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The Sirens of Titan  
TheSirensofTitan(1959).jpg
1959 Dell first edition cover
Author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Fiction
Publisher Dell
Publication date 1959
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 319 pp (Dell first edition)
ISBN 978-0-385-33349-8
OCLC Number 184788603
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 22
LC Classification PS3572.O5 S57 2006

The Sirens of Titan is a Hugo Award-nominated novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., first published in 1959. His second novel, it involves issues of free will, omniscience, and the overall purpose of human history.

Contents

Plot

The protagonist is Malachi Constant, originally of Hollywood, California, and 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. Aside from this he has done nothing significant with his life, leading a rakish existence. 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 Saturn's moon Titan where he again meets the man ostensibly responsible for the turn of events that have befallen him, Winston Niles Rumfoord.

Rumfoord himself comes from a wealthy New England background. His private fortune was large enough to fund the construction of a personal spacecraft, and he became a space 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 by Vonnegut 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[1].) 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 he can exist as a solid human being and not as a broadcast image, Rumfoord befriends an explorer 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 actually a robot built many millennia earlier to carry a message from Tralfamadore 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, stalling him in the Solar System. He requests help from Tralfamadore, and his fellow Tralfamadorians respond by manipulating human history so that primitive humans evolve and create a civilization in order to produce the replacement part. 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, rounded on one corner, with two holes punched in it. Salo's message, for whose sake the whole of human history was manipulated, is a single dot, which in Tralfamadorian means "greetings".

The metal strip is 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 Rumsfoord'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.

Salo returns Constant to Earth, specifically to the outskirts of Indianapolis, Indiana, where Constant dies. As he dies, he experiences an hallucination secretly implanted in his mind by Salo of a pleasant event, thus giving the novel a somewhat ironic happy ending.

The title is derived from a grouping of statues which Salo sculpts out of "Titanic peat". The statues, eventually submerged in Rumfoord's swimming pool, are in the form of three beautiful women. Constant uses the design in an advertisement for cigarettes, attempting to mitigate their frightening beauty through blatant commercialism.

Religious themes

The novel treats religion by its Marxist description (as an "opiate of the people") that drives its followers to often insane acts. Consider Malachi's banishment from Earth by the Church as a result of Rumfoord's teachings as well as Rumfoord's instigation of the Earth-Mars war leading to the Church's formation.

The author describes how humans not only use religious and ethical systems to manipulate others but also how humans allow themselves to be manipulated by those systems. Consider Rumfoord himself; he can see the past, present, and future but he can't see Salo's message, and he is genuinely hurt by that fact. Salo's ship crashed on Titan in Earth's prehistory, and his people, the Tralfamadorians, have been sending him messages through Earth's great architectural achievements. With Salo now gone to deliver his message, it is possible that humanity will finally make its own destiny, without outside manipulation.

Another major religious theme is Rumfoord's creation of his new religion: "The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent", whose two chief teachings are, "Puny man can do nothing at all to help or please God Almighty, and Luck is not the hand of God." This religion stresses the importance of God's unwillingness to interfere with the world or human actions. This religion can be compared to the philosophical religion of deism, which also explains that God does not intervene with human affairs or the laws of the universe.

Film rights

Vonnegut sold the film rights to Sirens of Titan to Jerry Garcia, guitarist and vocalist for rock band The Grateful Dead. Garcia began working with Tom Davis in early December 1983[2] and finished their first draft in January 1985.[3] Garcia commented on the book and the screenplay in a November 1987 interview:[4]

There's really three basic characters that are having things happen to them. Three main characters. [Malachi,] Rumfoord, and Bea. 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.[5] 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.[5] In April 2007, it was announced that screenwriter James V. Hart wrote an adaptation which Vonnegut approved before he died.[6]

Stage versions

In 1974 Stuart Gordon adapted a version of the novel for the stage with the Organic Theatre Company of Chicago. According to notes on a playbill from 1976 being auctioned on eBay, the 1976 production featured actors Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz. The play was also performed in 1977 at UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley.

Audiobook

In 2009, Audible.com produced an audio version of The Sirens of Titan, narrated by Jay Snyder, as part of its Modern Vanguard line of audiobooks.

In popular culture

Scottish singer-songwriter Al Stewart paid homage to the novel with the same titled song on his 1975 album Modern Times, featuring the lyric "I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all..." as the chorus.

In a 1979 interview released in 2007, Douglas Adams discussed Vonnegut as an influence on The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy[7]:

"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."

In issue 32 of Y: The Last Man, a 21st century comic book series, a ship captain names her vessel after the ship from The Sirens of Titan.

Utah Phillips, an American folk singer, mentions 'chrono-synclastic infundibulum' in at least two of his spoken word pieces.

Moondragon, an earth woman trained on Titan, uses the title as an exclamation in Defenders #77.

References

  1. ^ Cargas, Harry James (1976). Transcript: Interview in Christian Century. Verified 10 May 2005. Vonnegut speaks on humor, technology, the Great Depression, and other assorted topics.
  2. ^ Davis, Tom (2009). "Hepburn Heights, The Den of Equity". Thirty-nine Years of Short-term Memory Loss. Grove Press. p. 249. ISBN 978-0-8021-1880-6. "Kurt Vonnegut's novel, The Sirens of Titan, was both Jerry Garcia's and my favorite book and he had recently purchased the film rights....It was early December of 1983." 
  3. ^ Davis, Tom (2009). "Hepburn Heights, The Den of Equity". Thirty-nine Years of Short-term Memory Loss. Grove Press. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-8021-1880-6. 
  4. ^ Eisenhart, Mary (November 12, 1987). Transcript: Jerry Garcia Interview. Verified 30 March 2005. Jerry Garcia discusses Sirens of Titan at length
  5. ^ a b Weide, Robert B. (January, 2001). Sirens of Titan. Verified 30 March 2005.
  6. ^ Adler, Shawn (April 13, 2007).Kurt Vonnegut's 'Sirens Of Titan' Being Adapted For Big Screen Verified 15 April 2007.
  7. ^ Shircore, Ian (1979). Transcript: Douglas Adams Interview. Douglas Adams discusses his early work
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