The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This classic Vonnegut novel stresses the existentialist notion that whatever meaning is to be had in life is up to the individual to find. (And they’re likely to find that it’s to love whoever is around to love.) Vonnegut rejects the entrenched view that a human is master of his/her domain and that we exist as part of a deep and well-reasoned plan. Vonnegut’s protagonist, Malachi Constant (a.k.a. Unk,) spends much of the story, literally, being controlled by unknown forces via the combination of a brain-shocking device and memory erasure.
The book is as humorous as it is philosophical, though it’s dark humor, e.g. the humor of an invading army that suicides itself without realizing that’s what it’s doing. [i.e. a bit like Monty Python’s Black Knight sketch, but on a planetary scale.]
The backstory of the Tralfamadorians in this book offers a great metaphor for the book’s theme. (Note: the Tralfamadorians morph a bit between the various books that they appear in, or at least different information is revealed as is relevant to the story at hand. In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the emphasis is on the fact that this alien race sees all time simultaneously.) While the Tralfamadorians here still see all of time simultaneously, what is emphasized is that they’re a species of robots that came about when the original (biological) Tralfamadorians kept off-loading less meaningful work to robots. But biological Tralfamadorians would always come to believe that whatever work remained didn’t feel sufficiently meaningful. When they finally asked an AI to calculate the absolute most meaningful work there is, they were told that there is no meaningful work, and so they have the robots end their existence.
Vonnegut’s wild creativity can have the flipside of being challenging to follow. Fortunately, understanding of this novel doesn’t rest on understanding the workings of the “chrono-synclastic infundibulum,” but rather on much simpler and more humorous concepts. Like “Cat’s Cradle,” I found this novel easier to follow than Vonnegut’s time-jumping masterwork “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
This is a hilarious and thought-provoking book. I’d highly recommend it for all readers.
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