The Sirens of Titan / Kurt Vonnegut

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Finally; Winston Niles Rumfoord has put into words his new religion, one that truly can apply to one and all, uniting humankind at last.

Of course, it took a little planning for the Earth to subscribe so willingly to this new, all-encompassing religion. To attain peace on Earth, it took a lot of travelling – but being spread throughout the universe helps. Creating colonies on Mars and leading an army to annihilate and enslave all life on Earth. Ultimately it was a mass suicide, and when the last Martian ship to reach Earth, gleefully fired upon by the Earthlings, was revealed to consist of unarmed women and children, the glorious war was over. Masterminded by Rumfoord, the Martian sacrifice was needed to prolong the horror at the end of the glorious war. A perfect time to introduce his new religion.

“All was forgiven. All living things were brothers, and all dead things were even more so.” The war between Earth and Mars resulted in bringing humanity together, closer than ever before.

It had to be done. Rumfoord should know. He has seen the past and he has seen the future.

The Sirens of Titan, written in 1959 is only Vonnegut’s second novel, yet shows astounding ambition to tackle issues of free will, the purpose of human life and history and insights into the meaning of life.

5083223115_f2e89a89ab_o

Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog Kazak, have travelled through a phenomenon known as a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, located just off the planet Mars. As a consequence, Rumfoord and Kazak are spread throughout the solar system as ‘wave phenomena’, existing along a spiralling path between the Sun and Betelguese, and materialising whenever a planet crosses their path. On Earth for example, he materialises along with Kazak every 59 days in his home town of Newport, Rhode Island.

“Now, you can say your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, but the universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.” Winston Niles Rumfoord on the nature of facts and beliefs. In the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, it is not always as simple as who is right and who is wrong.

Upon entering the infundibulum Rumfoord became aware of the past and the future. Thus, when Rumfoord makes his consistent, scheduled appearances on Earth he prophesies and predicts, drawing a fanatic following and crowds that come from miles around in an attempt to witness one of Rumfoord and Kazak’s materialisations.

Malachi Constant is a billionaire playboy. Born rich with everything he ever wanted, the luckiest man on Earth. He is summoned to the Rumfoord estate, to visit and speak to Rumfoord personally; one of very few to have such an honour. Constant is told he will be sent to Mars, where he will be bred (with none other than Rumfoord’s wife, who is less than impressed by this latest prophecy), before visiting Mercury, Titan (a moon of Saturn) and finally revisiting Earth again. Clear so far?

What follows is an account of Constant’s life; a life he has no control over, where he loses his identity and memory and is forced to do terrible things. All, seemingly, to greaten the impact of Rumfoord’s new religion, The Church of God The Utterly Indifferent.

On Mars he is Unk. He is controlled by a pain-emitting antenna surgically implanted in his skull. He has no recollection of his life as Malachi Constant. He has raped Rumfoord’s wife (now known as Bea, and now similarily amnesiac like Unk/Constant) and fathered the resulting child, a German kickball prodigee named Chrono. He watches as the entire fleet of Mars launches a terribly ineffective assault on Earth, leaving thousands, almost all Martian, dead.

He is directed via spaceship to Mercury, hidden deep underground for several years with just Boaz and the harmoniums for company. Boaz used to control Unk’s mind with a device, but now they are equal and Boaz keeps his peace of mind by attending the needs of the harmoniums, simple and small, peaceful creatures that feed off vibrations.

“I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I’m doing good, and them I’m doing good for know I’m doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home.” Boaz, on Mercury and the Harmoniums.

Any clearer?

sirens of titan

Obviously I’m skimping on the plot, and I would dread to think that anyone reading this is getting the impression that I found The Sirens of Titan a confusing read and Vonnegut an unclear narrator, because that’s simply not true. It is so readable and accessible, as so much is when written by Vonnegut, even when dealing with some complex and heavy themes.

What I would say is that you are constantly waiting for some sort of payoff – an explanation to these events. This is not a complaint – the book builds slowly and there is a sense of epic expectation. I felt such sympathy for these characters, despite some obvious flaws. After all Constant was a greedy, lazy man, undeserving of his great wealth which he so gladly attributed to luck, he raped a woman and murdered his best friend Stony Stevenson. But, as he later says, I was a victim of a series of accidents. As are we all.

I felt for Rumfoord’s situation of being spread across the solar system, and I despised Constant for his air of superiority. Then I despised Rumfoord for his god-like status and omniscient arrogance and sympathised with Unk’s struggle. Constant is used superbly by Rumfoord…but then we realise Rumfoord himself is being used by a higher agent, which emphasises the lack of free will for these characters.

The final act which takes place on the titular moon of Saturn – Titan – is simply breathtakingly good fiction. We meet Salo, a stranded alien from Trafalmadore, who has been travelling the universe for millions of years with one mission and one mission only – to deliver an envelope containing a message to a worthy but unknown and unspecified destination far far away.

The subject of free will, which is a strong part of Slaughterhouse 5, definitely plays a big part here in Sirens. There are several wonderful ironies. Salo, a machine, has more free will than Rumfoord, a human who has seen the past and the future. Salo, a machine, is programmed to keep his message sealed until he reaches his goal. Yet he reveals it in order to appease a friend. What does that say of free will?

Even Rumfoord, the man who has seen the past and future, is distraught to realise that even he has been used – by a robot, sending out a distress call to its home planet, requesting a spare part for its broken down space ship. We learn that the purpose of human history was to communicate to the stranded Tralfamadorian on Titan. Monuments such as The Great Wall of China and Stonehenge were built by civilisations being controlled by messengers from Tralfamadore.  They were reassuring Salo – letting him know that help was on the way. He just needed to be patient.

The characters within the book are all so varied; the main differences are their beliefs and philosophies, none more valid than another. What does seem to be emphasised, is the meaningless of it all. The utter pointless nature that is life. But it is also reinforced that it does not matter, as long as one makes their own life have meaning in their own terms and values, which is of course different for us all.

sirens

The Sirens of Titan is an intriguing and beautiful piece of science fiction. It is transformed by its final act into a grandiose work of immense scale and immaculate ambition. I found it heartbreaking and humbling but stunningly beautiful. I apologise; I don’t think this post has done the book justice. Scattered and lacking depth, it’s taken me a few weeks to finish writing on it. I loved the book, and I hope that has reflected here as I’ve found it difficult to analyse it coherently.

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.” Bea / Mrs Beatrice Rumfoord, and her thoughts and philosophies after a tiring life of confusion and hardship.

“When you get right down to it, everybody’s having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everyone. And the hell of it is, nothing seems to help much.”

“Take care of the people, and god almighty will take care of himself.”

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

And finally some thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut himself. The above quotes I found particularly moving and informative of his own views. The turbulent events in his life that could lead him to think he was a pawn, a player in a larger plan. The atrocities at Dresden of which he witnessed first hand, blended with further personal and family tragedy. He was a victim of a series of accidents, as we all are. I see this book as an attempt to give meaning to life, to answer those questions that have plagued Vonnegut and countless others over the years, the reason of our existence, the point of it all. Slaughterhouse 5 may be Vonnegut’s most important and critically acclaimed book in his bibliography, but The Sirens of Titan is my preferred out of the two.

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” Malachi Constant, The Space Traveller, on his return from space and his thoughts on the struggle that is life.

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: