The Sirens of Titan

sirens of titan

The Sirens of Titan‘ is a 1959 book by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His second novel, it involves issues of free will, omniscience, and the overall purpose of human history. Much of the story revolves around a Martian invasion of Earth. The protagonist is Malachi Constant, the richest man in 22nd-century America. He possesses extraordinary luck that he attributes to divine favor which he has used to build upon his father’s fortune. 

He becomes the centerpoint of a journey that takes him from Earth to Mars in preparation for an interplanetary war, to Mercury with another Martian survivor of that war, back to Earth to be pilloried as a sign of Man’s displeasure with his arrogance, and finally to Titan where he again meets the man ostensibly responsible for the turn of events that have befallen him, Winston Niles Rumfoord.

Rumfoord comes from a wealthy New England background. His private fortune was large enough to fund the construction of a personal spacecraft, and he became an explorer. Traveling between Earth and Mars, his ship—carrying Rumfoord and his dog, Kazak—entered a phenomenon known as a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, which is defined in the novel as, ‘those places … where all the different kinds of truths fit together.’ Vonnegut notes that any detailed description of this phenomenon would baffle the layman, but any comprehensible explanation would insult an expert. Consequently, he ‘quotes’ an article from a (fictional) children’s encyclopedia. (Interestingly, much of Vonnegut’s information on the solar system came from a similar source.)

According to this article, since the Universe is so large, there are many possible ways to observe it, all of which are equally valid, because people from across the Universe can’t communicate with each other (and therefore can’t get into an argument). The chrono-synclastic infundibula are places where these ‘ways to be right’ coexist. When they enter the infundibulum, Rumfoord and Kazak become ‘wave phenomena,’ somewhat akin to the probability waves encountered in quantum mechanics. They exist along a spiral stretching from the Sun to the star Betelgeuse. When a planet, such as the Earth, intersects their spiral, Rumfoord and Kazak materialize, temporarily, on that planet.

When he entered the infundibulum, Rumfoord became aware of the past and future. Throughout the novel, he predicts future events; unless he is deliberately lying, the predictions always come true. It is in this state that Rumfoord established the ‘Church of God the Utterly Indifferent’ on Earth to unite the planet after a Martian invasion. It is also in this state that Rumfoord, materializing on different planets, instigated the Martian invasion. On Titan, the only place where he can exist permanently as a solid human being, Rumfoord befriends a traveller from Tralfamadore (a world that also figures in Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five,’ among several others) who needs a small metal component to repair his damaged spaceship.

Salo, the Tralfamadorian explorer, is a robot built millennia earlier to carry a message to a distant galaxy. His spacecraft is powered by the Universal Will to Become, or UWTB, the ‘prime mover’ which makes matter and organization wish to appear out of nothingness. (UWTB, Vonnegut informs the reader, was responsible for the Universe in the first place, and is the greatest imaginable power source). A small component on Salo’s spacecraft breaks and strands him in the Sol System for over 200 millennia. He requests help from Tralfamadore, and his comrades respond by manipulating human history so that primitive humans evolve and create a civilization in order to produce the replacement part. Rumfoord’s encounter with the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, the following war with Mars, and Constant’s exile to Titan were all manipulated via the Tralfamadorians’ control of the UWTB. Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China and the Kremlin are all messages in the Tralfamadorian geometrical language, informing Salo of their progress.

As it turns out, the replacement part is a small metal strip, brought to Salo by Constant and his son Chrono (born of Rumfoord’s ex-wife). A sunspot disrupts Rumfoord’s spiral, sending him and Kazak separately into the vastness of space. An argument between Rumfoord and Salo moments before, left unresolved because of Rumfoord’s disappearance, leads the distraught Salo to disassemble himself, thereby stranding the humans on Titan. Chrono chooses to live among the Titanian birds; after thirty-two years, his mother dies, and Constant manages to reassemble Salo. Then, using the part delivered so many years previously by Chrono, he repairs the Tralfamadorian saucer. Salo returns Constant to Earth, where Constant dies experiencing a pleasant hallucination secretly implanted in his mind by Salo.

According to ‘The Harvard Crimson,’ Vonnegut ‘put together the whole of ‘The Sirens of Titan’ … in one night…[H]e was at a party where someone told him he ought to write another novel. So they went into the next room where he just verbally pieced together this book from the things that were around in his mind.’

Literary critic William Deresiewicz, in a 2012 retrospective of Vonnegut’s work wrote: ‘Artistically, though, [‘Player Piano’] is apprentice work—clunky, clumsy, overstuffed. Turn the page to ‘The Sirens of Titan’ (1959), however, and it’s all there, all at once. Kurt Vonnegut has become Kurt Vonnegut. The spareness hits you first. The first page contains fourteen paragraphs, none of them longer than two sentences, some of them as short as five words. It’s like he’s placing pieces on a game board—so, and so, and so. The story moves from one intensely spotlit moment to the next, one idea to the next, without delay or filler. The prose is equally efficient, with a scalding syncopated wit: ”I told her that you and she were to be married on Mars.’ He shrugged. ‘Not married exactly—’ he said, ‘but bred by the Martians—like farm animals.”

Vonnegut sold the film rights to ‘Sirens of Titan’ to Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, who began working with comedian Tom Davis in late 1983 and finished their first draft in early 1985. Garcia commented on the book and the screenplay in a 1987 interview: ‘There’s really three basic characters that are having things happen to them. Three main characters. [Malachi,] Rumfoord, and Bee. It’s like a triangle, a complex, convoluted love story. And it’s really that simple….So our task has been to take the essential dramatic relationships, make it playable for actors, so that it’s free from the Big Picture emphasis of the book. There’s also some extremely lovely, touching moments in the book. It’s one of the few Vonnegut books that’s really sweet, in parts of it, and it has some really lovely stuff in it. It’s the range of it that gets me off.’

Garcia died in 1995 before bringing the film to the screen. After waiting a ‘respectable period of time,’ Robert B. Weide, who had written and produced the 1996 film adaptation of ‘Mother Night,’ and had worked on a Vonnegut documentary for years, asked the author about the status of the rights. Vonnegut bought back the rights from Garcia’s estate and gave them to Weide on a ‘verbal handshake’ where they remained for years while he attempted to write and find backers for his adaptation. By 2006, Weide reluctantly announced that he had lost the rights. In 2007, it was announced that screenwriter James V. Hart wrote an adaptation which Vonnegut approved before he died.

In a 1979 interview released in 2007, author Douglas Adams discussed Vonnegut as an influence on ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’: ‘Sirens of Titan’ is just one of those books – you read it through the first time and you think it’s very loosely, casually written. You think the fact that everything suddenly makes such good sense at the end is almost accidental. And then you read it a few more times, simultaneously finding out more about writing yourself, and you realize what an absolute tour de force it was, making something as beautifully honed as that appear so casual.’

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