Book Review: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Sirens of Titan and Bob Dylan2

Title: The Sirens of Titan

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Genre: Science Fiction

First Published: 1959

Grade: A++++++

 

The Sirens of Titan may be Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, but it’s also one of his most sure-footed and successful works. In this book, Vonnegut attempts to answer the ultimate question–”What is the purpose of man?” And this he does with copious amounts of dark humor and much aplomb. In true Vonnegut fashion, he introduces a wholly human character caught in the maelstrom of chance. Malachi Constant, our unfortunate protagonist, is both likable and unlikable. At the very least, he is strangely relatable. Despite being a billionaire, (the richest man in America), there is an emptiness that gnaws at Malachi, an existential dilemma he can’t shake. He waits to be given purpose by God or the Cosmos, or whoever it is at the end of that endless phone line that stretches through Space.

Purpose comes in the dubious form of Winston Niles Rumfoord, the only human being to have ever been chronosynclastically infundibulated. Rumfoord had ridden out to space with his faithful dog, Kazak, when his ship ran straight into a chronosynclastic infundibulum. This space phenomenon enables Rumfoord to see all things in the past and in the future. It offers Rumfoord a type of omniscience that would be god-like, had it meant that Rumfoord was exempt of whatever it was Fate had in store for him. The trade-off to gaining almighty knowledge is that Rumfoord and Kazak were spread thinly throughout time and space. They began to exist in a wave phenomena that enabled them to materialize on Earth, Mars, and Mercury in predictable intervals while staying properly stuck in Titan.

Rumfoord and Malachi’s paths cross when Rumfoord asks his wife, Beatrice, to invite the latter to one of his materializations. There, Rumfoord reveals Malachi’s fate to him. Malachi and Beatrice were set to be sent to Mars where they would fall in love, have a child, and grow old in the beautiful Saturn moon, Titan. Rebelling against this idyllic albeit forced setup, Malachi does what he can to make Beatrice hate him–and he succeeds for a time. It almost seems as if Beatrice and Malachi would never cross paths again,  but as is one of the greatest themes in The Sirens of Titan, there is no escaping fate. And true to Vonnegut’s style, Malachi and Beatrice both suffer tremendously before something too distorted, something too similar to resignation to actually be called a ‘happy ending,’ takes place.

The next time we see Malachi, we see him as Unk. A low-ranking infantry officer in Mars who has just had his memories erased for the nth time. This is an unusual case in Mars. Usually, you get your memories wiped clean once, get your antenna installed, and you’re obedient and thoughtless as sheep soon after. But in Unk’s case, he always manages to regain thoughts of Earth and past memories, sometimes with the help of his best friend, Stony Stevenson. He always seeks out his mate, Beatrice, and child, Chronos. He always imagines Earth to be a better place where he can be with his family at last. In Unk, Malachi has become the opposite of who he always thought he was. As Unk, Malachi could live without a penny to his name but with the dream of family and friendship to get him through whatever fix he was in.

Now, with such noble dreams, one would expect Unk/Malachi to get the happy ending he’s after. Maybe Malachi could escape to Earth with Bea and Chronos, grow some potatoes. Be a self-sustaining family with little contact with the outside world. But to end the book this way would equate to pussy-footing around life. Like most talented and sadistic writers, Kurt Vonnegut knows the value of a relatable hero. He knows the appeal of the long-suffering protagonist. He doesn’t waste the chance to play up the dark comedy called human existence.

At the start of the story, Malachi’s name is explained to the reader. Malachi means faithful messenger. This is the root of Malachi’s early existential drama. He awaits the message he’s meant to deliver, he waits for a higher purpose. Turns out, his purpose was to create Chronos with Bea. Chronos becomes the faithful messenger in the story. He delivers a piece of metal to Salo, a Tralfamadorian traveler marooned in Titan. Salo, himself, is a messenger–a machine designed by human-like creatures from the planet of Tralfamadore. Salo was sent into Space to travel billions of years in search of a specific alien civilization. The piece of metal (Chronos’ good luck piece) is the replacement part Salo needs to fix his ship. In the end, Malachi did find purpose, he did find his place in the great scheme of things. But did he really find purpose or was he only ‘a victim of a series of accidents.’ From the all-knowing and all-seeing perspective of God and any other chronosynclastically infundibulated being, is human life merely a straight line, or even a tiny, fixed point set against the vastness of the Cosmos? Is there no higher purpose? Or if there is, is it a purpose worth living for?

Like a seasoned pro, Vonnegut has his main character (and the reader) jumping through hoops, suffering burn after burn. And yet, on Unk goes. Against all odds, Unk goes–that you almost wish for a deus ex machina, for a red herring of sorts. You think ill of Rumfoord and shake your fist at his cruelty, only to realize that his life was the biggest joke in the book. There are a lot of emotions to be gone through in The Sirens of Titan. There are a lot of surprises too. And while the bleak nature of the book’s humor may make you want to let go of the book and seek some sunshine, you always go back to it, because quite frankly, it’s that good. It’s more than just a page-turner, it’s a thinking piece. It’s a fecking good piece of literature that thankfully sticks.

The Sirens of Titan is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. Worth recommending to anyone interested in Science Fiction, Philosophy, and great literature, in general. If you loved Slaughterhouse Five, this would be right up your alley.

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