Manny's Reviews > The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
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's review
Nov 20, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction, well-i-think-its-funny
Read in January, 1974

I'll start with a roundabout introduction. Garry Kasparov was not just one of the best chessplayers of all time, he was also one of the best analysts. Even as a teenager, he was always coming up with the most amazing ideas. Chessplayers often prefer to hoard their ideas; it can be worth a lot to surprise your opponent in a critical game, and there are many stories about grandmasters keeping a new move in the freezer for years, or even decades. Kasparov asked his trainer if he should be hoarding too. "No, Garry!" came the sage reply. "Use them now! You'll get new ones." And, indeed, this turned out to be a correct prediction.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote Sirens of Titan early in his career, and I wonder if he didn't receive similar advice. The novel contains enough ideas for half a dozen normal books, and fairly bubbles with creative energy. I like it much more than Slaughterhouse Five, and I've always wondered why it isn't better known. I suppose it doesn't actually make sense; but, for goodness sakes, do things always have to make sense? Free associating for a moment, Candide, A Grand Day Out and the Old Testament are all undisputed masterpieces. None of them make sense, and they would be greatly diminished if they did. Put them together and package the result as a 50s SF novel, and you might get something a little bit like Sirens.

So, you have a naively optimistic central character, who suffers the most appalling reverses of fortune in a way that somehow ends up being more comic than tragic; but, instead of going to South America, he spends most of the book wandering around a Solar System which is very slightly more credible than Nick Park's cheese-flavored Moon. He's pursued by a God who's rather too fond of elaborate practical jokes, but who is simultaneously trying to use the story to convey deep truths about the meaning of life. Unless He's just kidding. It's a bit hard to tell, but isn't that normal for pronouncements made under the influence of divine inspiration?

I see I've left out all the good bits. I haven't mentioned the chrono-synclastic infundibulum. Or Bea's sonnet, "Every Man's an Island", about how to breathe in space. Or Salo, and his message for the people at the other end of the Universe. Or Universal Will to Become. Or even the Sirens. If you haven't already done so, why don't you buy the book and check them all out for yourself? It's an easy read, and it even has a happy ending. I think.

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02/14/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-23 of 23) (23 new)

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message 1: by Sandi (new) - added it

Sandi I've never read anything by Vonnegut. I really need to correct that oversight.

message 2: by Manny (last edited Jun 27, 2009 09:42AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny This, Cat's Cradle and Mother Night are all masterpieces. Also Welcome to the Monkey House.

message 3: by Robert (new)

Robert Did anything Vonnegut wrote make sense?

I suspect that Slaughterhouse 5 is more well known because people can pretend it's a WWII novel not an SF novel....

Manny Mother Night certainly makes sense. I would say Cat's Cradle too.

message 5: by Robert (new)

Robert I don't think I read any of those you've mentioned. I read Slaughterhouse 5 and Dead-eye Dick and at least one other some time in my teens. My response was "Whuh?"

I don't know if I'd have a better chance of understanding him now, or not.

Brad Nice reminder of why I love Vonnegut, Manny. I am going to have to make it a priority to read The Sirens of Titan again.

Manny Thanks! And in fact, I haven't read one either since he died. I should do the same...

David Katzman Breakfast of Champions was always my favorite. I remember thinking Mother Night was boring, but i don't know why. I can't even remember what it was about. What made Vonnegut special, i think, was that he wrote comedy that was taken seriously.

message 9: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jul 15, 2010 09:36AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) ... I'm also re-reading Vonnegut. I place him in the realm of absurdists. It's much more helpful a frame, or at least a starting place, than sci-fi, counter-culture or anything else. His constructed absurdities make more sense than the "real world." That's his point; and that's the deliciousness of KV.

I'm seeing now the trauma of WWII personally and societally reflected in everything I'm reading in a way I didn't/couldn't have in my teens/early 20s. The anti-war theme is what originally drew me to him, and remains one of the most compelling, frightening and relevant themes he explores. Also religious fundamentalism. (oh, and the fact that the two always, always go together, huh?)

The imagery of The Army of Mars here is shatteringly good.

KV is in a class entirely his own. I'd say he's to literature as his contemporary, Bob Dylan, was to music. All who followed--certainly all who would call themselves post-modernist--owe a debt to him, and are influenced by him, whether they know it or not.

Am I overstating? ... or stating the obvious?

Manny Am I overstating?

I don't think so! For some reason, there's a tacit agreement not to take Vonnegut seriously. I recall Doris Lessing saying she was bemused by it.

I also loved the Army of Mars, but in fact I loved almost everything in this book... I must have read it at least three times. And so many great lines! From memory:

"Who wuzza dog? Dog wuzza Kazak. Dog wuzza Winston Niles Rumford's great, big, mean, chronosynclasticinfundibulated dog Kazak..."

Hasn't anyone yet got around to writing Unk and Boaz in the Caves of Mercury?

Jennifer (aka EM) hahaha! I expect to see that in your GR blog shortly ... get right on that, young man!

notgettingenough What a painful decision to have to make, when to use your idea. Certainly in chess (not for me, not nearly good enough), but I imagine lots of other walks in life. It must happen in science all the time, no? Deciding when to go with what you have in terms of your idea in case it is no longer yours vs. making it bigger and better.

message 13: by Jason (new)

Jason Nice review Manny. I've been looking for a good sci-fi, having recently been heartburned by 1990's crap. Good reason to pick up Vonnegut.

Robert Delikat Great review, Manny. Your review sold me on it, started it today and I'm loving it.

Manny Thank you Robert! It's one of my all-time favorite books.

spikeINflorida Great review Manny. You should join the GoodReads group SF Aficionados. We really need your insightful input.

David Hammond Annie Dillard had great advice for anyone considering saving ideas for later:

"spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time"

Manny Annie Dillard has a nice way of expressing this thought! Thank you.

Abram Manny every book I read has already been read by you. BTW I love your reviews.

Manny Thank you Abram!

message 21: by Robert (new)

Robert Abram wrote: "Manny every book I read has already been read by you. BTW I love your reviews."

Read The Hunger Games - then you'll be ahead of him!

Manny That's right Robert, rub it in.

If I still haven't read this fine book, it's not for lack of trying! I do little else!

message 23: by Robert (new)

Robert Manny wrote: "That's right Robert, rub it in.

If I still haven't read this fine book, it's not for lack of trying! I do little else!"

The most disappointing thing about the Hunger Games isn't the naff world-building or even the films turning it into what it hates, but that the intended audience's primary response was, "Katniss is bad-ass" not, "Our society is completely fucked up - we should do something about it."

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