Sirens of Titan

I went on a Vonnegut binge a few years back, but his 1959 science fiction novel wasn’t part of the stack. Finally picked it up and read it – appropriately – during the Kafkaesque nightmare of 21st century air travel.

Malachi Constant, the world’s richest spoiled playboy, has been invited to the house of Winston Niles Rumfoord. Rumfoord is a strange character, an adventurer gentleman of the Victorian mold, who zipped himself and his hound in a vacuum suit, shot into space. Out near the asteroid belt, they encountered a “chrono-synclastic infundibulum”, which spread his conscious out in a long wave function, so he and his dog exists as sort of a ghost. Because of his transcendental nature, he becomes a God figure, blessed with pseudo-omniscience. Constant will play heavily in his plans.

What better way to entice a (now-broke) bachelor than the image of three beautiful women – the Sirens of Titan? His fortunes squandered, Constant agrees to the journey Rumfoord sets before him – Mars, Mercury, finally Titan.

The plot is loopier than a Dr. Suess illustration, so I wont attempt to summarize. The book is broken into four sections – the above mentioned set-up on Earth; Mars – which has been colonized by a brainwashed fascist horde; Mercury – twisty passageways under the scorched surface, populated by the starfish-like Harmoniums; and Titan – largest moon of Saturn, a utopia of lakes and forests and temperate climate.

Constant moves through each locale (pretty much as Rumfoord’s pawn), and by the time he reaches Titan, the snooty bachelor is long gone, replaced by a crippled old man. But the journey serves as a tool to explicate on Vonnegut’s favorite themes – religion, war, free will, human relationships, the meaning of life. The voice of the telling is distinctly Vonnegut, infused with a sarcastic, wry humor.

Initially I was a bit put-off by the book. For a sci-fi adventure, it was lacking in any sort of dramatic arc. The character of Constant is so wrenchingly altered between each planet, he might as well be four different characters. And Rumfoord is a bitter manipulator, a used-car salesman in a cheap suit. But the novel is redeemed by the final act, where the absurdity of humanity’s history is brought to light, and Constant’s ludicrous life is acquiesced. Even though his journey across the solar system had little purpose, he found love. That’s Vonnegut’s message to us all.

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