Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut is a SciFi classic that has not only stood the test of time, frankly it is just as relevant today as it was back when it was published in 1969.
Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time. In essence, he experiences life out of order. One minute he is a prisoner of war as a young man, the next he is examining his patient in his optometry office in his 40s. Through him, we experience the atrocities of the bombing of Dresden in World War 2. Oh, and being captured by aliens known as Tralfamadorians to be put on display.
Billy isn’t the standard war hero that you might expect going into this novel. For the most part, he is a typical young guy. Not a trained killer or natural survivalist. He mostly gets by thanks to pure luck in cases. He isn’t brave in the face of death out of patriotism or honour, but rather because he seems to not fear it as if he couldn’t care less about the possibility of dying. So it goes.
“So it goes” is repeated frequently in Slaughterhouse-Five. Because, to quote the novel, “all moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.” Billy is taught this mindset by Tralfamadorians, who see all of time happening at once, past, present and future. He seems to gravitate to it, using it at all points of his life.
I’ll be honest, when I started reading this novel, I thought I was dumb because I couldn’t understand the time skips. Then I realised, that was the entire point! War and arguably humanity at large don’t follow logic. Vonnegut proposes the notion that life is a series of events that we can’t control. People will die, bad things will happen, so it goes. However, instead of letting that get to us, as a Tralfamadorian tells Billy, “That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.” An oddly hopeful statement.
It is a poignant anti-war book, darkly comic at points yet it doesn’t shy away from any of the horrors of war. His descriptions are so explicit that it is a bit disturbing at points. Perhaps this is so thanks to Vonnegut being a witness to war and Dresden as a prisoner of war himself.
I only learned about that event thanks to this novel. In Scotland, we only really talk about the bombings that happened here and the sacrifice of our troops. Almost as if we are trying to ignore the suffering of innocents on “the other side”. This is mentioned briefly in Slaughterhouse-Five in a way. When Rumfoord tries to justify it to Billy, following up with “pity the men who had to do it”, as if he is trying to morally justify it to himself, not Billy.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a gut-punch of a novel. It feels wrong to say I enjoyed reading such a novel, but I did. It is both compelling and captivating. It is an incredible powerhouse of a book. I strongly encourage you to read it for yourself.
So it goes.