It is a little odd that even though I have a degree in literature and am a science fiction fan, not to mention a serious addiction to reading, that I had never read “Slaughterhouse-five” by Kurt Vonnegut. I have even had a copy of the novel, which was selected as the 18th most important English language novel of the last century by the Modern Library, sitting around for years but had never started on it before. Well, this book finally got its day as I finally entered into the bizarre world that lay within.
“Slaughterhouse-five” is the story of an American soldier, Billy Pilgrim, who was a prisoner of war in World War Two. He was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and taken to Dresden. He was kept in a building that was called Slaughterhouse-five and spent the rest of the war there until Dresden was bombed. But this is not a simple story of the war. In fact, there is little that is simple about the story. Billy “travels” through time and the story is told in a manner that reflects this odd perspective as it skips to different parts of Billy’s life.
After returning from the war, Billy Pilgrim is put in a hospital with a roommate that is an obsessive reader of an obscure science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout. Billy also becomes a fan, maybe a fanatic, of Trout’s works and reads all of his books. He reads all of Trout’s novels more than once. Later, Billy is abducted by a race of aliens, the Trafalmadorians, and taken to their home planet when he is put on display in a zoo along with a B-movie actress named Montana Wildhack. Billy and Montana spend years on display in the zoo on Trafalmadore where they eventually become lovers. Even more important, Billy learns of the Trafalmadore culture and the reality that time is not linear as humans believe it to be but that every moment in time exists simultaneously. There is no past or present. Rather, everything happens at the same time and Billy learns to see time as the Trafalmadorians do and thus learns to jump between different moments in time. He is not a time traveler so much as an enlightened man who is able to jump through all of the moments of his life.
This ability to move through time makes the story disjointed but adds a layer of understanding to it that would otherwise be missing. Billy, and the reader, views the war through a lens of what happens after the war is over all time runs together. Billy jumps back and forth from the war to his life after the war. He is even aware of his own death and is committed to spreading his message of time as a simultaneous event before his death. Billy does not believe in fate or free will as he knows what will happen in his future and is unable to change it. He simply exists at all times. Even though he skips through time, he has no control over what time he will inhabit next and is left to deal with the events as they come along. He has no choices as his life is already written. He lives like the reader of the novel: left to experience what has already been written down for him.
I would not go so far as to say that “Slaughterhouse-five” is an anti-war book although there is a definite leaning in that direction. The novel addresses the horror and the sad situation of the human cost of war but it is more of a fatalistic view that war will always be a reality due to the flawed nature of humans. And the reader is also left guessing as to the truth of the time travel since Billy’s adventures seem to closely mirror the fiction of Kilgore Trout. Is Billy simply crazy or is the story happening as it is written? “Slaughterhouse-five” is sure to leave the readers questioning their own sanity in a crazy world.