Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death couples World War II with the fictional story of Billy Pilgrim, a war veteran who travels freely through time. So he says. Known as Vonnegut’s most popular and influential work, it was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel (losing both to The Left Hand of Darkness). It has frequently appeared in “best of lists” such as Modern Library 100 Best Novels and Time magazine’s 100 Best English Novels (written since 1923).
Listen. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (first published in 1969) has come unstuck in genres. It started as autobiographically and ended as a science fiction, metafiction, and postmodernism stew. It has stumbled to the terrible bombing of Dresden in 1945 and has flown to the planet where the aliens come from. It is above all a satire and a anti-war book, blending the two together hilariously… well if you like black humour that is.
All this happened, more or less.
The book is told anachronistically, beginning with the author deciding to write a book about the war and choosing Billy Pilgrim as the person whose life he would narrate. Billy Pilgrim is, like him, a war veteran. However he claims to have become unstuck in time – freely travelling between all the events of his life. As such the book travels with Billy as he lives his life… moving between his war days, retirement, life as an optometrist, time as victim of an alien abduction and retirement in haphazard manner.
– Why me?
– That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
– Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.
The writing style is short and to the point, almost declarative, despite the relatively complex content. Indeed time time-travling in the story is used to highlight the relationship between fatalism and free will. The aliens (Tralfamadorians), and eventually Billy, believe in fatalism. This is because the aliens live in 4 dimensions, the fourth being time, allowing them to see all events that are happening, will happen and have happened.
All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. […] “If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”
Slaughterhouse-Five has made Kurt Vonegut an author I’ll be sure to look out for. It has coupling the fantastic and mundane in a narrative that is witty, haunting and compelling. The style and nature of the novel may not agree to all… Indeed I may be so trite to repeat that cliche, “You’ll either love it or hate it.”. All I can say is that this book is a new addition to my favourites.
[The book] is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”