Feb 27, 2017

(Science Fiction) Classics: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

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Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel about a soldier's, Billy Pilgrim's, experiences in the Second World War and how they affected him in later life. The novel is often called satirical.

Vonnegut also uses science fiction elements in the story (rather cliché ones, actually), and that's probably why this book ended up on my Science Fiction Classics reading list, but in my opinion this novel isn't science fiction. The idea is that the main character becomes unstuck in time, yielding an interesting structure that was probably considered revolutionary when the book was published, and he also gets abducted by aliens. So far, so science fiction-y, right? Well, no. For science fiction, the fantastic element needs to be an integral part of the story and it needs to be 'real,' as in 'it was all a dream' or 'it was all in his head' don't count. For me, Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of a soldier with PTSD slowly going insane and escaping his trauma into an imaginary world composed of things from his everyday life. PTSD patients never really escape their trauma, but keep getting dragged back in to experience it over and over again. That's the kind of 'time travel' happening here, I think. Others may disagree, but I felt the book makes this pretty clear: Billy reads bad science fiction stories, one of which is about a man and a woman getting abducted by aliens and placed in a zoo. That's exactly what he claims happened to him. And the woman? She's from a men's magazine Billy spotted in a sleazy bookstore. Why would Vonnegut put this in if he wasn't implying that the fantastical element isn't real?

I had a hard time getting into this book. Vonnegut's clunky and distant prose annoyed me, as well as the repetition of 'so it goes' every time Vonnegut talks about death. Yes, I get that he's making a point about how callous the characters and the narrator are being, but enough is enough. He uses repetition of other phrases, too, like 'faces like radium dials' for example, usually in a different context. This I felt was an interesting technique. I haven't read Vonnegut's other work so I don't know whether the prose style here was an intentional choice to keep the reader at arm's length, but if this is just his style I probably won't try any more of his books. He does do telling details well, which makes the characters come to life even though we never get to see much of their inner thoughts and feelings. The style is more that of an outside observer, just reporting the facts. 

About all those interesting facts Vonnegut uses: I found many of them off-putting. This is a personal preference thing, but Billy's sadistic, torture device obsessed soldier pal Weary and the stories of the atrocities the Nazis committed turned my stomach, as they were probably meant to, but they made it hard for me to finish the book. The book is anti-war, for sure. The Slaughterhouse Five of the title is the slaughterhouse where Billy and co. are assigned to stay in Dresden. Vonnegut is drawing from personal experience here as he was prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombings and only survived because he took shelter in the underground meat locker of the slaughterhouse. 

The aliens that allegedly kidnap Billy, the Tralfalmadorians, are used to make interesting philosophical  points. They have a different concept of time, as in they see all time at once. People aren't really dead, they're always alive somewhere in time, so death doesn't have the same meaning to them. They're also quite fatalistic: everything happens because it happens, period. There is no free will. You can't change the future. They also reveal to Billy that one of their test pilots destroys the universe in a stupid accident, but that's just how it goes. As they see all of time all the time, how do they deal? Well, they prefer to  concentrate on the positive moments and ignore the wars etc. That's pretty good advice for a traumatised soldier, isn't it? Billy likes it so much that he starts preaching it to anyone who'll listen.

I can't say I actually liked the book, but I do understand why it's considered a classic.

P.S. Being nitpicky here, but what's up with the unnecessary hyphen in the title? I even asked my husband who speaks fluent German if it's a German thing, but it isn't.  

Because this was on the Science Fiction Classics reading list, I guess I'll have to count it towards that, so Science Fiction Classics read 46/193.



  1. As regards the hyphen, I think there is more than one slaughterhouse and they are numbered, perhaps to show that great numbers produce meaninglessness.

    A hyphen is used for the fifth and last of the Babylon stations, Babylon-5. I was delighted when well into the series we learn the separate fates of the four previous stations, and that it was not coincidence that they all failed. We are told B-5 is the last great hope for peace, "there would never be another."

    I tried to read that book once, and I gave up. But I did read Kurt's "Player Piano," which I remember as being a good linear story with straightforward prose. No repetition. A player piano, (and incidentally my neighbours had one) was were you pumped the pedals to move a big punch card scroll, where the music score would normally stand, and then the keys would move by themselves.
    The novel is about a town being thrown out of work by automation.

    I remember how even as a boy I didn't believe them when adults claimed that folks put out of work by computers would get jobs as computer repair men. Kurt deals with similar stupid beliefs, and stupid company morale building.

    1. Thanks, that explains it!
      I read that Billy's last name is a reference to The Pilgrim's Progress, which is on my Classics list. It will be interesting to see how many similarities there are to Billy's spiritual journey when I read it at some point... Probably not too soon, though, because it looks like the dullest book on the list.

      Player Piano is Vonnegut's first novel, right? Maybe that explains the straightforward part?

    2. Yes, first novel.

      I admired what I read of The Pilgrim's Progress, AND I gave up less than halfway. I believe that was the book Samuel Johnson was referring to when he said something like, "No one who ever finished it ever wished that it was longer."

      And by the way, I do finish classic books. Nearly always.


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