Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan

My last few columns have all dealt with pretty heavy stuff — time for a palate cleanser. Kurt Vonnegut fans know that Slaughterhouse Five may be his most famous, and even his best, book. But the most enjoyable, the funniest, the most original, and Slaughterhouse’s predecessor by 10 years, is the interplanetary space romp The Sirens of Titan.

When it was first published, as a Dell paperback, in 1959, most people looking at the cover would have taken it for cheap pulp science fiction. And though Vonnegut revels in his improbable universe full of weird creatures, Martians, and implausible physics, this is a work of a mature writer wrestling with important themes, including the fragility of free will and the apparent chaos of fateful occurrences that everyone experiences, though perhaps not always at this level of cosmic consequence.

The novel begins memorably with the arrival of wealthy, famous Winston Niles Rumford in his own backyard.

There was a crowd. The crowd had gathered because there was going to be a materialization. A man and his dog were going to materialize, were going to appear out of thin air — wispily at first, becoming, finally, as substantial as any man and dog alive.

At the tail end of the crowd was a woman who weighed three hundred pounds. She had a goiter, a caramel apple, and a gray little six-year-old girl. She had the little girl by the hand and was jerking her this way and that, like a ball on the end of a rubber band. “Wanda June,” she said, “if you don’t start acting right, I’m never going to take you to a materialization again.”

This materialization takes place every 59 days because having been the first person rich enough to purchase his own private space ship, Rumford, along with his dog Kazak, was caught nine years ago in a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, which, we learn, is one of those places, in this case stretching in a thin strip across the solar system, “where all the different kinds of truths fit together as nicely as the parts in your Daddy’s solar watch.” To this particular materialization, Rumford has invited the other main character in the book.

Malachi Constant is a rake and bon vivant, and the wealthiest man in the world. The admiration the world holds for space traveler Rumford is balanced by the contempt it feels for the arrogant, decadent, and, at least until now, incredibly lucky Constant.

Rumford makes the prediction that Constant will soon be bred like cattle with Rumford’s wife on the planet Mars, fathering a son, and later, after many travels, will be the consort of three of the most beautiful women imaginable on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

In spite of all Constant’s best efforts, Constant does end up on Mars as a combat soldier training for the invasion of Earth. This invasion army is controlled by a form of mind control based on memory erasure, which forces Malachi to kill his best friend, Stony Stevenson.

The novel will eventually take us to Mercury, the home of flat diamond-shaped creatures.

The planet Mercury sings like a crystal goblet.

It sings all the time.

One side of Mercury faces the sun. That side has always faced the sun. That side is a sea of white hot dust.

The other side faces the nothingness of space eternal. That side has always faced the side of space eternal. That side is a forest of giant blue-white crystals, aching cold.

It is the tension between the hot hemisphere of day without end and the cold hemisphere of night without end that makes mercury sing.

Mercury has no atmostphere, so the song it sings is for the sense of touch.

The song is a slow one. Mercury will hold a single note in the song for as long as an earthling millenium. There are those who think that the song was quick, wild, and brilliant once — excruciatingly various. Possibly so.

There are creatures in the deep caves.

The song their planet sings is important to them, for the creatures are nourished by vibrations. They feed on mechanical energy.

The creatures cling to the singing walls of their caves.

In that way, they eat the song of Mercury.

Eventually, we return to Earth, then travel all the way out to Saturn’s moon Titan, where Rumsford can actually enjoy a stable corporeal existence, and Malachi Constant will learn the truth about the three beautiful sirens of Titan.

The Sirens of Titan also includes the arrival of the alien Tralfamadorians, strange creatures that resemble a bathroom plunger, and which will appear in several of Vonnegut’s later books.

It’s not giving away anything to say that the cataclysm of war involved in the Earth invasion, and Malachi Constant’s journey, is ultimately only a link in a chain of circumstances to accomplish a very small result in the cosmic scope of things.

It is, of course, inadequate and probably unfair to call Vonnegut a science fiction writer. Books like Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle may feature aliens or improbable things like the latter’s “ice nine,” which can turn the entire world into a block of ice, but they are concerned much more with the human condition — man’s incomprehensible and inevitable cruelty and stupidity, in particular. And, just as importantly, they are all very, very funny.

I grew up on Vonnegut, When he passed away last year, I felt a real and personal sadness, the way I felt about John Lennon’s passing. We all lost a friend, a man who cast a cold and skeptical, but fond, eye on humanity, who saw more clearly than most what is wrong in the world, but never allowed his critique to descend into cynicism or despair.

The Sirens of Titan wears its philosophy very lightly and is the closest thing Vonnegut wrote to a genuine work of pulp science fiction, and it’s all the more enjoyable for that reason.

Other recommended works: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Galapagos, Mother Night, and Welcome to the Monkey House, a wonderful collection of short stories.

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