June 25, 2014

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

The Sirens of Titan is Kurt Vonnegut's second novel, published in 1959. The story is told by a future historian and takes place over a forty-plus year time span, "sometime between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression." It is a romp through time and space and can be, quite honestly, a bit hard to follow. But then, there is a reason why we at least perceive ourselves within a linear and defined time/space continuum. Well, at least most of us do. I don't really know what I'm talking about, but reading Vonnegut has that effect on me.

There are three main characters in The Sirens of Titan: Malachi Constant, Winston Miles Rumfoord, and Rumfoord's wife, Beatrice. Vonnegut builds up all three characters and then uses that build up to tear them down. (Who does he think he is? God? Hey, maybe this plays into the story. Hmmm ....)

Rumfoord is a bit of a prophet figure. Beatrice made me start thinking about Dante's Divine Comedy, but I'm not really sure where my brain was trying to go. Let's just say there might be something to that. Or not. 'The excesses of Beatrice were excesses of reluctance." Maybe that is why I was thinking of Dante. That and the name "Beatrice." And I'm not sure what was up with poor Malachi. I'm sure he is a type ... or ... a type of a type .... (Oh Vonnegut, you REALLY messed with my mind in this book.)

There is also an alien. A machine alien. With inflatable feet. His name is Salo. He's got a missing part that plays a big part in the novel. To tell you more would be spoilerish. So, I won't. "The machine is no longer a machine. The machine's contacts are corroded, the bearings fouled, his circuits shorted, and his gears stripped. His mind buzzes and pops like the mind of an Earthling - fizzes and overheats with thoughts of love, honor, dignity, rights, accomplishments, integrity, independence." Aliens in science fiction are often foils to humanity and help us define our human nature, and so Salo fills this purpose. I think.

The Sirens of Titan is a morality tale. It is satire that is somewhat humorous, but ultimately sad and depressing. The characters are powerless. I think they are powerless. I think I'm supposed to think that. Yeah, kinda bleak.

The central idea of the book is: What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of human existence? I won't tell you how Vonnegut answers these questions, but if you've been paying attention at all here you can probably guess.

Some random thoughts because, honestly, I don't know how to incorporate these into a review:
  • Vonnegut smacks down organized religion yet honors personal belief.
  • The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent (I'm sure there is a whole theological discussion just in this name.)
  • Free will: Yes or no? (Not really answered and kinda argumentative loop-ish, just like in real life.)
  • Earth as God's spaceship (I'm telling you, there is some whacked stuff here people!)
  • I'm pretty sure Douglas Adams was influenced by this novel.
This novel is about Ideas with a capital "I". If you like Ideas, satire, social commentary, characters representative of types or other literary characters then you will like The Sirens of Titan.If you need a plot that hangs together well, characters that are developed with understandable motives then you might be a bit bewildered as to why some of us actually like this book.

If you find Vonnegut's satire and humor tiresome and/or depressing, you might find that you like (can tolerate?) his writing in short bursts; try his short stories in Welcome to the Monkey House.


Edited to include a link to my video review on YouTube > http://youtu.be/toXsf2f93h0


  1. Nice post. You are not alone in having Vonnegut's novels somewhat discombobulate your thinking. It happens to me all the time! I was at the Vonnegut Memorial Library's book club meeting today and the curator if the library said Sirens of Titan was his favorite KV novel. It's not mine (maybe Player Piano or Cats Cradle) but I did enjoy it. I posted about the library's book club editing on it awhile back (here http://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/martian-invasions-and-chrono-synclastic-infandibula-do-i-even-need-to-add-oh-my-to-that/ if you want to take a look). The book club also has its own blog site (included in my links) where our unofficial club secretary does a much better job of describing our meetings. :-)

    1. Thanks for the support! Vonnegut can really throw me sometimes! I like it though. His writing definitely makes me think and often makes me laugh. Of course, I might be laughing through some tears at times - kind of a funny-not-funny thing. I really enjoyed Bluebeard as well as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I look forward to reading his entire (or most of) his oeuvre.

      I read your blog post and left a comment. Thanks for pointing it out to me. I'm so glad you read my post and left a comment. I was hoping for a comment/feedback from someone familiar with Vonnegut's writing :)

  2. I have never read anything by Kurt, and yet I know he is a beloved author. The things he writes about God, from what I can tell in your review, would probably inflame me. Yet I like ideas, of course, and if I could categorize them as fiction that would help me a lot.