Some books are better if just don’t expect them to make sense. The Sirens of Titan actually surprised me in how accessible it was for a Vonnegut novel. For the first few chapters, everything was pretty mundane. Weird, yes—but I followed everything that was going on. It’s not until about Chapter Four, when Malachi ends up on Mars, that everything gets super-strange. From there it’s just deeper down the rabbithole as Vonnegut spins layer upon layer of story.
Malachi Constant isn’t a nice man. He is hedonistic at best, overly complacent in his inherited fortune and prone to parties and womanizing. But Wilson Rumfoord is an even worse man. Discorporated and scattered throughout the solar system by a chronosynclastic infundibulum (try saying that three times fast), Rumfoord materializes periodically on various planets as the waveform of his being intersects them. He—along with his dog—exists outside of time, able to perceive all moments of his life at once. (This is reminiscent of the Trafalmadorians of Slaughterhouse-Five—though aliens under the same name appear in this book, they don’t seem to have the same non-linear existence.) Through Rumfoord’s prophecies and Malachi’s arranged suffering, Vonnegut once more explores the tension between determinism and free will and whether we are really able to make choices at all.
That last sentence sounds grand, but it actually requires a great deal of unpacking. Just as Slaughterhouse-Five is about more than non-linear time, this book is about more than determinism vs. free will. Vonnegut raises questions of morality and responsibility, and context-aware readers won’t be able to help but draw parallels to the horrific events of World War II and the refuge fatalism offers from the abyss of nihilism.
At first, we have to wonder about the fate of Malachi Constant. According to Rumfoord, he is destined to end up on Titan—along with Rumfoord’s wife, Beatrice, with whom Malachi will have a child. Malachi decides to rebel against this prophecy by selling all of his company’s shares in a spaceship company—but this, along with some other bad luck, ruins him.
From here, Vonnegut recounts the story of how Malachi’s father lucked into his riches. Luck is the word he uses, which is interesting, because we typically perceive luck as the force opposing fate or destiny. In this case, however, luck is clearly just another manifestation of fate—perhaps the baldest manifestation of fate. This thesis gains further definition much later, as Malachi further comes to accept his strange role in events and says, “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” This is the “so it goes” of The Sirens of Titan: we are all, like Malachi Constant, merely victims of a series of continuous accidents, and that is what we call life.
The whole Martian invasion of Earth subplot is silly and very Vonnegut—it’s a pastiche, really, of a more sinister idea played straight in Watchmen and the machinations of Ozymandias. (Obviously the latter book came after this one; what I mean to say is that it is a good example of the trope Vonnegut mocks here.) But that’s why he doesn’t spend much time on the particulars and instead focuses on Unk’s evolution as a moral agent.
Is Unk culpable for the death of Stony Stevenson? The answer seems to be “no.” The reasons, however, could vary. At the time he kills Stony, it’s arguable whether Unk is much of a person at all. (Vonnegut is vague at first about the amount of control an individual retains in the Martian Army, though later I’d argue it becomes clearer. It seems that Unk probably had more volition than he exerts, but the combination of memory wipes and his conditioning means he isn’t in a fit state to exercise that volition.) On a more thematic note, Vonnegut seems to suggest that Stony’s death, like everything else, is merely a foreordained part of events in the universe, as told by Wilson Rumfoord.
So is Rumfoord God? His near-omniscient, near-omnipresent state and the skill with which he manipulates both Earth and Mars affairs certainly sets him up as god-like. But he’s probably not God per se—Vonnegut is definitely using the religion he creates on Earth to mock how seriously organized religion takes itself and the concept of a higher power that is anything other than indifferent to the well-being of humanity.
There is a certain irony, I suppose, in the way Rumfoord reacts when he finds out how the Trafalmadorians have been sending messages to Salo. They are monstrous for influencing Earth affairs, but he is apparently justified? Depending on how you view it, Rumfoord is either the most or least culpable character in the book—for surely knowing all of one’s actions and their consequences down throughout one’s entire existence either makes one completely responsible or not at all responsible for those actions and consequences.
I didn’t like the ending though. I appreciate it from an artistic perspective, but as a value judgement, I just find it so empty. Vonnegut’s style is similar to Douglas Adams’—both authors have a specificity that lends itself well to their absurd humour. The ending to The Sirens of Titan, alas, is much like the ending to Mostly Harmless (albeit without the apocalyptic elements)—there is a sense that the entire story leading up to it is rendered moot, which, as a reader, is not a nice feeling to have.
Don’t let that minor criticism make you think that I disliked the book, however. I thoroughly enjoyed The Sirens of Titan. It doesn’t quite have the gravitas of Slaughterhouse-Five, but I understand why some people prefer this book. At the very least, Vonnegut demonstrates he can bottle lightning a second time.