Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Sirens of Titan

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The Sirens of Titan (1959)
This being my third Vonnegut, I've begun to notice certain themes and to recognise that the thoroughly wonderful Slaughterhouse Five was but one single work of a generally impressive set rather than the anomalous flash of brilliance I had assumed it to be. As with the first two that I read, Vonnegut spins a story so implausible that it can only be taken as allegorical, nailing that weird-looking thing to some sort of narrative backbone of such warmth, confidence, and wit that you don't really notice how stupid it is. Here, amongst other junk devices, we have a Martian invasion by the Army of Mars, somehow comprising expatriate Earth people with a dynamic that's more Beetle Bailey than Heinlein; and there's the millionaire who finances his own space mission, the stranded alien from Tralfamadore, the astronaut and his faithful pet, Kazan, the dog of space who, having travelled through a chrono-synclastic infundibulum find themselves beamed back and forth between Earth and Titan; and we learn that the entirety of human history has been manipulated from distant Tralfamadore so as to produce the spare part needed to repair the ship of Salo, the stranded traveller.

Suddenly I realise where Douglas Adams got it all from, most of Hitchhiker's Guide amounting to The Sirens of Titan read aloud by Eric Idle playing a perpetually embarrassed vicar; but happily the Vonnegut version doesn't spend its page count digging you in the ribs and smirking to itself, despite being considerably funnier and actually having something coherent to say.

The Sirens of Titan is about freewill, relativism, and the selfsame freewill looking one hell of a lot like predestination depending on where you're standing. There's the question of whether millionaire Malachi Constant has any choice in growing up to be an arsehole, given his upbringing, and whether he is capable of redemption once he loses all of his memories - clues to how much wiggle room he really enjoys given his phenomenal success on the stock market being based on a seemingly arbitrary pick of Biblical passages. Then we discover that the chrono-synclastic infundibulum is a phenomenon by which different, incompatible views of the universe are united; and finally there's the punchline of what human history looks like to a stranded machine from Tralfamadore, one to whom Stonehenge seen from above is actually a form of text reading replacement part being rushed with all possible speed.

Where I found Cat's Cradle to be a little messy, The Sirens of Titan is smooth, all parts well-oiled and sliding together with absolute harmony - as is probably essential given the John Heartfield collage of its constituent elements. This is probably the best book I've read this year.

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