Life. Don't talk to me about life. We all get a little Marvin-ish at times. But if we're going to talk about life — the whys and the wherefores and the whither-thou-goests — we might as well do it with a smile and an understanding that, perhaps, it really isn't so difficult to work out after all. Socrates famously told us that the unexamined life is not worth living. But in The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut finds a world full of people whose lives are pitifully unexamined, and who seek validation and meaning everywhere but within themselves. The idea that we might all be adrift in an uncaring and random universe is not an idea we tend to find appealing. People experience good luck, and thank their deity of choice for its divine favor. Everyone wants to believe there's a guiding hand, but also that we have free will.
The Sirens of Titan — a lacerating satire that undeniably influenced Douglas Adams — gives humanity the brutal message: You are not in control. The horrible truth is discovered by the astronaut Winston Niles Rumfoord, who, while on a voyage to Mars with his dog, collided with a "chrono-synclastic infundibulum" that turned him into a waveform spanning all of time and space. With his knowledge of the immutable future, Rumfoord amuses himself by playing God. He abducts thousands of disenfranchised people and trains them on Mars for an intentionally futile invasion of the Earth, solely for the purpose of bringing humanity together in collective shame over their slaughter of an invading army whose inadequate numbers include women and children. And he singles out one figure, Malachi Constant, the richest man alive, for particular abuse, sending him throughout the solar system in a series of humiliations so that he will stand as an example to humanity of its own worst, most decadent impulses.
But Rumfoord is no altruist. He isn't even much of a good guy. He may, in fact, be the most embittered character in the whole narrative, as we realize he is motivated not by any great concern for the human condition, but just wants to punish his former wife for remaining a virgin throughout their marriage. Rumfoord knows something else, too: that all human endeavor from the dawn of time has been manipulated by distant aliens towards one presposterously trivial goal. Rumfoord responds to this by founding the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, and its final ironic success is that in a roundabout way, it gives Malachi Constant, at last, the sense of peace he's never had.
To Vonnegut, the most absurd act of human hubris is to think that we are the center of creation, placed here by a loving and divine father figure who made us in his image and who's willing to look upon us with favor as long as we're genuflecting to his satisfaction. Vonnegut's riposte to humanity's religious self-absorption is to cast the entire species as victims of a massive alien joke. But for all that his cynicism can provoke both belly-laughs and pure existential horror in his readers depending upon their own philosophical predispositions, Vonnegut was a humanist at heart, and the cruelty of his wit is balanced by much that is heartfelt. Perhaps the most sympathetic character in the story is Constant's traveling companion Boaz, who has an epiphany when the two men are stranded on Mercury that is heart-wrenching for its very simplicity, and its almost childlike yearning for anyone's most basic needs — love, security, a sense of self-worth.
Because in the end, that's really what it's all about. "The truths that lie within every human being," which Vonnegut promises to reveal to us from the first page, are really very simple ones when you get right down to it. Just try, as Boaz does, to find that place where you can do good without doing harm. Whether we're really adrift and alone, or whether our fates are preordained, or whether it's all just a cosmic prank, what matters is how we choose to live each day. We're all capable of great good and appalling evil. But in the end, we have the same needs and the same questions to ask ourselves. Can we name one good thing, let alone several, we ever did in our lives? Can we truly say we had friends?
There are those who thought of Kurt Vonnegut as a misanthrope. But now that he's gone, and he's left the legacy of his enduring body of work behind for us to read and re-read, I don't see how you can really get to the heart of what Vonnegut had to say, and not conclude that he went with a smile. Somebody up there likes us.