Guest post by Adam.
I love old science fiction. I love looking back at what we thought the future would be like. I love it when something like a solar powered watch is portrayed as being, if not extraordinary, then at least an extravagance. Old science fiction always reminds me that no matter how clever the writer is (or thinks he is), the future of technology is bound to surprise.
The Sirens of Titan follows Malachi Constant, the world’s richest man. At the outset of the book, Constant is visiting the house of Winston Niles Rumford. Rumford is likewise filthy rich and has funded the construction and outfitting of a personal spaceship to toodle around the solar system with his trusty canine Kazak. On Rumford’s last flight, he flew into a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, causing him to exist in multiple locations between here and Betelgeuse.
So straight out of the gate, I loathe the term “chrono-synclastic infundibulum.” It makes me feel like Vonnegut is making up a story for a dim-witted grade schooler. And it doesn’t help that this is EXACTLY how he defines it in the book. These CFIs (I refuse to type that phrase any more) are places throughout the universe where “all the different kinds of truths fit together" and when entered cause the object to become a “wave phenomena” existing in multiple locations at multiple times. They’re what I would call pseudo-scientific, pseudo-psychological, and pseudo-theological. It is a jack of all trades and a master of none. Essentially it is the El Camino of literary devices.
Long story short, Rumford phases in and out of existence all across the galaxy. He can see the future and claims to have met Malachi on Saturn’s moon Titan in the future. He tells both his wife Beatrice and Malachi several pieces of information that place them on the path towards that future meeting.
There was a lot to enjoy with this book. Vonnegut had fun with several pieces of future tech throughout the book (my favorite was goofballs, tiny pills you could take every few hours to provide an oxygen supply in inhospitable climes). He had quite a bit of interesting psychological topics along the way, including everything from a fight the man mentality on Mars to a mellow free-love fest on Mercury. All in all, I enjoyed the book.
There are just two things that could have greatly improved my enjoyment.
First off is tone. I’ve always thought that Vonnegut’s writing has a bit of a self-absorbed pretentiousness about it. But for some reason, that was particularly bothersome in this novel. Yes, Vonnegut is a good writer. Yes, he is also clever. But there’s no need to rub it in our faces.
Second is the proselytizing. Yes, that is correct. Apparently humanists are not excluded from that sort of thing. I feel like Vonnegut had some interesting points that I would have been more inclined to unpack and digest had I not been summarily bludgeoned over the head with them.
All in all, this was an enjoyable read, but if you are only going to read one Vonnegut for this year’s Summer of Sci-Fi, I would recommend taking a look at Taryn’s earlier post and going with Cat’s Cradle instead.
For the complete list of Summer of Sci-Fi books, including Adam's bonus list, click here.