‘At Stake – the Earth…
Pete Garden was a bindman. One of the finest Game-players this side of Titan. His skill had already won him half of California and eighteen wives.
But was he good enough to beat the fanatical Game-players of Titan? The telepathic Vugs had already won an interplanetary wart that left the scattered remnants of humanity sterile owners of a wasteland.’
Blurb from the 1991 Grafton paperback edition
Following a war between Earth and the telepathic Vugs of Titan (which Earth lost) the population has been reduced to a fraction of its size and fertility is low due to the effects of a Russian/Chinese bomb.
Some Vugs are now living on (although not in control of) the Earth and Humanity is combating its fertility by means of Bluff, a game which appears to be a cross between Poker and Monopoly.
The Bindmen who play this game (Bindmen’s Bluff, one realises belatedly) are an elite crowd who gamble for large sections of the world’s real estate. They also have to change wives or husbands if they win or lose holdings which ensures that partners are changed frequently in the hope that fertile individuals will have a better chance of getting together and therefore producing children (known as ‘having luck’).
Pete Gardiner is a member of The Pretty Blue Fox Group and has just lost part of California, and his wife.
In an unorthodox move, the deed was then sold to Jerome ‘Lucky’ Luckman, a dangerous gameplayer who not only has won a lot of the East Coast, but has fathered ten children. Jerome can now move to California and join the Pretty Blue Fox group.
In the meantime Pete finds a new wife Carol (or has her found for him) and tries to persuade his old game-playing friend Joe Schilling to return to the game.
Luckman does indeed turn up in California and begins winning title deeds, but shortly afterwards is found dead in Carol Gardiner’s car.
Subsequently, six members of the PBF are found to be missing their memories of the afternoon Luckman died. Things take a decidedly strange Dickian turn after this and Gardiner finds himself at the centre of a conspiracy involving militant Vugs, telepaths, precogs and an unstable psychokinetic teenager.
The interest, however, lies in the psyche of Pete Gardiner, a depressive prone to suicidal impulses. Midway through the novel he is forced to question his own reality, not only with regard to his ‘blackout’ periods, but also when he’s taken a drug and sees the people around him as Vugs.
‘We are entirely surrounded by Vugs!’ he writes on a matchbook as a message to someone, possibly himself. He is proven right ultimately, but the writing of these particular scenes exquisitely captures the ambivalence of the reality Gardiner is experiencing.
As with the radio presenter in ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, there is a duplicitous figure working through the media, in this case Natz Katz, a cool popular singer who is the leader of the renegade Vugs, and also has his own radio show.
Gardiner, being one of Dick’s autobiographical characters, also has a shrewish ex-wife, Freya, who gets more than upset at Gardiner’s ‘luck’ in getting his new wife Carol pregnant.
There is a certain level of animosity from Mary-Ann, the psychokinetic teenager, also, as she tells Gardiner that it isn’t a baby at all. Freya, in a call to carol, congratulates her and tells her that she ‘hopes it’s a baby’, a remark guaranteed to upset the pregnant woman.
There are some unexpected twists and turns (or should that be expected unexpected twists and turns, given Dick’s penchant for confusing the reader?) in the narrative and events which, although justified later, are tailored to obfuscate. It reads, not surprisingly, like a David Lynch film. Gardiner’s visit to Dr Philipson, for instance, is so redolent of a drug-inspired incident that both the reader and Gardiner are unsure of what is going on.
It’s also a novel with a strong female cast. We have Gardiner’s two wives, and the mother and daughter team of Patricia and Mary-Ann McLain, who all have quite prominent roles.
For some reason it was America that held the monopoly on the SF satirical novel. Vonnegut, and later Sladek and Sheckley and indeed Dick with his more subtle comedy, produced some sublime works which turned society on its head and forced us to take a long hard look.
For Nineteen Fifty-Nine this is a remarkable novel, published at a time when SF was arguably becoming very serious about itself.
There is nothing scientific or realistic about ‘The Sirens of Titan’. As Dick was later to do to incredible effect, Vonnegut used the language of SF without letting any of those annoying scientific facts get in the way of the story.
The central figure, Winston Niles Rumfoord, is a billionaire with his own private spaceship which he promptly flies into a Syno-Chronastic Infundibulum which transforms him (and his dog Kazak who happened to be with Rumfoord on the ship) into a wave of energy pulsing between our sun and Betelgeuse. The upshot of this is that Rumfoord can see the past and future simultaneously. Niles reappears on Earth every fifty-nine days and has spoken to no one but his wife and butler until the day he summons fellow billionaire Malachi Constant.
Rumfoord tells Constant that he will travel to Mars, then to Mercury, back to Earth and then to Titan, amongst other things.
Malachi of course is highly sceptical and so begins a tour-de-force of storytelling in which Rumfoord manipulates the entire world, while using Malachi – in some cases quite literally – as a puppet.
What only becomes clear later is that Rumfoord himself is only a tiny part in a two hundred thousand year old plan by the Tralfamadoreans to get a spare part to a stranded messenger on Titan. He is taking a secret message to a race in another part of the galaxy, the final irony being that the message is a simple dot, which translates in Tralfamadorean as ‘greetings!’
Vonnegut employs many SF clichés in new and surprising ways. The billionaire’s private prototype spaceship for instance is straight out of an EE ‘Doc’ Smith adventure. The flying saucers of course, by Nineteen Fifty-Nine were a familiar staple of B-movies. Salo, the Tralfamadorean who has been waiting on Titan for Two Hundred Thousand Years for his spare part, is a three-legged robot who, unaccountably, has developed more compassion and emotion than most of the human cast.
Above all, in a genre that was previously awash with novels about the superiority of Humanity, The Sirens of Titan emphasises the sheer insignificance of our world.
The only British successor of any note to Vonnegut is Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’s central premise (that the Earth was designed by mice as a giant organic computer to answer one specific question) is very similar to that of Vonnegut’s. One should also note Kingsley Amis’ ‘The Alteration’ which can hold its own as a British novel in the satirical SF novel stakes against all-comers. See also Richard Cowper. These have been unjustly overshadowed by the popularity of the US authors for reasons which cannot be fathomed.