Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

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I was underwhelmed by Slaughterhouse Five.

It stands on the intersection of books that I care about, and the books that I don’t. By that I mean that Slaughterhouse 5 is essentially autobiographical Literary Fiction with some Sci-Fi garnish and a dash of post-modernism.

Our protagonist is Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist and alien abductee who spends most of the novel remembering how he was a German prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden. He learns a form of time-travel where he can return to any point in his personal history, but he cannot change anything. The aliens explain to him their fatalistic vision of the universe, in which all events, including the end of the universe due to a disastrous rocket test, are predetermined. Their mantra, and the mantra of the book, is So it goes.

This mental time-travel is a device Vonnegut uses to tell his narrative out of order. At one point Billy will be talking to his wife, then he’ll go back to WWII Dresden, and then he’ll return to 1960s America. (I think this is really just a roundabout way to write about PTSD. Between this and Lovecraft’s focus on mental illness, I think it would be fascinating to see how speculative fiction responded to the PSTD epidemics unleashed by the World Wars.) Giving the protagonist an excuse to experience things nonlinearly feels a lot smoother than just jumping around in time without any explanation.

I think one of the reasons Slaughterhouse Five underwhelmed me was that its message, that war is really terrible, already seemed axiomatic to me. In the country where I live we have a burgeoning state religion centered around the young men who were heroically shot trying to invade Turkey back in WWII. Each year in school we’d have another lesson on how awful it was. Alongside an interest in history and a conscience, all this means that for me joining the army is as unthinkable as murder itself. Perhaps if I was patriotic gungho American who believed that my nation was incapable of acting unethically, or if this book tried to tell me that was is simply fantastic, I would’ve have been impressed.

I also think that the sci-fi elements of the book were unnecessary. I see why Vonnegut included them; he writes science fiction and they were probably a distancing technique that allowed him to process such traumatic memories.

Based on Sirens of Titan, I still think Vonnegut is an author worth my time, but this isn’t the first book of his that I’d recommend.

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