Preface to Sirens of Titan
SF Masterworks edition, published by Orion, 2006. I was asked (eek) to write a preface. It was like being back at school again, doing essays - but then I was a lazy bastard at school and never did a single essay - which made this doubly hard. Luckily for me, I really loved the book. I often quote the 'university that everyone is in and no-one is in' even today, and in TN6 I had Text Grand Central recategorise the book from SF to Philosophy - which is what it is, in the same way that Pratchett is satire, not fantasy.
"I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labelled 'Science Fiction'... and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics mistake the drawer for a urinal." - Kurt Vonnegut
My favourite section in any library is 'oversized books'. I love the reluctant, grudging way it exists at all - a blasphemy to the gods of order and category. It is only here that you will find The Book of Kells gloriously sandwiched between Aardvark Taxidermy and Clarice Cliff Teapots. It is an area that transcends genre, and for writers who have made it their goal to try and subvert and confound those same arbitrary rules of categorisation, oversized books is a very cosy place indeed.
The concept of genre is a peeving notion to all writers, but hardly a surprising one. In a creature that comprehends the world about it through comparison of past experiences, genre is quintessentially human. We write without genre in mind; it is something bestowed upon a book post-creation. It is a important for marketing, useful for the reader and essential for critics, who can tell us more easily who we are similar to, than who we are not. You know your work has entered the hallowed halls of the zeitgeist when your surname becomes lazy-critic shorthand for someone else's book.
It seems that Mr Vonnegut has had an uneasy relationship with the SF genre, which is to his credit; a writer who is truly liberated of genre puzzles the reviewers and the labelled shelves in the bookshops and libraries, and even when his books are forcibly squashed into the Science Fiction drawer, it is usually for the purpose of critical expediency - as useful a comparison as reviewing daschunds in an issue of Cat World .
And yet, and yet ... although The Sirens of Titan is brimming with the raw ingredients of Science Fiction, the cake when baked rises as something other. Indeed Vonnegut is guilty of having fun with the very flour and eggs of the Science Fiction baking formulae - he stretches concepts such as time travel to their very limits with his 'chrono-synclastic infundibulum', and parodies martian invasions and robots with his radio controlled soldiers Unk and Boak. He sends characters out to live for years on Mercury, only to be stuck with the one track minds of the Harmoniums and has Martian invaders fall flat on their face owing to a technical oversight.
It could be said that Sirens of Titan is more like the adventures of Alice in Wonderland - playing extreme games with the usual rules of fiction, taking the reader beneath the surface of normality, to view our lives through the lens of the abnormal and strange. The very name of the tiny door that leads inside Rumfoord's house - the Alice door - itself pays recognition to Lewis Carroll, a nod in the direction of satire and the headstrong refusal to occupy the labelled drawers that mankind is so keen on maintaining. Like Carroll's Alice and Swift's Gulliver, the protagonists have to be removed from their everyday existence in order to make the journey of discovery. Alice falls down the rabbit hole, Gulliver travels to Lilliput and Malachi Constant crosses the known universe. Whilst on this important journey satire is allowed to play full rein - to both make Rumfoord's world seem recognisable and believable, and to focus in on those aspects of our life that seem bizarre or questionable, yet are occluded from our sight by their very accepted normality.
What Vonnegut does maintain is that science and technology are important parts of any novel, as they are important aspects of our everyday lives. Why should they not appear quite naturally within our mainstream fiction? Using science fiction offers a means for self refection; a distancing in order to look back at ourselves, rather than a simple escape from the everyday. But Vonnegut avoids the standard trap that has befallen many an SF writer, the denial of the human being in the technological world. In Sirens the technology is subservient to the very human and philosophical story played out in the foreground; the essence of the book would still be there if a romance or a thriller - a painting is projected into the room and our consciousness by the frame, but a Turner unframed is still a Turner.
And The Sirens of Titan without the SF frame is still a masterwork. Forget the science: look at the concepts, and how the biggest questions of human existence are disported with such beguiling ease: Why are we here? What is our purpose? Who put us here? Rumfoord's incident with the chrono-synclastic infundibulum gives him a godlike perspective on the whole affairs of mankind; smeared across the universe from earth to Betelgeuse certainly makes him omniescenct, and his regular appearances at Newport to deliver predictions make him appear omnipotent. But Rumfoord himself is controlled by even greater forces at play - their intentions and true scale revealing the depth of utter pointlessness, and through it, to a better understanding of ourselves. How daring was it in 1959 to suggest that the point was that there was no point, and that instead of looking for grand answers in the expansive 'out there', we should be looking within ourselves for guidance rather than abrogating our moral and human responsibilities to external ideologies, whether they be political, religious or economic.
But it would be a mistake to sum up Sirens as a eulogy to the meaningless of life, a celebration of nihilism or anarchy, for Vonnegut gives clear indication that within us all there burns a bright spark that makes us human. Away from earth a Martian soldier named Unk can't remember why he is, who he is or quite where he is, but knows deep down that he should be asking these very questions. His battle to find the answers leads him to Mercury with Boak. It is Boak who discovers his own personal answers with the Harmoniums. He becomes a deity, he has a reason to exist, a reason to be:
"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."
On Titan Beatrice decides to write a book entitled "The True Purpose of Life in the Solar System", an attempt to refute the evidence that everything was as deeply meaningless as we might have feared. She comes to a conclusion that gives her some comfort:
"The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody... would be not to be used for anything by anybody."
Constant puts it more emotionally eloquent when he says good-bye to Salo:
"It took us that long to realise that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved."
As a young novelist, I begun with the childish notion that my ideas were somehow unique and mine alone, but reality soon prevailed and I had to accept the humbling tenant that I was merely sitting precariously on the shoulders of giants, and feebly attempting to glide as far or as high on someone else's wings. It is Vonnegut's brand of 'genre freestyle' or 'narrative polka' that I most admire; the mixture of the profound and the absurd. His writing is not clearly categorised, if at all, and is so much the better for that. It is both SF and not SF, humorous and serious, philosophical and silly, all at the same time, like some sort of - I don't know - Chrono-genre-istic infundibulum. If there are truly fifty-three ways to the soul waiting to be discovered, then we may well find them in the collective consciousness that is the sum of all human experience, past and present. Like the origin of the message Salo brought from Tralfamador, it is a place
"A kind of university - only nobody goes to it. There aren't any buildings, isn't a faculty. Everybody's in it and nobody's in it. It's like a cloud that everybody has given a little puff of mist to, and then the cloud does all the heavy thinking."
The Sirens of Titan has delivered its treatise to this university. The puff of mist that is it Vonnegut's work has entered our world and our thoughts and the human consciousness whether we have read him or not in the same way as has the bible, Shakespeare, Marx, Kant and Monty Python. If, in the future, we are lucky enough to find even a half-dozen of the fifty-three portals to our souls, I'll bet good money at least one will have been signposted there from what was once described, in the long forgotten days of arbitrary classification, as the science fiction novel.