I first read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five as a very young man. At the time, I was an avid fan of science fiction, especially those books featuring time travel, and that is what drew me to Slaughterhouse-Five. As a science fiction novel, I thought it was pretty good, especially considering the amount of random time travel its main character, Billy Pilgrim, experiences in this relatively short novel. The problem with my first-pass assessment of Slaughterhouse-Five, however, was that this is not simply a science fiction novel – and it should not be judged by the standards of that genre. Even worse, I managed to ignore the novel’s message.
Vonnegut’s deceptively simple masterpiece is about life itself; it is about the futility and utter waste of warfare; it is about time, and the way that we perceive it; it is about fate and whether any of us really has any control over what happens to us next. Poor Billy Pilgrim certainly had little to say about the course of his own life. Swept up into World War II, where he is captured by the Germans almost as soon as he arrives, Billy will be held prisoner in Dresden’s Slaughterhouse-Five, from where he will survive the Allied firebombing that destroys the entire city. He will be abducted by a crew of aliens from the planet Tralfamador and displayed in a zoo there along with the former porn star chosen as his mate. He will become a successful optometrist, popular and respected in his community. The only problem is that it all happens at the same time.
Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time” and he never knows, from one instant to the next, when he will flash forward or backward to a different part of his lifetime. It is all real, and it is always happening – simultaneously.
Slaughterhouse-Five is generally considered to be a classic anti-war novel. Even with that reputation, its message is subtle enough that it is possible to get so caught up in the rest of the story and its mechanics that the novel’s serious theme is only recognized some time after turning its final page. This book is funny, even to the point of being absurd at times, but it is a serious piece of writing by an author with something serious to say about the foolishness of killing “enemies” by the thousands/millions at the behest of politicians who have failed at their own jobs.
The effectiveness of Slaughterhouse-Five is compounded by the ease with which it can be read; Vonnegut has disguised a complex novel, one filled with thoughtful points, as some kind of comedic science fiction piece. And, he makes it all look so easy. (As does Ethan Hawke in his extraordinary reading of the novel.)
Rated at: 5.0