John, who grudgingly accepts. Franklin also suggests that John should marry Mona.
The dictator later uses ice-nine to commit suicide rather than succumb to his inoperable cancer. Consistent with the properties of ice-nine, the dictator's corpse instantly turns into solid ice at room temperature. This is followed by the freezing of Dr Schlichter von Koenigswald, "Papa" Monzano's doctor and a former S.S. Auschwitz physician, who accidentally ingests the ice-nine upon Monzano's examination.
John and the Hoenikkers plan to gather the bodies of both Monzano and his physician in order to ritualistically burn them on a funeral pyre, thereby eliminating the traces of ice-nine. They also systematically cleanse the room with various heating methods, taking the utmost care.
It is here where John inquires as to how the ice-nine came into Papa Monzano's possession. The Hoenikkers explain that when they were young, their father would riddle them with the concept of ice-nine. One day, they find their father has died taking a break from freezing and unfreezing ice-nine to test its properties. With the sweep of a cloth, Frank Hoenikker collects residual amounts of ice-nine from a cooking pan, as was the various collection and examination methods of their father when creating the substance. A dog licks the cloth and also instantly freezes. Witnessing this, the young Hoenikkers finally deduce the properties of ice-nine. They collectively cannot determine who had what part in gathering the ice-nine, but chunks of the substance were chipped from the cooking pan supply and placed in mason jars then later in thermoses. The Hoenikkers explain that this is how they had become fortunate throughout their lives, each one selling off the substance to various buyers.
During John's inauguration festivities, in which the American ambassador to San Lorenzo was going to speak, San Lorenzo's small air force was supposed to present a brief air show. One of the airplanes crashes into the dictator's seaside palace and causes his still-frozen body to tumble into the ocean, and all the water in the world's seas, rivers, and groundwater turns into ice-nine, killing almost all life in a few days.
John manages to escape with Mona to a secret bunker. They later discover a mass grave where all the surviving San Lorenzans had killed themselves with ice-nine, on the facetious advice of Bokonon. Displaying a mix of grief and resigned amusement, Mona kills herself as well. John takes refuge with a few other survivors (an American couple he had met on the plane to San Lorenzo and Felix Hoenikker's two sons), and lives in a cave for several months, during which time he writes a memoir revealed to be the novel itself. The book ends by his meeting a weary Bokonon, who is contemplating what the last words of The Books of Bokonon should be. Bokonon states that if he were younger, he would have climbed to the top of Mt. McCabe, placed a book about human stupidity at the peak, and, through the administration of ice-nine, "make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who".
Many of Vonnegut's recurring themes are prevalent in Cat's Cradle, most notably the issues of free will and man's relation to technology. The former is embodied in the creation of Bokononism, an artificial religion created to make life bearable to the beleaguered inhabitants of San Lorenzo through acceptance and delight in the inevitability of everything that happens. The latter is demonstrated by the development and exploitation of Ice-9, which is conceived with indifference but is misused to disastrous ends. In his 1969 address to the American Physical Society, Vonnegut describes the inspiration behind Ice-9 and its creator as the type of "old-fashioned scientist who isn't interested in people," and draws connections to nuclear weapons.
More topically, Cat's Cradle, takes the threat of nuclear destruction in the Cold War as a major theme. The Cuban Missile Crisis, in which world powers collided around a small Caribbean island, bringing the world to the brink of mutual assured destruction, occurred in 1962, and much of the novel can be seen as allegorical.
Like most of Vonnegut's work, irony, black humor and parody are used heavily throughout. Cat's Cradle, despite its relatively short length, contains 127 discrete chapters. Vonnegut himself has claimed that his books "are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips...and each chip is a joke."
After World War II, Kurt Vonnegut worked in the public relations department for the General Electric research company. GE hired scientists and let them do pure research, and his job was to interview these scientists and find good stories about their research. Vonnegut felt that the older scientists were indifferent about the ways their discoveries might be used. The Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir, who worked with Vonnegut's older brother Bernard at GE, became the model for Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Vonnegut said in an interview with The Nation that "Langmuir was absolutely indifferent to the uses that might be made of the truths he dug out of the rock and handed out to whoever was around, but any truth he found was beautiful in its own right, and he didn’t give a damn who got it next."
The Republic of San Lorenzo is a fictional country where much of the book's second half takes place.
San Lorenzo is a tiny, rocky island nation located in the Caribbean Sea, positioned in the relative vicinity of Puerto Rico. San Lorenzo has only one city, its seaside capital of Bolivar. The country's form of government is a dictatorship, under the rule of ailing president "Papa" Monzano, who is a staunch ally of the United States and a fierce opponent of communism. No legislature exists. The infrastructure of San Lorenzo is described as being dilapidated, consisting of worn buildings, dirt roads, an impoverished populace, and having only one automobile taxi running in the entire country.
The language of San Lorenzo is a fictitious English-based creole language that is referred to as "the San Lorenzan dialect." The San Lorenzan national anthem is based on the tune of Home on the Range. Its flag consists of a U.S. Marine Corps corporal's chevrons on a blue field (presumably the flag was updated, since in the 1920s Marine Corps rank insignia did not include crossed rifles). Its currency is named corporals, at a rate of two corporals for every United States dollar; both the flag and the monetary unit are named after U.S. Marine Corporal Earl McCabe, who deserted his company while stationed at Port-au-Prince during the American occupation in 1922, and in transit to Miami, was shipwrecked on San Lorenzo. McCabe, along with accomplice Lionel Boyd Johnson from Tobago, together threw out the island's governing sugar company, and after a period of anarchy, proclaimed a republic.
San Lorenzo also has its own native religion, Bokononism, a religion based on enjoying life through its untruths. Bokononism, founded by McCabe's accomplice Boyd Johnson (pronounced "Bokonon" in San Lorenzan dialect), however, is outlawed – an idea Bokonon himself conceived for the purpose of spreading the religion and making the residents of the island happier. Bokononists are liable to be punished by being impaled on a hook, but Bokononism privately remains the dominant religion of nearly everyone on the island, including the leaders who outlaw it. Officially, however, San Lorenzo is a Christian nation.'The narrator' is a writer named Jonah, also known as John, who describes the events in the book with humorous and sarcastic detail. While writing a book on the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he becomes involved with the Hoenikker children. He begins the book by stating "Call me Jonah", alluding to the first line of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. In a way, John and Ishmael, the narrator for Moby-Dick, share the same traits as simultaneously a protagonist and a minor character.
Felix Hoenikker is the "Father of the Atom Bomb." Felix Hoenikker was proclaimed one of the smartest scientists on Earth. An eccentric and emotionless man, he is depicted as amoral and apathetic towards anything other than his research. He needed only something to keep him busy, such as in his role as one of the "Fathers of the Atomic Bomb", and in his creation of "ice-nine," a potentially catastrophic substance with the capability to destroy all life on Earth, but which he saw merely as a mental puzzle (a Marine general suggested developing a substance that could solidify mud so soldiers could run across it more easily). During experiments with "ice nine", Felix takes a nap in his rocking chair and dies. It is the narrator's quest for biographical details about Hoenikker that provides both the background and the connecting thread between the various subsections of the story.
Dr. Asa Breed is Felix Hoenikker's supervisor. He takes the narrator, John, around Illium and to the General Forge and Foundry Company where the late Felix worked. Later in the tour, Dr. Breed becomes upset with John for "misunderstanding what a scientist is, what a scientist does."
Newton "Newt" Hoenikker: The dwarf son of famed scientist Felix Hoenikker, and a painter. He is the brother of both Frank and Angela Hoenikker. His main hobby is painting minimalist abstract works. He briefly had an affair with a Ukrainian dwarf dancer named Zinka, who turned out to be a KGB agent sent to steal ice-nine for the Soviet Union.
Emily Hoenikker is Felix Hoenikker's beautiful wife, who died giving birth to Newt Hoenikker. According to Dr. Asa Breed, the complications at Newt's birth were the result of a pelvic injury she sustained in a car accident some time before. Breed was a lover of Emily before she got married to Felix.
Franklin "Frank" Hoenikker is Felix Hoenikker's son, and Major General of San Lorenzo. He is the brother of Newt and Angela Hoenikker. He is an utterly technically minded person who is unable to make decisions except for giving technical advice. His main hobby is building models.
Angela Hoenikker Conners is Felix Hoenikker's daughter and a clarinetist. She is the sister of Frank and Newt Hoenikker, and is married to Harrison C. Conners. In contrast to her dwarf brother, Angela is unusually tall for a woman. She used to take care of her father after her mother's death and acts as a mother figure to Newt. She and her brothers all have samples of ice-nine, which they found along with their father's body, dead in his chair. She dies when she blows on a clarinet contaminated with Ice-Nine.
Bokonon co-founded San Lorenzo (along with Earl McCabe) and created the religion of Bokononism, which he asked McCabe to outlaw. He was born as Lionel Boyd Johnson.
Earl McCabe co-founded San Lorenzo and is a marine deserter who ruled San Lorenzo for many years.
"Papa" Monzano is the ailing dictator of San Lorenzo. He was once Earl McCabe's right-hand man and chosen successor. He appoints Frank Hoenikker as his successor, and then commits suicide with a piece of Ice-Nine. He is the adopted father of Mona Monzano.
Mona Aamons Monzano is the adopted daughter of "Papa" Monzano, to integrate different races into the harshness of his rule. She is considered "the only beautiful woman on San Lorenzo." She agrees to marry John, but commits suicide with Ice-Nine.
Julian Castle is the multi-millionaire ex-owner of Castle Sugar Cooperation, whom John travels to San Lorenzo to interview. He abandoned his business ventures to set up and operate a humanitarian hospital in the jungle of San Lorenzo.
H. Lowe Crosby is a bicycle manufacturer John meets on a plane to San Lorenzo. His main goal is to move his factory to San Lorenzo, so he can run it with cheap labour.
Hazel Crosby is the wife of H. Lowe Crosby, who asks all the Hoosiers she meets around the globe to call her "Mom."
Philip Castle is the son of Julian Castle, and the operator of the hotel Casa Mona on the island on San Lorenzo. He also writes a history of San Lorenzo that the narrator reads on his flight to the island. Bokonon taught both him and Mona when they were young. Through reading the index of Castle's book, Claire Minton deduces that he's a homosexual.
Horlick Minton is the new American ambassador to San Lorenzo, whom John meets on a plane. He was blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer during the McCarthy era.
Claire Minton is the wife of the new American ambassador to San Lorenzo, and is an index writer.
Lyman Enders Knowles is an elevator operator at the research institute where Felix Hoenikker worked.
The religion of the people of San Lorenzo, called Bokononism, encompasses concepts unique to the novel, with San Lorenzan names such as:karass – A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.
duprass – a karass of only two people, who almost always die within a week of each other. The typical example is a loving couple who work together for a great purpose.
granfalloon – a false karass; i.e., a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. An example is "Hoosiers"; Hoosiers are people from Indiana, and Hoosiers have no true spiritual destiny in common, so really share little more than a name.
wampeter – the central theme or purpose of a karass. Each karass has two wampeters, one waxing and one waning.
foma – harmless untruths
wrang-wrang – Someone who steers a Bokononist away from their line of perception. For example, the narrator of the book is steered away from Nihilism when his Nihilist house sitter kills his cat and leaves his apartment in disrepair.
kan-kan – An object or item that brings a person into their karass. The narrator states in the book that his kan-kan was the book he wrote about the Hiroshima bombing.
sinookas – The intertwining "tendrils" of peoples' lives.
vin-dit – a sudden shove in the direction of Bokononism
saroon – to acquiesce to a vin-dit
stuppa – a fogbound child (i.e. an idiot)
duffle – the destiny of thousands of people placed on one "stuppa"
sin-wat – a person who wants all of somebody's love for themself
pool-pah – shit storm, but in some contexts: wrath of God
Busy, busy, busy – words Bokononists whisper when they think about how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is
Now I will destroy the whole world – last words of a Bokononist before committing suicide
boko-maru – the supreme act of worship of the Bokononists, which is an intimate act consisting of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of the feet of two persons
zah-mah-ki-bo – Inevitable destiny
Borasisi and Pabu, the Sun and Moon; the binary trans-Neptunian object 66652 Borasisi and its moon, 66652 Borasisi I Pabu, now bear their names.†
Borasisi, the Sun, held Pabu, the Moon, in his arms and hoped that Pabu would bear him a fiery child. But poor Pabu gave birth to children that were cold, that did not burn...Then poor Pabu herself was cast away, and she went to live with her favorite child, which was Earth.
Theodore Sturgeon praised Cat's Cradle, describing its storyline as "appalling, hilarious, shocking, and infuriating," and concluded that "this is an annoying book and you must read it. And you better take it lightly, because if you don't you'll go off weeping and shoot yourself."
Cat's Cradle was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1964.Portions of Cat's Cradle were adapted in the television movie Between Time and Timbuktu (1972), which presented elements from various works by Vonnegut.
The book has been optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio's production company, Appian Way Productions. James V. Hart, screenwriter for the film Contact (1997) and his son Jake Hart have been linked to the developing script.
A calypso musical adaptation was presented by the Untitled Theater Company #61 in New York in 2008.
Vonnegut collaborated with US composer Dave Soldier for a CD titled Ice-9 Ballads, featuring nine songs with lyrics taken from Cat's Cradle. Vonnegut narrated his lyrics to Soldier's music.
A straight theatrical adaptation of the book was presented in Washington, DC in August and September 2010 by Longacre Lea Productions.
On November 18, 2015, it was announced that Fargo TV series-creator Noah Hawley was adapting Cat's Cradle as a limited series for the American TV channel FX.