I generally read up on book before I review them, and it doesn’t happen a lot I come across a good, thorough scholarly essay that’s available online. The fact that I did find one about The Sirens Of Titan attests to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s status as an author embraced by the literary establishment.
A big part of that is the fact that Vonnegut did not write clearcut science fiction, but something that seems more important to the uninitiated. His voice is critical, satirical, grotesque. The question of genre is exactly the subject of said essay. It’s written by Herbert G. Klein, and in doing so he tackles a lot of other aspects about this novel. It’s here.
The Sirens Of Titan is Vonnegut’s second novel. Slaughterhouse-Five, one of my all-time favorite books, was published 10 years later. The general consensus is that SH5 is Vonnegut’s masterpiece, so I did not expect Sirens to top it, just as I didn’t expect Cat’s Cradle to top it. To be clear: it didn’t. If I have to believe what I’ve read, it is only in Sirens that Vonnegut really found his voice, and it indeed reads as what I’ve come to expect from him: similar in themes & method. But, it does not feel as invested and personal as SH5. Just below all the satire of his most known book is a thick layer of emotion, and that’s lacking here. As a result, I didn’t feel as invested in the characters & the storyline.
Still, Vonnegut had had his share of bad luck by 1959, and one would imagine that to be an emotional reservoir for any writer. Power reader, music historian and jazz critic Ted Gioia points out how the biographical does seep into this book, in yet another excellent text on Sirens, to be found on Conceptual Fiction.
But the lack of a taut narrative is part of Vonnegut’s intended effect. The fickleness of chance and destiny are a major of theme of this novel—and an appropriate theme for an author who had suffered from random, unpredictable acts of violence over and over again during his brief life. While other writers draw on what they learned in a MFA program, Vonnegut’s stock of personal experiences included his mother’s suicide (on Mother’s Day, no less), his internment as a prisoner of war in World War II, a role-reversal that found him as the target of American attacks in the bombing of Dresden, the early death of his sister, his custody of his [four] orphaned nephews, his financial struggles and thwarted literary ambitions. If Vonnegut knocked around his characters like so many bowling ball pins, it was only because he felt himself similarly mistreated by an apathetic universe.
I’m heavily invested in Dexter Palmer’s Version Control at the moment, and I don’t have any original thoughts to add to that what has been written on Sirens already, so I will limit myself to a few closing remarks, and some quotes from the text by Klein that are for sure of interest to the literary scholar.
My most important remark is the question whether Frank Herbert might have read this before he started Dune… Vonnegut uses a made-up religion and a character seeding myth among humanity in anticipation of the arrival of a religious figure – a bit like the Bene Gesserit do. And like Leto II Atreides, Winston Niles Rumfoord can predict the future and starts a brutal war to ultimately better humanity.
The overall message of Sirens is not any different of what I’ve read of Vonnegut before, and rings just as true to these ears: active nihilism, determinism, love as the only valid answer.
“I WAS A VICTIM OF A SERIES OF ACCIDENTS, AS ARE WE ALL.”
Sirens is definitely a must read for serious fans of satire, but just as it lacks the deep emotion of SH5, it’s also not as funny as the more focused Cat’s Cradle.
The first part of the book is quite strong, with my sense of wonder and anticipation still intact. The second part is a bit weaker, but is still ripe with invention – there really is a lot packed into these 224 pages.
If I am to believe what I’ve read online, Sirens is also quite radical for a book published in 1959 – especially as far as science fiction goes. That makes it definitely recommended for those interested in the history of the genre – just read the quotes of Klein below for more on that. Fans of Vonnegut know what to expect, but should not get their hopes up too high.
I do, however, have my hopes up for a TV series adaptation that has been announced in the summer of 2017 – should it get made. The screen version of The Sirens Of Titan will be directed by Dan Harmon, co-creater of Rick And Morty – imo one of the best TV shows ever. The kind of humor in Rick And Morty should work wonderfully for a Vonnegut adaption. Evan Kats will be collaborating too, and as he was an executive producer for 24, that might promise serious budgets.
As promised, I’ll leave you with a selection of quotes from the article by Herbert Klein.
“The novel can also be seen as a “shaggy-dog story”, i.e. an elaborate hoax with an anti-climactic punch-line. In this interpretation, the exaggerated science fiction-clichés are deflated by the revelation that all human endeavours so far have had as their sole end the delivery of a piece of metal to a broken-down spaceship, piloted by a robot on a fool’s errand. There can hardly be a more negative commentary on the belief of mankind’s being able to shape its own destiny. In fact, this interpretation turns The Sirens of Titan almost into a novel of the absurd, with similar implications as the works of Kafka or Beckett. Arguably, however, Vonnegut’s outlook is not quite as bleak, because once Salo continues on his way, mankind is presumably free to pursue its own objectives. Furthermore, it can be argued that the novel does not claim that life is absurd, but rather that it does not make sense to look for its meaning in some external source.”
“Malachi’s voyage is thus also a quest for spiritual salvation. This quest has its literary antecedent in Dante’s Divina Commedia with Beatrice, Rumfoord’s wife, as the unlikely object of his love. Malachi goes through the hell of Mars, the limbo of Mercury, and the purgatory of Earth to the celestial regions of Titan, and dies with a glimpse of paradise. This paradise is an inner one which finds parallels in Milton’s Paradise Lost: When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, the Archangel Michael shows them the plight that awaits them, but they are also vouchsafed the discovery of a paradise within themselves.”
“Quite a lot of science fiction since the 50s has used mythic patterns in order to find a deeper order in the world and to make sense of it all. Sense, however, as we have seen, is something that The Sirens of Titan decidedly refuses to make. None of its ostensible explanations or solutions can be taken at face value. Malachi’s quest can be seen as an “anti-quest” in that he cannot make any free decisions, but is forced or inveigled into every move, and what he eventually finds is pure illusion. This is especially emphasised by the ending of the novel, since the sentimental wisdom that Malachi reaches there is deflated by his silly death at the bus-stop, which is only mitigated by a robot-induced hallucination. So I agree with Charles Elkins who says: “What The Sirens of Titan does, in fact, is to demystify the mythic pretensions of most contemporary… science fiction.””
“The Sirens of Titan thus does not provide the reader with any of the comforting ideas that he may have come to expect from science fiction – or, indeed, from most other kinds of fiction: man is not only shown to be utterly devoid of control over his own destiny, but even devoid of any importance within a higher scheme of things. Vonnegut thereby insists that sense and meaning can only be the ineluctable responsibility of each individual. In using the format of science fiction, Vonnegut is making a wry comment on what he is writing about: As Lawler (“Story”, 1977: 73) has pointed out: “The form supplies the comic perspective needed to dramatize the tragic-comic implications of modern thought and attitudes.” By employing the means of a genre which is often called escapist, but nevertheless adapts the mode of the realist novel, Vonnegut questions the nature of reality as it is commonly perceived and the conventions by which it has been described in literature. He thus uses the science fiction framework in order to make certain points that would not have been possible in a realist novel. He does this by drawing attention to the textuality of his text, to the way it becomes a textual object. Like other postmodernist fiction, The Sirens of Titan foregrounds the process of “world-building” that is the constituent of all fiction, and which is here shown to be an artefact – as are all other constructions that purport to explain reality. Form is indeed inseperable from function here.”
“To call Vonnegut a science fiction writer, then, is both true and untrue: in The Sirens of Titan he may be said to have started deconstructing genre boundaries long before it became the common fashion. In fact, The Sirens of Titan not only makes one ask “What genre does it belong to”? but also “Is that a meaningful question?”. It could therefore be said to deconstruct the question of genre itself. By doing this, this novel also prefigures the dissolution of the distinction between mainstream, popular and avantgarde fiction which is usually taken to start much later. In this respect, Vonnegut is very much akin to avantgarde writers like Burroughs, Barth or Pynchon who on occasion also use science fiction concepts for similar ends, but it should be acknowledged that The Sirens of Titan is certainly among the first novels to do this.”