The Sirens of Titan
Cover of first Dell edition
|Author||Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.|
|Genre||Fantasy, science fiction, black comedy|
|Publisher||Delacorte (hardcover), Dell (paperback)|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||319 pp (first edition)|
|ISBN||0340028769 (1967, Hodder & Stoughton)|
|LC Class||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. Much of the story revolves around a Martian invasion of Earth.
Malachi Constant is the richest man in a future 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 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 in the novel as "those places ... where all the different kinds of truths fit together." 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 chrono-synclastic infundibulum, Rumfoord became aware of the past and future. Throughout the novel, he predicts events; unless he is deliberately lying, the predictions 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, which was designed to fail spectacularly. 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 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 here in the Sol System for over 200 millennia. 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. Rumfoord's encounter with the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, the following war with Mars and Constant's exile to Titan were 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 concerning the contents of Salo's message, left unresolved because of Rumfoord's disappearance, leads the distraught Salo to disassemble himself, thereby stranding the humans on Titan. It is revealed that the message was a single point, meaning 'Greetings' in Tralfamadorian. Chrono chooses to live among the Titanian birds; after thirty-two years, his mother dies and Constant manages to reassemble Salo. Using the part delivered so many years previously by Chrono, Constant repairs the Tralfamadorian saucer. Salo returns Constant to Earth where he dies of exposure in wintertime Indianapolis while awaiting an overdue city bus and as he passes away, he experiences a pleasant hallucination secretly implanted in his mind by a compassionate Salo.
The Sirens of Titan largely deals with questions of free will, with multiple characters being stripped of it and the revelation that humanity had been secretly manipulated for millennia for an inane purpose playing major roles in the story. Free will and the lack thereof became major themes in Vonnegut's later novels, especially Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Breakfast of Champions (1972). More broadly speaking, lack of agency has been a hallmark of Vonnegut's novels, with the protagonists struggling against forces they can never overcome and often can't comprehend. None of the characters in The Sirens of Titan have chosen to be in their position, but are driven by forces and wills beside their own, and can do no more than try to make the best of it.
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."
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.'"
The Sirens of Titan was nominated for Best Novel at the 1960 Hugo Awards.
In 2000 or early 2001, RosettaBooks, an independent e-book publisher, contracted with Vonnegut to publish e-book editions of several of his novels, including The Sirens of Titan. Random House sued RosettaBooks in February 2001, claiming (with respect to Vonnegut) that the contracts he signed with (predecessor-in-interest) Dell in 1967 and 1970 granted Random House e-book publishing rights as well. In July 2001, Judge Sidney H. Stein denied Random House's request for an injunction; in December 2002, Random House and Rosetta Books settled out-of-court, with RosettaBooks retaining the publishing rights that Random House had challenged.
In the 1970s, the Organic Theatre Company presented Sirens, a stage adaptation of The Sirens of Titan, designed by James Maronek and directed by Stuart Gordon, the company's founder; it utilized "a simple set, a few pieces of furniture and a white backdrop curtain as a space-time warp." It was staged in October 1977 at the University of California, San Diego. Also, in the early 1970s, Central Michigan University (Mt. Pleasant, MI) staged a production of "The Sirens Of Titan" under the direction of Professor Elbert Bowen, featured Terry O'Quinn in the role of Malachi Constant.
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 and finished their first draft in January 1985. Garcia commented on the book and the screenplay in a November 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 April 2007, it was announced that screenwriter James V. Hart wrote an adaptation which Vonnegut approved before he died.
In popular culture
Scottish singer-songwriter Al Stewart paid homage to the novel with the song "Sirens of Titan" 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, as well as references to many other aspects of the book ("marching to the sound of the drum in my head" "here in the yellow and blue of my days" "watching for the signs the harmoniums make" etc.)
- "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."
The P-MODEL song Harmonium from the 1986 album ONE PATTERN was influenced by this novel. Years later, the group made the song WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF "TIME'S LEAKING THROUGH EQUAL DISTANCE CURVE" from the 1993 album big body, which was also influenced by the novel; the song's Japanese title, 時間等曲率漏斗館へようこそ (Jikantō Kyokuritsu Rōtokan e Yōkoso) could be adapted as "Welcome to chrono-synclastic infundibulum".
Brian Warren, frontman of San Diego indie rock band Weatherbox, has claimed that he used the novel as a divinatory text in the composition of the band's 2009 album The Cosmic Drama.
In a 2013 episode of the FX animated sitcom Archer, two main characters are sent to Tangier in order to rescue a friendly agent by the name of Kazak, who happens to be a large English Mastiff in a nod to the novel.
- Westbrook, Perry D. "Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: Overview." Contemporary Novelists. Susan Windisch Brown. 6th ed. New York: St. James Press, 1996.Literature Resource Center
- Westbrook, Perry D. "Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: Overview." Contemporary Novelists. Susan Windisch Brown. 6th ed. New York: St. James Press, 1996.
- Short, John G. (December 17, 1968). "The Cuckoo Clock in Kurt Vonnegut's Hell". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 2012-05-22.
- Deresiewicz, William (May 16, 2012). "'I Was There': On Kurt Vonnegut". The Nation. Retrieved 2012-05-22.
- Random House Inc. v RosettaBooks LLC, from Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 2012-05-22
- Legal Information Random House v. RosettaBooks ten years later from rosettabooks.com. Retrieved 2012-05-22
- "The Organic Theater to present "The Sirens of Titan"". Press release. University of California, San Diego. October 10, 1977. Retrieved 2012-05-22.
Sirens is an account of the galactic peregrinations of billionaire Earthling Malachi Constant. His epic journeys to Mercury, Mars, Titan and back to Earth again are echoed in a psychic transition. Constant becomes a radio-controlled recruit in the doomed Martian army, learns to be a loving husband and father and eventually travels to that final home, Paradise.
- 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.
- 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.
- Eisenhart, Mary (November 12, 1987). Transcript: Jerry Garcia Interview. Verified 30 March 2005. Jerry Garcia discusses Sirens of Titan at length
- Weide, Robert B. (January, 2001). Sirens of Titan. Verified 30 March 2005.
- Adler, Shawn (April 13, 2007).Kurt Vonnegut's 'Sirens Of Titan' Being Adapted For Big Screen Verified 15 April 2007.
- Shircore, Ian (1979). Transcript: Douglas Adams Interview. Douglas Adams discusses his early work