Try to summarise The Sirens of Titan with any sort of brevity and it always sounds like you’re writing a mad lib.
Here, try it for yourself:
A _____ (adjective) man went to _____ (place) with his _____ (noun) and on the way he _____ (verb) into a _____ (noun).
If you entered the words “rich”, “Mars”, “dog”, “crashed” and “chrono-synclastic infundibulum” into the spaces above then congratulations, you’ve either read this book already or you’re just as bonkers as Vonnegut.
The rich man from the above mad lib is Winston Niles Rumfoord, a well-educated New England gentleman whose collision with the space anomaly known as a chrono-synclastic infundibulum has left him scattered across time and space. To all intents and purposes, he is now immortal and borderline omniscient.
Once a month, when the anomaly lines up with the Earth, he materialises in his old home for one hour. There he brings predictions of the future as well as dire warnings that will, in time, lead to the seeds of a whole new religion. Predictably, he is a huge celebrity.
During one of his visits, Rumfoord asks to speak with Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world. Constant is the exact antithesis of Rumfoord. He is arrogant, lazy, utterly without talent. His father amassed his fortune almost entirely by accident and since his death Constant has done nothing to further his lot in life. Constant is therefore shocked to hear Rumfoord’s prediction that one day not only will he travel to Mars, Mercury and Titan in turn but that he will fall in love with and have a child by Rumfoord’s very own wife before becoming the head of his very own religion.
As you might expect, Constant is horrified by this prediction of the future and so he immediately embarks on a mission to do everything in his power to make sure these predictions don’t come to pass. Naturally, this only serves to guarantee that they do.
Thus begins a whirlwind mad lib of a tale that takes Malachi Constant half way across the solar system. On Mars he is recruited into an army that is planning to invade the Earth. His identity is stripped away from him, he loses his memories and he has an antenna planted in his head that rids him of independent thought. Just as he is starting to rediscover who he is, Mars goes to war with the Earth. Constant travels with the invasion fleet only for his ship to malfunction along the way.
He ends up marooned on Mercury. In the midst of all of this he has (non-consensual) sex with Mrs. Rumfoord and impregnates her. Then he returns to Earth only to find himself the central focus of an entirely new religion built in reaction to his life of hedonism and excess… And on and on it goes for 300 pages.
Quite honestly, trying to explain all of the things that happen in this book in any sort of concise manner is exhausting. It feels like Vonnegut just vomited a bunch of ideas onto the page and then joined the dots between them in a way that vaguely made sense*.
The crazy thing, however, is that the book isn’t really about any of those things. Sure, a lot of stuff happens: a war between Mars and Earth; a new religion popping up based on how much God doesn’t care about us; a redemption arc as a man with no memory of who he is tries to reconnect with a family he has never met just to prove his humanity; but the further the book goes, the more unimportant these events seem in the grand scheme of things.
Just like how a mad lib isn’t really about the wacky stories you create but rather the fun you can have coming up with the most nonsensical sentences possible, so the Sirens of Titan isn’t about the events that happen but rather the underlying point of it all. Which is no point. Vonnegut’s universe is a godless one, devoid of meaning and ruled by nothing but anarchy. It’s a typical hallmark of a Vonnegut novel.
That said, the Sirens of Titan lacks the same focus of some of Vonnegut’s more famous works. You don’t find the same personal angle here that you do when reading something like Slaughterhouse 5. Likewise, there isn’t the same ironic humour you get in something like Cat’s Cradle, as of someone recognising how stupid the universe is and just having a good old laugh at its expense. Instead this book hovers somewhere between, like a meandering treaty of Vonnegut’s personal philosophy interjected with moments of gallows humour. It’s fun while you’re reading it but for me personally, it didn’t have the same long-term impact as some of his other classics.
I’ve read a lot of reviews from people who say this book helped inspire Douglas Adams to write the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (one of my favourite books of all time). They say you can really tell this is the case due to the random nature of the plot and the high propensity for funny happenings in both books.
Although I can see where these reviewers are coming from I have to admit I never had this impression while reading it myself. Despite the fact that Douglas Adams was every bit the atheist that Vonnegut was, his books always struck me as approaching the issue from the opposite end. His stories are filled with a sense of childish awe at the universe around him. The crazy events happening to his characters serve as a kind of celebration for how beautifully unpredictable life the universe and everything can be.
Vonnegut, on the other hand, writes to the other extreme. Empty, pointless, depressed, anarchic: The Sirens of Titan feels like a book written by someone who is desperately trying to understand the things he sees around himself and instead finds nothing but white noise and nonsense. He laughs at this fact and points out its absurdity but behind the witty lines is a man whose heart is breaking.
The Sirens of Titan was Vonnegut’s second book and it shows. As much as I wanted to love it, I have to admit I’ve never felt so depressed reading the great man’s work as I did when reading this book. The futility of war, the absence of God, the pointlessness of religion: these are all themes Vonnegut will revisit in other books far more successfully than he does here.
Just like a mad lib that doesn’t quite work, I think Vonnegut needs to go back to the drawing board and have another attempt at filling in those blanks.
*And, weirdly enough, that’s exactly that he did. According to Vonnegut’s friend, Harvard Crimson, Vonnegut “put together the whole of The Sirens of Titan […] in one night […] He 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.”