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.