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The Sirens of Titan is the fourth book in Rachel’s Suggested Vonnegut Reading Order.

Player Piano is Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, but I’d argue that The Sirens of Titan, released in 1959, is the first novel by Vonnegut as we know him. We have war. We have Tralfamadorians. We have a funky new religion. We even have plot points from Vonnegut’s short stories and plays that crop up at random points. Oh, it’s just a rehash of his other work, you’re probably thinking, emitting a condescending snort and sipping on your cup of black coffee. But that’s exactly what Sirens is not. It’s too early in Vonnegut’s career for that. You can’t rehash something that’s yet to be hashed.

Now, on to Sirens‘s main hash:

Malachi Constant, the richest man in America, has always had everything, and now he has the chance to have even more: another super-rich fellow, Winston Niles Rumfoord, invites him to travel to and live on Mars, making him one of the first humans to do so. Constant respectfully denies, but that’s because he still thinks the deal is negotiable. Truth is, Rumfoord knows the future, and he knows Constant will end up on Mars, mated to none other than Beatrice Rumfoord, his own wife.

Does this all come to pass? Don’t ask Malachi Constant. In fact, after he gets to Mars, don’t even ask him who he is. His memory seems to have been wiped clean.

I wish I could tell you more, but that would result in dreadful spoilers that would surely anger you so much that you’d never trust any of my review blogs again. (You may already mistrust them if you’ve read my Player Piano blog.) And if there’s one Vonnegut book you really don’t want to have spoiled, it’s Sirens. This is, at heart, a classic sci-fi adventure story, a space opera Vonnegut wrote on his publisher’s request. In fact, you could almost call it fun – at least, as fun as Vonnegut gets.

But Sirens isn’t always an adventure book, nor is it always fun. It’s also a book about daddy issues, a book about war and its aftermath, a book about how the government is screwing you, a book about religious fervor, a buddy novel, a family saga. Be prepared to laugh in public places. Be prepared to cry in public places. Of course, you could read it in private places only, but this is the kind of book you’ll have to bring with you on the bus and to the doctor and in a restaurant because you can’t bear to be away from it for that long. It’s just that good.

It also pulls off being that good in a relatively small space. The edition I read is only 326 pages, which is long for a Vonnegut book.

Want to hear how funny this book can be? Listen.

The only things to read on board were two comic books left behind by the ship fitters. They were Tweety and Sylvester, which was about a canary that drove a cat crazy, and The Miserable Ones, which was about a man who stole some gold candlesticks from a priest who had been nice to him.

‘What he take those candlesticks for, Unk?’ said Boaz.

‘Damn if I know,’ said Unk. ‘Damn if I care.’

Want to hear how unfairly touching this book can be? Listen.

‘I ain’t never been nothing good to people, and people never been nothing good to me. So what I want to be free in crowds of people for? . . . I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I’m doing good, and them I’m doing good for know I’m doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home.’

This book is also incredibly suspenseful, even thought Vonnegut didn’t buy into unpredictability in fiction writing. In his 8 Rules for Writing Fiction, Vonnegut says, “To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

Feed the cockroaches Fifty Shades of Grey and read this book all the way to the end. The roaches won’t know the difference, and you’ll like Vonnegut’s ending more than you would like your own. Probably.

(If you still care about which short story plots crop up in this book, this set of parentheses is for you. I appreciate you. There’s a small girl in the first chapter named Wanda June, which hints at Vonnegut’s play Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Later in the book, one character uses the alias of George M. Helmholtz, a retired band director. A man with that name and occupation stars in “The Kid Nobody Could Handle,” a short story in Welcome to the Monkey House.

(Thanks for reading. I still appreciate you.)

Emma’s Overall Reaction: I don’t know much about space opera shenanigans, but I didn’t need to in order to know how good this is. A perfect Vonnegut read for people who already like science fiction or who are into adventure stories with a heart and a conscience.

To buy a copy of The Sirens of Titan, click here.

Kathi Badertscher, PhD

Director of Graduate Programs at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy
Kathi Badertscher, PhD, is Director of Graduate Programs at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Dr. Badertscher teaches a variety of BA, MA, and doctoral courses, including Applying Ethics in Philanthropy and History of Philanthropy. She has participated in several Teaching Vonnegut workshops and is a member of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. Dr. Badertscher has been a guest speaker on ethics in philanthropy, including at the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners – Indianapolis Council; Association of Fundraising Professionals – Indiana Chapter; and Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University, Tianjin, China. In 2019 she received IUPUI Office for Women, Women’s Leadership Award for Newcomer Faculty. In 2019 and 2020 she received the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Graduate Teaching Award.
Dr. Badertscher’s publications include “Fundraising for Advocacy and Social Change,” co-authored with Shariq Siddiqui in Achieving Excellence in Fundraising, 5th ed., 2022; “Insulin at 100: Indianapolis, Toronto, Woods Hole, and the ‘Insulin Road,’ co-authored with Christopher Rutty, Pharmacy in History (2020); and three articles in the Indiana Magazine of History: “A New Wishard Is on the Way,” “Evaline Holliday and the Work of Community Service,” and “Social Networks in Indianapolis during the Progressive Era.” Her chapters on social welfare history will appear in three upcoming edited volumes on the history of philanthropy, including “The Legacy of Edna Henry and Her Contributions to the IU School of Social Work,” Women at Indiana University: Views of the Past and the Future, edited by Andrea Walton, Indiana University Press, 2022 (forthcoming). Dr. Badertscher is also the Philanthropy and Nonprofits Consulting Editor for the forthcoming Digital Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, edited by David J. Bodenhamer and Elizabeth Van Allen, Indiana University Press, 2021. Dr. Badertscher is an active volunteer in the Indianapolis community. At present, she is a Coburn Place Safe Haven Board Member and a Children’s Bureau/Families First Brand and Marketing Advisor. Dr. Badertscher holds the MA in History from Indiana University and the MA and PhD in philanthropic studies from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

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