This week, I read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which was #15 on my book list. I knew it was a war novel, but I wasn’t expecting science fiction. Because of this, my interpretation of the book might from others.
The story of Billy Pilgrim (the book’s protagonist) doesn’t actually start until Chapter 2. Vonnegut used the first chapter as more of a preface, written in his own voice to introduce the the story that follows. Billy Pilgrim is an optometrist who finds himself thrust into World War II in Germany. Billy is a flawed and pathetic character who gets captured by the Germans and taken to a slaughterhouse in Dresden, along with other prisoners. Shortly after arriving in Dresden, there is a bombing and ensuing firestorm that destroys the city. Billy and the other prisoners survive, but 135,000 of Dresden’s residents were killed (the actual number is estimated to be around 25,000). So it goes.
What makes Billy unique is that he can (or believes he can) travel through time. He is abducted by aliens from the planet of Tralfamadore, where he is put in a zoo to entertain the Tralfamadorians. The Tralfamadorians don’t see time as linear, like humans do; instead, they see all moments in time simultaneously. They are fatalists, cognizant of what we perceive as the past, present, and future, but powerless to change it. Billy adopts their philosophy and, eventually, the Tralfamadorians return him to earth.
Although I’ve written the plot summary linearly, in the book, it’s told entirely out of sequence because of Billy’s frequent jumps through time. He experiences pre-war, war, and post-war events out of order, without having control over the jumps.
Who knows if Billy Pilgrim really experienced time travel or if it was all in his head. It seems likely to me that it was a coping mechanism. Billy experienced some very traumatic events in his life, most notably during the war (especially the bombing of Dresden), but also outside of the war, in events like the plane crash. I think Billy was driven mad by the trauma and unconsciously used the Tralfamadorians and time travel as a way to comfort himself, especially because aspects of his delusions (if that’s what they were) seemed to echo things he saw or experienced in real life.
Billy’s new way of looking at life was to see it as something timeless, with moments from the past just as alive as moments in the present and future. He learns to accept the things he can’t change, even when they’re senseless tragedies like the Dresden bombing.
My favorite part of Slaughterhouse-Five was when Billy was watching a movie backwards about American bombers in World War II:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody again.