The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
Published in 1959
Genre: Science fiction
“Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.”
This meaning is most likely less than one would hope after reading through the pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1959 novel, The Sirens of Titan. Taking a peak into the ridiculousness of self-imposed importance on the part of the human race, the novel asks the question: are humans as important as we believe we are, or are we simply a means to an end? The story travels around the Milky Way galaxy and beyond, pointing out the absurd and predestined in a sprawling tale that nearly loses sight of its ultimate goal.
Winston Niles Rumfoord is a man stuck out of time and space (a bit like Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five). Flew his spaceship into a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, which scattered him between the sun and Betelgeuse. He and his dog materialize on the earth every 59 days; since he can see the future, he invites Malachi Constant, the richest man in America, and describes the adventure ahead. After losing all of the luck that made him rich, Constant volunteers to be taken to Mars and have his memory wiped. While there, he lives under the name of Unk and has had an antenna implanted in his skull to control him through pain. Mars attacks the Earth and the army is completely destroyed; of this is according to Rumfoord’s plan to create a new world religion, effectively controlling Constant/Unk’s life and bending it toward a purpose.
There are machinations within schemes in The Sirens of Titan; Rumfoord has created an entire army and society on Mars that martyrs itself to near completion in its attack on Earth. This sacrifice of life is then used to guilt the Earthlings into believing in Rumfoord’s Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. He preaches that God couldn’t care less about what is happening on the Earth and that everything is a result of randomness. The irony exceeds Rumfoord’s grand scheme as it is revealed all of human existence was created to send updated messages to Salo; a Tralfamadorian stuck on Titan whose ship broke down and is awaiting a spare part.
The title comes from a photograph of three beautiful women that Rumfoord tells Malachi are waiting for him on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. Though their inclusion in the title of the book suggests importance, the trio turn out to be statues buried in a pool. I suppose this speaks to the assumption of meaning in the book, like assuming the human race was more than a messaging system for machines millions of light years away. This meta-reference plays well to the theme of questioning free will, omniscience, and the purpose of human existence. The Sirens of Titan suggests a more classic science fiction tale, and while there are definitely elements of sci-fi in it, Vonnegut follows its story with characteristic sarcasm and questioning of the typical story elements of the genre.
I have read two of Vonnegut’s other works, and can see his trademark style present in this book that was released earlier than either. The most obvious is the inclusion of Salo, the Tralfamadorian; Billy Pilgrim, in Slaughterhouse-Five, is taken to Tralfamadore to live in a zoo as part of the main plot. However, Vonnegut’s connections between his novels far exceeds plot devices and alien races. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from The Sirens of Titan; it did seem to me to be a title more fitting to the classic pulp science fiction of the era, but it asks deeper questions in a probing way. It isn’t hard sci-fi, though there is a bit of exposition explaining the chrono-synclastic infundibulum; rather, it asks the question of what human involvement really leaves behind in the galaxy and history as we understand it. I definitely preferred Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five to The Sirens of Titan, but that is simply due to the maturation of his writing in the time between; the plot staggers a bit as the reader wonders where this is all heading, but it does come together in the end, and I suppose that is something worth lauding.
Verdict: 3 chrono-synclastic infundibulum out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of Kurt Vonnegut, fans of irony, those who enjoy satire, people who like complex plots, and people who enjoy questions of human importance in their science fiction.
Not recommended for: The easily confused, those who dislike contemplating free will, harmoniums, or those who are looking for a hard sci-fi story.