"The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody," she said,
"would be to not be used for anything by anybody."

We search for meaning in our lives, like ants building in a pile of dirt. We toil, until the mountain seems indestructable. And when our work is swept away by an idle breeze or a malicious child's cup of kool-aid, we quickly scamper to find meaning in that act, too. Build, rebuild. Build, rebuild. And so it goes.

What if, in an act of almost-randomness, a man and his dog were told the answers? What if they saw the universe for what it was, learned the meaning of life?

The Sirens of Titan became Kurt Vonnegut's second novel in 1959. You could call it science fiction, though that's just because it takes place in space, and you could call it humanist, but that's just because Vonnegut happens to be one. Sirens is at times a farce, a satire, and a bitter love story that takes a critical look (points, and laughs) at armies and war, politicians and wealth, believers and religion, marriage and love.

We begin with the story of Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog who, coincidentally, just learned the stuff I was asking you about a moment ago. They accidentally (or maybe not-so-accidentally) travel into a Chronosynclastic Infundibulum, where things become entirely too clear....

As he materializes on Earth for a brief time every 59 days, per the effects of the Infundibulum, the people of Earth gather to search for wisdom and meaning in his actions. Seeing the universe for what it is, Rumfoord constructs an elaborate plan to fiddle in the cosmic sandbox.

Compared to the religious tales of grandfatherly men creating gardens of evil, of eight-armed deities overseeing creation and destruction, of sun gods and moon gods... compared to these things it might seem the real meaning of life isn't really meaningful at all. At best, it's a sick joke. But on a scale of utility, it all makes perfect sense.

Before the novel's end, Rumfoord brings peace to earth and unifies mankind with his new religion, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Everything is chance, including physical attributes and, since God doesn't care anyway, any fortune is regarded as a curse. The beautiful are "uglified," the strong make themselves weak, the smart make themselves stupid. Yet people still seem to find purpose in the complete nonsense of it all.

You want me to tell you what the meaning of life is, don't you? Well, I won't. You have to read the book to find out for yourself. But once you've finished, and you know why we've been working so hard to build those mountains all these years.... once you realize the reason things like Stonehenge and The Great Wall of China actually exist... once you find out what the real message is...

do not disassemble.

Do not give up hope. It could be worse--you could die of hypothermia in the middle of a busstop in Indiana because the driver is two hours late. Or worse, you could die without ever having been of any real use to anyone.

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Malachi Constant, aka Unk, aka the Space Wanderer
The Sirens Of Titan
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

This phrase is one of the central ideas in the book The Sirens of Titan, though it is only used three times in the entire text*.

At the first reading it seems like a statement of fatalistic fact. Everything we do, and everything that happens to us, can be reduced to the effect of a few chance occurrences - a stray photon, a misguided molecule here or there. Malachi Constant’s life, as depicted in The Sirens of Titan, is a series of events that can only be attributed to very good and very bad luck. He, more than anybody, should know about the effect of accidents on life.

At a second reading, the irony** is discernible. The extraordinary things that happened to Malachi were not accidents. They were carefully orchestrated by Winston Niles Rumfoord. After Rumfoord fell into a Chronosynclastic Infundibulum (a type of distortion in the spacetime/cultural continuum where mutually exclusive things can all be simultaneously true) he became a semi-omnipotent being that knew everything that ever had, and ever would happen. Armed with this knowledge, he carefully manipulated the entire Earth into doing his bidding***. So Malachi was the victim of Winston Niles Rumfoord, not chance or accident, as was all of Earth.

At a third and final reading another level appears. Winston Niles Rumfoord was a victim of a series of accidents. Everything he did was predetermined by a series of accidents going back to the big bang. Malachi‘s life is governed by accidents, the important ones of which are caused by the accident known as Winston Niles Rumfoord, who was caused by a series of accidents... ad infinitum.

* On pages 161 (twice), and 178, in the Millennium SF Masterworks paperback edition.
** At least, I think this is irony.
*** Read the book, it’s much better than it sounds from that description.

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