“Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”
These are the words that begin Kurt Vonnegut’s great 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, also known as The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. This is not Vonnegut’s only work of science fiction; indeed, it is not even his only good one. But of all his novels, Slaughterhouse-Five has perhaps best stood the test of time.
This is a book about a man named Billy Pilgrim, a soldier in World War II, who is time-traveling up and down his own personal timeline, from his childhood to his old age and his time as an optometrist; from being a soldier in the Second World War to his kidnapping by aliens. But even with all this mayhem of time travel and aliens, Slaughterhouse-Five never loses sight of what it is truly about: the firebombing of the city of Dresden in WWII.
Vonnegut has no concerns for linear storytelling. He tells you exactly what the book is about, what happens, and how it ends, all in the opening pages. He explains openly and almost callously the entire life story of Billy Pilgrim before actually telling that story. There are no surprises to the plot, and when Billy climbs out of the wreckage of the destroyed city on the last page, it’s something you always knew was coming.
One of the many things that are truly miraculous about this book is how science fiction ideas are used to sell the emotional story of a historical event. Vonnegut cares very little about the plausibility of his story. He doesn’t bother with scientific explanations for any of the things that happen. When he says that Billy Pilgrim is now time-traveling, that is that. Billy is time-traveling, and Vonnegut doesn’t give a single hoot if you want an explanation as to how.
When Billy is kidnapped by the extraterrestrial Tralfamadorians who put him in an alien zoo and teach him about fate and time as the fourth dimension, and who tell him that one day a Tralfamadorian test pilot will accidently destroy the universe, that is that. Vonnegut is not concerned with whether the Tralfamadorians are plausible or even remotely believable.
Vonnegut instead is completely unabashedly unashamed of his use of using science fiction as the vessel for his tale. The aliens are there because he wants them to be there; they translate Vonnegut’s own strange ideas onto the page and add to the chaos and inhumanity of the story.
Vonnegut does not insult you with expository jargon on pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, and instead invites you to revel in the lunacy of what is almost secretly a very sad story. Vonnegut uses aliens and time travel to speak about the horrors of the Second World War. But he isn’t speaking about the war generally; he’s speaking about something that actually happened to him.
Billy is not only captured on earth and taken to the alien planet of Tralfamadore, but he is also captured at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, and is held as a prisoner of war in the German city of Dresden, just as Vonnegut himself was. He is held in a building called Schlachthof-fünf: Slaughterhouse-five.
And, just like Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim and his fellow inmates are some of the very few survivors of the allied firebombing of Dresden that took place between February 13 and 15, 1945, which destroyed most of the city and killed close to 25 000 people.
This was a major event both in the history of the war and in the life of Vonnegut himself, and part of the novel’s brilliance is Vonnegut’s own apparent struggle with the fact that yes, Dresden was a German city controlled by the Nazis, and yes, the Nazis were evil, but the firebombing of Dresden was also a horrifying event. Vonnegut is writing about his inability to comprehend how human beings, on both sides of the war, were capable of doing such things to one another.
This is a dark subject. This novel is about war and depression and massacres. So it stands to reason that a book about these things should be as dark, grim, and serious as its material. And yet it is not. Vonnegut finds humor in how, after all this carnage, an American soldier is tried for pillaging and shot amongst the wreckage. He finds humor, and thoughtfulness, in the idea that somewhere out there in the stars is an alien race that sees our world the same way we do.
To the Tralfamadorians, a person’s death is not sad because they are still alive in the time period in which they lived. To them, time is lucid and eternal, not linear: It is just like the pages of a book, and can be flipped back and forth. And no matter what, when you read that book, those events are still happening. All of us—everyone who has ever lived and everyone who will ever live—are still alive in those moments, and those moments are happening right now.
This is the beauty of Vonnegut’s book. He has taken a horrific event and wrapped it in the musing of science fiction in the way only he could. For Vonnegut, science fiction was about the conveying of ideas; it was about making it possible to tell a story that would otherwise be impossible to tell.
He used science fiction so that when Billy Pilgrim climbs out to survey the wreckage of Dresden, it is sad, yes—but it is also beautiful in the way that the story has been told, right down to a little bird hopping up to speak to Billy in that mass grave:
-contributed by Ben Ghan