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The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut - Book Review

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.

The Sirens of Titan was released in 1959 and was Kurt Vonnegut's second science fiction novel to hit the stands. Interestingly, the book explores topics such as free will, religion, nihilism, and even the meaning of life. We, in fact, see this right from opening sentence, Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself. But mankind wasn't always so lucky. Less than a century ago men and women did not have easy access to the puzzle boxes within them.




These unhappy agents found what had already been found in abundance on Earth—a nightmare of meaninglessness without end. The bounties of space, of infinite outwardness, were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.

Noel Constant, an average American tired of selling pots of pans and watching TV after work, decides to do something bold—something adventurous, something grand. He decides to play with stocks, knowing nothing about the money market. Knowing nothing about money in general (except that he had very little of it), Noel would go through the Bible letter by letter and then find stocks with the same symbols, buy, then sell them. He became rich, and his son even richer. Until one day, after Noel's death, the son, Malachi Constant's luck runs out. Soon the richest person in the world becomes the poorest person in the world.

Malachi is then scooped away to Mars by the ever scheming Winston Niles Rumfoord. Everyone loves Skip (just don't call him that). Because Skip ... I mean, Winston one day entered the chrono-synclastic infundibulum (CSI), a place where all truths fit together. In the CSI, Winston can see the future, the past, and the present all at once. In fact, there really isn't much difference, all that was will always be from the perspective of one in the CSI.

Moreover, anything is possible with the Universal Will to Become (UWTB), which is the greatest power in the universe, it is what made the universe out of nothing, and what makes nothingness insist on become somethingness. It is also used to power ships and bring good luck—okay, so we find out later that UWTB doesn't actually bring good luck ... good luck is just another superior species controlling the fate of humanity. This superior race of machines we'd find out was called the Tralfamadorians.

You see, a Tralfamadorian named Salo (again, a machine) became stranded on Titan after its spaceship powered by UWTB, failed, and Salo needed a replacement part. The Tralfamadorians lived so far away, that to get a replacement part would take hundreds of thousands of years, so Salo had no choice but to chill out on Titan and watch people on earth. Tralfamadorians had no way to communicate with Salo except to manipulate humanity on a grand scale in order to send Salo messages. Stonehenge—yeah that was a message for Salo. Great Wall of China—another message. The Kremlin—you guessed, just a message that Salo's UWTB part will be there soon. The rise and fall of civilizations—well, those were just communication failures by the Tralfamadorians. Literally, everything humanity did on a grand scale is a message to Salo about the progress of his part's arrival to Titan. Thus, putting into question free will entirely. Where do the Tralfamadorians come from? Though long, this passage is necessary to understand and to serve as a warning to our own future and our own purpose should we fail to discover the meaning of life (or, conversely, to obsess over the question).

Once upon a time on Tralfamadore there were creatures who weren’t anything like machines. They weren’t dependable. They weren’t efficient. They weren’t predictable. They weren’t durable. And these poor creatures were obsessed by the idea that everything that existed had to have a purpose, and that some purposes were higher than others.

These creatures spent most of their time trying to find out what their purpose was. And every time they found out what seemed to be a purpose of themselves, the purpose seemed so low that the creatures were filled with disgust and shame.

And, rather than serve such a low purpose, the creatures would make a machine to serve it. This left the creatures free to serve higher purposes. But whenever they found a higher purpose, the purpose still wasn’t high enough.

So machines were made to serve higher purposes, too.

And the machines did everything so expertly that they were finally given the job of finding out what the highest purpose of the creatures could be.

The machines reported in all honesty that the creatures couldn’t really be said to have any purpose at all.

The creatures thereupon began slaying each other, because they hated purposeless things above all else.

And they discovered that they weren’t even very good at slaying. So they turned that job over to the machines, too. And the machines finished up the job in less time than it takes to say, “Tralfamadore.”

Winston creates an army on Mars, his objective in creating the Mars army was to attack the earth, and then start a new religion after the attack, forcing the people of earth to feel bad about slaughtering the Martians which first attacked them. The name of the new religion? The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. The principle behind it, Take Care of the People, and God Almighty Will Take Care of Himself. To further this point, Winston later says in his book, Indifferent, there is nothing more cruel, more dangerous, more blasphemous that a man can do than to believe that—that luck, good or bad, is the hand of God! Luck, good or bad is not the hand of God. Luck is the way the wind swirls and the dust settles eons after God has passed by.

Now, remember those wonderful Tralfamadorians? As it turns out, Winston's great Mars vs. Earth war, new religion, and life were all put into place just to get Salo the UWTB part he needed for his ship. Salo needed that part so urgently to deliver a message to a civilization very far away. What was the message Salo was supposed to deliver? Well, Salo wasn't supposed to look at it until he arrived to the civilization. But, after Winston begged him, and after Winston died, Salo overcame his machine programming and peaked. The message, well written and well crafted, said "." In Tralfamadorian, that meant "greetings." Salo, naturally distraught that he spent hundreds of thousands of years trying so earnestly to deliver a pointless message, dismantles himself, seeing no reason to continue.

Malachi has an initially reluctant companion/mate named Beatrice, who used to be married to Winston. Beatrice, stranded on Titan with her son, Malachi, and the remains of both Salo and Winston, she writes a book called The True Purpose of Life in the Solar System, in order to refute Winston's notion that the purpose of human life was solely to serve the Tralfamadorians and to get Salo on his way to deliver that important message, ".". To refute this notion, Beatrice writes, I would be the last to deny that the forces of Tralfamadore have had something to do with the affairs of Earth. However, those persons who have served the interests of Tralfamadore have served them them in such highly personalized ways that Tralfamadore can be said to have had practically nothing to do with the case. This is a very interesting conjecture. For example, most of us get up, go to work, and live our lives. We build great things (or don't), most of which are directed by governments (for better or for worse), business leaders (mostly to advance hedo-consumerism, for the betterment of humanity), etc. To assume that we have no purpose because our actions are directed by others, would be a depressing assumption indeed. Some might argue that god, indifferent or not, directs everything—even if working only in mysterious aways, his direction gives gives meaning to life. Others might argue the opposite, but it is doubtful most anyone would come to the conclusion that this specific issue results in life being meaningless—nihilists would likely even agree, though a nihilist will still agree that life is meaningless—the meaningless of life however is not a result of those in charge—god, government, or gaffer. Life is meaningless because life itself is meaningless (or so a nihilist would believe). In addition, just because life is directed on scales much larger than the individual, does not in fact mean that we have no free will.

And so we come to the end of the book, and to the end of the life of most characters. Salo is rebuilt, Beatrice dies, Malachi dies, and Malachi's/Beatrice's son goes to live with the birds. The answer to the purpose of life? Well, we'd get "a" answer to our purpose in life. Malachi would say, 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. Malachi and Beatrice, though they lived most of their lives together, only fell in love towards the end of their lives. Salo picks up where it left off, and continues the quest to deliver its message to a that far away civilization that may or may not still exist.

Overall, The Sirens of Titan is a classic must read for any fan of science fiction or philosophy. Vonnegut not only takes on some challenging questions, but answers them as well.

In the used book copy we found the following was written on the last page 18:16-OROVERMYHEAD.

We couldn't quite figure out what this meant. Does it relate to Proverbs 18:16, A man’s gift makes room for him, And brings him before great men.? Or, as it is interpreted, we should be faithful to use the gifts that God has given us and that as we use them our faith will be strengthened. Of course, perhaps this may have nothing to do with Proverbs. Maybe the book just really went over the reader's head. If you have any idea into the meaning, let us know.

Did you read the book? If so, what did you think? What did we miss? Comment below and let us know.

PS: Back in 2017, it was rumored that The Sirens of Titan would be made into a TV show, but there hasn't been many updates since then.

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