- Lost fan? Desmond Hume’s time travel sequences were largely inspired by Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. Desmond himself quoted Vonnegut when he said he had become “unstuck in time.” The idea behind pushing a button in the hatch “to save the universe” was also based on the alien race in the novel.
- The book is also known as The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, which refers to the age of many of the soldiers.
- A movie, directed by Guillermo Del Torro, is scheduled for release in 2011. A 1972 film version of the book was a box office flop.
- Slaughterhouse Five author Kurt Vonnegut passed away in 2007 at the age of 84. He was known for being passionately anti-war and an ardent critic of the Bush Administration.
Slaughterhouse Five is one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read. It simultaneously manages to be extremely profound, highly political, and incredibly humorous–especially if you are into dark humor.
The novel was based on author Kurt Vonnegut’s own experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. After being captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut joined a slew of other American and Russian soldiers in Dresden, where he was one of the few survivors of the American and British-led fire bombing attack on Dresden.
Vonnegut’s writing style is simple–short, declarative sentences. But the content of the book itself is quite complex. Slaughterhouse Five seems like a quick, easy read, which it can be. But if you read it took quickly, you may miss some of the author’s signs along the way.
There’s no doubting that Slaughterhouse Five is anti-war novel. Vonnegut was an American on the ground–or, more accurately, under the ground in the Slaughterhouse–when his own military bombed the city to hell and back. It’s one of the more controversial bombings in American history.
But while the novel may be anti-war, it also includes a heavy dose of time travel, optometry, and alien abductions. Yes, you read that correctly.
I’ll try and sum up Slaughterhouse Five as quickly as I can. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a war veteran who, on the night of his daughter’s wedding, became “unstuck in time”–enter time travel.
The story is told through hundreds of small episodes that jump between different periods of Billy’s life–periods that Billy himself is traveling through: his military days, including the Dresden bombing, his life as an optometrist, the alien abduction, his time on the planet of Tralfamadore, and his final days as the crazy lunatic who talked about aliens all the time.
The aliens, you see, lived in four dimensions–the fourth dimension being time. Time, for the Tralfamodorians, wasn’t linear…it just was. Billy explains:
“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’.”
To the Tralfamadorians, death was just one part of life…one small event in a sequence of unordered events. In keeping with this philosophy, the novel’s narrator, who was an unnamed soldier (Vonnegut?) who experienced many of these events alongside Pilgrim, says “So it goes” following the mention of any death. The short phrase appears 106 times.
Kurt Vonnegut passed away in 2007.
Ultimately, Slaughterhouse Five explores the relationship between fatalism and free will. The aliens believe in fatalism–what’s meant to happen is going to happen and there’s nothing that can be done. Contrast that with many of Vonnegut’s characters who believe in free will, especially evidenced during war time.
But the effects of war and, especially the Dresden bombing, eventually weigh Billy down. The fatalistic philosophy eventually affects him:
There are no characters in this story and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.
There are so many intricacies of this novel, it’s hard to do it justice in a few hundred words. Slaughterhouse Five manages to be a World War II novel and a sci-fi novel at the same time–which shows Vonnegut’s talent in bringing those two worlds together.
The Tralfamadorian race and their philosophies play an important role in the novel, but it all comes down to the events at Dresden, which end up shaping Billy Pilgrim’s world view. So it goes.
The Meaning: Slaughterhouse Five was simply the slaughterhouse in which the American prisoners of war, including Billy Pilgrim were placed in Dresden. The location, below ground, saved them from dying with tens of thousands in the Dresden bombing.
Highlights: I loved Vonnegut’s blunt admission in Chapter One that it was pointless in writing an anti-war novel. Check out the following exchange between him and another character:
“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.
Lowlights: The novel is iffy on the facts–granted, it’s a fiction novel. And, granted, at the time Vonnegut wrote the novel some people believed the casualty count at Dresden was well into the six figures.
In a later chapter, the Dresden bombing is said to have been worse in casualty count than Hiroshima. In recent years, it’s been revealed that the maximum number of people killed in the Allied attack were 25,000. Still an horrific number, but no Hiroshima.
Memorable Line: “So it goes.” — Narrator (Vonnegut) Said 106 times.
Final Thoughts: This is an anti-war book. If you’re not accustomed to, or don’t enjoy, reading alternate viewpoints, then you may not want to read Slaughterhouse Five. But that’s a shame. It’s a great book. Having experienced many of these events first-hand (sans the alien abduction), Vonnegut has the experience and credentials to back up his philosophies, whether or not we as readers agree with them.
Up Next: Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Questions: Your thoughts on Slaughterhouse Five? Are you a fatalist or a free-will believer? Why or why not?