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As I mentioned before in my review of Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan is probably my favorite novel that Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote. If this were my list (and I may make one someday), I would surely have this book a lot higher up, maybe even in the top 5. But since this isn’t just about my favorite books, I’ll have to settle for giving it a glowing review in the #57 spot. This book contains all of the various elements that are usually associated with Vonnegut: dark humor, wry observations, a sad-sack protagonist who is swept up in an adventure of galactic importance, discussions of free will and destiny, and nothing less than the revealing of the ultimate purpose of the entire human race. With a description like that you’d think the book was a thousand word treatise on philosophy (or something equally as boring). Instead, what we get is a brightly colored carnival ride through time, space and the solar system in which we meet a host of characters whose seemingly insignificant actions end up having an effect on the course of human civilization.
Sirens of Titan Summary: As far as Vonnegut main characters go, Malachi Constant is a bit more upwardly mobile than most. As the richest man in the 22nd century, Malachi has lived a playboy’s life due to being born into wealth and then having tremendous good fortune to turn that money into even more money. But like most wealthy gadabouts in literature, he hasn’t really done anything meaningful with his life outside of make and spend a lot of money. That soon changes when he is invited to witness the reappearance of one Winston Niles Rumfoord, a wealthy inter-planetary space explorer who came into contact with a strange phenomenon known as the chrono-synclastic infundibulum – causing him (and his dog Kazak) to appear and disappear at regular intervals on a variety of planets, including Earth. Besides being stretched as thin as a wavelength across the vastness of space, Rumfoord is also able to view the past, present and future – making him an oracle of sorts (albeit a mischievous one). While it’s not immediately apparent, Rumfoord has a very peculiar plan for Malachi which includes, in part, in being a major figure in his newly formed “Church of the God of the Utterly Indifferent”.
To give a full account of the events that follow would be an almost impossible task and would rob the book of it’s unique charm and novelty. Let’s just say that it includes a stop on Mars (where an invasion of Earth is being planned), a brief period on Mercury (where kite-like creatures known as Harmoniums live on soundwaves), a number of trips to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and the only place in the universe that Rumfoord can exist as a solid form, and even a brief description of the Vonnegut staple Tralfamadore, a planet whose residents (and one messenger in particular) are responsible for the entire course of human history.
Sirens of Titan Review: Where some might see Vonnegut’s ultimate revelation of civilization’s purpose as an absurdist slap in the face to those who want to believe in humanity’s central place in the cosmos, I tend to think of the final reveal as less important to the true aim of the book, which is to poke fun at all of the things we take too seriously in our lives – whether it’s religion, money, patriotism, beauty, or even love to some extent. Vonnegut is the eternal court jester of Science Fiction, poking fun at everyone and everything in ways that not only serve to make us laugh, but also to ponder why the things we hold sacred are even sacred at all. Although searching for meaning and order in the universe is a hobby as old as time, the rituals and stories that we come up with to make sense of it all can be as detrimental to our personal well being and spiritual evolution as the emptiness and meaninglessness that they serve to mask. Vonnegut isn’t telling us that our lives have no meaning. Instead he is trying to warn us to be skeptical about the things that we assign meaning to and the conclusions that we draw from the meanings we give them.