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The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut “Rented a tent, a tent, a tent; Rented a tent, a tent, a tent. Rented a tent! Rented a tent! Rented a, rented a tent.”
— Snare Drum on Mars”

That is funny until it suddenly becomes creepy, to tell you why would be a spoiler though.

The Sirens of Titan is great stuff, this should come as no surprise to you if you are a Kurt Vonnegut fan, but it surprised the hell out of me. You see, I didn't like [b: Cat’s Cradle|135479|Cat's Cradle|Kurt Vonnegut|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327867150s/135479.jpg|1621115], one of his most celebrated books and, if I remember correctly, I didn't like [b: Slaughterhouse-Five|4981|Slaughterhouse-Five|Kurt Vonnegut|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1440319389s/4981.jpg|1683562] either, though I read that too long ago to be sure. Slaughterhouse-Five is even more celebrated than Cat’s Cradle. So I didn’t expect to like The Sirens of Titan, not a good attitude to start a book with, but after a few pages it just clicked.

The Sirens of Titan is obviously science fiction but if you are a die-hard sci-fi fan with Clarke, Asimov etc. as your literary heroes you may want to approach this book with a different set of expectations. Even with spaceships, aliens and chrono-synclastic infundibulation this novel is not primarily sci-fi. Kurt Vonnegut is only using sci-fi as a platform to tell an allegorical story about life, together with an anti-war and anti-religion themes. In spite of a fairly simplistic prose style, this novel really is quite profound. I don’t think I have managed to decipher all the subtexts, I am still pondering them as I write.

The story begins with a man named Winston Niles Rumfoord who, together with his dog, accidentally becomes “chrono-synclastic infundibulated” during a space voyage. I will leave you to find the precise meaning of “chrono-synclastic infundibulated” for yourself, amusingly explained by Vonnegut. The upshot of it is that Rumfoord and his dog become a “wave phenomena” spread across the universe; they materialize briefly on a planet whenever that planet’s orbit intersects their spiral waveforms, and soon dematerialize when the planet moves away from the intersection. Being spread through space and time gives Rumfoord knowledge of future history because “the Everything that ever was always will be, and everything that ever will be always was.”. In other words, the future is just as immutable as the past. This foreknowledge leads Rumfoord to play God with the entire human race, with special attention paid to Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world, and Rumfoord’s wife, Beatrice. To this end, Rumfoord orchestrates a war between “Martians” and humanity simply to make a point and teach mankind a lesson.

With its unpredictable plot, characters, humour and philosophical themes The Sirens of Titan is a triumphant little novel that confounded my expectations. In spite of the comedic tone throughout the narrative the book is underpinned by sadness and loneliness. The time traveling aspect of the story is of the “predestination model” where the past and future exist simultaneously and both are equally unmalleable. Malachi Constant’s futile attempts to thwart his destiny as revealed to him by Rumfoord is funny to begin with until all his agency is taken away from him and he becomes a tragic and pathetic figure. The storyline is quite unpredictable from beginning to end, the book is often very funny, and the end is wonderfully poignant. Vonnegut makes the reader question his place in the vast uncaring universe, and he (rightly) doesn't offer any easy answer. One very impressive feature of Vonnegut’s prose style is that it is deceptively simple but hides a shrewd perception of the human condition and human compassion.

The Sirens of Titan actually works quite well as a “soft sci-fi” novel but it is more of an allegory about our floundering search for the meaning of life. I will probably give [b: Slaughterhouse-Five|4981|Slaughterhouse-Five|Kurt Vonnegut|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1440319389s/4981.jpg|1683562] another go and I look forward to reading [b: Breakfast of Champions|4980|Breakfast of Champions|Kurt Vonnegut|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327934446s/4980.jpg|2859378], [b: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater|9590|God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater|Kurt Vonnegut|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388200987s/9590.jpg|4076] and many more of Vonnegut’s works.