The Universe is an awfully big place. There is enough room for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.
The Sirens of Titan is a spectacular piece of literature: it’s well-written, funny, thoughtful and tackles the mysteries of Life in an entertaining and enticing manner. Or so I would have thought if Vonnegut hadn’t treated Bee, the only woman in the Universe obviously, as is true in much of popular science fiction, like a sack of meat.
I didn’t know what to expect from Vonnegut. My introduction to him was to put Slaughterhouse-Five on my reading list, and leave it there, unread, with many other classics. The Sirens of Titan was lent to me with high praise and a comment of being a book that “changed my life and laid the foundation for how I understand the world”. It was intriguing indeed.
The Sirens of Titan takes on the big questions of life and deals with them in a deliciously convoluted story that hearkens to Macbeth’s dilemma.
What is Destiny?
What is Free Will?
Was Everything That Is Happening Always Meant To Happen?
Could It Have Happened Any Other Way?
I don’t think that the lives we lead were pre-conceived or “written” by a divine hand. We make the choices that we do, which lead us to wear we are.
It’s a belief that it’s our choices that make us who we are, not some higher purpose. Though, I recognize the contradiction within myself as well. For instance, here’s a favourite hypothetical question that gets thrown around:
If you could kill Hitler, would you?
Or, you know, Winston Churchill…
Why you ask? Because the man was a horrible racist with as much blood on his hands as Hitler.
And my answer:
I don’t think that killing Winston Churchill or Hitler would change much. I think that the situation, the environment in England and Germany was so toxic and so rife with racism that simply cutting off the head of the Hydra isn’t the solution. The problem would have to be routed out at its root, the mindset of its perpetrators, an uphill task that we’re still struggling with nearly a century since we destroyed much of the world over it.
And this is the feeling that Vonnegut picks up and elaborates, describing several instances of it in his book until it’s undeniable.
“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”
So, if we are all a product of our times, and it is inevitable that we think a certain way and act a certain way because that is what we have been trained to think and do by our environments, what even is free will?
Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t leave the question hanging in the air as it would have been so easy to do. Instead, he answers it, through the voice of Bee. It is that while the events that shape our life are often not in our control, we each deal with them in our own unique way. And even if the event would occur regardless of us, even if the outcome is exactly the same as it would have been had anyone else been in that situation, we still put our unique spin on it – we leave a mark, how ever ephemeral.
And there’s beauty in that sentiment.
If the Rani of Jhansi had not ridden into battle, someone else would have. And the outcome would potentially still have been that the Indians lost and the British oppressors got harsher. But it was Laxmibai who rode into battle and it was she who inspired Subhadra Kumari Chauhan to coin her famous ballad that was sung in Parliament by Shubha Mudgal to commemorate half a millennium of the first freedom struggle.
So if everything is somehow destined to happen (not preconceived by a “higher power” necessarily, simply an accident of circumstance) what is the point of anything? What is the meaning of life? How can one be happy?
Vonnegut has an answer for that too.
“I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I’m doing good, and them I’m doing good for know I’m doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home.”
Boaz. Cruel commander Boaz. Terrible awful person Boaz. Boaz, who had such a terrible childhood, that there really wasn’t anything else that he could have ended up being when he joyously inflicted pain and made a brainwashed man strangle his best friend with his bare hands. He finally finds peace after being stranded on a planet where he undertakes the pointless task of bringing joy to the local lifeforms alive by playing music for their brief lives. Though, if it makes him happy, is it really pointless?
“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.”
As in much of popular science fiction and fantasy, there is only one noteworthy woman in the Universe. (Tricia in H2G2, Arwen in LOTR, Holly in Artemis Fowl, Arya in Eragon) She is Bee or Beatrice. The noteworthy thing about her in this book is that she gets raped by Malachi Constant or Unk. And at the end of the book, she thanks him for “using” her.
Vonnegut’s Beatrice is haughty and plain. She is supposed to be intelligent too, but god forbid Vonnegut actually focus on that! She is hated by her husband because at the time of her rape, many years into their marriage, she is still a virgin. She has a child born out of her encounter with Malachi Constant named Chrono who despises his father and loves his mother. For all of the reasons stated above, Bee is positioned as a character that we should not like. I’m annoyed at that portrayal and furious about the ending.
Why must I dislike a woman who doesn’t want to sleep with someone even if that someone is her husband? Their marriage doesn’t give him a right over her body, nothing does.
For a story that was otherwise neatly wrapped up with a profound message, Beatrice’s conclusion was jarring. In every other instance of the book, Vonnegut’s endings for his characters were measured, considered and beautifully showcased his philosophy.
The only woman in this Universe.
Well, the only other females are the sexually titillating sirens of Titan, which doesn’t make Vonnegut look any better.
And that’s why I’m torn. I loved nearly every bit of this book but I have never hated any other story arc in literature as this one from an otherwise thoughtful author. Bee’s body is used an object, one that she doesn’t let the rightful owner, her husband, touch and as punishment for her prudishness, she is assaulted by a drunk man in the dark who then pursues her through space trying to win her affection (Am I supposed to ask why she’s being so selfish? Because that’s how Vonnegut portrays her) until eventually she thanks her rapist, thanks him, THANKS him and that’s the conclusion of the story. It’s like Vonnegut doesn’t even see what a traumatic experience it is for Bee, because he does spend a lot of time describing how Malachi Constant feels about it (shocked) and even how Winston Niles Rumford does (furious). I judge the author who can write such “deep” philosophy but fails to embody basic human empathy, even if it means that I am criticizing him by the standards of the age in which I live.
Pop Culture Detective recently released this excellent video:
The more I watched it, the more uncomfortable I felt. And this line, “Not only does she forgive him for torturing her, she thanks him for it” about the story arc of V for Vendetta really tied together the intense discomfort that I felt while reading Bee’s story in this book.
For more perspectives on the story, I’ve heard that this podcast on the book by the Kurt Vonneguys is really good, though I haven’t finished listening to it myself:
To end on a happier note, some interesting trivia!
It struck me how similar Sirens was to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in tone and gallivanting through space, and a friend told me that Douglas Adams was good friends with all of the great science fiction writers at the time and wrote H2G2 as a parody of books like those of Vonnegut’s!