The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Aside from perhaps some of the existential novels I read in college which I really enjoyed as I felt as I could really relate to them, Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan has to be one of the saddest novels I have ever read. I came close to crying several times while reading through it. It’s very, very bleak. Of course, there’s the satire and usual black humor and of course there’s the layers of meaning one can extract from a Vonnegut novel, but just reading it at its base layer, it’s damned cold.
The book is about two main characters — Winston Niles Rumsfoord and Malachi Constant. Rumsfoord and his dog took a spaceship out to explore the galaxy and became “chrono-synclastic-infundibulated,” which means they became scattered in time and space and materialize throughout both at various points in time, witnessing the past and future. He’s viewed as a type of prophet by the masses and his materializations are looked forward to by all. Constant is the world’s richest man, having inherited a good bit of his billions from his father and having earned the rest through an odd investment scheme his father invented. He is lazy and decadent and a bit of a Hollywood playboy. This book is about their lives and how they intertwine, as well as Rumsfoord’s wife, Beatrice.
In my opinion, Rumsfoord takes on the role of Satan in this novel. He uses and abuses, tortures and slaughters, destroys and deceives. He’s a ruthless bastard and I grew to hate his guts. Constant comes to be known as Unk while living on Mars as Unk. He loses everything. He can be viewed as the Biblical Job, but without the happy ending. He and Beatrice, who Rumsfoord also attempts to destroy, wind up together ultimately on Titan with a son who is psychotic. There are also aliens, one of whom is pretty cool – Salo, the Tralfamadorian. Turns out the Tralfamadorians have been manipulating humanity for all of our history.
While Vonnegut skewers the military and organized religion, he sets his sights on the notion of God, or a kind, benevolent god. In his view, if there is any god, if he’s not totally cruel, he’s at best a being who doesn’t give a shit about humanity. Ruumsfoord drives that idea home when he creates a world religion he calls The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. The “luckiest” people in the church have to wear heavy weights on their bodies or do something to make themselves suffer in some way.
When Ruumsfoord and Constant first meet, Ruumsfoord tells him that he’s going to go to Mars, Mercury, back to Earth, and ultimately to Titan, and he’s also going to marry Beatrice and have a son with her and he’ll be very, very happy. He’s right about some of it and a lying bastard about some of it. The thing I never figured out was why he decided to pick Constant out to completely destroy. Was it simply because he was the “luckiest” man in the world and Ruumsfoord resented it? Was it really that simple? Is that good motivation? Cause Ruumsfoord went through a hell of a lot of trouble and killed tens of thousands of people just to destroy Constant and Beatrice. It doesn’t make much sense to me. What’s his motivation? Is he just jealous and, if so, why? He’s pretty damn lucky himself. He’s got a huge estate, has the only spaceship in the world, a lovely if cold wife, a good job, lots of money himself. So he decides to pick one man, the luckiest man in the world, to personally destroy just for the hell of it. Sounds like a royally evil bastard to me. This is probably a five star book because it’s so damned original and I did enjoy some of it, but I thought the section about Mars and the Army of Mars was somewhat weak and I really ended up not enjoying the book as much as I thought I would, so I’m giving it four stars. Still, recommended.