#31: The Sirens of Titan (1959) by Kurt Vonnegut
“I guess somebody up there likes me.”---Malachi Constant
“As far as I’m concerned, the Universe is a junk yard, with everything in it overpriced. I am through poking around in the junk heaps, looking for bargains. Every so-called bargain has been connected by fine wires to a dynamite bouquet.”---Malachi Constant
“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody.”---Beatrice Rumfoord
The Sirens of Titan takes place between World War II and the Third Great Depression, during a time when “inward space had not yet been explored” and the famously wealthy Malachi Constant might be the luckiest person in the world. Also famously rich at this time is Winston Rumfoord, who, along with his dog Kazak, is stuck in a chrono-synclastic infundibulum--what Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) described as a meeting point of contradicting truths, a place where those truths can exist simultaneously. Being stuck there causes Rumfoord and Kazak to materialize on Earth every fifty-nine days predictably. It also affords Rumfoord the ability to see into the past, present, and future simultaneously--a skill that he both abuses and uses for good on occasion.
Rumfoord is a complex man. He has a relatively loveless marriage with his wife Beatrice--particularly so since his chrono-synclastic infundibulum problem came about--and his best friend is an intelligent machine named Salo from the planet Tralfamadore, who is stuck on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, waiting for a replacement part for his broken down space vessel. Rumfoord is deceitful, charismatic, honest, caring, and vengeful. But you don’t really find out when he’s been which until the end of the novel. Huzzah!
TSOT begins with Rumfoord inviting Malachi Constant to visit him during one of his materializations. At the meeting, Rumfoord prophesizes that Constant will marry Rumfoord’s wife Beatrice, have a son with her named Chrono, and will live on the planet Mars. Both Beatrice, who learns of the prophecies herself, and Constant try to do everything possible to make these things not come true. This, of course, only brings them to fruition.
In the second section of the narrative, we follow a dimwitted private named “Unk” in the Martian Army. Unk, like most of the soldiers in the army, is controlled by a small antenna implanted in his head, which makes even the drumbeat of a military march infectiously demanding of action.
Rented a tent, a tent, a tent;
Rented a tent, a tent, a tent.
Rented a tent!
Rented a tent!
Rented a, rented a tent.
These antennas are key to the Martian design for war with Earth. But not for Unk. Someone has other plans for him. It turns out that Unk is to be an important figure in a new, but quickly growing religion on Earth called “The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.” This religion also has much to do with Malachi Constant and Winston Rumfoord.
While only Vonnegut’s second novel, TSOT establishes several themes and characteristics of Vonnegut’s writing: his informal style, his quippy narration, and his overwhelmingly sad love of humanity. But TSOT particularly wrestles with the concept of free will, from Unk’s antenna to Rumfoord’s foresight to the mission Salo was executing for Tralfamadore when he was stranded on Titan. Since Rumfoord can see into the future and the past, can he change it? When he reveals the future to others, can they change it? More importantly, does any of it really matter? I mean, would knowing that life is predetermined stop you from living it? But what if that predetermination is actually controlled by someone? Well, so it goes.
As long as there are young people, Vonnegut’s writing will never go out of print. So it is with The Sirens of Titan.
PS Rest in Peace, Mr. Vonnegut. You will always be one of my favorite writers.