Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Kurt Vonnegut sets the Prophetic Wheels in Motion
The purpose of human life is a question which has been debated upon ever since people managed to create free time for themselves, allowing them to think of topics other than survival. While all our thinking has led us no closer to an indisputable answer, it has led to a wealth of ideas worthy of consideration, and Kurt Vonnegut added some of his own input on the topic in 1959 when he published The Sirens of Titan.
The story begins by introducing us to the kind of protagonist we’d be hard-pressed to relate to or sympathize with. Malachi Constant, the richest and most depraved man on the planet, with none of his wealth or power having been acquired by his own hands. Everything he has, which is more than anyone else, was inherited.
Under the pretext of his special nature, Malachi is invited to an event which only a chosen handful have witnessed before him: the materialization of Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog Kazak, who exist as wavelengths extending from our sun to Betelgeuse.
Existing in a form defying time and space, Rumfoord is privy to knowledge of the future, and gives Malachi a prophecy as to what awaits him in the near future. Against all odds, he is meant to go on an interplanetary voyage around the solar system, one which will ultimately bring him to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.
Soon after setting in motion the wheels of his own great plan, Rumfoord dematerializes and leaves Malachi Constant to fulfill his fate, a process which he begins very soon after. Along the way he beholds many different sights, creatures, and ways of living, pondering to the best of his limited abilities to true worth of his seemingly useless life.
The Unfortunate Space Wanderer in The Sirens of Titan
If there is one flaw which I don’t think anyone could reproach to Kurt Vonnegut novels, it’s them moving too slowly or being boring. Like the vast majority of his other works, The Sirens of Titan uses a rather simple language and doesn’t dawdle on long descriptions or pointless, self-indulgent sequences which add nothing to the plot.
On the contrary, the action is consistently progressing from one locale to the next, from one set of circumstances to the next, often completely different from each other. There is a fantastic variety to the adventures Malachi goes through, taking us by Mars, Mercury and back to Earth again before the story approaches its conclusion on Titan… and in virtually all of them, the protagonist is rather unfortunate.
The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart.― Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan
As a matter of fact, there is such a stark contrast between the events which transpire on the different planets they almost feel like short stories in their own rights, if not for the connection they share because of the reoccurring characters.
I’ll do my best not to give any spoilers, but personally I found the adventure on Mars to have been exceptionally-described and developed in a truly captivating fashion due to the persisting mystery as to the actual purpose of the whole project, and of course the payoff. Perhaps a bit more skillfully than the other segments, it offers the patented Vonnegut mix of clever humour and piercing social commentary.
Speaking of commentary, the adventures of Malachi the space wanderer aren’t simply there for the sake of it. As you would expect from the author, he explores a number of complex and profound themes along the way, using everything to his advantage from the setting and dialogue to well-timed observations about human nature.
A Dissection of the Nature of Man
As I mentioned it at the start of the review, the purpose of human life is a central theme to The Sirens of Titan, and Kurt Vonnegut does his best to explore it from a number of different angles and contrasting it with non-human life on a few occasions. Putting Malachi into different situations, he consistently re-examines and re-appraises how the worth of his life and his actions might be measured.
However, he doesn’t simply stop there, and muses about a whole lot of other things, chief among them being the unity of humanity. Or more precisely, what it would take to challenge the nature of Man, to overcome it and forge the entirety of the planet into a single, unified entity. I would enter spoiler territory if I revealed his solution to the problem, so I’ll just say it’s tragically-plausible.
A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.― Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan
Once this society has actually been formed, Vonnegut describes it in a way only he can, his sharp wit pouring from all the ridiculous yet thematically-appropriate concepts he introduces. It made me laugh, but more importantly, it made me think about the realistic capacity of creating a utopia where human nature is present.
Among the other topics of The Sirens of Titan he explores are war, mind-control, the art of conquest, the idea of a unifying religion, prophets, what the perfect beings would look like, friendship between human and machine, and a whole lot more in-between. Thankfully, the author’s reflections on all those subjects are well-organized and, more often than not, quite logical.
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While Vonnegut certainly makes quite a few statements of his own, the ideas he puts on the page have the power to make each reader draw his or her own conclusions from it all. Personally, I got out it of the idea human life probably doesn’t have any inherent purpose (certainly not a noble one), and it’s not such a bad thing. You, however, might extract something completely different out of it, and this is where the beauty of Vonnegut‘s novels lies.
The Final Verdict
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut was quite deservedly the novel which launched him into stardom, combining science-fiction, philosophy and humour in a way which became uniquely his over the decades.
If you’re already a fan of the author, are looking to discover his best works, or just in search of an expertly-written novel delivering profound thoughts through comedy, then I urge you to give this classic bestseller of the 60s the attention it deserves.
(November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007)
Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer, a great pioneer and titan of literature who managed to profoundly move people from all corners of the world. His satirical humor is something sacred uniqueness in the world of literature.