Shaping Our Ends | Harriss on The Sirens of Titan

Cooper Harriss



In college I worked summers at a camp near the North Carolina coast, an outpost so remote that an evening’s entertainment often took the form of riding the free ferry some three miles across the Neuse River and back. On one occasion I struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger, a local commercial fisherman who had decided—upon much prayer, he was careful to add—to move to Pensacola, Florida. Pollution and environmental regulations had become too much for him to make a decent living, so he felt compelled by external forces to make a change, to uproot his family and move to strange waters more than eight hundred miles from home. As the ferry pulled into port, we started on our separate ways, exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands. Flush with camaraderie for my new acquaintance and his upcoming venture, I wished him a hearty “good luck!”

No one has ever turned on me as quickly as he did in that moment. He stepped to me, pushed me backward against the gunnel, and poked his index finger hard into my chest, angrily, almost desperately shouting, “Don’t tell me that! Do you realize what you’ve said?” He went on to explain, according to some crypto-etymological acrobatics, that “luck” is the root of “Lucifer.” I had wished him “good Lucifer” for his new life.

This etymology remains popular on the Internet, though certainly unfounded (if your concern is words alone). Nevertheless, it has roots in a deeper anxiety that has been given Luciferian purchase among people who understand their life held in the balance of a divine plan. My social and religious violation that evening was this: by wishing my new friend “good luck,” I denied God’s providence for his new venture. I implied that no intercessory power shapes our ends—despite his clear communication that he knew God would lead him. To speak of “luck” invokes divine indifference. It suggests that this fisherman was striking out alone, adrift, quite literally without a prayer. I was akin to an agent of The Sirens of Titan’s Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, whose two main teachings held that “Puny man can do nothing at all to help or please God Almighty, and Luck is not the hand of God” (183).


Providence plays an important role in historical relationships between religion and literature because so much writing seeks to locate, or to mirror, a divine plan in human experience. Puritan journals sought evidence of election in the daily grind. Major debates over the rise of the English novel in the eighteenth century concern how this new genre might reflect narratives of providence in order that readers may learn to find it at work in their own lives. A novel, like a life, unspools before a reader—often in unexpected ways that prove difficult to understand in the midst. Yet there remains between the covers, beginning and end, birth and death, a schematic inner logic that careful and insightful readers may know, or at least partially ascertain. In this way providence is an epistemological problem, a question of knowing. Writing preserves what is known (or stylizes the unknown) in a way that fosters reflection and analysis. Consider Unk’s epistle to himself in The Sirens of Titan: “Dear Unk: . . . They aren’t much, God knows—but here are the things I know for sure . . .” (124). By writing and reading his list, correcting and revising it, he begins to make a kind of sense of things, rough-hewn as this sense may be.

Significantly, the ability to know providence remains a retrospective matter. Even in a futuristic tale like The Sirens of Titan—set in an age that has systematically forgotten the very era in which we now live—Vonnegut writes in the past tense. In this way the act of reading closes a circuit, consummating the narrative whole. Still, if the past is another country, the future in this text is another planet. Thus I find it telling that for Vonnegut to play with notions of time, space, and narrative in novel form—to work in this science-fictional milieu—he literally needs to invent another religion, one that specifically snuffs providence, to do so.

For Rumfoord’s Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, “You mustn’t say anything that would indicate that God took a special interest in you, or that you could somehow be of help to God. The worst thing you could say, for instance, would be something like ‘Thank God for delivering me from all my troubles. For some reason he singled me out, and now my only wish is to serve Him’” (231). I could write ten times more words than I’m charged to do here about what this innovation means for the relationship between religion and literature that has historically served as an epistemological grounding for novels. In lieu of doing so, I want, in couple of short points, (1) to place The Sirens of Titan in its mid-century context of religion and technology in postwar America, and (2) to consider how religion and literature’s concern with knowing becomes both troubled and amplified by science.

First, a contextual point that I find interesting given the novel’s publication in 1959: science fiction deploys a speculative future to explain the present. The Sirens of Titan then, especially Vonnegut’s new church of the technological future age, responds to a historical convergence of science and religion in the 1950s. First, it emerges in the midst of two technological races—the space race and the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. A fascinating, if overlooked adjunct to these races is what we might call a “religion race,” which Vonnegut invokes with the road sign reading “let’s take a friend to the church of our choice on sunday!” (40). The phrase “the church of your choice” was common in the 1950s to encourage religious practice that emphasized the spiritual superiority of the USA over the USSR’s “godless communism.” Protestant America even began to incorporate Catholics and Jews in this strive toward godliness—one race the United States was sure to win. Here the agency resides with the chooser, not a sense of chosenness. This is an important shift, and one that later religio-political movements like the religious right would challenge (but in some ways not entirely supplant).

Second, what has science to do with religion and/or literature? (I offer all of these terms here in a broad, nonspecific way.) We often think of science and religion as opposed. Literature majors reputedly eschew science courses (and vice versa). I want to suggest something different, a family resemblance between all three: specifically, science, religion, and literature are all epistemologically oriented. That is to say, they are all concerned with knowing—what we can know, how we can know it, what methods and authorities might support the truth or untruth of such knowing, and so forth. While historical religious intolerance (Galileo versus the Catholic Church, the Scopes trial) garners splashier headlines, many religious people welcomed modern scientific discoveries because they understood such knowledge as an epistemological boon for reflecting the splendor of God’s creation. Archaeology would, in theory, help the Bible make more sense. Natural and physical sciences reflected for Jonathan Edwards, among others, God’s delicate handiwork. They offered a providential account of the cosmos, unlocking the intricacies of the created world. Science in this way becomes an organizational principle, a human attempt through rational and empirical processes to wring (imperfect) order from chaos otherwise incomprehensible (or comprehensible only to God, as the case may be). On this understanding, science comes off as theological.

Over time such providential design became more difficult to support. Higher criticism didn’t untangle biblical problems but exacerbated them, rendering authority predicated on biblical infallibility highly problematic. A world not several millennia old but billions of years old did not culminate with the creation of humankind but continues to adapt, presenting challenges to an anthropocentric human order created in God’s image. This demythologized view emphasizes the distinction between modes of knowledge and thus separates myth from theory as forms of authority.

We now know, to be sure, that science is “true,” and religion, like fiction, is “untrue.” In The Sirens of Titan, however, I read Vonnegut (ever the contrarian) to draw science and religion back into more proximate authoritative orbits. The future, as expansive and infinite as space, open-ended and indeterminate, finds religion far from God, but most certainly some God or god toils in its machines (created in the image of Salo’s ship), its chronicles of war and rumors of war recorded in scripture. Rumfoord claims to see the future and directs Beatrice and Constant to comply with his designs. What manner of providential narrative, then, does this become? And who, in the end, is its architect? Can providence be something other than retrospective if time is, in fact, relative? What new metaphysics do such emerging physics require? Does this augur for Vonnegut the religiosity of science, much as religion deals in improvident instrumental luck?

I look forward to continuing with these thoughts as Vonnegut begins to ground the speculative elements of science fiction with demonstrably historical fiction in future texts.