Published on October 9th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
It’s hard to describe the importance of Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, not only as a novel, but as a transcendental piece of Science Fiction. Slaughterhouse Five is one of those rare books, that elevates above genre fiction into modern fiction and uniquely attracted the attention of literary critics going on to become one of the most important pieces of literature in existence.
Science Fiction has long eluded the lists often reserved for writers of classic and modern fiction. It seems that the ideas and themes alone are not enough to excel the genre behind its trappings of negative perception.
Written in 1969, the novel is semi-autobiographical and non-chronological it exacts a dark and dry humour, as well as explores themes of fate, war, trauma, mortality and sanity.
The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, a man who, through no fault of his own, becomes unstuck in time, meaning he freely and controllessly flits between periods of his own life. The novel feels more like one of those recap episodes you often get in Sci-fi programmes, in that it covers various important parts of a man’s life, up until his death.
Billy is an optometrist that was an American soldier in WWII, the majority of the book concerns the time during WWII as POW who is moved to a slaughterhouse in Dresden which is where the book gets its name. Billy is present at the Dresden bombing which profoundly effects him in his life after the war. He is not interested in fighting in the war and doesn’t ever make bold attempts to save himself or avoid dangerous predicaments.
The novel jumps to many different time periods of his life, after the war Billy marries a woman whom he doesn’t love and has children, he starts his own company with the help of his father-in-law, he also has many visits with an alien species known as Trafalmadorians, who possess strange powers not unlike Billy’s being unstuck in time, where they can jump at will to different time periods. He also becomes friends with an unknown sci-fi author, whose work he is a fan of. After a significant event in Billy’s life he begins to disclose information about the aliens and his experiences and garners a large following.
Every stage of Billy’s life is punctuated with themes, the World War segments shows him as weak and ineffectual, struggling to come to terms with the nature of war as well as the notion of free will in a war environment. The scenes with the Trafalmadorians act as a buffer for these and their philosophy of “no such thing as free will” as fate is inescapable give Billy solace as he is then able to accept the indescribable horrors of war. He also learns to accept death by taking on their idealogy that death is just one instant in many with others, as linear time is inconsequential to beings that can time travel.
While reading the book, I was unaware that the Trafalmadorians are a recurring feature in some of Vonnegut’s books, so are meant to be taken on face value.
However, I thought that as they were being described as looking like Toilet plungers and only seem to appear after the main character suffers from a head injury that his peers were correct in thinking he was actually imagining them and merely created them in his head in order to deal with the pain and memories of WWII. He is put into mental healthcare on two separate occasions in the book, which makes the likelihood of hallucinations as a part of post-traumatic stress disorder quite high.
There are similarities between Billy’s experiences on Trafalmadore and the stories he reads by the unknown sci-fi author, Kilgore Trout. One of the things that happens to him is that he is kept on display at a Trafalmadorian zoo with a famous actress of the time with whom he alleges to have made love and conceived a child. Since he has married an obese woman that he admits he does not love and considered himself mad for proposing to, it seems to make more sense that the whole Trafalmadore business is a huge fantasy he wasn’t able to contain after the head injury.
Slaughterhouse Five has historical importance relating to the war as it was one of the first pieces of literature to acknowledged the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany as well as describing the horrors of the bombing of Dresden which was previously regarded as little more than a necessity of war. In modern teaching of the Allied countries regarding World War II, little of the horrors that were committed on our side have been noted and it is interesting to read about them in the form of fiction from a person who has a first hand experience of it, especially as Vonnegut being part German it might have implicated him.
There are precious few genre books that can successfully explore the depth of subjects involving war and the human condition, however Slaughterhouse Five is a powerful tool of story-telling and thought. There hasn’t been a book more undeservedly banned.