The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Reviewed by NC Weil
Spoiler Alert! I’m discussing the entire book. If you haven’t read it and would like to be surprised, stop reading this now.
Winston Niles Rumfoord, an aristocrat from Newport, Rhode Island, and his dog Kazak, during a journey to Mars, blunder into a chronosynclastic infundibulum, a phenomenon of Vonnegut’s creation – effectively, it puts intruders into a time-space scrambler, setting man and dog on a comet-like orbit in which they materialize at regular intervals in various places. Rumfoord discovers that he can view the future as easily as the past, and uses this knowledge to manipulate people – individually and as a species – on his origin planet.
Malachi Constant, the richest man in America, is abducted under Rumfoord’s orders to serve in the Army of Mars, a huge cadre recruited and kidnapped from every nation on earth, and trained as a conquering force. The vast majority have antennae implanted in their skulls that direct their actions, and their memories are wiped to make them obedient soldiers. A select few do not have antennae – disguised as ordinary soldiers, they are the true commanders, carrying controllers to manipulate their platoons.
For Constant, known on Mars as Unk, memories keep bubbling up, despite a series of memory cleanings. The commander in his unit is Boaz, who takes Unk under his wing because he knows he was once a rich and famous libertine – he intends to have Unk show him the legendary nightlife of American cities after they conquer Earth.
Salo is a Tralfamadorian stranded on Titan, a moon of Saturn, awaiting a replacement part for his spaceship so he can continue his journey across the universe with a message whose contents he does not know. He is a machine. The last 200,000 years of Earth history and human development have been messages to Salo that the part is on its way.
Rumfoord’s purpose in amassing and deploying the Army of Mars is to unite Earthlings, first against a common foe, then as adherents in the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. The dehumanization and slaughter of the Army of Mars, part of his grand plan, troubles him not in the least. God the Utterly Indifferent bears a strong resemblance to Rumfoord.
Unk and Boaz leave Mars on the supply ship, but instead of joining the invasion, they end up on Mercury, where the ship’s guidance system takes it deep into a crevasse then stops. In the caves of Mercury, Unk and Boaz go their separate ways, and when finally the native creatures – harmoniums – spell out the escape route, Unk leaves but Boaz remains on Mercury.
Vonnegut considers free will from a number of angles: Malachi Constant’s fortune is inherited from his father, who acquired it by investing in companies based on their initials. Market knowledge is no match for dumb luck. Malachi says, “Somebody up there likes me,” which Rumfoord throws back at him through the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, whose scapegoat is a small statuette called a Malachi, symbolizing that luck has nothing to do with God.
Did Rumfoord establish his religion in order to protect the human species from self-destruction after his demise? On Titan, the only place he is always present, we see him dematerialize, whisked off to some other part of the universe never to return. So he knows his cycles of visiting Earth and other places between the Sun and Betelgeuse are going to end, and earthlings will be left not only without his guidance, but without the Tralfamadorian meddling that defined Earth cultures for 200,000 years. At that point, we will be in need of structure. So is Rumfoord’s treatment of our species ultimately humane, or yet another example of his megalomaniacal certainty that only he could guide Earthlings?
If your entire life (beginning to end) is open to viewing any time, can you have free will? That would imply you could change your future, but Rumfoord merely sees his future, and is less an actor than a cog. Doesn’t sound like free will.
Salo, messenger of the Tralfamadorians, has been programmed to make his interstellar journey – no free will here. Everything that happens on Earth has been in service of ordering the replacement part for his spaceship then delivering it – no free will for Earthlings. The Army of Mars are brainwashed and controlled with antennae in their heads – no free will here. Unk’s travels from Mars to Mercury then to Earth, then to Titan, are all because of Rumfoord’s manipulation – no free will for Unk.
Adherents to the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent are convinced by Rumfoord’s prophecies – which are for him mere glances into a future he knows. They have surrendered their wills to their religion.
The only being who exhibits free will in the entire book is Boaz, Unk’s platoon commander. He chooses to stay on Mercury when Unk announces he knows how to leave the crevasse – in the company of the harmoniums, away from his own species, Boaz has discovered his own goodness. He feeds the harmoniums with music, protecting them from overdoses, and in doing this, realizes that his life has been caught up in being hurt, and hurting others. He’s done with that. Making harmoniums happy is a better life than any other he can imagine.
Is Vonnegut saying that a human can have free will only when he’s no longer around other humans? Is he saying that kindness is an avenue to freedom? Vonnegut was famously cynical – likely he would say that Rumfoord represents humanity – lacking freedom, but only too happy to impose entrapment on everyone else, and that being a heartless megalomaniac is an advantage.