Confessions of a bad SF fan: Slaughterhouse-Five

Book cover: Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut (a yellow digit 5 on a dark background)Okay, having ‘fessed up about how few classics I’ve read, I shall endeavour to read at least half a dozen seminal SF works next year in my ongoing Confessions. But first, some catch-up – I read Slaughterhouse Five a while back. I knew it was hailed as a great SF AND great anti-war novel, but I didn’t really know what to expect. It certainly wasn’t what I got.

Billy Pilgrim is hapless. A trainee optometrist, he’s drafted as a chaplain’s assistant, and the novel opens with him behind enemy lines. Gangling, inept and sick, it’s a marvel he doesn’t get his 3 companions killed or captured sooner; but soon enough he is in enemy hands (where he remains for the rest of the war). His experiences as a prisoner of war in transit, in a camp, and finally in Dresden during the Allied raids are scattered throughout the novel.

20 years later, Billy Pilgrim is a successful optometrist with an unexpectedly successful soldier son and a domineering daughter (I’m not going to whinge about the portrayal of women in this one; I’d be here all night. This is very much of its time, so they barely feature and when they do it’s not to their credit, but at least – unlike Bester – they don’t get casually raped). After surviving a plane crash, he takes it into his head to finally start telling the world that he was abducted by aliens from Tralfamadore during the war – and to try and relay their perspective on time.

The Tralfamadorian perspective on time is the framing device for the entire novel: they experience it all at once. Whatever happened has always happened. Whatever is happening, always happens. Whatever will happen, will always happen. Existence is structured around these events, and there’s no point getting upset about it; it’s just the way it is, was and will be. Everyone is absolved of responsibility (you can’t change anything) and as long as you focus on the good bits it’s absolutely fine. Sure, there’s the bits where you’re not alive, but… well, you’re just not alive. That doesn’t hurt.

Although Billy is often described as time-travelling, slipping from war-torn Germany to Tralfamadore to his own comfortable future, technically he’s just learnt to view his life in almost as non-linear a way as his abductors, zoning out from one time to another. Chronology and structure go out the window from the start; the novel is at best a series of excerpts from Billy’s life. True to the Tralfamadorian philosophy, he is one of the most passive protagonists you could care to read about, witnessing rather than partaking in his own life (with the possible exception of his single infidelity).

There’s many ways to write an anti-war story. Time-travelling and alien abduction don’t normally feature, but even Vonnegut’s handling of Billy’s wartime experiences aren’t entirely typical. The novel is written with a light detachment that I mostly found surreal rather than laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s no denying the message that comes through loud and clear.

Billy and his comrades are preoccupied with staying warm; finding a place to sleep; getting enough to eat. They have no control over their destiny (which is reinforced by the Tralfamadorian view) and have an objectively miserable time – although Vonnegut’s portrayal is far less unpleasant than many other anti-war novelists’. Still, the casual powerlessness and meaningless sinks in. There’s no glamour here, no good guys or bad guys; just people getting by until the bombs come down.

I think there’s two ways to read Slaughterhouse-five (and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive). It’s a scifi story – with alien abduction and time-slipping – and/or it’s a psychological novel about PTSD and the way in which we cope with extreme trauma.

Poor Billy was bullied, abused, and exposed to horror – he can be forgiven for seeking to escape the real world and dreaming up a philosophy in which this is somehow less painful, because it’s simply how things are. The narrative is seeded with plenty of suggestions that the Tralfamadorians are a hallucination.

If anything, this increased my sympathy for him – as a time-slipping abductee, he eludes responsibility and is a non-character in the grip of greater forces (which is how Vonnegut initially describes him); as a traumatised veteran, his hallucinations are a response to his experiences – and it’s at least possible to give him credit for being a decent person in spite of his awful circumstances, running a successful business and raising two ultimately fairly decent kids. Having the odd daydream about a porn star on another planet seems forgivable.

I’ll confess I’m indifferent to this one. I didn’t love it, but it didn’t make me angry, which I consider a win, and crucially I do think it’s an interesting read on many levels. I’m glad I picked it up, although it hasn’t spurred me to reading more Vonnegut.