Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Sirens of Titan

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Completed 1/2/2014, Reviewed 1/3/2014
3 stars

I loved Vonnegut in high school.  In my Modern American Lit class, we read “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater”, “Welcome to the Monkeyhouse”, and of course “Slaughterhouse Five.”  On my own, I read “Jailbird” and “Slapstick.  Picking up one of his earliest novels thirty-five years later, I realized I had forgotten what a bizarre, dark writer he was.

“Siren of Titan” has a crazy, convoluted plot that is quite difficult for me to describe.  It’s about Malachi Constant, one of the richest but also most spoiled and morally bankrupt people on earth.  When his fortunes collapse, he takes an offer to go to Mars to become an officer in their army.  Constant’s adventures on Mars, and later Mercury and Titan seem to be manipulated by Winston Niles Rumfoord, a man who apparently knows the future, and moves through space making appearances on earth every 50-some-odd days.  Besides Constant, Rumfoord manipulates the people of earth, starting a new religion, the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, turning Constant into a sort of anti-messiah.  Also in this mix is Rumfoord’s suffering and spoiled wife Beatrice, and a robot alien named Salo from the planet Tralfamadore (Vonnegut uses this planet in several of his works).  And, well, let’s just say, you have to read the book to really get it.

Trying to write this review, I’ve realized this book is really hard to write a review for.  The book is short.  I can’t discuss the plot too much because it moves quickly and gives away the ending.  So I’ll focus on the ideas he’s conveying through the story.

Clearly, Vonnegut is making a lot of statements in this book.  First, he talks about the war machine.  From my high school English class, I still remember that Vonnegut was in WWII and survived the fire bombing of Dresden.  He had some pretty intense feelings about war.  At least at the time he wrote the novel, I think it’s easy to say that Vonnegut believes that people are tricked into joining the army with promises of a fresh start, only to become killing machines, nearly devoid of free will.  Any show of thinking on your own gets you punished. 

Vonnegut was also an outspoken humanist.  It’s clear from this story that he believes that if there is a god, he’s indifferent, and doesn’t need our worship.  If there should be a religion, it should be one that dictates having compassion for each other, even the lowliest of us.  In the novel, the only way to do this is to create a war event with such deplorable results that people are mortified into shifting their beliefs to a new paradigm.

Lastly, I think it’s pretty obvious that he despised the rich. That’s obvious from his main characters.  Considering what a short book this is, the characters are pretty fully realized.  And the three main characters, Rumfoord, Constant, and Beatrice, are pretty deplorable people.  There were times where I felt pity for Constant as he is manipulated by Rumford, and for Beatrice and her plight, but that didn’t last very long.  The only character who is likable is Salo, the robot.  It is the only character who seems to have human feelings.  It does not manipulate, or act out of revenge.

The end of the book is great.  There’s an awesome twist which I won’t give away.  And reflecting on it, it makes me mad that at least one other popular author stole the ending.  I won’t give it away, because it will give away the ending.  But if you’ve read popular SF from the ‘80s, you’ll know who it is as soon as you finish “Sirens”.

Whew, getting all that out coherently was tough. 

I didn’t think this book was his best.  But in coming up with a star rating, I had to acknowledge the genius of Vonnegut, creating such a wild, dark ride, jam packed with his philosophies in such a short novel.  I couldn’t give it 4 stars, because at the same time, it seemed forced.  I think he did a much better, subtler job getting his messages across in later works.  So I settled on 3 stars.  It’s definitely worth a read.  I think everyone should read some Vonnegut.  Whether you agree with his beliefs or not, he had a style of writing that should be experienced more than once.

1 comment:

  1. Good review Stephen! A tough one to review owing to the deceptive shortness of the work, with the massive depth that it provides. The real genius of Vonnegut is the economy of means; a bit like poetry... haiku, straight up with a twist of dark humor.