The Sirens of Titan  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Sirens of Titan is a Hugo Award-nominated novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., first published in 1959. His second novel, it involves issues of free will, omniscience, and the overall purpose of human history.

Plot

The protagonist is Malachi Constant, the richest man in 22nd-century America. He possesses extraordinary luck that he attributes to divine favor which he has used to build upon his father's fortune. He becomes the centerpoint of a journey that takes him from Earth to Mars in preparation for an interplanetary war, to Mercury with another Martian survivor of that war, back to Earth to be pilloried as a sign of Man's displeasure with his arrogance, and finally to Titan where he again meets the man ostensibly responsible for the turn of events that have befallen him, Winston Niles Rumfoord.

Rumfoord 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, which is defined in the novel as "those places ... where all the different kinds of truths fit together." 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.) 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 akin to 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 after a Martian invasion. It is also in this state that Rumfoord, materializing on different planets, instigated the Martian invasion. On Titan, the only place where he can exist permanently as a solid human being, Rumfoord befriends a traveller 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 a robot built millennia earlier to carry a message 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 and strands him here in the Sol System for over 200 millennia. He requests help from Tralfamadore, and his fellow Tralfamadorians respond by manipulating human history so that primitive humans evolve and create a civilization in order to produce the replacement part. Rumfoord's encounter with the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, the following war with Mars, and Constant's exile to Titan were all manipulated via the Tralfamadorians' control of the UWTB. Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China and the Kremlin are all messages in the Tralfamadorian geometrical language, informing Salo of their progress.

As it turns out, the replacement part is a small metal strip, 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 Rumfoord and Salo moments before concerning the contents of Salo's message, left unresolved because of Rumfoord's disappearance, leads the distraught Salo to disassemble himself, thereby stranding the humans on Titan. It is revealed that the message was a single point, meaning 'hello' in Tralfamadorian. Chrono chooses to live among the Titanian birds; after thirty-two years, his mother dies, and Constant manages to reassemble Salo. Then, using the part delivered so many years previously by Chrono, he repairs the Tralfamadorian saucer.

Salo returns Constant to Earth where he dies of exposure in wintertime Indianapolis whilst waiting for an overdue city bus. But as he passes away he experiences a pleasant hallucination secretly implanted in his mind by a compassionate Salo.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Sirens of Titan" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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