Kurt Vonnegut novels were a recurring theme in the last book I reviewed, The Universe Versus Alex Woods. So I thought I’d pick up one of Vonnegut’s books… Slaughterhouse Five. This is one of Vonnegut’s best known works, and deserves its status as a modern classic, and one of the best books ever written.
Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of a young American soldier, Billy Pilgrim, and his experiences in both the Second World War and er… inter-galactic time travel!
Much of the book is focused on the bombing of Dresden, and Billy’s experiences leading up to, during and after the event. Billy, is also effectively kidnapped by aliens at some point, and regularly travels back and forth in time, although not necessarily willingly. He is also regularly transported to another planet, where he is kept in a kind of transparent zoo. The aliens watch Billy and another character living their everyday lives, in a forerunner of today’s reality TV shows.
The aliens teach Billy about their “more advanced” understanding, and espouse a fatalistic view of the world, which Vonnegut picks up on as narrator with the repetitive refrain “so it goes”. The aliens mock the concept of “free will”, and Billy who has lived through the horrors of war, also adopts this fatalistic world view. The aliens suggest that everything that will happen has already happened, and I guess that fits in with the idea of time not being a linear concept.
Vonnegut was a pacifist and profoundly impacted by his experiences in World War II. He alludes to this in the introduction to the book, and openly states that he has been trying to write a book about his experiences in Dresden for many years. The book clearly has an autobiographical element, and Vonnegut in fact says “I was there” as part of the narration to Billy’s story.
Vonnegut’s critics suggest that he is promoting a “Quietist” agenda, and that there is effectively no point in trying to change things. That wasn’t what I took from the book. I think Vonnegut was frustrated as many people are today, by his inability to change things. In a similar way (and with a similar feel in some ways) to 1984 by George Orwell, it certainly felt like a novel that was still relevant and topical today. This despite it being published nearly 50 years ago.
Slaughterhouse Five is certainly a book that will linger in your mind, and while you have empathy for Billy, it’s a book that perhaps makes you think, as much as feel for the characters. If you haven’t read, it I’d strongly urge you to do so.
If you want to read the book you can get it from amazon.
At the time of writing this post, its available for only £2.99 on Kindle in the UK, and $4.59 in the US.
Vonnegut is widely regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and a fascinating individual. If you want to read more about him I’d suggest these starting places…
Sadly Vonnegut died in 2007, but he left a number of impressive works behind him. I’ll certainly be catching up on the ones I haven’t read.