Cat's Cradle: A “Framework” for Humanity
Call me Jonah. That is the name I have chosen to use, rather than the Christian one of “John” my parents gave me. Given the nature of the work before me, I will be taking pains to protect those close to me from what may be dangerous repercussions. Then, my name is unimportant. What matters is that I have been where I have been, and am now positioned to look back and investigate the end of the world.
I am not being entirely facetious. When I was a younger man – a thousand casks of ale ago – I was, like everyone around me, preparing for that end. Even then, I began writing notes for what would become this book, this account of the fall of greatness, and the end of civilization. I had envisioned that I might be fortunate enough to finish it, perhaps as a slave to a Spanish Don, or as a prisoner in Madrid. For this book was to document, as it occurred, the end of England as wrought by the fury of Spain, Philip, and the Armada he sent to crush our lives. In those earlier days, when I had begun, my countrymen and I put on valiant faces and made loud noises about how this could never be, even as we knew the power of Spain was probably unstoppable.
I was a devout Protestant then. I am a Puritan now, essentially having been driven into the more extreme faith by the challenge of Philip's insane Catholicism. Where before I was content to embrace the Queen's national religion, and trust that it was removed enough from the pope's greed and the idolatry of the Mass to bring me nearer to God, I now must be as far from these things as I can be. We Puritans believe that man's salvation can only come through an abject acknowledgment of our weakness, and that we must always be on guard against the excesses of the flesh and the material world. This is God's Will, and I embrace it, I confess, because I believe whatever stands so apart from the filth of popery must be God's truth.
However, returning to my tale about my tale: my book may never be finished, even though I remain a free Englishman. It may never be finished because, in an irony of God's will, I fear that setting it out would be an act of vanity. Still, I will go as far as I can; if I am successful, the book will have nothing to do with myself, and stand as a proper tribute to the true religion, and the inability of the false to end the world.
Today, in this year of 1597, long years after the astounding power of Spain's naval force was broken up on the rocks of Ireland and its sailors mutilated by the savages there, it is easy to forget the terror that seized all of my England. The course was set. After decades of wavering, Philip II had finally committed to putting his resources into the overthrow of Elizabeth and the restoration of the Catholic faith in England. The most powerful prince in Europe, we all knew his wealth was vast, as we knew Spanish shipbuilding dwarfed what we had in our ports.
Yet much of this was untrue. Not only were we, even as fiercely patriotic Englishmen, unaware of the many and valuable changes to the English navy John Hawkins – and the astounding Drake – had been devising, we were ignorant of the real state of Spain's technical abilities. Only after, and during the war itself, did we come to see how foolishly clumsy the great Spanish galleons were, and how mad it was to set these vessels in the shoal waters of the English coast. Philip had ventured on, even as his best admirals informed him that Drake, our English wonder, had crippled the Armada long before it was to launch by burning all the barrel staves, and thus destroying any means to supply provisions on his Armada. He had ordered his fleet to sail, ignoring that the food would rot and trusting to the priests he insisted sail on every ship.
We did not know any of this, then. But Spain did. That is why, employing channels not in favor by the government, I wrote to the children of Don Sidonia, the grandee to whom Philip had entrusted his “enterprise of England”. Sidonia was too old and sick to be approached, but I knew his children had his confidence, as I knew the many struggles with Philip, as Sidonia saw the probable doom of the Armada looming before it set sail, would have been known to them. I was burning with questions. How could so great a prince dismiss the urgent appeals of his wisest commanders, who begged him to abandon the enterprise? Had all the hours of prayer to his Catholic God damaged his mind, or had he been too long ashamed by the pope's admiration of Elizabeth, even as that pope urged Philip on? The Spanish king was forced to burn his own subjects, day after day, as heretics; what made him think he could crush, and convert, a Protestant foreign state? Some answers, at least, I was sure I could obtain from these Spaniards who had been so close to the core of the enterprise...
Vonnegut's novel, Cat's Cradle, is very much entrenched within the 20th century. Its sardonic elements and greatly cynical viewpoints are redolent of post-World War II intellectualism, when the emergence of the atomic bomb gave more liberal thinkers an unprecedented opportunity to mock mankind's fatal fallibility. In a sense, the novel depends on the apocalyptic aspect of the bomb, and the legacies of Hiroshima, because Vonnegut depends on them; his talent can go no further than employing the most outrageous example of humanity's self-destructiveness.
This relates very strongly to the novel's primary setting of the fictional San Lorenzo, because Vonnegut's place is as convenient as his time. That is to say, it is easier to lampoon mankind's foolishness by using mankind's most deadly weapon, and it is easier to ridicule the ways in which mankind governs itself by creating a fanciful, mythical domain. Vonnegut's San Lorenzo is an entertaining place, but it is also an artistic evasion. It allows for satire without any demands for subtlety or real insight, because he can render his place and its people as absurd as he likes. Moreover, Vonnegut does not restrict this device to San Lorenzo; earlier in the novel, he paints the fictional town of Ilium just as flamboyantly. For example, Ilium is a place where everyone's life is centered on the home; it is an ugly city; and it was the famous “jumping-off” point for Western migration (Vonnegut 28). It is, very plainly, a joke of a city. It is fun, but it is not a device a great writer would employ.
This is why I placed the story of Cat's Cradle into a real epoch, and set it in the real time and place of Elizabethan England. Technology changes, of course, as the ways people and nations act change as well. However, the fundamental aspect of a “cat's cradle”, or a lattice of human connections as dictating vast effects from seemingly random and very deliberate interactions, can be explored and/or satirized by focusing on any genuine era at all. My choice was not to reveal that differences in technology and views of the world make for differences in humanity's course, because I do not believe they do, save in terms of size of results or effects. My choice was, rather, to try to take Vonnegut's theme and remove it from what strikes me as an adolescent platform. In my eyes, no ice-nine is needed to demonstrate that mankind can work against itself, and history is replete with incidents, like the coming of the Spanish Armada, wherein the only thing that saves humanity from a form of extinction, or the destruction of a nation, is that very ineptitude – and arrogance – of mankind itself.