The Sirens of Titan: An early Vonnegut classic about the randomness of life

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut book reviewThe Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

The Sirens of Titan is a tough book to review. And it’s not really SF at all though it adopts the trappings of the genre. The thing about Kurt Vonnegut’s books is that they are so deceptively simple. The prose is spare, humorous, ironic, and to the point. And yet the story is very ambitious, as it seeks to provide answers to some very basic questions. Why do we exist? What is the universe for? Do we have any free will to determine our lives? Should we have chicken or fish for dinner?

The story focuses on Malachi Constant, the richest man in America; Winston Niles Rumfoord, an older wealthy man who travels throughout the solar system with his dog Kazak, manifesting in various locations in space and time; Unk and Boaz, two buddies in the Martian Army preparing to invade the Earth; Beatrice Rumfoord, who is afraid of living but ends up having a troubled son named Chrono; Salo the Tralfamadorian, an alien robot stranded far from home who has more emotions than many of the human characters.

The plot sounds ridiculous when written down. Winston Niles Rumfoord roams throughout the solar system, manifesting in various times and places after encountering a chrono-synclastic infundibulum. He can see the past and the future, and intercedes in human affairs, such as arranging an elaborate and utterly inept invasion of Earth by a Martian Army of conscripts controlled by radio antenna. He also founds “The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent” in the aftermath of this failed invasion, which turns the invaders into martyrs and makes the people of Earth feel guilty for eradicating them. The Church teaches people that they really shouldn’t expect any divine intervention in their lives, because clearly God doesn’t give a toss. This should liberate people to live their lives unencumbered by superstition, aware that life is what they make of it, and nobody is watching out for them.

Malachi Constant is the other main character, a fairly unpleasant person whose wealth was inherited from his absurdly lucky father, who spent his entire life in a hotel room betting on stocks with a unique and bizarre strategy, and also completely neglected Malachi as a child. Malachi is a rich man in search of answers, but instead he finds himself spirited off to Mars after losing his fortune, losing his memory, getting embroiled in the fails Mars invasion, and finally ending up on the moon Titan with his lover and child, before being granted some final peace of mind at a bus stop in Indianapolis. Make sense? Of course not, but then neither do our lives or the universe at large.

The Sirens of Titan, like all of Vonnegut’s books, really has a simple message behind the irony and absurdity. Our lives are not dictated by a divine plan, and people are free to be either good or evil without any particular consequences. But given those circumstances, wouldn’t it be better to be as kind and sympathetic to the people you love? And don’t take yourself so damn seriously.

I listened to the Audibook version narrated by Jay Snyder. I think Kurt Vonnegut is probably well-suited to listening, since his prose is very minimal and focuses mainly on character dialogue and commentary on life. So you don’t need to keep track of a huge laundry-list of characters or intrigues. His writing is also very sardonic and dripping with irony, so I thought Jay Snyder did pretty well conveying that sense.

Published in 1959. The Sirens of Titan is Vonnegut’s second novel and was on the Hugo ballot with Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers but lost in what Harlan Ellison has called a monumental injustice. Sirens of Titan is a picaresque novel which almost defies being synopsized; it is an interplanetary Candide (lacking perhaps Voltaire’s utter bitterness), the book follows lead character Malachi Constant, a feckless but kind-hearted millionaire as he moves through the solar system on his quest for the meaning of all existence. Constant is aided by another tycoon, Winston Rumfoord, who with the help of aliens has actually discovered the fundamental meaning of life (the retrieval of an alien artifact with an inscribed message of greetings). With the assistance of Salo, an alien root and overseeing the alien race, the Tralmafadorians (who also feature in Slaughterhouse-Five), Constant attempts to find some cosmic sense and order in the face of universal malevolence. Together Constant and Rumfoord deal with the metaphysics of “chrono-synclastic infundibula”, they deal with the interference of the Tralmafadorians; the novel is pervaded by a goofy, episodic charm which barely shields the readers (or the characters) from the sense of a large and indifferent universe. All of Vonnegut’s themes and obsessions (which are further developed and/or recycled in later work) are evident here in this novel which is more hopeful than most of Vonnegut’s canon. It is suggested that ultimately Constant learns that only it is impossible to learn, and that fate (and the Tralmafodorians) are impenetrable, unavoidable circumstance. On the basis of this novel, Vonnegut was wholly claimed by the science fiction community (as witnessed by the Hugo nomination), but Vonnegut did not likewise wish to claim the community for himself and the feelings were not reciprocal. He felt from the outset that being identified as a science fiction writer could only limit his audience and trivialize his themes. His recurring character, the hack science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout (who also features in Slaughterhouse-Five), represented to Vonnegut the worst case scenario of the writer he did not wish to become.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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2 comments

  1. Yep, that sounds like Vonnegut, all right.

  2. “deceptively simple” is a nice way to put it, and yes, so many of his books “sound ridiculous.” But boy, did I read everything by him in the day (as those old folks say)

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