EESE 5/99

Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan and the Question of Genre

Herbert G. Klein (Berlin)


The Sirens of Titan is Kurt Vonnegut's second novel. It appeared in 1959, seven years after his first, Player Piano, (he wrote some short-stories in between that were later collected under the title "Canary in a Cat House") and has a curious publishing history: it originally came out as a Dell paperback at 35 Cents and was aimed at the science fiction market, but after its surprising success both within and outside science fiction circles, it was reissued as a hardback by Houghton Mifflin in 1961. It has been available ever since under various imprints, and it has also been translated into most European languages as well as into Japanese. In 1974 there was even an adaptation for the stage.1 In the late sixties it became one of the cult-books of the "counterculture", together with Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and Frank Herbert's Dune.2 Not surprisingly, this has not helped with the novel's critical reputation.

The success of The Sirens of Titan with a public far wider than the usual science fiction readership, has found an echo in the critical response, which has been mostly divided over the question to which genre the novel should be said to belong: whereas for certain obvious reasons (which I shall comment upon later) it seems to fall neatly into the science fiction category, it has also been variously labeled - amongst other things - satire, black humour or fabulation. In addition, there have been voices which have complained that Vonnegut does not take science fiction seriously, that, in fact, he makes fun of it. This view can even derive support from various statements which Vonnegut has made himself, and which are usually quoted in this context. In a famous short essay that he wrote for The New York Times Book Review, Vonnegut affirms that he never thought of himself as a science fiction writer until he was assigned that label by the critics after his first novel Player Piano, which is a dystopian novel in the vein of Huxley's Brave New World. Nevertheless, Vonnegut insists that he is interested in science and technology because they are integral parts of our lives, and therefore they should not be the exclusive contents of a literary drawer labeled science fiction, but should rather become staple themes of mainstream fiction.3

Despite these disclaimers, any reader may be forgiven, if he or she approaches The Sirens of Titan as a run-of-the-mill science fiction novel, as indeed the lurid cover of the Dell paperback edition strongly suggests: it features a Tarzan look-alike, a naked woman holding a book and a naked young man with giant blue wings who is apparently about to take off whilst above them three scantily clad beauties are to be seen within a kind of crystal globe. All are drawn in the naive-realist style of cheap science fiction magazines. One's worst fears seem to be not only confirmed but even exacerbated when one proceeds to read the story. It is told by a future historian, extends over 43 years ("between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression", as it is said) and takes place on several planets of our solar system.

The New England aristocrat Winston Niles Rumfoord has encountered a temporal anomaly, called a "chrono-synclastic infundibulum" while travelling in his private spaceship together with his dog Kazak, and since then they both exist only as wave-spirals between the sun and Betelgeuse, materialising on Earth for a short while every 59 days. - Malachi Constant, the richest man in America, is invited to one of these materialisations and, while there, is prophesied by Rumfoord that he will travel to Mars and father a child on Rumfoord's disdainful wife Beatrice. Both Malachi and Beatrice try to avoid the fulfilment of this prediction, which is equally disgusting to both, but of course things turn out exactly the way Rumfoord had foretold. They are forced to join an army on Mars that consists of the outcasts of the Earth, who are brainwashed into human machines and consequently lose their identity. Constant is now called Unk and has lost all memory of his former self. He can even kill his best friend Stony Stevenson without any qualms. According to Rumfoord's plans, this army will make an assault on the planet Earth, be destroyed in the attempt, and thereby bring about the end of all wars and the unification of mankind, with Rumfoord as founder of a new universal religion, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.

When the attack finally takes place, there are indeed very few survivors: Beatrice and Chrono land in the Amazon rain forest and are initiated into the Indian Gumbo tribe. Malachi, however, does not participate in the attack, but is sent to Mercury together with another soldier, Boaz, where they are trapped for 3 years. There, Boaz comes to love the harmoniums, small kite-like creatures that thrive on sounds, and he therefore stays behind when Constant finally discovers how to escape. On his return to Earth, the latter finds himself the scapegoat figure of the new religion and is sent into space again, this time together with Beatrice and their common son Chrono. They land on Titan, where Rumfoord has established a kind of permanent residence from which he runs the affairs of the Earth with the help of a robot called Salo, who comes from a faraway planet called Tralfamadore.4

On this planet, the machines have long ago taken completely over and organic life has become extinct. Salo had been sent as a messenger to the other end of the galaxy when his ship broke down in 203 117 B.C. and now he has to stay on Titan until the required spare part is shipped to him. It turns out that the whole of human history has been manipulated by the Tralfamadorians in order to send encouraging messages to Salo and finally to provide him with the needed replacement. This replacement is a piece of metal that Chrono has picked up on Mars and has never relinquished since. Now Salo can repair his spaceship and continue his voyage, while Rumfoord will soon disappear into another galaxy, due to eruptions on the sun's surface. As a last favour, he asks Salo to reveal the message he carries. Against his inbuilt prohibition, Salo eventually complies with his request, although Rumfoord has already disappeared. The message consists of a single dot, which in the Tralfamadorian language means "greetings". Salo feels so depressed about the apparent fatuity of his mission, that he disassembles himself. Chrono goes off to live with the giant bluebirds of Titan, whereas Constant and Beatrice gradually come to cherish each other. Beatrice dies, and Salo who has been put back together again by Constant carries the latter to Earth, where he leaves him at a bus-stop near Indianapolis in winter. Unfortunately, the bus is two hours late, so that Constant dies of hypothermia. Thanks to hypnosis by Salo, his last moments are brightened by the illusion of a reunion with his friend Stony Stevenson.

Critical responses

This short summary of the story is not intended to make it sound more preposterous than it is, but only to give an outline of the motives and devices used in it. If one were to base an assessment of the novel only on these, though, one might feel tempted to concur with James Mellard, who says:

It is perhaps also understandable that some critics have thought that Vonnegut is not being serious in this novel. He evidently has fun with a number of time-honoured science fiction tropes, such as time- and space-travel, robots and interstellar wars, so that the suspicion might be justified that this is actually a parody of the whole genre. The question of course would be - to what end? It will hardly be denied that science fiction can be used for quite serious purposes and that there are a number of examples for this. Vonnegut's treatment, however, seems frivolous and appears to have unwarranted and easy fun with the conventions of the genre. As Ellen Rose points out:

True, indeed. The question then arises: for what purpose is Vonnegut using the staple tropes of science fiction? Before attempting an answer, it may be advisable to look at what readers "have come to expect of science fiction".

Science Fiction and Fantasy

There have been many attempts to define what science fiction is or should be. The older ones by famous practitioners in the field like John W. Campbell and Isaac Asimov agree that science fiction should show how man gains deeper knowledge of the universe through the use of science and technology and how he may use that knowledge to control his destiny.7 Evidently, this may easily take the form of wish-fulfilment and escapism, as indeed is the case in many inferior productions of the genre. One might therefore prefer a more cautious and neutral definition like the one by Kingsley Amis, which is roughly contemporaneous with The Sirens of Titan:

Now, the "chrono-synclastic infundibulum" which changes Rumfoord so drastically is obviously not an "innovation in science or technology", but presumably the definition might be made to include discoveries without losing its gist. At a first glance, then, this definition seems to cover The Sirens of Titan quite well. But when we look more closely at the type of conventions that Vonnegut uses, they seem to lean very much to the "pseudo-science and pseudo-technology" part of Amis's definition. As a matter of fact, one gets the impression that their pseudo-aspect is deliberately exaggerated, and that the science side is very much subordinated to the wonderful incidents of the story. This has led a number of critics to classify The Sirens of Titan as either a member of - or a parody of - the sub-genre that is usually called "space opera", i.e. adventure stories with larger-than-life events where characterisation plays a decidedly minor part. Larger-than-life the events in The Sirens of Titan certainly are, but the question of characterisation is not so easily settled. Moreover, space-opera is not taken very seriously by either its practitioners or its readers, so it seems almost pointless to use it as a target for parody. Rather, what Vonnegut actually seems to do is to use these already discredited conventions for some other end. Before we consider, what this end might be, we should look at a few other possible classifications first.

Amis's definition of science fiction casts its net so widely that it can only serve as a rough and ready means of distinguishing between the realist novel and a great variety of other kinds of writing. Amis must have felt this himself, for he draws a line between science fiction and fantasy, saying: "... while science fiction, ..., maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact, fantasy makes a point of flouting these;..."9 It could be said, of course, that The Sirens of Titan makes a point of flouting fact in so far as none of its major devices is supported by anything we would like to acknowledge as factually possible. But does that make it fantasy? Tzvetan Todorov sees the main feature of fantasy in the absence of rationally assignable causes for the events described.10 However, it may seem, that, if anything, events in The Sirens of Titan are actually overdetermined, since we are not only always given immediate cause and effect, but are provided with not just one but two causal schemata into which to fit everything: Rumfoord's masterplan and the Tralfamadorian manipulation of human history. On the other hand, these all add up to naught, since, on the authority of Rumfoord, who must surely know, we live in a block universe in which everything that will happen has already happened, so the assigning of causes seems to be a pointless exercise. This not only provides a scathing indictment of all attempts at a rational explanation of reality, but, by implication, this also means that there is no final purpose to life and the universe - nothing that could be interpreted as giving it any meaning at all.

A similar conclusion is reached when one looks at The Sirens of Titan as alternative history, i.e. as an account of the way things would have been, if they had taken a different turn at some point. Because the story is told by a future historian, it could be seen as an example of that class of fiction. But this would imply the possibility of choice or at least of a real alternative, a decisive event that tips the balance in one direction or the other, and this is obviously not the case. Quite to the contrary, history is here seen as absolutely predetermined.

More recent definitions of science fiction emphasize the extrapolation of present traits of our world into the future. In that respect, science fiction comes very close to satire, which also extends existing premises to their logical conclusion and in this way makes them more easily recognisable and criticisable. The trait of our world to be extrapolated and exposed in The Sirens of Titan would then be the belief in mankind's perfectability, the presumption that past history has had a purpose which will lead to a better kind of society, and that mankind can do something to bring this about. In some respects, at least, this satiric reading seems rather plausible, since Rumfoord's utopian plans are indeed shown to turn men into insignificant components of an all-encompassing machine, just as he himself is only a tool in the Tralfamadorians' machinations - of no more (or perhaps even less) account than the spare part that Chrono unwittingly delivers to Titan. His misguided attempts at reform are a devastating commentary on all endeavours to manipulate mankind for its own good.

In this dystopian aspect of the novel one can also detect a critique of the American political system, where the rich shape the destinies of the less affluent. Rumfoord and his ideology have therefore been seen as caricatures of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Rumfoord is introduced as a member of the social elite, a man of old inherited wealth, who may be well-intentioned, but in reality despises mankind.11 He believes himself to be superior to criticism and therefore has not the slightest qualms about using other people as tools, although he himself complains bitterly about being used in this way. Effectually, he plays at being God - at least in a minor way. It is rather ironic then, that the alternative to his egocentrical despotism is supplied by a machine: Salo overcomes his inbuilt programme in order to make an autonomous gesture of friendship.

The uses of transgression

It has become apparent, that The Sirens of Titan is neither a straightforward science fiction novel nor a parody of science fiction,12 but that it rather uses the conventions of the genre as a vehicle for other ends which could be broadly described as satiric. But what exactly is being satirised here and in what way is this affected by the question of genre?

The aforementioned approaches have in common that they see Sirens as some form of criticism (of whatever) and going about it in some roundabout way, i.e. it might have been done more directly (apart from the SF parody). But perhaps one should take the novel more seriously and accept its form as necessary for its contents.

One way of looking at The Sirens of Titan is to see it as a "nonsense-book" in the tradition of Alice in Wonderland.13 There are indeed a number of parallel motifs in the two books: the door through which Malachi enters Rumfoord's estate is explicitly referred to as an Alice-door,14 and Rumfoord dematerialises like the Cheshire cat into the spiral of his well-like infundibulum.15 But whereas Carroll subverts Victorian certainties with regard to logic and objectivity, Vonnegut tries to unsettle the 20th century's faith in science and progress.16

The novel can also be seen as a "shaggy-dog story", i.e. an elaborate hoax with an anti-climactic punch-line.17 In this interpretation, the exaggerated science fiction-clichés are deflated by the revelation that all human endeavours so far have had as their sole end the delivery of a piece of metal to a broken-down spaceship, piloted by a robot on a fool's errand. There can hardly be a more negative commentary on the belief of mankind's being able to shape its own destiny. In fact, this interpretation turns The Sirens of Titan almost into a novel of the absurd, with similar implications as the works of Kafka or Beckett. Arguably, however, Vonnegut's outlook is not quite as bleak, because once Salo continues on his way, mankind is presumably free to pursue its own objectives.18 Furthermore, it can be argued that the novel does not claim that life is absurd, but rather that it does not make sense to look for its meaning in some external source.19 One does not have to go as far as Lawrence Broer, who sees The Sirens of Titan therefore purely as a psychological novel with the events happening only in the protagonist's mind,20 but he is certainly right in so far, as Malachi undergoes a complete mental change between the beginning and the end of the novel. A development which takes him from self-centered lust-fulfillment and the search for a "higher" meaning to acceptance of and contentment with life as it is. Malachi thus becomes another variant of the profligate who turns into a holy man, and his story follows "the three stages of departure, initiation, and return" of the basic mythic-adventure pattern.21

In this way, Malachi's voyage through the solar system appears as an allegory on contemporary man's psychical condition and the steps he would have to take to change it. Most importantly, he would have to break through his egotistical isolation which is caused by his preoccupation with the self. Significantly, the name "Malachi Constant" translates as "faithful messenger", but it is not "a first-class message from God to someone equally distinguished" as Malachi hopes, that he is made to carry, but rather a message that "Unk" sends to himself on Mars in a desperate bid to maintain his identity.22 Ironically, he is not able to recognise it for what it is. The most he or anyone can aspire to achieve in the way of personal communication is apparently on the level of the harmoniums' "Here I am " - "So glad you are" or Salo's "Greetings".23

Malachi's voyage is thus also a quest for spiritual salvation. This quest has its literary antecedent in Dante's Divina Commedia with Beatrice, Rumfoord's wife, as the unlikely object of his love. Malachi goes through the hell of Mars, the limbo of Mercury, and the purgatory of Earth to the celestial regions of Titan, and dies with a glimpse of paradise. This paradise is an inner one which finds parallels in Milton's Paradise Lost: When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, the Archangel Michael shows them the plight that awaits them, but they are also vouchsafed the discovery of a paradise within themselves.24

Religion, however, is shown in this novel to be as unsatisfactory an explanation or solution as anything else. Malachi's father had acquired his huge fortune through his mechanical use of the Bible as a source of information for investing in the stock market, and Rumfoord becomes the founder of a religion which makes the denial of sense the centre of its credo. Significantly, too, Malachi assumes the name of Jonah, another messenger, when he comes to see Rumfoord's materialisation, and it is on a spaceship called The Whale that he is sent to Mars.25 Later he becomes the scapegoat of the new religion and is exiled to Titan, where he finds personal contentment, but no spiritual insight whatsoever.

Science fiction and postmodern fiction

Given that The Sirens of Titan seems to be shaped by so many diverse modes of writing and to allow such a number of possible approaches only in order to negate them, it is understandable, that this diversity can also be seen negatively as lack of control on the part of the author, possibly due to inexperience. This is what William Allen thinks:

Needless to say, I do not agree with this view, although Allen also tries to give a positive note to his assessment by suggesting that in this novel Vonnegut lays the foundations for his later work.27 I shall therefore try to show where in my view the main achievement of The Sirens of Titan lies and it what way it is seminal for Vonnegut's later work.

Quite a lot of science fiction since the 50s has used mythic patterns in order to find a deeper order in the world and to make sense of it all. Sense, however, as we have seen, is something that The Sirens of Titan decidedly refuses to make. None of its ostensible explanations or solutions can be taken at face value. Malachi's quest can be seen as an "anti-quest" in that he cannot make any free decisions, but is forced or inveigled into every move, and what he eventually finds is pure illusion.28 This is especially emphasised by the ending of the novel, since the sentimental wisdom that Malachi reaches there is deflated by his silly death at the bus-stop, which is only mitigated by a robot-induced hallucination. So I agree with Charles Elkins who says: "What The Sirens of Titan does, in fact, is to demystify the mythic pretensions of most contemporary... science fiction."29

The Sirens of Titan thus does not provide the reader with any of the comforting ideas that he may have come to expect from science fiction - or, indeed, from most other kinds of fiction: man is not only shown to be utterly devoid of control over his own destiny, but even devoid of any importance within a higher scheme of things. Vonnegut thereby insists that sense and meaning can only be the ineluctable responsibility of each individual. In using the format of science fiction, Vonnegut is making a wry comment on what he is writing about: As Lawler ("Story", 1977: 73) has pointed out: "The form supplies the comic perspective needed to dramatize the tragic-comic implications of modern thought and attitudes."by employing the means of a genre which is often called escapist, but nevertheless adapts the mode of the realist novel, Vonnegut questions the nature of reality as it is commonly perceived and the conventions by which it has been described in literature. He thus uses the science fiction framework in order to make certain points that would not have been possible in a realist novel. He does this by drawing attention to the textuality of his text, to the way it becomes a textual object.30 Like other postmodernist fiction, The Sirens of Titan foregrounds the process of "world-building" that is the constituent of all fiction,31 and which is here shown to be an artefact - as are all other constructions that purport to explain reality. Form is indeed inseperable from function here.

It is perhaps not surprising that there has been some confusion about the question to which category the writer Vonnegut should be assigned. He has been called, e.g., "a mediocre science-fiction writer, a social satirist, a Black Humorist, and a major novelist".32 Brian Aldiss alleges in Billion Year Spree: "Vonnegut sped right out of the field [of science fiction] as soon as he had cash for the gasoline."33 He has certainly some grounds for this view in Vonnegut's earlier mentioned short article, where he complains about being limited to the role of science fiction writer and says he wants to break out of it.34

But Vonnegut also has Eliot Rosewater, the eponymous hero of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater say famously to the yearly Science Fiction-Writers' Convention: "I love you sons of bitches. You're all I read any more. You're the only ones who'll talk about the really important changes going on."35 Vonnegut is also the creator of the fictitious purveyor of science fiction pulp, Kilgore Trout, whose books change the life of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. And finally, he describes himself without apparent qualms as a science fiction writer in the Playboy interview of 1973 and has consistently used science fiction motives in his later books. But of course these are always employed in a way which breaks the bounds of conventional science fiction and also those of conventional realist fiction.

After the "New Wave" science fiction of the 60s by authors like Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Tom Disch, Samuel R. Delany or Ursula LeGuin, and later developments like "Cyberpunk", these features of The Sirens of Titan may not seem so exciting anymore, but it has to be remembered that Vonnegut certainly was among the first to make use of them and that he used them in a way which at once constitutes a critique of both realist and non-realist modes of writing. He is especially radical in denying the reader the comfort of "ideational closure".

To call Vonnegut a science fiction writer, then, is both true and untrue: in The Sirens of Titan he may be said to have started deconstructing genre boundaries long before it became the common fashion. In fact, The Sirens of Titan not only makes one ask "What genre does it belong to"? but also "Is that a meaningful question?". It could therefore be said to deconstruct the question of genre itself. By doing this, this novel also prefigures the dissolution of the distinction between mainstream, popular and avantgarde fiction which is usually taken to start much later. In this respect, Vonnegut is very much akin to avantgarde writers like Burroughs, Barth or Pynchon who on occasion also use science fiction concepts for similar ends, but it should be acknowledged that The Sirens of Titan is certainly among the first novels to do this.