The Sirens of Titan: A Book Review

I’m at a point in my life where I’m hyper-focused on the person I am, and the person I want to be. Perhaps I’m climbing Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs. Perhaps, after decades of operating in survival mode, I finally have the psychological safety to ask, What is my place in this world?

Which brings me to the author, Kurt Vonnegut.

I had the pleasure of reading one of Vonnegut’s novels, Cat’s Cradle, during undergrad (the first one). Inspired by The Coquette’s annual book recommendation list, I read the novel, hoping to find insight into my favorite blogger’s psyche.

What I found was astonishment at Vonnegut’s ability to make me laugh through literary style. I remember feeling, Here is an author that actually has something to say, and it might do me some good to listen.

Now that I’ve embarked on a second-wave of self-discovery, I am back again at Vonnegut’s door, raising my beggar’s cup for a crumb of wisdom.

But first, a quick plot summary -

The Sirens of Titan is Vonnegut’s message to the world about the purpose of life. Except, there is no purpose. Which is exactly his point.

The novel describes the story of a rich playboy, Malachi Constant, whose life descends into doom after meeting Winston Niles Rumfoord, an omniscient and omnipresent space traveler that not-so-secretly pulls the strings of the book’s grand events. Constant learns from Rumfoord that he will mate with Rumfoord’s own wife to bear a son and spend their days on one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. What follows is a series of bizarre, loosely connected events, including state-sponsored murder, an intergalactic war, and the founding of a new religion. But, at the end of the novel, Vonnegut reveals his insight into the purpose of life. Which is to say, there is no purpose. (But, if you’re lucky, you may find meaning.)

I wouldn’t say I especially enjoyed reading the novel at first. Throughout the book, I found myself asking, Where is this going? It wasn’t until the last remaining chapters where I was able to finally get a sense of the message Vonnegut was communicating.

And yet, despite my initial reaction, The Sirens of Titan made a personal impact. I found myself relaying the book’s story over coffee with my meditation friends. Somehow, through this bizarre science-fiction novel, Vonnegut was able to transmit a piece of his philosophy into my own.

NOTE: If spoilers aren’t your thing, feel free to skip to my final rating.

On the book's themes

The meaning of life

The general theme of the novel seems to center around the idea of creating your own meaning within a life that has no purpose and makes no sense. Throughout the book, we meet several characters whose story arcs are random, absurd, and often painful. But, these characters devise their own ways to give their lives meaning.

Boaz's sacrifice

The first clue I got in discovering the central theme of the book is Boaz and the harmoniums. Boaz enters the book as a villain. He’s a Martian soldier that secretly owns a remote control that can inflict pain on fellow soldiers, and he gets off on abusing this power. But, later in the book, Boaz and our main character Malachi Constant get stranded on Mercury for several years. When they finally get the opportunity to escape, Boaz decides to instead sacrifice his freedom to take care of the harmoniums - an alien colony of simple organisms that feed off sound.

Because Boaz had a miserable life on Earth and was a lousy character on Mars, his relationship with the harmoniums is everything to him. He is willing to delude himself into thinking the harmoniums love him in the same way he loves them, despite knowing their simple biology doesn't have the capacity to love or communicate. Boaz repeats to Malachi Constant, “Don’t truth me, and I won’t truth you” because this delusion he is holding onto is far more bearable than the grim truth of reality.

Salo's Grand Mission

Another example of a character creating their own meaning is Salo and his grand mission. Salo is an alien robot from the planet Tralfamadore, who is tasked with delivering a message from his home planet to an unknown civilization galaxies away. The mission is so important that the Tralfamadorians manipulate the human species to send messages to Salo and deliver a replacement part to repair his broken ship. This manipulation of human civilizations happens over thousands of years. Humanity’s greatest feats, including the Great Wall of China and the pyramids of Egypt, are simply messages to communicate to Salo that help is on the way. The intergalactic war that costs hundreds of thousands of Martian lives is only so Salo can get the replacement part for his ship.

But when Salo finally discovers the contents of this grand message - “Greetings” - he is so full of despair by the absurd meaninglessness that he takes his own life. Salo eventually comes back to life - he’s a robot - and makes the decision to continue with the mission, despite it being what he calls a fool’s errand. He says,

“Anyone who has traveled this far on a fool’s errand… he has no choice but to uphold the honor of fools by completing the errand.”

Even though the mission is pointless and nonsensical, he chooses to find meaning in upholding “the honor of fools.”

On being used

Another theme that’s present in this book is the idea of being used. Throughout the book, different characters discover they’re being used as fodder for some grand cause. The Martians are manipulated into waging a mass suicide so Winston Niles Rumfoord can start a new religion. Malachi Constant and Bee Rumfoord are used by Winston Niles Rumfoord to add drama and flair to the religion’s lore. Winston Niles Rumfoord himself learns he’s also being used so Salo can get a replacement part for his ship. And even Salo is getting used by the Tralfamadorians to deliver a silly message to a civilization galaxies away.

Throughout the book, there is a constant anxiety and frustration at being “used up” and not having ownership of one’s destiny. But, at the end of the book, the characters, one by one, accept that they don’t have control over their own lives, and do the best they can with what they have.

My thoughts on the novel

As mentioned earlier, this wasn’t the most enjoyable book for me to read. The Sirens of Titan is not a fast-moving story, and the plot seemed pointless at times. However, I enjoyed the overall theme of the book, and felt Vonnegut cleverly communicated an important message.

On dying well

One of my favorite quotes in the book is from Boaz when he decides to give up his freedom to care for the harmoniums. He says,

“I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I'm doing good, and them I'm doing good for know I'm doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home.

And when I die down here some day... I'm going to be able to say to myself, 'Boaz - you made millions of lives worth living. Ain't nobody ever spread more joy... You go to sleep now.... You're a good boy, Boaz... Good night.'”

On a personal level, I resonated with this quote because I think about death a lot. When I was in my early twenties, I watched my father die of cancer. This experience was very traumatic because - on top of watching a parent die - it was clear my father was not ready to go. So, for a good chunk of my life, I’ve had to confront my fear of death.

When Boaz says, “You go to sleep now… You’re a good boy, Boaz… Good night,” it reminds me of the Buddhist approach toward death I’ve adopted since my father’s passing. For me, a meaningful life is the most comforting gift you can give yourself on your deathbed. And, that is exactly what Boaz does when he dedicates his life to the harmoniums.

On absurdism

Another aspect of the book I liked was the absurd moments, like Salo discovering his grand message was just a simple, “Greetings.” Or how the Martians spent all this time fighting for a war that was so terribly planned, it was comical.

For me, this absurdity felt like a metaphor for the absurdity of life, and a reminder that everything we know is the result of a cosmic accident.

My rating

I rate The Sirens of Titan 4 out of 5 stars. I think the book was cleverly crafted, and I enjoyed its absurd vignettes and witty literary style. I also enjoyed the central theme of the book, and really resonated with its message. That being said, I don't imagine I will likely read the book again, which is why I wouldn’t rate it five stars. But, I’m glad I picked up the book, and imagine its message will stick with me for a long time.

If you like books that ponder the meaning of life, I think The Sirens of Titan would be a good read for you.