“Vonnegut is George Orwell, Dr. Caligari and Flash Gordon compounded into one writer . . . a zany but moral mad scientist.”—Time
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From the Trade Paperback edition.
Random House Publishing Group
; December 2007
336 pages; ISBN 9780307423375
Download in secure EPUB
Title: The Sirens of Titan
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
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Between Timid and Timbuktu
"I guess somebody up there likes me."—Malachi Constant
Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.
But mankind wasn't always so lucky. Less than a century ago men and women did not have easy access to the puzzle boxes within them.
They could not name even one of the fifty-three portals to the soul.
Gimcrack religions were big business.
Mankind, ignorant of the truths that lie within every human being, looked outward–pushed ever outward. What mankind hoped to learn in its outward push was who was actually in charge of all creation, and what all creation was all about.
Mankind flung its advance agents ever outward, ever outward. Eventually it flung them out into space, into the colorless, tasteless, weightless sea of outwardness without end.
It flung them like stones.
These unhappy agents found what had already been found in abundance on Earth—a nightmare of meaninglessness without end. The bounties of space, of infinite outwardness, were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.
Outwardness lost, at last, its imagined attractions.
Only inwardness remained to be explored.
Only the human soul remained terra incognita.
This was the beginning of goodness and wisdom.
What were people like in olden times, with their souls as yet unexplored?
The following is a true story from the Nightmare Ages, falling roughly, give or take a few years, between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression.
There was a crowd.
The crowd had gathered because there was to be a materialization. A man and his dog were going to materialize, were going to appear out of thin air—wispily at first, becoming, finally, as substantial as any man and dog alive.
The crowd wasn't going to get to see the materialization. The materialization was strictly a private affair on private property, and the crowd was empthatically not invited to feast its eyes.
The materialization was going to take place, like a modern, civilized hanging, within high, blank, guarded walls. And the crowd outside the walls was very much like a crowd outside the walls at a hanging.
The crowd knew it wasn't going to see anything, yet its members found pleasure in being near, in staring at the blank walls and imagining what was happening inside. The mysteries of the materialization, like the mysteries of a hanging, were enhanced by the wall; were made pornographic by the magic lantern slides of morbid imaginations—magic lantern slides projected by the crowd on the blank stone walls.
The town was Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.A., Earth, Solar System, Milky Way. The walls were those of the Rumfoord estate.
Ten minutes before the materialization was to take place, agents of the police spread the rumor that the materialization had happened prematurely, had happened outside the walls, and that the man and his dog could be seen plain as day two blocks away. The crowd galloped away to see the miracle at the intersection.
The crowd was crazy about miracles.
At the tail end of the crowd was a woman who weighed three hundred pounds. She had a goiter, a caramel apple, and a gray little six-year-old girl. She had the little girl by the hand and was jerking her this way and that, like a ball on the end of a rubber band. "Wanda June," she said, "if you don't start acting right, I'm never going to take you to a materialization again."
The materializations had been happening for nine years, once every fifty-nine days. The most learned and trustworthy men in the world had begged heartbrokenly for the privilege of seeing a materialization. No matter how the great men worded their requests, they were turned down cold. The refusal was always the same, handwritten by Mrs. Rumfoord's social secretary.
Mrs. Winston Niles Rumfoord asks me to inform you that she is unable to extend the invitation you request. She is sure you will understand her feeling in the matter: that the phenomenon you wish to observe is a tragic family affair, hardly a fit subject for the scrutiny of outsiders, no matter how nobly motivated their curiosities.
Mrs. Rumfoord and her staff answered none of the tens of thousands of questions that were put to them about the materializations. Mrs. Rumfoord felt that she owed the world very little indeed in the way of information. She discharged that incalculably small obligation by issuing a report twenty-four hours after each materialization. Her report never exceeded one hundred words. It was posted by her butler in a glass case bolted to the wall next to the one entrance to the estate.
The one entrance to the estate was an Alice-in-Wonderland door in the west wall. The door was only four-and-a-half feet high. It was made of iron and held shut by a great Yale lock.
The wide gates of the estate were bricked in.
The reports that appeared in the glass case by the iron door were uniformly bleak and peevish. They contained information that only served to sadden anyone with a shred of curiosity. They told the exact time at which Mrs. Rumfoord's husband Winston and his dog Kazak materialized, and the exact time at which they dematerialized. The states of health of the man and his dog were invariably appraised as good. The reports implied that Mrs. Rumfoord's husband could see the past and the future clearly, but they neglected to give examples of sights in either direction.
Now the crowd had been decoyed away from the estate to permit the untroubled arrival of a rented limousine at the small iron door in the west wall. A slender man in the clothes of an Edwardian dandy got out of the limousine and showed a paper to the policeman guarding the door. He was disguised by dark glasses and a false beard.
The policeman nodded, and the man unlocked the door himself with a key from his pocket. He ducked inside, and slammed the door behind himself with a clang.
The limousine drew away.
Beware of the dog! said a sign over the small iron door. The fires of the summer sunset flickered among the razors and needles of broken glass set in concrete on the top of the wall.
The man who had let himself in was the first person ever invited by Mrs. Rumfoord to a materialization. He was not a great scientist. He was not even well-educated. He had been thrown out of the University of Virginia in the middle of his freshman year. He was Malachi Constant of Hollywood, California, the richest American—and a notorious rakehell.
Beware of the dog! the sign outside the small iron door had said. But inside the wall there was only a dog's skeleton. It wore a cruelly spiked collar that was chained to the wall. It was the skeleton of a very large dog—a mastiff. Its long teeth meshed. Its skull and jaws formed a cunningly articulated, harmless working model of a flesh-ripping machine. The jaws closed so—clack. Here had been the bright eyes, there the keen ears, there the suspicious nostrils, there the carnivore's brain. Ropes of muscle had hooked here and here, had brought the teeth together in flesh so—clack.
The skeleton was symbolic—a prop, a conversation piece installed by a woman who spoke to almost no one. No dog had died at its post there by the wall. Mrs. Rumfoord had bought the bones from a veterinarian, had had them bleached and varnished and wired together. The skeleton was one of Mrs. Rumfoord's many bitter and obscure comments on the nasty tricks time and her husband had played on her.
Mrs. Winston Niles Rumfoord had seventeen million dollars. Mrs. Winston Niles Rumfoord had the highest social position attainable in the United States of America. Mrs. Winston Niles Rumfoord was healthy and handsome, and talented, too.
Her talent was a poetess. She had published anonymously a slim volume of poems called Between Timid and Timbuktu. It had been reasonably well received.
The title derived from the fact that all the words between timid and Timbuktu in very small dictionaries relate to time.
But, well-endowed as Mrs. Rumfoord was, she still did troubled things like chaining a dog's skeleton to the wall, like having the gates of the estate bricked up, like letting the famous formal gardens turn into New England jungle.
The moral: Money, position, health, handsomeness, and talent aren't everything.
Malachi Constant, the richest American, locked the Alice-in-Wonderland door behind him. He hung his dark glasses and false beard on the ivy of the wall. He passed the dog's skeleton briskly, looking at his solar-powered watch as he did so. In seven minutes, a live mastiff named Kazak would materialize and roam the grounds.
"Kazak bites," Mrs. Rumfoord had said in her invitation, "so please be punctual."
Constant smiled at that--the warning to be punctual. To be punctual meant to exist as a point, meant that as well as to arrive somewhere on time. Constant existed as a point—could not imagine what it would be like to exist in any other way.
That was one of the things he was going to find out—what it was like to exist in any other way. Mrs. Rumfoord's husband existed in another way.
Winston Niles Rumfoord had run his private space ship right into the heart of an uncharted chrono-synclastic infundibulum two days out of Mars. Only his dog had been along. Now Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog Kazak existed as wave phenomena—apparently pulsing in a distorted spiral with its origin in the Sun and its terminal in Betelgeuse.
The earth was about to intercept that spiral.
Almost any brief explanation of chrono-synclastic infundibula is certain to be offensive to specialists in the field. Be that as it may, the best brief explanation is probably that of Dr. Cyril Hall, which appears in the fourteenth edition of A Child's Cyclopedia of Wonders and Things to Do. The article is here reproduced in full, with gracious permission from the publishers:
Chrono-Synclastic Infundibula—Just imagine that your Daddy is the smartest man who ever lived on Earth, and he knows everything there is to find out, and he is exactly right about everything, and he can prove he is right about everything. Now imagine another little child on some nice world a million light years away, and that little child's Daddy is the smartest man who ever lived on that nice world so far away. And he is just as smart and just as right as your Daddy is. Both Daddies are smart, and both Daddies are right.
Only if they ever met each other they would get into a terrible argument, because they wouldn't agree on anything. Now, you can say that your Daddy is right and the other little child's Daddy is wrong, but the Universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.
The reason both Daddies can be right and still get into terrible fights is because there are so many different ways of being right. There are places in the Universe, though, where each Daddy could finally catch on to what the other Daddy was talking about. These places are where all the different kinds of truths fit together as nicely as the parts in your Daddy's solar watch. We call these places chrono-synclastic infundibula.
The Solar System seems to be full of chrono-synclastic infundibula. There is one great big one we are sure of that likes to stay between Earth and Mars. We know about that one because an Earth man and his Earth dog ran right into it.
You might think it would be nice to go to a chrono-synclastic infundibulum and see all the different ways to be absolutely right, but it is a very dangerous thing to do. The poor man and his poor dog are scattered far and wide, not just through space, but through time, too.
Chrono (kroh-no) means time. Synclastic (sin-classtick) means curved toward the same side in all directions, like the skin of an orange. Infundibulum (in-fun-dib-u-lum) is what the ancient Romans like Julius Caesar and Nero called a funnel. If you don't know what a funnel is, get Mommy to show you one.
The key to the Alice-in-Wonderland door had come with the invitation. Malachi Constant slipped the key into his fur-lined trouser pocket and followed the one path that opened before him. He walked in deep shadow, but the flat rays of the sunset filled the treetops with a Maxfield Parrish light.
Constant made small motions with his invitation as he proceeded, expecting to be challenged at every turn. The invitation's ink was violet. Mrs. Rumfoord was only thirty-four, but she wrote like an old woman—in a kinky, barbed hand. She plainly detested Constant, whom she had never met. The spirit of the invitation was reluctant, to say the least, as though written on a soiled handkerchief.
"During my husband's last materialization," she had said in the invitation, "he insisted that you be present for the next. I was unable to dissuade him from this, despite the many obvious drawbacks. He insists that he knows you well, having met you on Titan, which, I am given to understand, is a moon of the planet Saturn."
There was hardly a sentence in the invitation that did not contain the verb insist. Mrs. Rumfoord's husband had insisted on her doing something very much against her own judgment, and she in turn was insisting that Malachi Constant behave, as best he could, like the gentleman he was not.
Malachi Constant had never been to Titan. He had never, so far as he knew, been outside the gaseous envelope of his native planet, the Earth. Apparently he was about to learn otherwise.
The turns in the path were many, and the visibility was short. Constant was following a damp green path the width of a lawn mower—what was in fact the swath of a lawn mower. Rising on both sides of the path were the green walls of the jungle the gardens had become.
The mower's swath skirted a dry fountain. The man who ran the mower had become creative at this point, had made the path fork. Constant could choose the side of the fountain on which he preferred to pass. Constant stopped at the fork, looked up. The fountain itself was marvelously creative. It was a cone described by many stone bowls of decreasing diameters. The bowls were collars on a cylindrical shaft forty feet high.
Impulsively, Constant chose neither one fork nor the other, but climbed the fountain itself. He climbed from bowl to bowl, intending when he got to the top to see whence he had come and whither he was bound.
Standing now in the topmost, in the smallest of the baroque fountain's bowls, standing with his feet in the ruins of birds' nests, Malachi Constant looked out over the estate, and over a large part of Newport and Narragansett Bay. He held up his watch to sunlight, letting it drink in the wherewithal that was to solar watches what money was to Earth men.
The freshening sea breeze ruffled Constant's blue-black hair. He was a well-made man—a light heavy-weight, dark-skinned, with poet's lips, with soft brown eyes in the shaded caves of a Cro-Magnon brow-ridge. He was thirty-one.
He was worth three billion dollars, much of it inherited.
His name meant faithful messenger.
He was a speculator, mostly in corporate securities.
In the depressions that always followed his taking of alcohol, narcotics, and women, Constant pined for just one thing—a single message that was sufficiently dignified and important to merit his carrying it humbly between two points.
The motto under the coat of arms that Constant had designed for himself said simply, The Messenger Awaits.
What Constant had in mind, presumably, was a first-class message from God to someone equally distinguished.
Constant looked at his solar watch again. He had two minutes in which to climb down and reach the house—two minutes before Kazak would materialize and look for strangers to bite. Constant laughed to himself, thinking how delighted Mrs. Rumfoord would be were the vulgar, parvenu Mr. Constant of Hollywood to spend his entire visit treed on the fountain by a thoroughbred dog. Mrs. Rumfoord might even have the fountain turned on.
It was possible that she was watching Constant. The mansion was a minute's walk from the fountain—set off from the jungle by a mowed swath three times the width of the path.
The Rumfoord mansion was marble, an extended reproduction of the banqueting hall of Whitehall Palace in London. The mansion, like most of the really grand ones in Newport, was a collateral relative of post offices and Federal court buildings throughout the land.
The Rumfoord mansion was an hilariously impressive expression of the concept: People of substance. It was surely one of the greatest essays on density since the Great Pyramid of Khufu. In a way it was a better essay on permanence than the Great Pyramid, since the Great Pyramid tapered to nothingness as it approached heaven. Nothing about the Rumfoord mansion diminished as it approached heaven. Turned upside down, it would have looked exactly the same.
The density and permanence of the mansion were, of course, at ironic variance with the fact that the quondam master of the house, except for one hour in every fifty-nine days, was no more substantial than a moonbeam.
Constant climbed down from the fountain, stepping onto the rims of bowls of every-increasing sizes. When he got to the bottom, he was filled with a strong wish to see the fountain go. He thought of the crowd outside, thought of how they, too, would enjoy seeing the fountain go. They would be enthralled—watching the teeny-weeny bowl at the tippy-tippy top brimming over into the next little bowl . . . and the next little bowl's brimming over into the next little bowl . . . and the next little bowl's brimming over into the next little bowl . . . and on and on and on, a rhapsody of brimming, each bowl singing its own merry water song. And yawning under all those bowls was the upturned mouth of the biggest bowl of them all . . . a regular Beelzebub of a bowl, bone dry and insatiable . . . waiting, waiting, waiting for that first sweet drop.
Constant was rapt, imagining that the fountain was running. The fountain was very much like an hallucination--and hallucinations, usually drug-induced, were almost all that could surprise and entertain Constant any more.
Time passed quickly. Constant did not move.
Somewhere on the estate a mastiff bayed. The baying sounded like the blows of a maul on a great bronze gong.
Constant awoke from his contemplation of the fountain. The baying could only be that of Kazak, the hound of space. Kazak had materialized. Kazak smelled the blood of a parvenu.
Constant sprinted the remainder of the distance to the house.
An ancient butler in knee breeches opened the door for Malachi Constant of Hollywood. The butler was weeping for joy. He was pointing into a room that Constant could not see. The butler was trying to describe the thing that made him so happy and full of tears. He could not speak. His jaw was palsied, and all he could say to Constant was, "Putt putt—putt putt putt."
The floor of the foyer was a mosaic, showing the signs of the zodiac encircling a golden sun.
Winston Niles Rumfoord, who had materialized only a minute before, came into the foyer and stood on the sun. He was much taller and heavier than Malachi Constant--and he was the first person who had ever made Constant think that there might actually be a person superior to himself. Winston Niles Rumfoord extended his soft hand, greeted Constant familiarly, almost singing his greeting in a glottal Groton tenor.
"Delighted, delighted, delighted, Mr. Constant," said Rumfoord. "How nice of you to commmmmmmmmme."
"My pleasure," said Constant.
"They tell me you are possibly the luckiest man who ever lived."
"That might be putting it a little too strong," said Constant.
"You won't deny you've had fantastically good luck financially," said Rumfoord.
Constant shook his head. "No. That would be hard to deny," he said.
"And to what do you attribute this wonderful luck of yours?" said Rumfoord.
Constant shrugged. "Who knows?" he said. "I guess somebody up there likes me," he said.
Rumfoord looked up at the ceiling. "What a charming concept--someone's liking you up there."
Constant, who had been shaking hands with Rumfoord during the conversation, thought of his own hand, suddenly, as small and clawlike.
Rumfoord's palm was callused, but not horny like the palm of a man doomed to a single trade for all of his days. The calluses were perfectly even, made by the thousand happy labors of an active leisure class.
For a moment, Constant forgot that the man whose hand he shook was simply one aspect, one node of a wave phenomenon extending all the way from the Sun to Betelgeuse. The handshake reminded Constant what it was that he was touching--for his hand tingled with a small but unmistakable electrical flow.
From the Trade Paperback edition.