The Short Version: Malachi Constant is the richest and luckiest man alive. But when a strange astronaut informs him that he’ll be leaving the planet to visit Mars, Mercury, and Titan, his luck takes a turn. What follows reveals the meaning of life in the way that only Vonnegut can.
The Review: What is it, exactly, that Vonnegut does that nobody else can quite replicate? Is it his particular avuncular sense of humor? The man does make you laugh, even if it’s sometimes a cringing laugh (as you might at an awkward older family member). Is it his kindness? It could be that, as even when he’s angry (see: Breakfast of Champions), he’s still got a soft spot for the potential goodness of humanity. Is it his particular spin on spec-fic/sci-fi, his taking-for-granted that this is just the way the universe works? And, by extension, our similar immediate understanding? There’s never a need for pages of exposition and explanation of Ice-9 or what it really means to be unstuck in time or what, exactly, is a chronosynclastic infundibulum – instead, we just go with it.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s all of these things. Maybe it’s something else entirely.
But what I do know is that there’s nobody else like him – and, four books in*, I can see why he’s so beloved. And while I think Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night might be books I like more than this one, I think this one has a particular soft spot for me that I’ll always remember fondly.
Perhaps two, now that I think about it.
Firstly, here’s Vonnegut grappling with the meaning of life. Douglas Adams may be more famous for “42” but Vonnegut’s revelation is even more absurd – and even more startlingly atheistic, for those who aren’t prepared for it. You see, everything that has happened in the life of Malachi Constant has been ultimately for one express purpose… and when that purpose is revealed, it’s hard not to be gobsmacked by the utter absurdity of it all. The sense that everything we might see as serendipity or manifestations of God’s greater plan is subverted in, I think, a funnier way than the idea that the Earth and all its inhabitants might just be the casing and processes of a giant super-computer – because it’s so patently ridiculous. Yes, there is a plan… and boy, couldn’t it’ve been handled like even a little more simply? Vonnegut has his knives out in such a subtle way here but the message cuts the same no matter what you believe: there is no greater meaning to life than to live it.
The second thing is that Vonnegut steers into Bradburyian territory here, albeit in his usual gently mocking way. The idea of a Martian invasion was decades old by the time The Sirens of Titan arrives: The War of the Worlds was about sixty years old and A Princess of Mars about forty-five or so years old. The Martian Chronicles, by comparison, is less than ten years old when Sirens arrives. But it’s hard for this reader not to put Bradbury and Vonnegut in the same breath, as opposite versions of the other. On the one hand, Vonnegut: a little (maybe more than a little) weary and grumpy. On the other hand, Bradbury: never managing to lose his sense of wonder at the world. But Bradbury has his darker moments and Vonnegut clearly enjoys a good laugh too – and they’re both at the forefront of the burgeoning sci-fi community.
And Vonnegut’s idea of Martian civilization reminds me of the end of “The Million-Year Picnic”, where the Earth father shows his sons their reflection and says that they are now Martians – for the Martians of Vonnegut’s novel are all humans, kidnapped and brought there to prepare for war against Earth. Vonnegut’s concept works on so many levels here, satirizing everything from space exploration to humanity’s desire for war, and he even manages to simultaneously offer a possibility for peace in our time (uniting to fight an alien invasion) and also laugh at the likelihood that we could pull off such a thing. It’s impressive stuff on every level.
Vonnegut’s characters in this book do have a little bit more of the vagueness that he’s sometimes guilty of, when the characters are the main thrust of the novel but rather the silly story they’ve got caught up in, but it turns out characters can survive on a gimmick: Malachi Constant is lucky and rich and fated, Winston Niles Roomford is displaced in time (another recurring Vonnegutian theme), Boaz is a sad man given an ounce of control, etc etc. And they’re all remarkable and unique to the reader’s mind, despite not really having too much life in them. Vonnegut-the-writer, as prime mover and owner of these individuals (something he deals with more directly in Breakfast of Champions, is so damn skilled that he can write so sparsely and so beautifully and spin whole stories out of the thinnest ingredients, as he does here. We feel for the characters and, at the same time, understand that we’re not meant to care too much because they’re just characters, living out their “lives” under the direction of some other force – be it Vonnegut, the Tralfamadorians, God, or something else entirely. It’s an incredible balancing act to satirize such a thing while also making you believe in it – but Vonnegut pulls it off, as ever.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Silly, yet surprisingly heavy. Heartfelt, yet utterly cold at times. It’s Vonnegut at his best, frankly; his imagination is going at full tilt and he’s got a lot to say. You can see early themes here (this is only his second novel) and it’s fun to know already how those themes will recur down through the years. Those of you looking for a good place to start with Kurt, I’d suggest this one.