Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Although I still enjoy aspects of science fiction I have not been reading a lot of it for a long time now. Long ago, in my late teens and early twenties, it was mostly what I read, but since then I think of it mainly as a way to do commentary on real life, like a wolf in mechanical sheep’s clothing. Even back then my favorite kind of science fiction was what I like to call “social science fiction”, most of which was fairly radical or at least liberal politically, enjoying its heyday in the late sixties and early seventies. A lot of it seemed well ahead of its time, straining to push society forward towards a world without discrimination and violence against out-groups and women.

Ahead of its time? I just finished re-reading “Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., published in 1959 and still way ahead of its time. Vonnegut was a well-known pacifist and enemy of war, and pulled no punches in this book, where an unbelievably cynical character single-handledly initiates and pursues a massacre of innocents with the intention of ushering in a better mankind, one that regrets its vanity and passions and signs up to his new religion, the Church of God of Utter Indifference. In this religion, people counter their own advantages with self-imposed “handicaps”. Strong people burden themselves with weight attachments. Good-looking people wear ratty clothes, all in the name of “making things even” and fair among all people. The symbol of this religion is the “lucky” Malachi Constant, born into billions and then throwing it all away in lasciviousness, thinking himself chosen and blessed by a god who cares. The god in this new religion doesn’t care. That is His glory. There is nothing you can do for this god, because he is utterly indifferent. Peace among people is achieved.

There are lots of good old science fiction-y aspects to this book, from machines that build themselves (Singularity, anyone?) to solar-power wristwatches (in 1959), to chip implants for mind control, to memory and identity erasure, to armies of automatons, cute and cool alien creatures on Mercury and Titan, tiresome immortality, time/space bending and ruptures, all that good stuff, but underlying it all is the very evident sense that, as Beatrice tells an assembled crowd at her impending exile near the end, “the human race is a scummy thing, and so is Earth, and so are you”.

There are not a lot of “positive vibrations” going on in this book, predating as it does all the hippie shit and the summer of love and the self-help generation and the me decade and the affirmation culture and the power of positive thinking and political correctness so pervasive nowadays. This was written at the height of the Cold War, during the McCarthy Era, before Vietnam but after Korea, during the ascendance of the military-industrial complex, and Vonnegut let everybody know exactly what he thought about all of that. People are easily led and misled, fooled and misdirected, eager to serve purposes far beyond their control and understanding, as in this book all of human history turns out to have been guided by far distant aliens for the sole purpose of delivering a tiny spare part to a stranded and damaged machine.  It’s said that Vonnegut conceived of the entire story one night when challenged to write a second novel. If so, it was a vision of stunning complexity and completeness. Whatever else it may have been used for, in this case the science fiction genre served a good purpose for someone who actually had something to say, and was a hell of a writer at that.

(a side note: the paperback edition of this book, from Coronet UK in 1973, mis-spelled not one, but two of the main characters’ names on the back cover. Runfoord instead of Rumfoord, and Sato instead of Salo. People love to criticize self-publishers for their typos, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a grievous error on a physical or electronic book before)

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