Kurt Vonnegut is not (as far as I know) primarily known for science fiction. His most famous novel is Slaughterhouse 5, inspired by his experiences of being a prisoner-of-war in Dresden during the bombing of the city in the Second World War. The Sirens of Titan has been recently reissued as part of a Science Fiction Masterworks list that includes works by authors such as Larry Niven, Robert Heinlein and other such luminaries of the genre. Taken as a science fiction novel, Vonnegut’s work doesn’t really convince – the science he writes is implausible and unrealistic. However, taken as a work demonstrating the unfairness of the world, the meaninglessness of life, and the sense that man is just tossed hither and thither on the seas of chance, it works extremely well.
Vonnegut writes well, bringing to life such characters such as Winston Niles Rumfoord, Malachi Constant, the harmoniums of Mercury and sundry other people, both human and alien. The protagonist of the novel is Malachi Constant, a multi-billionaire, whose massive fortune is revealed to have been accumulated, not by cunning, acuity or favouritism, but be sheer chance and blind luck. His fortune is told by the space-travelling Rumfoord, who thereafter appears to exercise extreme, if unwilling, control over Constant’s future and destiny. Along the way, Malachi loses his fortune, is recruited into the Martian army, begets a child during a drunken encounter with Rumfoord’s own wife Beatrice, is revered as the fulfilment of a prophecy, and is finally revealed to be a tiny cog in a great machine: as Douglas Adams put it, no more cognisant of his destiny “than a tea-leaf knows the history of the East India Company.”
Vonnegut uses an interesting style of dialogue, where, instead of a character’s long speech being written as one paragraph, it’s broken down into several sets of sentences. I think it conveys accurately how many people speak, thinking of new things to say as they’re saying the old things. Despite the lack of “hard” science-fiction plausibility, it’s an entertaining and thought-provoking read, and encourages me to seek out other novels by the same author.