A Series of Accidents is a series examining the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can read the first entry, on Player Piano, here
The Sirens of Titan is the first Kurt Vonnegut novel that really feels like a Vonnegut novel, if not a great one. It’s the first appearance of the Tramalfadorians, the time-transcending aliens whose detached perspective on reality seems close to the author’s own. We can also see here the first appearances of many of Vonnegut’s signature themes, whether it be the folly of war or the fundamental instability of time and identity. It seems like a different world from the more familiar, literalistic dystopia of Player Piano.
And it’s only natural that Sirens would be a significant departure from Vonnegut’s first novel. Seven years had passed since the publication of Player Piano. In this time, the middlebrow short story market which Vonnegut had relied upon for a steady income dried up, and he applied himself to seemingly everything but writing the second novel he was contracted to do (a half-formed idea about something called ice-9.) He wrote plays and acted in them, tried to get his scripts made into television anthologies, created a large sculpture, and opened a Saab dealership that swiftly went bankrupt.
Amidst this period of personal turmoil, the Vonnegut’s family worries only grew. Kurt’s sister Alice and her husband died shortly after one another, and Kurt and his wife Jane took in their four children in addition to three of their own. It was a large family in a big house without much income to provide for either. Perhaps this is the source of the cynicism which infects every word of Sirens. Certainly, if Vonnegut had any illusions about making a life for himself with sincere art, they had been dashed by now.
Sirens of Titan has a rather elliptical narrative, one that doesn’t fully make sense the first time through. In essence, the story concerns the shifting relationship between three people across multiple identities. Winston Niles Rumfoord, an aristocrat who leads a quintessentially Vonnegutian religion dubbed the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, tells new-money millionaire Malachi Constant that Constant will become lovers with Rumfoord’s wife at the start of the novel. (The Rumfoords, a parody of the Roosevelts, will be another recurring group of characters in Vonnegut’s work.) Constant protests, being the good midcentury American he is, but he and Rumfoord’s wife Beatrice will later marry when both have forgotten their past lives.
Vonnegut introduces the concept of fatalism and predestination early in the text. Rumfoord has transcended the typical dimensions of time through the use of something called chrono-synclastic infundibulum, an obviously-nonsense term that signals to the reader that they had better not think so seriously about the science. He now sees beyond the illusion of causality, stating that “it came to me in a flash that everything that ever has been always will be, and everything that ever will be always has been.” Similarly, Malachi Constant’s history belies any idea that the world is rational: he has made his fortune by betting on stocks based on the letters in the bible, and become the richest man in America through dumb luck. It is immediately clear that one should not expect a typical narrative which proceeds through a “realistic” chain of cause and effect, and is driven by comprehensible human motives. (You would think people wouldn’t expect these things from a novel with something called “Kazak, the Hound of Space”, but sci-fi readers can be funny.)
As if to prove the absurdity of expecting a normal story, the novel’s focus abruptly shifts to a military camp on Mars and a dim-witted but brave soldier named Unk. On Mars, Unk’s life becomes even more blinkered and incomprehensible, a microcosm of what Vonnegut sees as the human condition. Unk describes his own experience as “blinks and glimpses, and now and then maybe that awful flash of pain for doing something wrong.” He is discouraged by his taskmasters from attempting to remember his past, and punished by an implanted device for so much as thinking about rebellion. Unk’s life, then, is blinkered, neutered, and obedient – the image of the conformist citizen that many 1950s writers worried about. Over the course of the narrative, he will lose these shackles and become much more aware of his past and present, even learning the rationale behind the existence of humankind. But it’s never quite clear whether Unk truly gains more control of his life.
Unk is a foot soldier in a putative invasion of Earth by Mars, a stock science fiction plot since the days of H. G. Wells. But in Vonnegut’s hands, the invasion is both farcical and tragic: the alien invaders are no match for the Earth’s military, and end up slaughtered easily. In the end, their deaths have been foreseen by Rumfoord, who uses them as martyrs for his new religion. It would take Vonnegut a little while to fully address what he experienced during the war, although he would get closer with his next novel, Mother Night. But in this plot we can begin to see the approach he would take to war narratives throughout his career, portraying battle as a foolish slaughter of deceived innocents by calculating schemers.
This, of course, leads us to Rumfoord’s religion, the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Vonnegut’s books are full of invented religions with far-out doctrines, and it can be easy to take them as expressions of the author’s own beliefs. Certainly the fatalist cosmological view of Rumfoord and his followers has its similarities with Vonnegut’s worldview, and especially Unk’s offhand line that becomes its credo: “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as we all are.” This is Vonnegut’s cosmos, a pinball-table of random events indifferent to human will. That Unk is ultimately revealed to be Malachi Constant, and his wife Bea to be Rumfoord’s wife Beatrice, only reinforces this chaos: not even the seeming constancy of human consciousness can be relied on.
But at the same time the Church illustrates the appeal of a fatalist perspective. Rumfoord is as much as a villain as you can find in Vonnegut, a man who manipulates others and uses his church to control them. While he elevates Unk to the status of holy fool, he villifies the man who Unk used to be, Malachi Constant. Able to travel through time and space through a nebulously-defined power, Constant believes that by realizing the insignificance of the world he has learned all there is to know. Vonnegut, then, is trapped between having to acknowledge earthly insignificance and being aware that such a doctrine could be used by the powerful to sedate those they oppress.
His response, I suppose, is Unk’s ultimate rejection of his role in Rumfoord’s cosmology by once again adopting the identity of Malachi. In an earlier segment, Unk combats his environment with the tools of a left-wing activist: “His only response was to fight it with the only weapons at hand – passive resistance and open displays of contempt.” If humans are powerless to change the world around them, then the best they can do is to disavow the evil they see and refuse to be a part of it. Beatrice (another not-great female character) delivers such a disavowal to Rumfoord, in one of the book’s great quotes: “The human race is a scummy thing, and so is Earth, and so are you.” Maybe the only thing that can overcome Vonnegut’s fatalism is his misanthropy.
So Malachi and Beatrice opt out of the scumminess of Earth more than any of us can, by jetting off to the titular moon of Saturn. Once there, however, Malachi discovers that even Rumfoord’s grand scheme and his rebellion against it were pre-ordained, and that the entire history of the human race has been a cosmic contrivance for a trivial purpose – to get a stranded Tramalfadorian a missing part for his spaceship. With the family’s landing on Titan, that task is accomplished, and the human race is faced with the prospect of continuing on without even this meagre purpose. Malachi and Beatrice live out their lives as interstellar hermits, unable to find a response to this cosmic joke. Maybe Vonnegut couldn’t think of one either.
In the years between Player Piano and Sirens of Titan, that Vonnegut grew much closer to the writing he would be renowned for. The almost-regulation prose style of Piano has given way to a more casual, plain-spoken voice that seems as indifferent to the story as the God that rules over it. The integration of fantastical elements feels much looser than the previous novel – there’s no attempt to make things plausible, in sharp contrast with the science fiction of the 1950s. This is the style that would define Vonnegut’s work over the following decades.
And yet there’s something missing in The Sirens of Titan that’s present in Vonnegut’s best writing. He would never be known for psychologically well-rounded characters, but in his best novels there’s a kind of universal sympathy that makes you feel for the people caught up in the clockwork absurdity of the world regardless. In Sirens, it’s all clockwork, and our three central characters are never really worth taking seriously except as symbols. The whole thing is a cosmic joke, a thrice-abstracted thought exercise. It’s a pleasure to read, but far from emotionally involving. One is almost tempted to suggest that this remove is the reason the novel was another commercial failure, although it didn’t dissuade Vonnegut from writing as heavily as the flop of Player Piano did.
Still, The Sirens of Titan would set the tone for Vonnegut’s work in the coming decades – work that would more fully explore the effects of this fatalist universe on the people living within it. As Rumfoord eventually learns, figuring out that nothing matters is only the first step: far more important is figuring out how to make things matter regardless.
At one point in the midst of the novel, Unk reads a letter that a now-forgotten version of himself has written. Vonnegut writes that “It was literature in its finest sense, since it made Unk courageous, watchful, and secretly free. It made him his own hero in very trying times.” It was this vision of literature that Vonnegut would move towards in the years to come.
Next month, I’ll be writing about Mother Night. Not to spoil anything, but I like it a lot better than this book.
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