Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut - Sci-Fi Classic Review
Is it poisonous?
Billy Pilgrim isn't a man of much note. A veteran of World War II, in which he never personally fired a shot, Billy is an optometrist married into the family business who, in his later years, has started talking about his experiences with time travel and being abducted by aliens from Tralfamadore. To hear Billy tell it, he is unstuck in time, flitting in and out of past, present, and future, but he learned from the Tralfamodorians, who put him in a zoo and had him mate with a former porn star, that linear time is a uniquely human construct, that death is never an end because the whole of a person's life will always exist.
Genre fiction doesn't get a ton of credit for its versatility, but I happen to believe that a great writer can use the trappings of genre to achieve a near infinite number of goals, that genre can offer more possibility (and reach a broader audience) than "literary fiction." The subject of today's analysis is a perfect example: Slaughterhouse-Five is a bold, experimental novel that casually disregards almost everything you learned in school about plot structure, point-of-view, narrative, and tone, and yet it is also a demonstration of how to use science-fiction in a unique way to achieve a thematic goal.
To be clear, I'm not here to be critical of Kurt Vonnegut--the man was unquestionably a literary genius who was writing from a place of deep personal conviction about an experience very few people can claim to even comprehend--nor am I here to debate the value of war. While it does contain aliens and time travel, Slaughterhouse-Five is, first and foremost, an anti-war satire, a bitter and cynical examination of human nature that somehow manages to find hope in the white-hot center of its damning recontextualization of one of the most brutal moments of World War II (the bombing of Dresden, the details of which are fudged a bit, though I won't get into that here). Rather, I'm here to address one of the first questions the novel raises in readers: why does Vonnegut couch his anti-war book in science-fiction?
There are lots of ways to see it
There are a few pedantic answers that Vonnegut himself hints at in his mostly autobiographical opening chapter. Novels about the war were literally a dime a dozen for decades after World War II, and they all had a tendency to pump up the heroism of war, to tell grand tales of honor and bravery that heighten national pride and provoke a moralistic view of right and wrong. According to Vonnegut, he tried writing a conventional book about his wartime experience--specifically about Dresden--and he even had a clear outline of how such a book should be structured, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end, but after years of failing to get it off the ground, he eventually morphed it into what we now know as Slaughterhouse-Five.
It's easy, then, to think of Billy Pilgrim as a cypher, a way for Vonnegut to take a step back from a straight-forward autobiographical account. It's also easy to assume that the science-fiction elements of the story accomplish something similar for the reader, a way to ease them into the horrors of war. However, these explanations only tell half the story, because the novel opens with the more autobiographical account, letting readers know right from the start how to feel about Dresden and roughly what Vonnegut's experiences taught him. Rather than taking a step back, he lays it all out in just a few pages before getting into Billy Pilgrim's non-linear existence.
The thing about Vonnegut is that everything in his writing is symbolic of something else. He believes in the power of metaphor, both subtle and obvious, and he lays it on so thickly, it's actually hard to find anything that exists merely for the sake of plot or setting. Every science-fiction element of Billy Pilgrim's story is no different: it is there to reflect the absurdity of war and the nihilism Vonnegut and other veterans take home from it. These elements aren't being used to disguise Vonnegut's views to an audience tired of reading war novels; they are there to help him express them more completely.
"New" is a relative term
The time travel elements allow him to completely fragmentalize his story, to thoroughly mix beginning, middle, and end, even reminding readers of events that have yet to be seen in the narrative. One character, for instance, Edgar Derby, has nearly every mention accompanied by the disclaimer that he is going to be shot by firing squad a few days after Dresden for stealing a teapot from the ruins of the city, which really happened, according to Vonnegut, to somebody whose name he changed for the book. This gets at the disjointed, fragmented way Vonnegut himself processes the war and life in general, and it's used as a way to dismiss notions of free will or the expectations that come from a traditionally told narrative.
The Tralfamadorians, on the other hand, are deliberately absurd, from their appearance to their name, and yet they offer the only comfort and hope in a novel filled with bleak tragedy and a seemingly disinterested protagonist. They offer an omniscient, objective view of events that Vonnegut himself is incapable of. Pilgrim's only moment of real passion is when he tells them about man's inhumanity to man and the horrors of war, but the Tralfamadorians dismiss his concerns as irrelevant, since they know the universe will end by no fault of humanity's violence or madness. "So it goes." To them, war is as natural as peace, and a being must learn to find happiness in the peaceful moments while ignoring the discord of the bad times, which all exist at once in the Tralfamadorian consciousness.
Within the story, it's plausible to dismiss every science-fiction element as being the result of Pilgrim's brain damage in a plane crash, that he has taken them from the imaginings of Kilgore Trout, a misanthropic pulp sci-fi writer Pilgrim befriends earlier in his life (and who also serves as part of a series of meta-commentaries about the state of literary criticism and the life of a writer, which include several thinly-veiled self-deprecating jabs at Vonnegut himself). Vonnegut even makes a point of pointing out the uncanny similarities between Pilgrim's experiences and the plots of some of Trout's novels. Ultimately, though, whether or not the time travel and the Tralfamadorians are "real" in the context of the story is an utterly meaningless distinction. The only "real" thing in the novel is Dresden, and everything else exists only to try to exorcize it, to try to make it as unreal as everything else. Therefore, while it's tempting to say Slaughterhouse-Five is a war novel disguised as science-fiction, I say it was Kurt Vonnegut trying to turn war into science-fiction.
-e. magill 4/16/2020
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