The Sirens of Titan

From Academic Kids

The Sirens of Titan (1959) is a science fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut. His second novel, it discusses issues of free will, omniscience and the overall purpose of human history.

Scot singer-songwriter Al Stewart paid homage to the novel with the same titled song in his album Modern Times.


Plot summary

Template:Spoiler top The protagonist is Malachi Constant, originally of Hollywood, California, and the richest man in 22nd century America. He possesses extraordinary luck, which he has used to build upon his father's fortune, but he has done nothing else significant with his life. He becomes the centerpoint of a journey that takes him from Earth to Mars in preparation for an interplanetary war, to Mercury with the other Martian survivor of that war, back to Earth to be pilloried as a sign of God's displeasure, and finally to Saturn's moon Titan to meet the man responsible for his respective good fortunes (or lack thereof), Winston Niles Rumfoord.

Rumfoord himself comes from a wealthy New England background. His private fortune was large enough to fund the construction of a personal spacecraft, and he became a space explorer. Traveling between Earth and Mars, his ship—carrying Rumfoord and his dog, Kazak—entered a phenomenon known as a chrono-synclastic infundibulum. Vonnegut notes that any detailed description of this phenomenon would baffle the layman, but any comprehensible explanation would insult an expert. Consequently, he "quotes" an article from a (fictional) children's encyclopedia. (Interestingly, much of Vonnegut's information on the Solar system came from a similar source Template:Ref.) According to this article, since the Universe is so large, there are many possible ways to observe it, all of which are equally valid, because people from across the Universe can't communicate with each other (and therefore can't get into an argument). The chrono-synclastic infundibula are places where these "ways to be right" coexist. When they enter the infundibulum, Rumfoord and Kazak become "wave phenomena", somewhat reminiscent of the probability waves encountered in quantum mechanics. They exist along a spiral stretching from the Sun to the star Betelgeuse. When a planet, such as the Earth, intersects their spiral, Rumfoord and Kazak materialize, temporarily, on that planet.

When he entered the infundibulum, Rumfoord became aware of the past and future. Throughout the novel, he predicts future events; unless he is deliberately lying, the predictions always come true.

It is in this state that Rumfoord established the "Church of God the Utterly Indifferent" on Earth to unite the planet against a Martian invasion. It is also in this state that Rumfoord, materializing on different planets, instigated the Martian invasion. On Titan, the only place he can exist as a solid human being and not as a broadcast image, Rumfoord befriends an explorer from Tralfamadore (a world that also figures in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, among several others) who needs a small metal component to repair his damaged spaceship.

Salo, the Tralfamadorian explorer, is actually a robot built many millennia earlier to carry a message from Tralfamadore to a distant galaxy. His spacecraft is powered by the Universal Will to Become, or UWTB, the "prime mover" which makes matter and organization wish to appear out of nothingness. (UWTB, Vonnegut informs the reader, was responsible for the Universe in the first place, and is the greatest imaginable power source.) A small component on Salo's spacecraft breaks, stalling him in the Solar System. He requests help from Tralfamadore, and his fellow Tralfamadorians respond by manipulating human history so that human civilization can produce the replacement part. Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China and the Kremlin are all messages in the Tralfamadorian geometrical language, advising Salo of their progress.

As it turns out, the replacement part is a small metal strip, rounded on one corner, with two holes punched in it. Salo's message, for whose sake human history was manipulated, is a single dot, which in Tralfamadorian means "greetings".

The metal strip is brought to Salo by Constant and his son Chrono (born of Rumfoord's ex-wife). A sunspot disrupts Rumfoord's spiral, sending him and Kazak separately into the vastness of space. An argument between Rumsfoord and Salo moments before, left unresolved because of Rumsfoord's disappearance, leads the distraught Salo to disassemble himself, thereby stranding the humans on Titan. Chrono chooses to live among the Titanian birds; after thirty-two years, his mother dies, and Constant manages to reassemble Salo.

Salo returns Constant to Earth, specifically to the outskirts of Indianapolis, Indiana, where Constant dies.

The title is derived from a grouping of statues which Salo sculpts out of "Titanic peat". The statues, eventually submerged in Rumfoord's swimming pool, are in the form of three beautiful women. Constant uses the design on a package of cigarettes, attempting to mitigate their frightening beauty through blatant commercialism.

It is sometimes argued that this book contains all the basic elements of Vonnegut's later books. For example, Rumfoord's ability to see past, present and future appears in Slaughterhouse-Five, where Billy Pilgrim becomes similarly "unstuck in time". Template:Spoiler bottom

Religious themes

The novel treats religion by its Marxist definition (as an "opiate of the people") that drives its followers to often insane acts. Consider Malachi's banishment from Earth by the Church as a result of Rumsfoord's teachings as well as Rumsfoord's instigation of the Earth-Mars war leading to the Church's formation.

The author also decries how humans not only use religious and ethical systems to manipulate others but also how humans allow themselves to be manipulated by those systems. Consider Rumsfoord himself; he can see the past, present, and future but he can't see Salo's message, and he is genuinely hurt by that fact. Salo's ship crashed on Titan in Earth's prehistory, and his people, the Tralfamadorians, have been sending him messages through Earth's great architectural achievements. With Salo now gone to deliver his message, it is possible that humanity will finally make its own destiny, without outside manipulation.

Film rights

Vonnegut sold the film rights to Sirens of Titan to Jerry Garcia. Garcia worked with Tom Davis off and on for years on the script. He commented on the book and the screenplay in a November 1987 interview:Template:Ref

There's really three basic characters that are having things happen to them. Three main characters. [Malachi,] Rumfoord, and Bea. It's like a triangle, a complex, convoluted love story. And it's really that simple....So our task has been to take the essential dramatic relationships, make it playable for actors, so that it's free from the Big Picture emphasis of the book. There's also some extremely lovely, touching moments in the book. It's one of the few Vonnegut books that's really sweet, in parts of it, and it has some really lovely stuff in it. It's the range of it that gets me off....But it took some work for us to start to really understand the simplicity of it.
I have a lot of faith in it, and it's one of those things where I'm real ready to wait around. I don't care how long it takes.

Garcia passed away in 1995 before bringing the film to the screen. Since he had failed to bring the film into production, Vonnegut exercised his right to buy the film rights back from Garcia, and as of 2001 has a "handshake" agreement with producer / writer / director Robert B. Weide for Weide to do the film.Template:Ref Weide wrote and produced the film version of Mother Night.


  1. Template:Note Cargas, Harry James (1976). Transcript: Interview in Christian Century ( Verified 10 May 2005. Vonnegut speaks on humor, technology, the Great Depression, and other assorted topics.
  2. Template:Note Eisenhart, Mary (November 12, 1987). Transcript: Jerry Garcia Interview ( Verified 30 March 2005. Jerry Garcia discusses Sirens of Titan at length
  3. Template:Note Weide, Robert B. (2004). Sirens of Titan ( Verified 30 March 2005. Background on the history of a possible film version of the novel

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