Kurt Vonnegut (wikipedia) published The Sirens of Titan in 1959 (wikipedia),it was nominated for Science Fiction’s Hugo Award in 1960. At 326 pages, it is his second book and is perceived as one of his best.
An alien, Salo, stranded in Earth’s solar system manipulates humanity over eons to produce and deliver a much needed spare part. We learn of the plot through the eyes of Malachi Constant / Unk, who appears to be manipulated by Winston Niles Rumfoord, who himself is manipulated by Salo, who is a machine that lacks free will. Malachi and Winston are in a love triangle with Beatrice, who has a son with Malachi / Unk while they are with the Martian army; Rumfoord creates the army and has it launch a failed invasion of Earth to spawn a religion with Malachi / Unk as its failed mesiah. Malachi/Unk and his family are exiled to Titan, where they serve to deliver the needed part to Salo. Beatrice and Rumfoord die on Titan, where they are surrounded by statues – including three that are the eponymous ‘Sirens of Titan.’
Themes of the Book – Deep Ideas
Vonnegut, in his second published work, is not shy about going after big topics and big ideas. The book touches on all of the following concepts:
- Free will
- Mind control – Direct, memory wiping
- Manipulation of the masses – creation of a new religion (page 176)
- Sacrifice for the greater good – Mars’s military is created to make a better religion on Earth
- Profiteering – deliberate and through willful ignorance (page 176)
- Friendship – the nature of it; as told between Boaz and Unk / Malachi – a false friendship, and Unk / Malachi with Stony – a real friendship
- Creation of a New Religion
- The Nature of God
- The Nature of Luck
- Parenthood – in the relationship between Chrono and Unk
- Profiteering from religion
- The role of good luck charms – Chrono’s good luck piece
- Sexuality, purity, chastity, rape and relationships with Bee / Beatrice and the love (really abuse) triangle between her, Winston Niles Rumfoord and Malachi / Unk.
Chapter 1, Pages 1 – 40: Between Timid and Timbuktu (Sirens Ch 1) Pages 1 – 40
Malachi Constant visits the estate of Beatrice Rumfoord, whose husband is billionaire Winston Niles Rumfoord (“WNR”). During an adventure in space WNR passed through a a chronosynclastic infundibulum (“CSI”), which causes him to appear at the estate on regular intervals. Constant meets with WNR during one of his apparitions, where WNR tells Constant what will become of him – another aspect of the CSI is that WNR knows the future.
“The bounties of space, of infinite outwardness were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.” Page 2
Constant flees the meeting in a helicopter and retreats to his home where he parties to forget the experience. Rumfoord appears to Beatrice when she is broke. Constant also loses his fortune. When WNR appears to Beatrice, who protests that she doesn’t like her lack of autonomy and free will, that he too is a pawn being used in a larger game.
Favorite Sentence and Writing:
“The million-year period to which the burned junk related would be summed up in history books in one sentence, according to Koradubian: Following the death of Jesus Christ, there was a period of readjustment that lasted for approximately one million years.” Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan: Pg 46 The false story of Koradubian’s account of the meeting between him and WN Rumfoord’s apparition.
Malachi Constant learns that his business is bankrupt, reads a letter from his deceased father written in case this should happen, and signs up to join the Martian Army, which has engineered this situation. The same Martian spies are with Beatrice Rumfoord disguised as business advisers when we see The Whale, rechristened the Rumfoord, take off.
“Nobody thinks or notices anything as long as his luck is good. Why should he?”Noel Constant to his son Malachi via Letter – Page 89 of The Sirens of Titan
This chapter is the best fiction writing about the dangers of propaganda, brainwashing, censorship, and centralized control. A man wordlessly strangles another in front of a crowd of ten thousand, unable to communicate, unable to object, and unable to think for himself.
Chapter 4 Summary
- Unk, a 40 year old Martian soldier, is ordered to strangle a man to death in front of his battalion of 10,000 fellow soldiers.
- Unk strangles the man, whose dying words are about a blue stone, because he – like all of the soldiers, is under mine control from radio antennas.
- In addition to the mind control, soldiers are sent to the hospital for brainwashing – where Unk was told he is best soldier in his unit, despite the fact that his superior, Brackman, believes him to be the unit “f-ckup.”
“An observer would have been at a loss to who was really in charge, since even the generals moved like marionettes, keeping time to the idiotic words:” Page 104
Chapter 5, Pages 105 – 133: Letter from an Unknown Hero (Vonnegut Sirens – Ch 5 Link)
Unk, the soldier from Chapter 4, meets his friend Boaz, who does not appear to be a good friend, and is apparently secretly in charge of the mind radios and Unk’s entire battalion. Unk finds the letter – written to Unk by someone cataloging their knowledge of Mars, while being subject to frequent mind wipes – which tells Unk about the mind control, the invasion plans, his best friend Stony Stephenson, that he has a partner, Bee, and son, Chrono, and that he should not trust Boaz. The letter was written by Unk before his mind wipe. After reading the letter, Unk learns the assault on Earth has begun.
This section is an epistolary, that refers back to the title of the chapter.
“That is the first thing I know for sure: (1.) If the questions don’t make sense, neither will the answers.” Page 124 – The Letter
Chapter 6, Pages 134 – 166: Deserters in a Time of War (Vonnegut Sirens, Ch 6 Link)
Unk deserts the army, and finds his son, Chrono – who has no connection to him – Chrono goes back to his game of German Batball. Next Unk finds Bee, who has a job teaching soldiers how to breathe in a vacuum, she hides Unk with a new group of trainees as his pursuers find them. Unk comes to in a spaceship with Winston Niles Rumfoord, who tells him that Bee is Beatrice Rumfoord, and that Unk – as Malachi Constant before his memory wipes – had raped her, fathering Chrono, during his trip to Mars. After his assault, he fell in love with her, and they spent their time on Mars getting their memories wiped in attempts to connect.
Examples of great writing in Chapter 6:
“Salo, Rumfoord’s crony on Titan, was a messenger from another galaxy who was forced down on Titan by the failure of a part in his space ship’s power plant.” Page 138 – Salo has a Martian month named after him, he has been waiting for 200,000 years for the part.
“The history of the good-luck piece was this:” Page 143
“There was a rebus of her name on her sweatshirt.” Page 151, wouldn’t a rebus of her name – Bee – simply be a bee? Vonnegut wrote a joke for me.
“The recruiters have a saying about a male recruit like that – that he has named his balls Deimos and Phobus,” said Rumfoord, “Deimos and Phobus being the two moons of Mars.” Page 161
“She’d been married for several years before she got to Mars,” said Rumfoord. “But when the hot-shot lieutenant got to her there in the space ship bound for Mars, she was still a virgin.”
“Pretty good joke on her husband, eh, Unk?” he said. – Page 166
The Martian Army’s invasion is inept, and they are defeated by the overwhelming violence and arsenal of the Earthlings. The reader learns more of the origins of the war, how Winston Niles Rumfoord financed it with his butler, Moncrief, and how the Tralfamadorean Salo gave him the designs for spaceships and half of his Universal Will to Become to power them. Rumfoord uses Earthling guilt at the force of their victory to create a new religion, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Unk destroys Boaz’s mind control device after they are stranded on Mars, and Bee and Chrono are stranded in the Amazon – some of the few survivors of the botched invasion.
Best writing in Chapter 7:
“Winston Niles Rumfoord chose 75,000 words so well for his Pocket History of Mars that nothing remains to be said, or to be said better, about the war between Earth and Mars.” Page 167
“Earth thought otherwise.” Page 170
“A single, badly scorched man named Krishna Garu attacked all of India with a double-barreled shotgun.” Page 171
“As he says in his Pocket History of Mars: “Any man who would change the World in a significant way must have showmanship, a genial willingness to shed other people’s blood, and a plausible new religion to introduce during the brief period of repentance and horror that usually follows bloodshed.” – page 176
“Last night, while you were asleep, old buddy, I took that fool thing out of your pocket, old buddy, and I opened it up, old buddy, and I tore the insides out of it, old buddy, and I stuffed it with toilet paper.” Page 180 – Unk informs Boaz that his mind control device will no longer work on him, mockingly using his same style of diction.
Chapter 8: In a Hollywood Night Club (Page 187 – 198) (Sirens Ch 8)
The poor design of the Martian space ship auto-pilot traps Unk and Boaz deep in a cave on Mercury, where they cannot escape. The creatures of Mercury, known as Harmonium, spell out the words “It’s an intelligence test!” with their shimmering bodies.
Top quotes from Chapter 8:
“They have only two possible messages. The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first.” Page 189
“Not believing it was the thing that saved them from panic.” Page 195
Chapter 9: A Puzzle Solved (Page 199 – 217) (Sirens Ch 9)
Over three years, Unk searches for a way out of the caves of Mercury, climbing higher and higher – returning to the spaceship less and less. Boaz becomes a friend and overseer to the harmonium, playing them music and even having some live on him. One day, the harmonium on a wall have the answer to the puzzle spelled out, “Turn the ship upside down.” Boaz decides to stay with the harmonium on Mercury.
One new theme explored is whether or not Boaz is doing anything positive for a creature with no intelligence, or is he anthropomorphizing the experience of the harmonium for his own benefit.
Best writing and quotes:
“Don’t truth me,” said Boaz in his thoughts, “and I won’t truth you.” Page 205, Boaz on recalling Unk’s murder of Stony Stevenson.
“Boaz had invented the plea, and its meaning was this: Unk was to stop telling Boaz truths about the harmoniums, because Boaz loved the harmoniums, and because Boaz was nice enough not to bring up truths that would make Unk unhappy.” Page 206
Chapter 10: An Age of Miracles (Page 218 – 255) (Sirens Ch 10)
Chapter 10 Plot Summary:
Unk lands on Earth, where he lands on Cape Cod. He is escorted to Newport, where the Rumfoord home is now a religious compound where survivors of the Martian invasion – the former invaders – work at concession stands supporting the prophecies of WNR when he appears to the crowd. Survivors include Beatrice and Chrono, Unk’s wife and son.
Favorite Writing or Sentence:
“He was filled with the heedless, tender violence of a man who has had his lifetime cruelly wasted.” Page 220 – Unk, landed on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA at age 43, having fled his banishment to Mercury.
Chapter 11: We Hate Malachi Constant Because… (Page 256 – 269) (Sirens Ch 11)
Unk / Malachi Constant / The Space Wanderer is led in to the outdoor worship area constructed by Rumfoord, where he is sentenced to exile on Titan with his wife, Bee, and son, Chrono. Unk briefly thought he had a future on Earth and he yearns for his friend Sonny, who he learns he killed.
Favorite writing examples:
“Tell me one good thing you ever did in your life – what you can remember of it.” Page 263
“His poor soul was flooded with pleasure as he realized that one friend was all that a man needed in order to be well-supplied with friendship.” – Page 264
“Feel more like a vitally-interested participant now, Mr. Constant?” called Rumfoord. Page 265
Chapter 12: The Gentleman from Tralfamadore (Page 270 – 307) (Sirens Chapter 12)
On Titan, Salo and Winston Niles Rumfoord await the arrival of Unk/Malachi, Bee and Chrono; Chrono carries the needed part in the form of his good luck piece. Humanity’s history was secretly guided to deliver the spare part, Salo is worried that WNR will find this out and be upset. WNR dies before Salo is able to divulge the secret message he is to carry for another 17 million years, his death drives Salo mad and he destroys himself.
Favorite writing from Chapter 12:
“The atmosphere of Titan is like the atmosphere outside the door of an Earthling bakery on a spring morning.” – Page 270
“Salo was punctual – that is, he lived one moment at a time – and he liked to tell Rumfoord that he would rather see the wonderful colors at the far ends of the spectrum than either the past or the future.” – Page 273
“The name of his home planet was Tralfamadore, which old Salo once translated for Rumfoord as meaning both all of us and the number 541.” – Page 273
“Civilizations would start to bloom on Earth, and the participants would start to build tremendous structures that were obviously to be messages in Tralfamadorian – and then the civilizations would poop out without having finished the messages.” Page 278
“The Pocket History of Mars,” said Rumfoord, “makes no mention of the fact that I have been powerfully influenced by forces emanating from the planet Tralfamadore.” – Page 293
“Against all orders from Tralfamadore,” said Winston Niles Rumfoord, “against all your instincts as a machine, but in the name of our friendship, Salo, I want you to pen the message and read it to me now.” – Page 293
“As far as I’m concerned,” said Constant, “the Universe is a junk yard, with everything in it overpriced.” – Page 295
“Everything that every Earthling has ever done has been warped by creatures on a planet one-hundred-and-fifty thousand light years away. The name of the planet is Tralfamadore.” – Page 302, Rumfoord’s admission
“Sooner or later, Chrono believed, the magical forces of the Universe would put everything back together again.
They always did.” – Page 307
Epilogue: Reunion with Stony (Page 308 – 326) (Sirens Epilogue)
Beatrice dies on Titan at age 74, Constant buries her and Chrono mourns her loss with a flock of Titanic bluebirds. Salo surprises Constant, who thought his repairs had not worked. Salo offers to take Chrono and Unk to Earth, Unk accepts. Unk is dropped off at a bus station in Indiana, where he dies. In Unk’s final visions – induced by Salo’s hypnosis – Stony Stephenson appears in a starship to reunite Unk with Beatrice in paradise.
Favorite writing of the Epilogue:
“There isn’t much more to tell.” – Page 308
She was probably a little crazy. On a moon with only two other people on it, she was writing a book called The True Purpose of Life in the Solar System. It was a refutation of Rumfoord’s notion that the purpose of human life in the Solar System was to get a grounded messenger from Tralfamadore on his way home again.” – Page 314
“Anyone who has traveled this far on a fool’s errand,” said Salo, “has no choice but to uphold the honor of fools by completing the errand.” – Page 320
“I would say, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ – but Skip once told me that was the most hateful and stupid expression in the English language.” – Page 320
“You are tired, so very tired, Space Wanderer, Malachi, Unk,” said Salo. – Page 322, Salo hypnotizes Unk.