Book Review: The Sirens of Titan
After my more politically charged reads (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son), I allowed myself a little science-fiction distraction by returning to Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. Published a decade before Slaughterhouse-Five, the book has many of the charms without some of the sharp value. Still, Vonnegut provides a sci-fi experience that is part humorous, part philosophy, and alway innovative.
Vonnegut is a simple and sharp writer. The general lack of complexity to his sentences and paragraphs is compensated by his absurd creativity in descriptions and situations. The Sirens of Titan was no different.
Let me start by saying this book is incredibly fun. Vonnegut has a beautiful and curious way of looking at time and human agency in relation to casual determinism. Playing off the themes of timeless time travelers and determinism, Vonnegut plays out the story of Malachi Constant (itself a play on word) and he engages Mr. and Mrs. Rumfoord in his arc of travel to Mars, Earth, and eventually Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
Since The Sirens of Titan opens and closes with related moments of intrigue, it would be unworthy of the material to give away the plot. A lot of acknowledged unknowns are behind the arc of Constant’s travel. Part of the book’s smartness is its willingness to not answer any of the pertinent questions until its too late. So the final reveal is half part depressing, half part terrifying, and darkly humorous.
Unlike my reading of Slaughterhouse-Five, it was the guise and purpose of religion that made The Sirens of Titan extra intriguing. The book itself is described as history of events long since past and terribly quaint among the galaxy. So within the first sentences of The Sirens of Titan, religion on Earth comes into a very specific focus that seems unnatural until its climax. While some Christians might find the book disrespectful, I chuckled at all the good places and let myself enjoy the playful manner in which Vonnegut dealt with the issues.
While not having the polemical backbone of Slaughterhouse-Five, the book was engaging and sometimes thrilling. Still it felt a little more polished in its effort to present a normal novel’s arc and conclusion. Nonetheless, this is another fine example of stimulating and philosophically valuable science-fiction—if one should even call it that.
As a personal note, Vonnegut’s intentional reiteration of names (including their location) throughout the book helped me. I’m pretty bad with names and this particular schtick for the book was valuable.
Jay Snyder’s reading of The Sirens of Titan is perhaps the best vocal performance of my reading this year. His vocals and different voices were spectacular and a contribution to the humor of the novel. The wildness of Vonnegut’s characters was truly represented in Snyder’s reading and helped maintain a flare in each personality.
In conclusion, The Sirens of Titan didn’t come close to my enjoyment of Slaughterhouse-Five. It is less dark than the latter work and may make the book more appealing to casual readers. It was captivating and satisfying from start to finish. How one could not enjoy Vonnegut is beyond me.