Monday, December 27, 2010

SF Masterworks #18: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

"Sirens of Titan" was first published in 1959 and since then has been nominated for a Hugo Award and hailed as a beloved classic. "Sirens of Titan" cuts with satirical wit at humanity's follies, the belief of a divine hand guiding the individual, while at the same time cherish free will. Throughout the whole novel, Vonnegut takes a stab at omniscience and religion, the purpose of humanity and the deconstruction of the family unit.

At its core "Sirens of Titan" is a concept novel with its primary mission being to force the reader in personal re-examination. Telling the story is second to the theme. Perhaps why both plot and characters are sacrificed as means for Vonnegut to get his point across. It's a strength and a weakness, when re-evaluating "Sirens of Titan" and its status as a classic.

Vonnegut establishes the plot right from the get-go. As a result from the collision with a "chrono-synclastic infundibulum" astronaut Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog have become a waveform phenomenon with knowledge of the future. Possessing capabilities of a deity, Rumfoord quickly predicts a space Odyssey for Malachi Constant, richest man in the world, a future marriage and a future son.

Everything is predestined. The reader only has to witness how it will happen. This works against the novel in current context. I think modern readers, myself included, have been taught to rely on the unpredictability of plot twists, expect mysteries, flip pages and look for the clues. In Scalzi's "Old Man's War" the recruitments wonder how they'll be transformed into soldiers, when they are all well above sixty years old. This sort of wonder is absent here.

What remains to be discovered is how Rumfoord's predictions will come to pass, but even then readers face unsympathetic and purposefully two-dimensional characters. I couldn't connect with Malachi or Rumford or Rumford's ex-wife, because they function on a symbolic level. Malachi endures humiliations and tortures, hand-picked by Rumfoord to be humanity's martyr, punished for his sins. On a symbolical level Malachi represents human decadence and therefore suffers for all of humanity's sins. A sinner Jesus.

Rumfoord is merciless in his machinations and effortless in lies. He sacrifices lives to save humanity, but the same time he’s indifferent towards everything. His omniscience and potency to alter on a massive scale are traditionally traits of the storyteller. Rumfoord has become God and the Devil, but is also lesser when compared to the alien Solo. Clear indication that no matter how much power a man accumulates he’s insignificant when facing space.

Vonnegut has chosen Rumfoord as his personal weapon and he punishes Rumfoord's wife for her arrogance, for her pride and her desire to remain untouched. In this analogy Rumfoord's wife is Virgin Mary, but her purity has been reversed into a sin.

Thematically, "Sirens of Titan" exceeds all its limitations imposed by its length. Vonnegut ridicules humanity's self-obsession with a merciful, divine creator and a grand plan for all through Rumfoord's actions and the creation of Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. In a parody of a rescue mission involving a replacement part, Vonnegut dispels all delusions about a higher purpose for humanity. The conclusion: nobody’s truly in control of anything. Through Malachi, Rumfoord's ex-wife and their son Chrono, a cruel child, Vonnegut depicts a dysfunctional family of damaged individuals in a time, when the nuclear family unit transformed into an American icon.

I'm torn as to whether "Sirens of Titan" remains as a classic or not. It's true that Vonnegut offers food for thought. But while the examination of humanity's purpose and the issue of free will still resonate within us, I think Christianity and religion as a whole now play a diminished role in our current society on a global scale than they did, say, fifty years ago. Since then agnosticism and atheism have grown popular and at the same time people have grown less religious. The same can be said about deconstructing the family unit. Right now, the dysfunctional family has become the new normal.

This coupled with modern readers' demand for more plot and character driven stories is likely to turn off readers before giving it a chance. Do I think "Sirens of Titan" is a good novel? Yes. Do I think it's still a classic? Barely. Do I think it will remain a classic? It all depends on further developments in storytelling. If the emphasis remains on plot twists and compelling characters, for whom you'd want to root for, then probably not.

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