The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Winston Niles Rumfoord runs his private spaceship into an uncharted chrono-synclastic infundibulum. The result is that he and his dog Kazak exist as wave phenomena, materializing and dematerializing on Earth and on Mars, where Rumfoord plans an invasion of Earth. On Mars, he transforms disaffected Americans into an army, literally washing out their brains through surgical procedures and directing their wills through antennas implanted in their heads. On Earth, Rumfoord lures Malachi Constant, the richest American, into his plot, inviting him to witness his materialization.
Constant is ripe for Rumfoord’s exploitation because he has lost all sense of purpose. He inherited his money from his father and takes no interest in the financial maneuvers of his father’s company, Magnum Opus, which becomes bankrupt. Rumfoord makes Constant his tool, then flies Constant to Mars, along with Rumfoord’s wife, Beatrice. She become Constant’s wife and bears his child.
Constant’s own story is hidden from him (and from the reader) because on Mars, much of his memory is erased. There he is Unk, a soldier with an antenna in his head that sends pain signals any time Unk tries to act on his own. Unk runs away from the army and tries to find his wife, Bee (Beatrice Rumfoord) and his son, Chrono. Unk is fortified by a letter from his best friend, Stony Stevenson, who has warned him to try to remember as much as possible because the surgical brainwashing does not destroy all memory, only the middle part. Unk does not realize that while still brainwashed, he obeyed an order to strangle Stevenson.
Unk, Bee, and Chrono eventually are reunited and survive the disastrous Martian invasion of Earth, in which Rumfoord’s forces are easily defeated. This apparently is part of his plan, allowing him to present himself as a kind of latter-day savior of humankind and to change human values. In this role, he establishes the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, under the leadership of the Reverend C. Horner Redwine. Rumfoord, who suffers severe reactions to his constant materializing and dematerializing, is hardly triumphant. He feels manipulated by the Tralfamadores, machinelike creatures from another galaxy, one of whom, Salo, has helped Rumfoord accomplish his scheme. Rumfoord’s dream of dominating humanity is merely that—an illusion, like the beautiful sirens of Titan, inhabitants of one of Saturn’s moons.
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Chrono-synclastic infundibula. Vaguely defined phenomena in space that serve as something like space and time portals through which living creatures and objects can be simultaneously scattered everywhere between the Sun and Betelgeuse. The first discovery of a chrono-synclastic infundibulum in Earth’s solar system prompted the shutting down of the U.S. space program because of the danger it posed to astronauts. However, the existence of chrono-synclastic infundibula drives the plot. As Wilson Niles Rumfoord explains, when he flew his own spaceship into a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, “it came to me in a flash that everything that ever has been always will be, and everything that ever will be always has been.” Thanks to chrono-synclastic infundibulation, Rumfoord and his dog, Kazak, travel through the solar system and through time effortlessly, while manipulating the lives of Malachi Constant and other characters.
Tralfamadore (trahl-fahm-ah-DOHR). Imaginary planet in a star system many thousands of light years distant from Earth’s solar system from which the space traveler Salo was long ago sent to carry a message across space. Unbeknownst to earthlings—and apparently to Salo himself—Tralfamadorians have manipulated Earth’s history for hundreds of thousands of years to direct events leading to the eventual delivery of a replacement part to Titan for Salo’s disabled spaceship. Tralfamadorians are responsible for all the technology used to colonize Mars and build a fleet of spaceships.
In their remote role as manipulators of human history, the unseen Tralfamadorians have godlike attributes—both in their power and in their indifference to human suffering. The novel’s central character is named Malachi Constant—an appropriate name for the role he fills. A Greek name, “Malachi” means “faithful messenger”—a description reinforced by the surname “Constant.” Throughout the novel, Constant is the unknowing dupe of the Tralfamadorians and ultimately becomes the messenger who helps deliver the replacement part to Titan.
Wilburhampton Hotel. Shabby Los Angeles hotel in which Malachi Constant’s father, Noel Constant, lives out the last decades of his life. Voluntarily spending virtually all of his time alone in Room 223, he builds a massive fortune on the stock market by following a brainless scheme that involves using biblical texts to select his investments. Unbeknownst to him and his son, who inherits his wealth and continues the scheme after his death, his fabulous success is made possible by Tralfamadorian manipulation. Under the direction of a...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977. Focuses on the method of Vonnegut’s novels. The dignified and extensive treatment of The Sirens of Titan considers the chapters in small clusters, restating the plot and then discussing the implications from several angles.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Methuen, 1982. Discusses The Sirens of Titan as a formula novel. Explains it as being like other novels by Vonnegut in adhering to the structures indicative of science fiction, as opposed to later, more experimental and personal novels.
Mayo, Clark. Kurt Vonnegut: The Gospel from Outer Space (Or, Yes We Have No Nirvanas). San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977. A fairly short book adopting Vonnegut’s style, voice, and satire while writing about Vonnegut. Discusses The Sirens of Titan in detail.
Reed, Peter J. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972. Considers the characteristic themes and fictional techniques of Vonnegut. The subhead to the thirty-page chapter on The Sirens of Titan is “Existential Science Fiction.” Compares Vonnegut to classic and contemporary writers.
Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Extensive quotation and interpretation of The Sirens of Titan with attention to plot, structure, style, and technique. Includes a section on Vonnegut as a public figure.