Book Review: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

The Sirens of TitanThe Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge and the Second Best Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

I had to struggle to determine what I was going to give this book as a rating. I can’t say it was a bad book, because it wasn’t at all. It was very well written. The storyline was gripping and the prose flowed marvelously. As you can see, I managed to finish the whole thing in one day. But I hated it. And I think people are both giving it far too much credit and reading more into it than the author intended.

This is my first acquaintance with Kurt Vonnegut, so perhaps I am not familiar with the way he says things or does things. I assume there must be a great deal that I’m missing in the message, because Vonnegut is one of the darlings of the critics, and he has a cadre of fans who think he’s a genius. I think it’s because of that plague of “grim for grim’s sake”. Apparently, being a cynical jerk makes you a genius who can see reality for what it really is. That’s just what cynical jerks would think about themselves too. I don’t think being cynical makes you sophisticated by definition. Actually, I think being cynical is a very bad thing, and I fight it hard in myself. Cynicism is a bleeding wound of the soul.

A quote from Esquire on the front of the mauve-covered edition I read said, “He dares not only to ask the ultimate question about the meaning of life, but to answer it.” Eventually, yes, that’s true. But it takes him a long way to get there and I don’t think he understands the meaning of what he actually said because I think he hated humanity like Kafka did. Which must be where he got his influence, along with Alfred Bester because he wrote this back in 1959.

Perhaps part of my problem is that I have read similar things that were less nasty-spirited. Douglas Adams‘s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was clearly influenced by this book. Perhaps Adams was trying to take a stab at re-doing Vonnegut’s book with a kinder (though similar) message.

To tell you why would be to utterly ruin the book, something I find frustrating. But let me take a stab at it. A man named Winston Niles Rumfoord, an aristocratic adventurer who had everything going for him, takes his dog with him and crashes his spaceship into a time-space loop phenomenon, such that he and his dog become time-space wave functions. When planets in the solar system collide with this phenomenon, he can materialize as long as this has occurred, but dematerializes once it has stopped. This gives him a few hours every 59 days on Earth, a day or two at a time once every so often on Mars (how often is not defined,) and forever on Titan, Saturn’s moon. It also, since he is a wave phenomenon, gives him the ability to be aware of all of the past and all of the future and to read minds, and thus he can take advantage of his knowledge to make predictions and establish situations to his advantage.

By the end of the book, he claims that all he has done has been to try to further the benefit of the human species and the planet Earth in light of a horrible, overwhelming force. Except that he is a liar. What he did was to create the most elaborate, horrible scheme possible to torture and humiliate a man who eventually would wrong him before he’d actually done anything, and his wife for refusing his attentions. Vonnegut approaches their torture and humiliation with a suppressed unholy glee in his writing. It’s all about a more powerful being bringing people who thought they were powerful low for its own petty (not even nefarious) purposes.

Why? Because the man who would eventually wrong Rumfoord (who never would have been in a position to wrong him anyway if Rumfoord hadn’t caused that situation to occur) thought himself blessed by God because he was born rich and good-looking, having had the good fortune to have an extremely fortunate speculator for a father; and because Rumfoord’s wife refused sex and to “dirty” herself with people because she thought them beneath her. Now, I hate those wealthy and entitled kinds of people too, but I assure you, the punishment does not fit the crime, and by the time they are shown that they are being punished and why, they are no longer the same people and have no memory of what they did that was so offensive. Also, I can’t believe how people have missed how horribly misogynist Vonnegut was in the treatment of the characters of this book. The only woman in the whole thing is punished for not doing what her husband wants her to do, in one of the most awful ways I can imagine. And the only reason why Rumfoord is upset at Constant, the viewpoint character, is that Constant defiles his property.

I have even read reviews that say that this book is funny. This isn’t funny; it’s terrible, horrifying, and more than a little nauseating. Then again, I’m sure he wants to point out how horrible we are.

There’s always a bigger fish, though, which is part of Vonnegut’s theme. Ultimately, I think the purpose of the book was to make a mockery of all possible faith and philosophy. (Yes, deconstructionists, how clever they think themselves!) One of the things that Rumfoord also uses his powers of foresight for is to torture thousands of people in his goal to humiliate his rivals (under the guise of saving humanity,) and to establish a religion whose sole purpose is to assure that no human ever takes pride in anything again and avoids any possibility of success in any field.

I am sure that all of that is intended. Based on the things I have merely hinted at here thus far, one might make any of the following conclusions as to the “message” of Sirens:

* The purpose of life is what you choose to make it.
* But your choice means nothing because free will doesn’t exist.
* Like what happened to the viewpoint character and others, if reincarnation really does have to do with receiving reward or punishment in this life for the deeds of the last, then God is a sadist and we should punch Him in the face.
* Some people really do use “the greater good of mankind” to justify their misogyny, petty jealousies and quests for status.
* People should never be too proud.
* God hates us all equally.
* Even if magic and serendipity do exist, how do we know that these situations are created for our benefit? What if they were created for the benefit of someone else?
* Even if there are powerful beings who exist outside of time and space and can therefore read minds, know of the future and be in many places at once, what makes us think that they’re morally superior to us in any way, especially considering the human experience of how power tends to make people into even bigger jerks than they already were?
* Perhaps we are all just the victims of random accidents, and nothing happens for any reason at all.
* And if things do happen for a reason, how are we to know it’s a good reason?

And that, as I have said before, is the purpose of science fiction: to make us question our reality and ask some hard questions about ourselves. This book is certainly not hard science fiction, and even some of its own internal logic makes no sense (for example: if Rumfoord crashed his ship in space into this time warp, why does he only seem to materialize in his house on Earth? Surely the location is irrelevant under those circumstances!).

But it is indeed science fiction, and I see why it’s in the SF Masterworks; so many things have been influenced by it! I even see its ghost in Frank Herbert‘s classic Dune. But it’s still a nasty-spirited book by a man who I feel must have hated people and who probably was impossible to have any kind of relationship with. I have a little more sympathy when I learn this man was at the Battle of the Bulge.  Still, in conclusion, it was a “good” book, but I really didn’t like it much. Give it a nod of respect, sure; but I don’t think it would hurt anyone to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy instead.

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