Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Sirens of Titan Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher: Delacorte
Genre: Literary Science Fiction, Humor
Series: Standalone
Pages: 336

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The book that first garnered Kurt Vonnegut literary fame, The Sirens of Titan is a satirical science fiction novel that explores the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. Vonnegut’s story is heavy on the science fiction element, but it’s primarily used to advances his beliefs about the world and humanity, rather than make predictions about the future.

This is a fast moving book with a lot of changes that are often abrupt, but not disruptive. The setting shifts frequently from Earth, Mars, Mercury, and Titan, a moon that is orbiting Saturn, all in a book that is under 400 pages.  The characters often change as frequently as the setting does, making the novel difficult to follow at times.

Vonnegut’s trademark satire is on point and it is horribly hilarious while he lampoons humanities beliefs in existence, religion, and wealth.  A classic in both literary and science fiction, The Sirens of Titan is a punch to the gut that you can laugh about.

Describing the plot summary for The Sirens of Titan provides quite a conundrum. The way I think of The Sirens of Titan is in layers.  Specifically, there are three layers of story, or groups of characters that are on similar boats.  I will explain the outermost layers working inwards.  As readers move further through the book, the way this plot summary is organized should begin to make more sense as readers are not first aware of how all of these different characters are connected.
  1. A messenger robot named Salo from Tralfamadore gets stranded on Titan after his spaceship breaks down.  In order to deliver his message he needs to acquire a, difficult to obtain, spare part.
  2.  A wealthy American aristocrat named Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog get sucked into a chrono-synclastic infandibulum which scatters his physical existence across time.  This allows Winston to appear at regularly scheduled intervals across the solar system, it allows him to read people’s minds, and it allows him to see that past and future. The abilities allow Rumfoord to communicate with Salo and with the many characters on the third level.
  3. The third layer primarily follows Malachi Constant, the wealthiest man in the world as he gets caught up in the schemes of Winston Niles Rumfoord.  Beatrice Rumfoord, Winston’s unhappy wife, is also dragged into Winston’s plotting and scheming.

Being Vonnegut’s second published novel, The Sirens of Titan continues his exploration of humanities purpose in the genre of science fiction.  Fans of later Vonnegut books will recognize the alien name Tralfamadore, as this society plays a significant role in Slaughterhouse-Five.  In The Sirens of Titan, Tralfamadore plays a small but significant role in the overall story.

Humor and satire are a huge aspect of this plot and character driven story.  Vonnegut’s satire makes use of unusual situations such as the origin of Malachi Constant’s huge amount of wealth. According to Constant, the family fortune was acquired by his father who successfully gambles on stocks by picking companies initials that correspond to different initials from sentences constructed out of the Bible.

Despite situational goofiness like this, the overarching story, and thematic point to the story, is based on irony and satire.  Humor goes deeper than a lot of the surface level quirkiness that is found in this book.  The conclusion to the novel is as funny as it is deep.  It allows for some (albeit broad) introspection on the nature of the universe and humanity’s role in it.

The Sirens of Titan moves at a fast pace, while never rushing the plot. Vonnegut’s characters are well written, unusual, and go through a large number of changes in a very short time.  Malachi Constant, who is the main character of this story, undergoes significant transformations from a wealthy playboy money waster, into an intelligent and resourceful man.

On the other end of the character spectrum, the manipulations of Rumfoord, and his callousness towards the other characters in the story helps drive a lot of the personal conflicts.  Additionally Rumfoord’s abilities that he gained in his space traveling accident make him one of the most interesting character creations in any of Vonnegut’s works.  Rumfoord is a character that is a symbol of Vonnegut’s creative brilliance.

The Sirens of Titan is a science fiction classic, and it’s the first truly great work of what would be many by Kurt Vonnegut.  The story should appeal to both fans of literary and traditional science fiction, and to fans of anyone who likes a large amount of satire in their story.

Score: 9.7

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