The Sirens of Titan

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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The Plot

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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

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Chrono-synclastic infundibula

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

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...

(This entire section contains 1115 words.)

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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

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 former Internal Revenue Service agent, Ransom K. Fern, Constant channels his wealth into Magnum Opus, Inc., a giant industrial conglomerate whose thirty-one-story headquarters are built across the street from the hotel.

Rumfoord mansion

Rumfoord mansion. Large house in Newport, Rhode Island, in which Rumfoord’s estranged wife, Beatrice, lives alone. Rumfoord himself periodically rematerializes there, and it is there, during one of his materializations that Malachi Constant first meets him. Built like a fortress, the mansion’s only entrance is a tiny “Alice-in-Wonderland door,” through which Constant must crawl to enter and leave. Beatrice eventually loses the mansion in her efforts to divest her holdings in everything that might link her future to that of Constant.

Later, when Constant returns to Earth after long years on Mars and Mercury, Rumfoord takes him to the estate, where Constant is greeted by a large crowd as the “Space Wanderer.” Still bewildered by all that has happened to him, Constant is directed to board yet another spaceship, with Beatrice and their son, that takes them all to Titan.

*Mars

*Mars. Planet that earthlings colonize under the indirect supervision of Rumfoord, whose agents implant electronic devices in recruits’ brains in order to control them with radio signals. Using technology supplied by the Tralfamadorian Salo, who is marooned on Titan, the Martians—who are all transplanted earthlings—build a vast fleet of spaceships and train for an invasion of Earth. Despite their advanced space technology, the Martian forces have primitive weaponry and lack the numbers to pose a serious threat to Earth. Their invasion is an unmitigated disaster in which almost all the Martians are easily killed. Afterward, however, the people of Earth feel great shame for what they have done to the Martians—a reaction that Rumfoord eventually reveals to have been the only objective of the hopeless invasion. Among the people whom Rumfoord draws into his Martian scheme are his wife, Beatrice, and Malachi Constant (Unk), who together have a son who proves to be the carrier of the replacement part that all three of them transport to Titan.

*Mercury

*Mercury. Planet nearest to the Sun to which Unk and Boaz are taken from Mars by an automatically piloted spaceship, which lands in a labyrinthine cave complex more than one hundred miles below the surface of Mercury’s perpetually dark side. During the three Earth years that Unk remains there, he tries to figure out how to escape, while he and Boaz lead increasingly separate lives. Boaz becomes enamored of the cave’s eerie harmonium creatures—the only lifeforms on the planet—which are nourished solely by vibrations. With the help of clues left by Rumfoord, Unk eventually leaves the planet by turning the spaceship upside down, so the sensors on its bottom side can find a way out of the caves. The only ostensible reason for Unk’s time on Mercury is to keep him safe from the slaughter of Martians taking place on Earth.

Whale

Whale. Rocket ship left from the abandoned U.S. space program that is renamed the Rumfoord when the United States begins a new age of space exploration. Malachi Constant initially owns the ship—the last one on earth capable of going into space after the discovery of chrono-synclastic infundibula causes the government space programs to shut down. After Rumfoord tells Constant that his future holds travel to Mars, Mercury, and Titan, Constant unloads the company that owns the ship so he will not have any way to reach Mars. However, both he and Beatrice Rumfoord are later tricked into boarding the ship, which carries them to Mars.

*Titan

*Titan. Largest moon of the planet Saturn and one of the few moons known to have an atmosphere. While the real Titan is known to be a cold and dark place with a poisonous atmosphere, the Titan of the novel is an edenic world with a perfect climate. There, the Tralfamadorian robot Salo, an apparently immortal space traveler, has been stranded for hundreds of thousands of years. To get a replacement part to Salo’s ships, creatures on the planet Tralfamadore manipulate human history so that earthlings will eventually produce and deliver to Titan a simple spare part that will enable the robot to repair his spacecraft and continue his journey.

Bibliography

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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.

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