Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

BKTG19099

Now here’s a classic for you.

After traveling directly into an esoteric space phenomenon called a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, the elite adventurer Winston Niles Rumfoord gains an almost omniscient knowledge of the future, but can only periodically manifest at his estate. Only his wife Beatrice is allowed to witness such manifestations, until he invites Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world, over for a visit. Rumfoord tells Constant that Martians will compel him to breed with Beatrice, but encourages him with the knowledge that he will eventually meet three beautiful women known as the Sirens of Titan.

The oracle isn’t lying, but how these events unfold will shock the reader. Between the interplanetary kidnappings, brainwashing, a deliberately failed invasion and a joyously nihilistic religion that worships an indifferent god, this could well be a novel that rewards rereading. If everything you’ve read so far in this review strikes you as absurd, rest assured as Sirens is largely a comedy with a few serious things to say – whether you agree with them or even find them inspirational is all up to you.

During his comedic exposition Vonnegut foreshadows The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by referring to excepts from fictional books, most frequently Rumfoord’s Pocket History of Mars, but also Maurice Rosenau’s Pan-Galactic Humbug or Three Billion Dupes and Cyril Hall’s A Child’s Cyclopedia of Wonders and Things to Do. If I had to name this technique I’d call it ficto-citation, and the reason it’s so much fun is that it furthers the reader’s immersion by providing another layer of detail. It’s much better than having the narrator just tell the reader what’s going on, although Vonnegut is forced to resort to such a mode of narration when describing the life and perspectives of a very alien alien.

Vonnegut’s tendency to skip through time can admittedly be disconcerting. At one moment our protagonist is a listless millionaire playboy, the next they’re somebody completely different on Mars. While Vonnegut never gets as perplexing as Philip K. Dick, I could totally forgive a reader for losing the plot halfway through. I say if you can understand Stephen Moffat writing Doctor Who you can handle this.

The other thing that bothered me about the book was that I didn’t actually like any of the characters. Malachi is too ineffectual to care about, Rumfoord takes know-it-all paternalism to a planetary level, and Beatrice seems content to respond to situations as they are presented to her. Even the sirens of Titan were something of a let down. The most sympathetic character was the juvenile delinquent Chrono, who is willing to stab or swear at anyone who gets in his way. I also pitied the poor alien marooned on Titan.

The Sirens of Titan seems to have influenced Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Rumfoord combines Doctor Manhattan’s godlike knowledge and detachment from humanity with Adrian Veidt’s apparent heroism and penchant for counter-intuitive schemes. Becoming aware of how this book likely influenced Watchmen doesn’t make me feel that disillusioned about Moore, it’s just interesting to see how ideas are developed be one author and used in a different context by another.

You can plainly see from this review that I enjoyed this book, and if you enjoy science fiction the same thing is likely to happen to you. The Sirens of Titan‘s wry humour means that it could well appeal to people completely apathetic to the genre. I could see devotees of Catch 22 getting into it. No matter which way you waffle about it, this book was worth more than the two dollars I paid for it.

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