In my on-going quest to read the great works of science fiction, I have at last come “˜round to Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. Sirens is the story of Winston Niles Rumfoord, Gentleman of Newport (R.I.), Earth and the Solar System. A wealthy adventurer, Rumfoord, along with his loyal hound Kazak, suffers a disastrous encounter with a previously unknown space phenomenon en route from Earth to Mars. The accident has the global consequence of halting Earth’s exploration of space, and the personal consequence of making Rumfoord and Kazak eternally present in narrow band of energy that stretches from the Sun to Betelgeuse. He materializes in his former home on Earth for one hour every 59 days, when Earth intersects his band of energy. But he is also present on, and interacting with, a number of other locations in our Solar System, and has acquired a rare, long view of history: being eternally present himself, he can see all that is, and was, and will be.
From this God-like position, Rumfoord manipulates a long series events, most revolving around his wife, Beatrice, and a wealthy Hollywood degenerate, Malachi Constant. Rumfoord colonizes Mars with Earthling recruits, then incites his Martians to a suicidal attempt to invade Earth. He uses the aftermath of the invasion to found a new, phenomenally popular religion on Earth, the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. He leads Bea and Malachi to Mars, back again to Earth, and then on to Titan, a moon of Saturn. Malachi is particularly ill-treated, being stranded on Mercury for a few years before returning to Earth to act as the pilloried Devil in Rumfoord’s new religion, the cardinal sin of which is to suggest that God takes any interest whatsoever in the doings of we mortals (i.e., to say, “Someone up there must like me” in response to a stroke of luck is the highest blasephemy.) There is a point to all Rumfoord’s machinations, of course, and as the story goes on, we learn that the master manipulator is himself a pawn to larger forces.
I have always liked Vonnegut’s work, since I first read Welcome to the Monkey House about 20 years ago. Something in his tone resonates with me, the thin crust of humor over a fathom of cynicism concealing a nugget of hope at its heart. His vicious satire of human stupidity is tempered by his sympathy for the common man caught up in forces far beyond his control. He sees us for the idiotic, laughable creatures we are, but he doesn’t despise us—he despises those who would make us slaves to their designs. Vonnegut strikes me as the epitome of the old saying, “scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist underneath.” His difficulty with the world is not in seeing how base it is, it’s in being able to see how sublime it could be. Without that quality, that mourning for the Paradise not lost, but willfully tossed aside, I don’t think his writing would have as much meaning for me. He would still be a brilliantly funny satirist, but without the feeling that the author weeps for his deeply fucked up characters (i.e., us), it would lose its poignancy, its familiarity. Vonnegut makes me feel like he’s right there in the muck with us””when he calls us dumb, unlucky bastards, he includes himself in the remark.
Better, Vonnegut isn’t just standing around pointing out how the politicians and priests keep us in thrall to their grand designs; he has ideas about what we should do about it. His characters try a number of coping strategies: refusing to engage with life’s messiness at all (Bea), compliance (Malachi in his role as the semi-lobotomized Martian soldier, Unk), exile (Bea and Malachi’s son, Chrono), subversion from within (Rumfoord’s wheels-within-wheels machinations). Rumfoord has some success with his plans, albeit at great cost. Bea and Malachi stumble across the most successful strategy:
“It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”
There are a lot of things we can’t control in life. There are mighty forces that pressure us to fall in line with their vision for the world. There are dreams we will never realize. Let none of this stop you from living your life, loving your love, being who you are.