Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

I picked this up after reading that it had influenced Douglas Adams when writing the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although I feel that Vonnegut’s mix of surrealism, satire and science fiction is slightly more focused than Adams. His second novel, The Sirens of Titan deals with free will, something that seems in distinctly short supply in Vonnegut's universe.

Protagonist Malachi Constant is the richest man in 22nd century America. He is also soon to be an unwilling participant in the delivery of a small piece of metal required by an alien from the planet Tralfamdore stranded for millennia on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. He is informed by Winston Niles Rumfoord, a man who has been through a chrono-synclastic infundibulum and now exists at all points between Earth and Betelgeuse, that he will shortly be taken to Mars. Distinctly cool on the idea, Malachi decides to render himself incapable of flying to the red planet. The aftermath of his two month bender is horrific to behold:

Malachi Constant lay in the wide gutter of his kidney-shaped swimming pool, sleeping the sleep of a drunkard. There was a quarter of an inch of warm water in the gutter. Constant was fully dressed in blue-green evening shorts and a dinner jacket of gold brocade. His clothes were soaked. He was all alone. The pool had once been covered uniformly by an undulating blanket of gardenias. But a persistent morning breeze had moved the blooms to one end of the pool, as though folding a blanket to the foot of the bed. In folding back the blanket, the breeze revealed a pool bottom paved with broken glass, cherries, twists of lemon peel, peyotl buttons, slices of orange, stuffed olives, sour onions, a television set, a hypodermic syringe, and the ruins of a white grand piano. Cigar butts and cigarette butts, some of them marijuana, littered the surface. The swimming pool looked less like a facility for sport than a punchbowl in hell. 

The phone rings and he is informed that in the meantime he has bankrupted himself:

Malachi Constant of Hollywood, California, came out of the rhinestone phone booth stone cold sober. His eyes felt like cinders. His mouth tasted like horseblanket purée. He was positive that he had never seen the beautiful blonde woman before. He asked her one of the standard questions for times of violent change. “Where is everybody?” he said. “You threw ‘em all out,” said the woman. “I did?” said Constant. “Yah,” said the woman. “You mean you drew a blank?” Constant nodded weakly. During the fifty-six day party he had reached a point where he could draw almost nothing else. His aim had been to make himself unworthy of any destiny - incapable of any mission - far too ill to travel. He had succeeded to a shocking degree.

Constant is now destitute and desperate, the kind of poor fool who would accept a one way trip to Mars and a position in the Martian army... It’s not like he really had any choice in the matter. Human history, it transpires, has been manipulated for thousands of years, simply so that the Tralfamadorians can deliver a spare part to their stranded traveller. So much for free will.

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