This post was first published by Suite101. It contains spoilers.
The Sirens of Titan, published in 1959, was Vonnegut’s second novel (after Player Piano, published in 1952). It strongly influenced Vonnegut’s reputation as a writer of science-fiction, and The Sirens of Titan is certainly a novel that ticks all the sci-fi boxes. It is a book overflowing with spaceships, Martians, intergalactic battles, and tongue-twisters such as “chrono-synclastic infundibula”. The Sirens of Titan, however, also proved Vonnegut to be one of the greatest satirists and philosophers of his time.
The Sirens of Titan is set on four different planets, and encompasses a range of complicated and quirky characters. The novel’s main protagonist is Malachi Constant – a rich, depraved party animal from Hollywood. Malachi made his millions through luck – as a young man he inherited his father’s fortune, as well as the method of making it (Noel Constant discovered that initializing sentences from the Bible and investing in companies with those same initials was a surprisingly successful money-making scheme). When asked to explain this good fortune, Malachi Constant can only reply “I guess somebody up there likes me”.
The novel begins as Malachi Constant is summoned to the home of Winston Niles Rumfoord, an aristocrat who has become caught in a chrono-synclastic infundibula (a sort of rift in time and space). Rumfoord materialises on Earth once every fifty-nine days, for one hour. During this particular materialization, Rumfoord has insisted upon meeting with Constant, in order to reveal the future to him. “Your destination is Titan”, Rumfoord informs Constant, “but you will visit Mars, Mercury, and Earth again before you get there”.
Determined to avoid ever shooting off into space and fulfilling these prophecies, Constant embarks on a partying binge that leaves him hung-over and bankrupt. With nothing left for him on Earth besides poverty and possibly prison, Malachi agrees to be recruited by the Martian army, and relocates – as Rumfoord predicted – to Mars. The rest of the novel documents Constant’s journey across the universe, and while the future Rumfoord predicted for Constant comes true, there is no shortage of surprises.
The Sirens of Titan is a fantastically engaging story – a book that, once begun, is impossible to put down. The characters are colourful and surprising, the settings vividly described, and the story expertly crafted. Vonnegut’s imagination is startling, and delightful. Among the novel’s most beautiful and intriguing creations is the “harmonium” – a paper thin, diamond-shaped organism that inhabits the caves of Mercury, and feeds off musical vibrations. Similarly arresting are the Titanic bluebirds, the brainwashed Martian army, and the character of Salo – a messenger from Tralfamadore. And while for the reader the story flows effortlessly and describes the predicaments of its many characters with seeming ease, The Sirens of Titan is an extremely complicated and intricate novel. And running throughout this amusing and engrossing story is one of the biggest and most unanswerable questions of all time – that of the meaning of life. What – if anything – created the universe? And what is humankind’s purpose within it? The Sirens of Titan attempts to solve these questions in several ways, although by the end of the novel there is no single, definitive answer. A former Martian soldier named Boaz, for example, finds his meaning of life in the caves of Mercury, playing music for the harmoniums. “I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm”, Boaz says, “I found me a home”. Perhaps the most heart-warming discovering of meaning, however, comes from Constant himself, towards the end of the novel. Exiled on Titan (one of Saturn’s moons) Constant – at seventy-four years of age – finally falls in love with his ‘mate’. “[A] purpose of human life,” Constant realizes, “no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” A somewhat sentimental theory, perhaps; but one that rings of truth and humanity all the same.
The Sirens of Titan is a science-fiction novel about religion, war, philosophy, and the weaknesses of the human race. It is at once clever, funny, outrageous and very relatable. And whatever may be behind the creation of the universe, the design behind this novel is very intelligent indeed.
Kurt Vonnegut’s other novels include Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. He is also the author of short stories and non-fiction. Vonnegut died in 2007.