Saturday, June 11, 2016
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
“His best book … he dares not only to ask the ultimate question about the meaning of life, but to answer it.”
Which, of course, primed me for what I hoped would be a thought-provoking novel of sublime depth, capturing essential truth about our existence in its delightful prose.
I was disappointed.
I kept looking for it, scribbling “Is this it?” in the margin next to each philosophical epigram I encountered. For example:
The only thing I ever learned was that some people are lucky and other people aren’t and not even a graduate of the Harvard Business School can say why.
Is that the meaning of life? Some people are lucky and some people aren’t, so lump it? Is that what Vonnegut is trying to tell me?
“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,” said Boaz, “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 ain’t got an enemy in the Universe.’”
Is that the meaning of life? Do as much good as you can for others and die happy and without enemies? Is that what Vonnegut is trying to tell me?
“You finally fell in love, I see,” said Salo.
“Only an Earthling year ago,” said Constant. “It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”
Is that the meaning of life? Love the people around you? Is that what Vonnegut is trying to tell me?
Well, no. As it turns out, none of these sentiments express the real meaning of life revealed in The Sirens of Titan. That meaning, revealed in the novel’s climactic scene, goes like this:
“Everything that every Earthling has ever done has been warped by creatures on a planet one-hundred-and-fifty thousand light years away. The name of the planet is Tralfamadore.
“How the Tralfamadorians controlled us, I don’t know. But I know to what end they controlled us. They controlled us in such a way as to make us deliver a replacement part to a Tralfamadorian messenger who was grounded right here on Titan.”
Rumfoord pointed a finger at young Chrono. “You, young man--” he said. “You have it in your pocket. In your pocket is the culmination of all Earthling history. In your pocket is the mysterious something that every Earthling was trying so desperately, so earnestly, so gropingly, so exhaustingly to produce and deliver.”
A fizzing twig of electricity grew from the tip of Rumfoord’s accusing finger.
“The thing you call your good-luck piece,” said Rumfoord, “is the replacement part for which the Tralfamadorian messenger has been waiting so long!”
I’m not going into any details. Who’s Rumfoord? Who’s Chrono? What’s a Tralfamadorian and how did they all get on a moon of Saturn? Those are questions I’ll leave to someone who thinks Vonnegut is being clever by connecting all those intricacies together. I’m not one of them. Suffice it to say, within the context of the story, the meaning of human life, of two hundred thousand years of human evolution and technology, is for an alien who has crash landed on Titan to receive a replacement part for his broken spaceship so he can leave again.
That’s it. The human species started on its evolutionary path from hominid to space traveler, with all joys and sorrows of human history and culture in between, so that Salo the Tralfamadorian can get the part he needs to fix his ship.
Now, I will at least give Vonnegut the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s trying to make a larger philosophical point. Something along the lines of...
The lieutenant-colonel realized for the first time what most people never realize about themselves--that he was not only a victim of outrageous fortune, but one of outrageous fortune’s cruelest agents as well.
Because his story is full of Douglas Adams-style time and character paradoxes. Characters who hate each other wind up in love with each other. Those committed to foiling the Tralfamadorian plan wind up fulfilling it. Self-styled heroes become goats and self-styled anarchists become leaders. If you’re flowcharting stories in your Fiction workshop, I’d advise you to skip The Sirens of Titan.
Now, the concept that our meaning lives outside the boundaries of our awareness, and that, perversely, the more we try to take control our own destiny, the more we become pawns in the universe’s inscrutable design, is a perfectly fine theme to choose for a philosophical novel with science fiction flourishes like The Sirens of Titan. But the problem I can’t get past is how ham-handed Vonnegut decides to be about delivering it.
Humanity’s purpose is to deliver a missing piece for Salo’s broken ship. That missing piece is Chrono’s good-luck charm. This is the thing “that every Earthling was trying so desperately, so earnestly, so gropingly, so exhaustingly to produce and deliver.” Here’s its origin story:
One day the school children were taken by Miss Fenstermaker on an educational tour of a flame-thrower factory. The factory manager explained to the children all the steps in the manufacture of flame-throwers, and hoped that some of the children, when they grew up, would want to come to work for him. At the end of the tour, in the packaging department, the manager’s ankle became snarled in a spiral of steel strapping, a type of strapping that was used for binding shut the packaged flame-throwers.
The spiral was a piece of jagged-ended scrap that had been cast into the factory aisle by a careless workman. The manager scratched his ankle and tore his pants before he got free of the spiral. He thereupon put on the first really comprehensible demonstration that the children had seen that day. Comprehensibly, he blew up at the spiral.
He stamped on it.
Then, when it nipped him again, he snatched it up and chopped it into four-inch lengths with great shears.
The children were edified, thrilled, and satisfied. And, as they were leaving the packaging department, young Chrono picked up one of the four-inch pieces and slipped it into his pocket. The piece he picked up differed from all the rest in having two holes drilled in it.
This was Chrono’s good-luck piece. It became as much a part of him as his right hand. His nervous system, so to speak, extended itself into a metal strap. Touch it and you touched Chrono.
This story means absolutely nothing. It has no connection to any other part of the plot. It’s random. Intentionally so, I think. Here’s what undoubtedly happened. Somewhere in the process of writing his novel, Vonnegut decided that Chrono’s good-luck piece was going to be the missing piece of Salo’s ship, so he had to make sure that Chrono had a good-luck piece. So he made up this cute little story about Chrono going on a school field trip to a flame-thrower factory. It means nothing, but because the author decides he needs it, it suddenly means everything.
Am I supposed to think that’s clever? I don’t. I think it’s silly.
And that’s the problem. In a book such as this, where anything can happen (space aliens, time travel, mind control, etc.) being silly can naturally become a safe refuge for the author. When you’re silly you don’t have to connect all the dots, you don’t have to explain anything you don’t want to, you don’t have to commit to any kind of internal consistency. And there are certainly times when that can be both liberating for the author and enjoyable for the reader.
But not if you’re going to try and make a serious point. Serious like “asking and answering the ultimate question about the meaning of life.” Because being silly gets in the way of any serious message you’re trying to deliver.
It's like Vonnegut is saying, Here. Think deeply about the meaning of life. But while you’re doing that, I’m going to distract you with a bunch of characters who do impossible things and act in unbelievable ways. Don’t like that? Well, serves you right for thinking so seriously in the first place. You didn’t think I was actually going to tell you something useful, did you?
Sadly, I did.
+ + +
This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.