MASARYK UNIVERSITY BRNO FACULTY OF EDUCATION
Department of English Language and Literature
The Alternative Worlds
in the Sirens of Titan Bachelor Thesis
Bohdana Skýpalová Mgr. Lucie Podroužková, Ph.D.
I declare that I worked on this thesis independently, using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography. I agree with this bachelor thesis being deposited in the Library of the Faculty of Education at the Masaryk University and being made available for study purposes.
Brno, 10 August 2007 Bohdana Skýpalová
Acknowledgements I would like to thank Mgr. Lucie Podroužková, Ph.D., for her patience, kind guidance and valuable professional advice.
Kurt Vonnegut’s biography……………………………………………………….....7
The Sirens of Titan…………………………………………………………………11
Everything begins and ends on Earth…………………………………...………….13
Everybody is a marionette of the universe…………………………...…………….16
1.2.1 An ordinary millionaire Malachi Constant…………………………………….....17
1.2.2 The powerless god Rumfoord…………………………………………………….19
2. Bloody and flaming Mars………………………………………………………...….22
3.1 Freezing and burning Mercury…………………………………………….……….25
3.2 Could harmoniums exist? ………………………………………………………….28
4.1 The mysterious, delusive moon…………………………………………………….32
4.2 Monsters or gorgeous creatures? …………………………………………………..36
Introduction The aim of this thesis is to analyze the second of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, The Sirens of Titan written in 1959. I have read several Kurt Vonnegut’s novels and he has become one of my favorite writers. Compared to other Vonnegut’s novels, it discusses herein a number of significant features of the science fiction genre that “presents its fantastic elements as plausible against a background of science” (Literature Online). It is a space travel story in which Vonnegut invents alternative worlds as a way of satirically commenting upon the follies and foibles of this world (Literature Online). Therefore the settings in this novel are particularly interesting. Vonnegut fills his worlds with topsy-turvy images and populates them by races of his own creation like the Harmoniums (The New York Times). He creates four complex, distinct worlds which are scattered around the whole of our solar system. The plot starts on the planet Earth and then it gradually develops on Mars, Mercury and Titan, where it nearly reaches its climax, and finally terminates back on Earth. Each of the four following chapters of the bachelor thesis is dedicated to one of these celestial bodies.
The bachelor thesis provides a detailed analysis of the novel. Within these four distinct alternative worlds, I concentrate on answering the question to what extent the author’s vision of these celestial bodies corresponds to the known astronomical facts. In other words, how much and in what aspects Kurt Vonnegut uses his imagination when describing the planets and the satellite. The names of all the celestial bodies are also analyzed from the mythological point of view. Most importantly, the thesis examines the reason why Vonnegut chooses precisely these celestial bodies, and what ‘worlds’ he creates on them. In other words, what author might have wanted to evoke in readers’ minds when depicting the scenery of the planets and their inhabitants.
From the formal standpoint, the thesis is concerned with the various features of the literary genres and styles. It especially tries to trace the aspects of postmodernism such as its typical temporal disorder, paranoia like not only a private apprehension, but also a distressing speculation that the whole society is a plot against the citizen, as well as the postmodern belief that everything is a game (Sim 124-131). The thesis is interested in the question of free will, cosmological determinism or the critical approach toward the society, within the novel. It tries to distinguish what Vonnegut’s personal beliefs and moral values are encoded in the message he delivers to the reader.
In order to make the analysis in the four main chapters more comprehensible, two introductory chapters, one presenting Kurt Vonnegut’s biography and views of literary critics on his work, and one shortly summarizing the plot of the book, precede them.
0.1 Kurt Vonnegut’s biography
Kurt Vonnegut was a writer whose work is often considered quite controversial and still produces quandaries among the literary critics. It is not surprising as his case is utterly unique. He had become a cult of the underground movement and his paperback books, especially his unique work Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, had been the most widely read and quoted texts of the movement, even before respected literary critics noticed him. Vonnegut’s pacifist ideas, blended with the criticism of naivety of American nationalism, and his ironical almost cynical attitude to the technocratic western society attracted the students and critics of bourgeois America (Jařab 408).
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born on November 11, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana, and died in New York on April 11, 2007 at the age of eighty-four. The news about his death, which ran round the world in all the media, was reported by his wife Jill Krementz, whose one comment on her husband’ death was that: “He died at the top of his game, and I don’t think anyone would ever want to do more than that” (CNN). His grandfather was the first licensed architect in Indiana, and his father was successful in the profession. Kurt, as well as his two older siblings, Bernard and Alice, was born to the third-generation German-American parents, and because of anti-German sentiment in the United States after World War I, was brought up without any knowledge of the German language. Referring to his parents, Vonnegut once remarked that “they volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism” (Literature Online). Paradoxically, Vonnegut, having joined the U.S. Army during World War II, was imprisoned in Germany. Hidden in an underground cellar of a slaughterhouse five, inspiring his later novel named after this “lifesaving shelter”, he survived the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces in 1945:
“Utter destruction,” he recalls. “Carnage unfathomable.” The Nazis put him to work gathering bodies for mass burial … Vonnegut explains. “But there were too many corpses to bury. So Instead The Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians´ remains were burned to ashes.”
(Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia)
Vonnegut was one of just seven American war prisoners to survive the firebombing of Dresden, which resulted in thousands of lost lives. Although his books often combine philosophy with science fiction and jokes, a war theme appears in many of them, most notably in his best known work:
His experience in Dresden was the basis of “Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade,” which was published in 1966 against the backdrop of war in Vietnam, racial unrest and cultural and social upheaval. The novel, wrote the critic Jerome Klinkowitz, “so perfectly caught America’s transformative mood that its story and structure become bestselling metaphors for the new age.” (The New York Times)
Slaughterhouse-Five, which is regarded to be Vonnegut’s masterpiece and one of the most significant works of American fiction in the twentieth century (Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia), dealt directly with the Dresden bombing, but there are the other books like The Sirens of Titan or Player Piano into which a war conflict is incorporated, too.
His first writing attempts began while studying at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, from which he graduated in 1940. He was the editor of and also wrote for the school newspaper The Daily Echo. Such an early experience of writing for a wide audience has probably influenced his writing style. Vonnegut’s work is far from being academic. On the contrary, his style is very simple, rough, sometimes even vulgar, which is why he at once attracts some readers and shocks, even repels others.
After graduating from Shortridge, Vonnegut headed for Cornell University. “His father wanted him to study something that was solid and dependable, like science, so Vonnegut began his college career as a chemistry and biology major, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Bernard, who was to eventually be the discoverer of cloud seeding to induce precipitation” (Literature Online). Until 1943 when he joined the U.S. Army, he served as an opinion section editor for student’s newspaper the Cornell Daily Sun. Just before he left for Germany, his mother committed suicide, “another event that would haunt Vonnegut’s soul” (CNN). After the war, he attended the University of Chicago as a graduate anthropology student and worked for the City News Bureau of Chicago as a police reporter. His master’s thesis was rejected, and Vonnegut left for Schenectedy, New York, to work in public relations for General Electric. Here begun his writing career. His first novel, the dystopian science fiction Player Piano, influenced by his background at General Electric, and the second work The Sirens of Titan have most science fiction features, but they are not the orthodox sci-fi. “Some critics said he had invented a new literary type, infusing the science-fiction form with humour and moral relevance and elevating it to serious literature” (The New York Times). Vonnegut’s science-fiction is not only a means but also the aim of his critical and satirical opinions. “His scientific background would serve him well as a writer. He possessed a knowledge of technological and chemical innovations that distinguish him from his literary peers. It meant that he was uniquely placed to comment upon the dehumanising qualities of technological ‘progress’ “ (Literature Online). He sees extraordinary things to be normal and in ordinary things reveals something extraordinary, explains the problems of modern society and offers his readers various moral dilemmas (Jařab 408). “With a blend of science fiction, philosophy and jokes, he wrote about the banalities of consumer culture or the destruction of environment” (The New York Times). All in all, although Vonnegut employs aspects of sci-fi such as spaceships, time travel, and distant galaxies in his novels, he is a writer whose works, when read closely, “ultimately warn against the dangerous ideas that exist within science fiction. At the centre of his canon resides the notion that science fiction is capable of filling humanity with false realities and empty promises for Utopian societies that do not and, perhaps most importantly, cannot exist” (Literature Online). It is not easy to classify a literary genre Kurt Vonnegut’s writing belongs to. Most of the literary critics see features of various literary styles in his work when individual books, some more some less, bear postmodernist, naturalistic, realistic or science-fictional signs. Nevertheless, postmodernism, with its typical indefiniteness of genres, is probably the literary movement that classifies Vonnegut’s work best. Postmodernism is also typical of the attempt to refrain from dividing art into high and low genres:
Most postmodernist works attempt to subvert the distinction between “high” and “low” culture. The result is often a blending or pastiche of techniques, genres, and even media. In literature the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut […] are especially good examples of the ways that this combining takes place to discourage easy categorization. With this works it is not always possible to tell if one is reading an autobiography, a history, a novel, or literary criticism (Literature Online).
Since publishing his first book in 1952 until 2006 when he came out with the short story collection A Man Without a Country, he wrote fourteen novels, three short story collections, five books of collected essays and five plays. His extensive life-long career inspired other artists and many of his works were adapted for stage, film or television. Despite Vonnegut’s irony and criticism of modern society, he refused to surrender to the commonly spread feeling that it is impossible to change the world we live in (Jařab 411). He believed that since decency, kindness, feelings of happiness, human mutuality and family solidarity and particularly love, exist, there is still a way out of the moral decline of the society and this belief of his is projected into his literary work. One of the eloquent samples expressing moral values Vonnegut advocated sums up the protagonist of his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater saying: ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind’” (The New York Times).
0.2 The Sirens of Titan
The story starts on the planet Earth, in Newport in the U.S.A., where the main characters Malachi Constant, Winston Niles Rumford and his wife Beatrice first meet. It is here when Malachi learns from Rumfoord that he is going to travel around the universe. However, Malachi does not believe Rumfoord’s prediction and he does his best to ward off the predicted occurrences. Nevertheless, he does not escape his fate and soon set off for a journey that takes him from Earth to Mars in preparation for an interplanetary war between Earth and Mars. On the spacecraft during the journey, after a wild drinking bout, he unconsciously rapes Beatrice, who is also travelling to Mars. When they terminate on Mars, their brains are washed so as to be navigated by antennas that are implanted into their heads. This is the case of every man that is to become an obedient Martian.
Winston Niles Rumfoord, a wealthy space traveller, exists along with his dog Kazak in a spiral called “chrono-synclastic infundibulum”, which is defined as “those places… where all the different kinds of truths fit together” (Vonnegut 14). When he entered the infundibulum he began aware of the future and past and he became immaterial “wave phenomena” stretching along the spiral. He can permanently exist in a material form only on Titan, or can temporarily materialize on other planets when any of them intersects the spiral. The war between Mars and Earth is Rumfoord’s idea so as to sacrifice Martians for the sake of uniting the planet Earth after a Martian invasion. It is also Rumfoord that initiates other Malachi Constant’s travels from Mars to Mercury, then to Earth and lastly to Titan, where they meet for the last time. Only there, Malachi learns the whole truth about his universe travels as Rumfoord explains to him that real initiators of the entire happening are extraterrestrial robots from a distant galaxy, the dwellers of Tralfarmadore. When Rumfoord materializes on Titan he befriends one of the Tralfarmadorians, an explorer Salo, who needs a small metal component to repair his damaged spaceship. Salo was sent many millennia earlier to carry a message to a distant galaxy when a component on his spacecraft broke. He landed on Titan and requested help from Tralfamadore. Therefore, his fellow robots manipulated human history so that civilization on Earth could produce the replacement part: “The reply was written on Earth in huge stones on a plain […] “ (Vonnegut 271). Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, the Golden House of the Roman Emperor Nero, the Palace of the League of Nations, and the Kremlin are all messages in the Tralfamadorian geometrical language. Salo is informed that the replacement part is a small metal strip that is to be brought to him by Constant’s son Chrono.
When Constant, Beatrice and Chrono finally come to Titan, a sunspot disrupts Rumfoord’s spiral, throwing him into the vastness of space. Salo, distraught because of an argument with Rumfoord a moment before his disappearance, disassembles himself. Thus Constant, Beatrice and Chrono are stranded on Titan. Chrono chooses to live among the Titanian birds. His mother Beatrice dies after thirty-two years living happily with Constant. Constant, seeing no point in remaining on Titan, wants to travel back to Earth. Salo, reassembled by Constant and decided to deliver his message, offers to give him a lift. And so he does. Malachi Constant, back on Earth in Indianapolis, dies peacefully at the bus stop.
1.1 Everything begins and ends on Earth The planet Earth is only one of the planets on which the story of The Sirens of Titan is set. The narrator uses a simple sentence,: “The town was Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.A., Earth, Solar System, Milky Way” (Vonnegut 9) to introduce the place in which the story begins. But this sentence also indicates that it is not going to be the only town, country not even planet or solar system the story is set in. Such a precise location indicates that other planets or even Solar Systems may be the places where the narrator is going to lead the readers to. The assumption is later confirmed when the narrator provides the explanation of where and how one of the main characters Winston Niles Rumfoord, along with his dog Kazak, will exist. The novel explains that Winston runs his space ship into the heart of something so called “chrono-synclastic infundibulum”, which spreads two days from Mars:
The Solar System seems to be full of chrono-synclastic infundibula. There is one big one we are sure of that likes to stay between Earth and Mars [...].
Chrono (kroh-no) means time. Synclastic (sin-classtick) means curved towards the same side in all directions, like the skin of the orange. infundibulum (in-fun-dib-u-lum) is what the ancient Romans like Julius Caesar and Nero called a funnel (Vonnegut 14,15).
The form of Rumfoord’s and Kazak’s existence is described as a wave phenomenon,: “apparently pulsing in a distorted spiral with its origin in the Sun and its terminal in Betelgeuse” (Vonnegut 13). The only time their bodies can exist in a material form is when the planet Earth intercepts the spiral and such a phenomenon happens every fifty-nine days, lasts mere one hour and is called materialization (Vonnegut 18). It is precisely the materialization of Winston Niles Rumfoord and his mastiff Kazak on Earth that is a starting point of the space story The Sirens of Titan, and during which all the main characters Malachi Constant, Winston Niles Rumfoord and his wife Beatrice meet for the first time. The materialization takes place at Rumford’s residence, which is described in detail:
The Rumfoord mansion was marble, an extended reproduction of the banqueting hall of Whitehall Palace in London [...].
The Rumfoord mansion was a hilariously impressive expression of the concept: People of substance. It was surely one of the greatest essays on density since the Great Pyramid of Khufu.
The density and the permanence of the mansion were, of course, at ironic variance with the fact that the quondam master of the house, except for one hour in every fifty-nine days, was no more substantial than a moonbeam
The depiction of the residence is supposed to symbolize wealth and superiority of the class the Rumfoords belong to. Not only their house as a building but also the interiors is a vehicle by means of which the image of Winston and Beatrice as people of great wealth, importance and honor is evoked. This status of theirs can be seen even more clearly in the moment of Malachi entering the house and meeting Winston in the foyer. Winston comes into the foyer, the floor of which is a splendid mosaic, showing the signs of zodiac encircling a sun in the middle. When he extends his hand to greet Constant, he is standing right on the golden shining sun (Vonnegut 20). The sun, which represents the central point of our solar system and the essential source of energy without which the life on Earth would not be possible, undoubtedly personifies Winston Rumfoord’s supernatural power of being able to influence future lives of terrestrials. Moreover, the description of the garden has the same impact:
The one entrance to the estate was an Alice-in-Wonderland door in the west wall. The door was only four-and-a-half feet high. It was made of iron and held shut by a great Yale lock.
The wide gates of the estate were bricked in [...].
Beware of the dog! said a sign over the small iron door. The fires of the summer sunset flickered among the razors and needles of broken glass set in concrete on the top of the wall (Vonnegut 10,11).
The image of the Rumfoords estate secured as an impregnable castle surrounded by a thick walls strengthens the feeling that the inhabitants of such a building are superior people. That they do not want to come to a contact with ordinary citizens as they think it is degrading. All in all, the description of the Rumfoords house helps to stabilize Rumfoord’s role as a ruler, which he is given in the book, and Beatrice as a dignified wife of a future seer. However, both their status appears not to be as unwavering towards the end of the book as it seems to be at its beginning. The change of their roles might indicate some deeper intention. One of the possibilities why the narrator degraded Rumfoord, the rule, to a role of man misused by robots, and Beatrice, a symbol of pride, to a humiliated, ordinary woman, could be seen as a moral. It warns the reader that a value of property and a position in society neither gives anybody right to misuse other people or act against their will, nor is something importantly influencing the real value of our lives:
For all his talents Rumfoord is not much closer to understanding the ultimate purpose of life than the common people who expect him to render their lives meaningful […]. The more he knows of the future, the more constrained his actions and ultimately his free will – he must do what he is predetermined to do […]. Thus the creatures who should posses the highest degree of knowledge are as ignorant as the creatures on the lowest level. The hierarchy, then, is delusive; it is pseudo-hierarchy
Similarly, Malachi’s estate and the hotel room in which Malachi’s father Noel spent nearly all his life are described in great details. On the other hand, the narrator does not pay much attention to illustration of the planet Earth. But his attitude to Earth is apparent throughout the whole book and it can be seen behind the lines that the main focus is placed just on Earth and more importantly mankind. The final comeback of Malachi on the planet Earth shows not only Malachi’s but also Salo’s affection for this planet, which is in Salo’s case very surprising since he is extraterrestrial, as well as it uncovers the narrator’s warm affection for Earth and the ordinary earthly life:
“Good luck,” whispered Salo.
“We don’t say that down here,” whispered Constant.
Salo winked. “I’m not from down here,” he whispered. He looked around at the perfectly white world, felt the wet kisses of the snowflakes, pondered hidden meaning in the pale yellow streetlights that shone in a world so whitely asleep. “Beautiful,” he whispered.
To sum up, the fact that the story of The Sirens of Titan begins on Earth as well as it terminates on Earth seems to be Vonnegut’s intention to convey a message to the humankind. At the beginning of the story, the sirens of Titan are a symbol of Constant’s and also all men’s lust for the futile quest for the meaning of life. For Constant’s temptation to find the sirens, Vonnegut sends him on a long voyage around the universe. However, at the end of this voyage when back on the planet Earth, “the sirens come to symbolize the maturity ‘Constant as well as’ man must attain before his spiritual growth can begin. Like Ulysses, he must pass the sirens to find his way home” (Pettersson 183). Only after he has traveled the universe and found no all-encompassing truth can he perceive a purpose in simple down-to-earth life. An ‘ordinary’ life, that has no other meaning except for living it to the best of one’s knowledge, is what Vonnegut deeply believed in. Moreover, he also believed that people should respect the explicitness and simplicity of the earthly life, as well as they should regard the planet Earth more highly. He gave voice to this belief of his in the interviews many times when he said:
The biggest truth to face now – what is probably making me unfunny for the remaining one-third of my life – is that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not. It seems to me as if everyone is living as member of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren (Literature Online).