Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Kurt Vonnegut only managed to sell two short stories
in 1957, and the next year he placed just one. His work-
Cat's Cradle remained unfinished, and
Vonnegut's editor at Scribner's, who had been waiting
for four years for this novel
to reach fruition, complained
that the "production has been
very slow."  Unless Vonnegut
provided his publisher with a
finished manuscript or at least
a complete outline—both of
which he seemed incapable of
doing—Scribner's would
neither offer him a contract
nor release him from their
option on
Cat's Cradle.

Yet the author had other
concerns that kept him from
completing the book.  In a desperate bid to improve his
financial prospects, Vonnegut embarked on a disastrous
career running a car dealership.  Personal tragedy added
to his woes.  His sister Alice died of cancer in 1958, just
two days after husband was killed in a train wreck—
leaving Kurt and his wife Jane with the care of four
orphaned youngsters.  In addition to their own three
children, Vonnegut now had seven kids to support.  

At this low point, pressed by need and uncertainty,
Vonnegut encountered his old Cornell classmate Knox
Burger, now an editor at Dell, at a New York cocktail
party.  Burger asked whether Vonnegut had any ideas
for a marketable novel.  Seizing the opportunity, Kurt
spun out a fanciful synopsis of a science fiction space
opera that would turn into
The Sirens of Titan.  Offered
a contract for the book, Vonnegut completed the
manuscript in just a few months.  In 1959, Dell released
the book to modest critical acclaim, but
The Sirens of
earned a Hugo nomination for novel of the year,
and over time gained a cult following.  Its admirers
would eventually include Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry
Garcia, who purchased the movie rights, and novelist
Douglas Adams, who cited Vonnegut's work as an
influence on his
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

At first glance,
The Sirens of Titan comes across as a
flippant tale, a haphazard, loosely-organized narrative
that bounces around much like its major protagonists
—Malachi Constant, the millionaire who turns into a
destitute space wanderer, and Winston Niles Rumfoord,
the visionary who is caught in a space-time continuum
that sends him skittering about the galaxy like a pinball
in an oversized arcade game.  The same is true of the
supporting characters in this work, none of whom might
be called "grounded"—either physically or

But the lack of a taut narrative is part of Vonnegut's
intended effect. The fickleness of chance and destiny are
a major of theme of this novel—and an appropriate
theme for an author who had suffered from random,
unpredictable acts of violence over and over again
during his brief life.  While other writers draw on what
they learned in a MFA program, Vonnegut's stock of
personal experiences included his mother's suicide (on
Mother's Day, no less), his internment as a prisoner of
war in World War II, a role-reversal that found him as
the target of American attacks in the bombing of
Dresden,  the early death of his sister, his custody of his
orphaned nephews, his financial struggles and thwarted
literary ambitions.  If Vonnegut knocked around his
characters like so many bowling ball pins, it was only
because he felt himself similarly mistreated by an
apathetic universe.  

In fact, below the surface of this apparently formless
story, Vonnegut has constructed his own alternative
theology—one might that explain his own life as well as
that of his characters.  
 The Sirens of Titan can even be
read as detailed parody of the Bible, complete with Old
Testament, New Testament, and Book of Revelation.  
Toward the beginning of the novel, Vonnegut presents
us with Noel Constant, Malachi’s father (and stand-in
for God the Father), who builds the family wealth by
buying stocks based on the words in the Book of
Genesis.  Later Malachi undergoes a series of Christ-like
trials and tribulations, that include more-or-less
evocative equivalents of a tempting in the desert on the
planet Mercury, a Palm Sunday return to earth amid
short-lived accolades that soon turn to public
humiliation on a scaffold, but with a spaceship instead
of a cross, and even a final ascension into Paradise.

This alternative Biblical narrative would be easy for
casual readers to miss, masked by Vonnegut's campy
tone and zany plotting.  But he brings the theological
elements into the fore with a subplot about Rumfoord's
attempt to establish a new religion. To lay the ground-
work for his innovative belief system, Rumfoord sets in
motion a bloody war between Mars and Earth, which
leaves the victorious terrestrials with so much residual
guilt that three billion people eventually embrace his
Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.  

The creed of this anti-church can be summed up in its
most cherished confession, uttered by its Christ-figure
on his return to earth: "I was a victim of a series of
accidents, as are we all." Here’s a typical psalm: "O lord
Most High, what a glorious weapon is Thy Apathy, for
we have unsheathed it, have thrust and slashed mightily
with it, and the claptrap that has so often enslaved us or
driven us into the madhouse lies slain."  Rumfoord even
distributes a revised Bible, so that scripture comes into
alignment with his new theology.

"I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard
as settled," Vonnegut would later explain, when asked
why he had such a large following among younger
readers. But this attitude, shaped by the author's
personal history, was emblematic of a larger shift in
sci-fi taking place at the time Vonnegut wrote
Sirens of Titan
.    During the decade following its
publication, science fiction would become increasingly
focused on spirituality and religious institutions—which
would become almost as popular as spaceships or time
travel in the leading works of the era.  We encounter this
sociological-theological tilt in classic novels such as
Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), Stranger in a Strange Land
Dune (1965), Lord of Light (1967), and The Left
Hand of Darkness (1969)—each of which would win the
Hugo for best novel in its respective year.  Science
fiction was in the process of moving beyond technology
and gadgetry, asking deeper questions, and Vonnegut
was at the forefront of this shift. I’m hardly surprised
that an especially ambitious science fiction writer even
promoted a successful real-life religion around this same
time Vonnegut came of age as a writer.  That kind of
storefront marketing of religion to the masses had no
appeal for the author of
The Sirens of Titan, an avowed
atheist.  Yet even he felt that the rituals and traditions of
Judeo-Christian belief systems could serve not only as a
proper vehicle for science fiction, but as a framework
for his own renunciation of religion.  These bigger
issues constantly hover below, and above, the surface
of a novel that, at first blush, seems little more than a
picaresque space opera.  

Vonnegut's fans will also see hints of his later works in
The Sirens of Titan.  The space-time traveler Winston
Niles Rumfoord anticipates Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in
time in
Slaughterhouse-Five.  The disastrous Martian attack
on earth is a forerunner of the bombing of Dresden,
which looms large in that same novel.  The flippant
theology of
The Sirens of Titan looks ahead to the
Bokonism of
Cat's Cradle and the hand-wringing over
free will in
Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut's well-
known dystopian short story "Harrison Bergeron," with
its skeptical look at social engineering schemes to
enforce equality, also finds a forerunner here in a
subplot about self-imposed physical constraints adopted
by zealous adherents of Rumfoord’s religion.  

No, this is not Vonnegut's finest work, but there is
enough substance here to warrant the close attention of
those who have enjoyed his better known novels.  
Sirens of Titan
came out at the beginning of a period of
change and re-evaluation—not just for science fiction,
but even more for the broader society—and this is one
of the first works to capture the emerging ethos.  Yet
this novel is more than just a harbinger of the 1960s; a
host of later writers, from Terry Pratchett to
Christopher Moore, would find that its tone and attitude
could inspire them as they wrestled with the different
issues of later decades.  I will leave it to others to
construct additional lineages for Vonnegut, ones that
link him to later postmodern approaches, various rock
bands, styles of comedy, and a host of other cultural
artifacts, high and low.  The bottom line is that, in the
years following the release of
The Sirens of Titan, he
became a titanic siren himself, and this both lightweight
and deep book was where many of his distinctive
refrains first found expression.  
The Sirens of Titan

by Kurt Vonnegut
conceptual fiction
Click on image to purchase
Check out our sister sites:

The New Canon
Great literary works published
since 1985

Great Books Guide
Reviews of current books

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental  works of mystery &

Fractious Fiction
Radical and unconventional
works of fiction
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials from
publishers, authors,  publicists or other