“The Sirens of Titan” (Post 2/3)

part 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/3

Post 3/3

[24] Vocabulary:

He carried his whangee walking stick at port arms.



noun – the wood of any of several Asian bamboos; a walking stick or riding crop of whangee

[25] Vonnegut’s default outlook was pissy and pessimistic, especially in his later years (Everything’s going to hell; there’s no hope for humanity). Ray Bradbury tended toward the absolute opposite (Humans are wonders; we are all miracles; goodness lives in the heart of children). Both were very good writers when they didn’t succumb entirely to these extremes. Sirens of Titan is early enough in Vonnegut’s career that the glimpses into his philosophic pessimism still have an element of wry humor and satire. I’ve read some of Vonnegut’s later speeches and essays and had a miserable time: The man really thought we were all trash.

As Fern expressed the philosophy conversationally, in its simplest terms:

“You go up to a man, and you say, ‘How are things going, Joe?’ And he says, ‘Oh, fine, fine – couldn’t be better.’ And you look into his eyes, and you see things really couldn’t be much worse. When you get right down to it, everybody’s having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everybody. And the hell of it is, nothing seems to help much.”

This philosophy did not sadden him. It did not make him brood.

It made him heartlessly watchful.



His system was so idiotically simple that some people can’t understand it, no matter how often it is explained. The people who can’t understand it are people who have to believe, for their own peace of mind, that tremendous wealth can be produced only by tremendous cleverness.


[27] A quick, perfect character introduction.

Miss Wiley was a crazy-looking little old lady with a lantern jaw. She wore a frizzy black wig that looked as though it had been nailed to a farmer’s barndoor for years.


[28] Vocabulary:

He had no belt, no necktie, no snow-white puttees.




noun – a long strip of cloth wound spirally around the leg from ankle to knee for protection and support.

[29] Reference:

They were finding the lesson as digestible as Pablum.



Pablum was a processed cereal for infants originally marketed in 1931. A bland, soft cereal.

[30] I have a terrible confession: I am currently afraid of the word “that”. I am not confident when to use it. I struggle. Now, instead of adding too many, I fear I’m taking out ones that clarify. I notice them, I fret. I study writers I like, trying to get myself comfortable with necessary uses. But even this seems a stylistic choice. Some authors go crazy with “that”. Some avoid it plague-like.

So I ask you: Does the following have too many “that”s? It does, right? Right? Please tell me Vonnegut is doing this to be funny. I mean, for God’s sake, there’s a “that that.”

He thought of explaining to Brackman that he hadn’t really tried to remember back, that he’d known instinctively that that was a bad thing to do – but that the pain had hit him anyway. He didn’t tell Brackman for fear that the pain would come again.


[31] A strong bit of writing. Visual and taut. Only one “and”, and it starts a sentence. Lots of comma-linked clauses.

Brackman fluttered his stubby hands. “Never mind,” he said. He looked rattled, betrayed – haunted. He lowered his head, as though better to fight the pain if it came again. “No more horseplay, damn it,” he said, his voice deep in his throat. And he hurried away, hurried into his room at the end of the barrack, slammed the door.


[32] “Had had” is a tricky one. Even when it’s technically correct, it looks bizarre. Again, is Vonnegut doing this for humor?

For one thing, Unk had had everything back on Earth, and Boaz had had nothing.


[33] Good points from Unk’s letter to himself.

Everyone on Mars came from Earth. They thought they would be better off on Mars. Nobody can remember what was so bad about Earth.

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart.

Somebody made everything for some reason.


[34] This is why we don’t worry about the science part of this fiction.

His ship was powered, and the Martian war effort was powered, by a phenomenon known as UWTB, or the Universal Will to Become. UWTB is what makes universes out of nothingness – that makes nothingness insist on becoming somethingness.


[35] Vonnegut handles the ramifications of Malachi and Beatrice’s “union” so badly. He describes it as ultimately more painful to Malachi. Eventually, Beatrice actually thanks Malachi for it. This is a rape and Vonnegut treats it like an inconvenience. You put a rape in your book, you’ve now added something very serious that needs to be handled seriously. This part alone unfortunately brings the whole book down.

“He took the woman in the dark easily, for she was weak with terror and sedatives,” said Rumfoord. “It was a joyless union, satisfactory to no one but Mother Nature at her most callous.

“The lieutenant-colonel did not feel marvelous. He felt wretched. Foolishly, he turned on the light, hoping to find in the woman’s appearance some cause for pride in his brutishness,” said Rumfoord sadly. “Huddled on the bunk was a rather plain woman past thirty. Her eyes were red and her face was puffy with weeping, despair (…)

“The woman had regarded him as a pig when they met before. He had now proved beyond question that he was a pig.”


Yes. Yes, he had. Feeling kind of bad because his victim wasn’t a knock-out beauty doesn’t redeem him, either.


The only controls available to those on board were two push-buttons on the center post of the cabin – one labeled on and one labeled off. The on button simply started a flight from Mars. The off button was connected to nothing. It was installed at the insistence of Martian mental-health experts, who said that human beings were always happier with machinery they thought they could turn off.



As [Rumfoord] says in his Pocket History of Mars: “Any man who would change the World in a significant way must have showmanship, a genial willingness to shed other people’s blood, and a plausible new religion to introduce during the brief period of repentance and horror that usually follows bloodshed.”


[38] Reference:

Rumfoord held up an index finger that was as translucent as a Limoges teacup.



Limoges is a French city known for fancy enamel-ware.

[39] If someone wanted to read one piece of Vonnegut to see what he’s like, I would recommend the Mercury episode, Chapters 8 and 9 of this book. It could stand alone as its own wonderful short story. You remember when Bilbo first meets Gollum in The Hobbit? How the story seems to stop and become something entirely different in a strangely pleasing way, then returns to the regularly broadcasted show? This part of Sirens is kind of like that.


“I don’t know what’s going on,” said Boaz in his thoughts, “and I’m probably not smart enough to understand if somebody was to explain it to me. All I know is we’re being tested somehow, by somebody or some thing a whole lot smarter than us, and all I can do is be friendly and keep calm and try and have a nice time till it’s over.”


[41] Vocabulary:

The surface of Earth heaved and seethed in fecund restlessness.



adjective – Producing or capable of producing an abundance of offspring or new growth; fertile.

[42] I like this sentence. It uses “which” very well (a word almost as tricky as “that”).

The church, which squatted among the headstones like a wet mother dodo, had been at various times Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Unitarian, and Universal Apocalyptic.


[43] This is a good part, but also notice Vonnegot’s dogged use of “said.” This is a huge part of his style. (see note [12]).

“Thank God,” said Unk.

Redwine raised his eyebrows quizzically. “Why?” he said.

“Pardon me?” said Unk.

“Why thank God?” said Redwine. “He doesn’t care what happens to you. He didn’t go to any trouble to get you here safe and sound, any more than He would go to the trouble to kill you.”


[44] Vocabulary:

It was the signal for the concessionaires to stop their irreverent bawling of brummagem wares.



adjective – cheap, showy, or counterfeit.

(Brummagem is the local name for the city of Birmingham, England. In the 17th century, Birmingham was notorious for counterfeit coins and the word brummagem became associated with things forged or inauthentic.)

Post 3/3


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