“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘Science Fiction’… and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics mistake the drawer for a urinal.”
–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons
The late Douglas Adams acknowledged that this novel influenced him when he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Alan Moore had been reading it when he wrote Watchmen, given the similarity in some of the plot elements (though Watchmen, like HHG, becomes something else entirely).
When I was a teen, I got into Vonnegut’s writing, and have since read everything he’s written. The quality varies, but his best books have become required reading in some circles, and I plan to review five of his best genre novels over the next couple of months.
Title: The Sirens of Titan
Author: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Original Publication Date: 1959
After flying into a “chrono-synclastic infundibulum,” Winston Niles Rumfoord makes friends with an extra-terrestrial stranded on Titan, and sets about manipulating the human race. He plans to improve our future– no matter how many people he must use to do so.
1.The plot involving “Unk” manages to be satirically funny and bitterly touching at once. It’s a measure of Vonnegut’s talent that he can make you laugh at and weep for someone at the same time. It’s very like the chrono-synclastic infudibula, where opposites cans be reconciled. Please see the end of the block quotation later in this section for further commentary.
2. Vonnegut may not have been the first to quote non-existent books in his novels, and none of his imaginary references have achieved the fame of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. However, few have made the use of such sources so perfectly plausible and hilarious.
The message itself was unknown to Salo. It had been prepared by what Salo described to Rumfoord as, “A kind of university– only nobody goes to it. There aren’t any buildings, isn’t any faculty. Everybody’s in it and nobody’s in it. It’s like a cloud that everybody has given a little puff of mist to, and then the cloud does all the heavy thinking for everybody. I don’t mean there’s really a cloud. I just mean it’s something like that. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, Skip, there’s no sense in trying to explain it to you.”
Vonnegut wrote this in the 1950s. It sounds a little like the World Wide Web.
The proto-60s pop-philosophy opening paragraph now seem unnecessary.
Originality: 5/6 Vonnegut deliberately uses SF clichés in this, his second novel, though he uses them in a way few had done before. Many would follow. The manner in which the human race is unified has been proposed more than once, even before Vonnegut, but it was comparatively new territory. One aspect of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, meanwhile, recycles an idea used in his short story, “Harrison Bergeron.”
Story: 6/6. Vonnegut’s plot seems to wander, but the disparate threads weave together at the end, and he gives us a bitterly funny explanation for much of human history.
Characterization: 5/6. Malachi Constant becomes a memorable character, and Rumfoord gives us a glimpse of what might happen to a human being who outgrows the limits of humanity.
Imagery: 5/6. The descriptions of Mars and of the Harmoniums of Mercury, in particular, stand out. Salo, meanwhile, is the sort of alien seldom encountered outside of the best written SF.
Emotional Response: 6/6 Vonnegut would later be accused of putting “bitter coatings on sweet pills” (Anonymous friend, quoted in “Address to Graduating Class at Bennington College, 1970” Wampeters, Foma, and Granfallons), but in this novel, he’s slathering humour on concepts that can be downright depressing.
Editing: 5/6. I’ve mentioned a problem with the opening paragraph that recurs in places, but overall, this ranks among Vonnegut’s best-written novels.
Overall Score: 5/6.
In total, The Sirens of Titan receives 37/42
I’m a little busy at the moment, but I intend to reread and review Vonnegut’s five best (as I see them) genre novels in the next couple months. In addition to this one, look for future reviews of Player Piano, Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Galapagos.