Vonnegut's second novel reads quite differently from the first. While Player Piano constantly moves the reader back and forth between its subplots, The Sirens of Titan has a more relaxed, linear movement. Borrowing on the space-opera form, it moves on from one plot, with its underlying theme or social commentary, to another simply by moving its protagonist from one planet to the next. While the dystopian vision of Player Piano deals with the potential impact of technology upon society, The Sirens of Titan is closer to conventional science fiction. Again loneliness and purposelessness are dominant themes. Fraternal, marital, and parental relationships are constantly tested in a setting where the yearning for human warmth is set off against the cold recesses of space. As in other novels Vonnegut finds romantic love wanting and affirms the value of "common human decency," which emerges as a recognition of and respect for others free of the passions, possessiveness, and coerciveness of romantic love. The recurrent theme of people being replaced by machines or becoming machinelike is embodied by the robotized Martian army, while the compassion and loyalty demonstrated by the outside observer, the robot Salo, gives that theme emphasis by inversion.
The Sirens of Titan is thus more philosophical and psychological where Player Piano is sociological, and it makes its comments metaphorically through the use of science-fiction tropes. The Tralfamadorian robots in control, for instance, show a mechanistic universe. As a consequence of these philosophical ponderings, The Sirens of Titan seems more profound. Yet the fantastic world of the novel instructs easily, like Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) - which it resembles from the time its protagonist, Malachi Constant, steps through the tiny door in the wall of the Rumfoord estate until the last smile of Winston Niles Rumfoord fades, like that of a Cheshire cat, into the "chrono-synclastic infundibulum."
Of the characteristic patterns noted in Player Piano, the one that most obviously undergoes development in The Sirens of Titan is that of the mythic descent and return, which is no longer implicit but is presented directly and literally. Malachi is tested on Mars and descends into the caves of Mercury, from which he returns as the messiah of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, only to be condemned and made its scapegoat. Many characters, images, and motifs in this novel reappear in later ones, including Tralfamadorians, physical handicaps to create equality, and above all religion. Rumfoord's Church of God the Utterly Indifferent is the first of Vonnegut's experiments in the creation of a religion that is practical in intent but ludicrous.
The Sirens of Titan has won the admiration of many readers for its imagination, its often-poetic language, and its ability to find affirmation in the face of its bleak universe. Malachi, the Space Wanderer, undergoes almost endless abuse and hardship but outgrows his egocentrism to proclaim the value of learning to love "whoever is around to be loved." His once-embittered son, Chrono, comes in the end to make shrines to Titan's beautiful giant bluebirds and to say, "Thank you, mother and father, for the gift of life." While the protagonist changes, however, there is a sense that the world cannot be changed, that existence is governed by inevitability. It may not be Tralfamadorians who control human existence, the book seems to say, but there is a great deal that is as beyond human control as if they did, and this makes it all the more imperative for people to treat each other "with common human decency," to find a way to love each other. Despite the strong element of fatalism in the book, it contains more humor than Player Piano. It is rich in contrasts, its humor and its pathos mutually sharpened by their juxtaposition, its portrayals of scarcely relieved suffering and the cold wastes of space heightening its affirmation of loyalty, decency, and compassion.
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