The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

sirensI don’t know how to describe this book other than to say that it’s very, uh… Vonnegut-y. If you’ve read Slaughterhouse 5 or Cat’s Cradle or ”Harrison Bergeron”, you’re familiar with Kurt Vonnegut’s unique combination of satire, pacifism, and accidental time travel. The Sirens of Titan, one of his earliest novels, features the seeds of ideas that become more fleshed out in Slaughterhouse 5 and “Harrison Bergeron”.

The beginning of the tale is a little slow, but Vonnegut does a great job of increasing the stakes and upping the danger as the book progresses. Sirens of Titan doesn’t really have a central character; it dips into the heads of each of various characters, but the narrative voice takes a cosmic view of events. I think this is a good choice for the subject matter, for reasons you’ll see later.

It starts with the materialization of one-percenter Winston Niles Rumfoord at his mansion in Newport. Rumfoord drove his spaceship into something called a chrono-synclastic infundibula that was in the way of travel between Earth and Mars. As a result, his body, and the body of his dog Kazak, are now travelling along an invisible spiral stretching from the Sun to Betelgeuse. They materialize on anything that their spiral intersects with, and he materializes back at his home estate every 60 days.

Prior to his materialization, Rumfoord invited an upstart named Malachai Constant to see him because, Rumfoord says, he met Malachai on Titan (a moon of Jupiter) in the future. Rumfoord’s wife Beatrice is a reclusive poet, and she dislikes Malachai before she even meets him, but Rumfoord prophecies that they will be mated like animals on Mars. Neither of them believe it, because they don’t have any plans of going to Mars.

SPOILERS: The prophecy does come true, although it’s not clear whether this is due to Rumfoord’s meddling or the meddling of the Tralfamadorians. It’s almost like there’s a Russian nesting doll of manipulation happening: Rumfoord manipulates recent history, Tralfamadorians manipulate Rumfoord and the whole of human history, and something else manipulates the Tralfamadorians (either the Tralfamadorian university, which is a global consensus very much like the internet, or the creatures that built and programmed the Tralfamadorians). The Sirens of Titan illustrates an interesting paradox: humans want to have a purpose, but they don’t want to be controlled. Malachai’s ego swells when he gets that shiny lieutenant colonel’s uniform, but later he rebels against the invasive methods of control the Martian generals use. Maybe it’s that we want to serve something beyond ourselves, but we want to feel that we are choosing to serve, and that the ends we are striving to meet are worth achieving? In Sirens, the characters get neither: they have no choice, and the entire ultimate purpose of humanity is to get a part for the Tralfamadorian’s spaceship so it can take a message to other side of the galaxy. The content of the message (which the Tralfamadorian, Salo, is not allowed to read) is “Greetings.” So basically, the entire point of life on Earth is to transmit the message, “hi.”

This is fabulously depressing and I fucking love the irony (even though in general I believe in free will and self-determination… even if it’s only a choice among the options the universe gives you, and I can’t choose to, I don’t know, be a cat or something. Everybody wants to be a cat~). Even though I didn’t exactly agree with the determinist attitude of the book, I really like Vonnegut’s sense of humor about war and religion. I read this with our scifi book group and people said it wasn’t funny, but a lot of it is kind of tragic humor, sad as well as funny, not really laugh-out-loud.

The only thing that bothered me about the style was Vonnegut’s fatherly tone, which can feel a little bit like you’re being talked down to, but I just let him pat my head and play along, because you just know eventually he’s going to flip everything upside down and it’s going to be awesome. The other thing that I wasn’t a fan of was the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. The Church is a new religion that took over the Earth that says that all differences between people are the result of mere chance, that God loves no one more than anyone else, and that God is utterly indifferent to the human race. But these people wear handicaps to make themselves equal to the least of them, so I guess the handicaps are worn to please the masses because God doesn’t care? I’m not sure if it was meant to satirize Christianity or modern tendency to value equality over excellence.

I would definitely recommend it to Vonnegut fans, but perhaps not hard scifi fans? It’s heavy on the philosophy and light on the mechanics. Also if you don’t like books that “jump around” it might not be for you (the scene transitions are not the smoothest and Vonnegut’s style is very minimalist). I really enjoyed it though. I thought it was funny and I really cared about most of the characters. My favorite was Beatrice, I loved the recurring image of her sitting on a white horse as a child, afraid of getting dirty. Malachai’s not that great of a person, but I found myself really involved in his story because of the hell he goes through and how he just wants to be with his family. Rumfoord I kind of despised, but in a love-to-hate kind of way. There’s something a little bit rushed and off-the-cuff about The Sirens of Titan, but I think that this is what Kurt Vonnegut produces when he isn’t really trying just shows off how brilliant he is. Sirens of Titan has some beautiful, chilling moments, a lot of fascinating ideas, and some great quotes, like this one:

“It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” – Malachai Constant

It doesn’t have quite the impact without the weight of what happens before it, but literally, this line made me cry. So, if in doubt, go read it!

Rating: 4.5/5

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