You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Sirens of Titan

It is a strange feeling reading a book and slowly discovering that you have read it before. I thought I had read Kurt Vonnegut Jr's The Sirens of Titan, but I couldn't remember any details about it. So I recently picked it up from the library. About a quarter of the way through I recognized a section. It described how Malachi Constant's father made his money in the stock market by picking up a Gideon's Bible in his hotel room and picking consecutive pairs of letters and finding a stock symbol with those letters. As I continued, the rest of the story fell into place.

Malachi Constant is a playboy billionaire, the richest man on Earth. He believes that he has been blessed by fortune. He is invited to the mansion of Winston Niles Rumfoord, a man who became stuck in a space phenomenon so that he appears on different planets with different periods. He meets with Constant and tells him some of his future (Rumfoord being somewhat unstuck in time, much like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five). Among the things he says is that Constant will marry and breed with Rumfoord's wife Beatrice on Mars. After this, both Beatrice and Constant try to do everything they can to avoid going to Mars. However, they are both "recruited" by Martian agents and taken to Mars where their memories are wiped.

On Mars, Constant is known as Unk, and older soldier who is an enlisted man. The Martian army is preparing to invade Earth. The army is controlled not by a conventional chain of command but by secret agents planted among the enlisted men and lower level officers. These agents use mind control devices to force them to do their bidding. This is quite an inventive scenario that turns military organization on its head, though there doesn't seem to be a point to it all. Unk is forced to strangle his best friend in front of the entire army, though he doesn't remember anything. His friend manages to whisper something to him before dying, and Unk tracks down a letter that he had written to himself about stuff that he remembered before getting his memory wiped again and again. Here he finds that he has a wife and son on Mars who don't know him.

The Martian invasion of Earth, run by Rumfoord, is a failure, as designed. He intends the Martians to be slaughtered so that he can bring a new religion to Earth. Unk (Constant) and his secret commander Boaz travel to Mercury due to Rumfoord's programming of their ship. My favorite line from the book is about why the ships have two buttons instead of one: "The off button was connected to nothing. It was installed at the insistence of Martian mental-health experts, who said that human beings were always happier with machinery they thought they could turn off." Boaz and Unk are stranded on Mercury until they can figure out how to get their ship out of the caverns. The native species of Mercury, harmoniums, are thin kite-like creatures who are attracted to the blissful frequencies around them.

Back on Earth, Rumfoord has founded the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, a religion that has become the major religion of the world. Its main tenet is that everything that happens in the universe is due to chance. However, Rumfoord undercuts his message by controlling events on Mars and Earth, especially the life of Malachi Constant. Rumfoord, with his knowledge of the future, is able to shape events away from pure randomness. Unk returns to Earth as the fulfiller of Rumfoord's prophecy, the last straggler from the Martian Army. In front of a huge crowd, Rumfoord reveals him to be the conceited playboy billionaire Malachi Constant. In shame, Constant gets in a space ship with his wife and son to go to Titan, where they live the rest of their lives (except for Constant's last moments when he dies on Earth).

Rumfoord's meddling in Constant's life is echoed in the meddling of human history by the people of Salo, the alien robot stranded on Titan. Salo's home world has been sending signals to Earth for millennia in order to get a single small, seemingly insignificant spare part to his ship. So despite human history having a single goal, the events of a single human's life are capricious. This part is reminiscent of Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's series, where the whole point of the Earth is to provide a single question to the answer of life. However, here the purpose is much more ridiculous and pointless.

Vonnegut writes with his usual wit. His writing is wry and ironic. Ruthless, he builds up characters only to tear them down. The characters are largely there to illustrate his theme of humans being at the whims of fate. I can detect themes and a style in this story that he will build on in Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse Five. As an earlier work of his, published in 1959, it doesn't feel quite as big a novel. It's still enjoyable, and fun and easy to read. B

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