For some time I have heard great things about Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s magnum opus about World War II. Like I usually do, I blocked myself off from any other information until I could read a copy in order to avoid spoilers. So you can imagine my surprise when I start reading about freaking time travel and bloody aliens! What the hell did I just read?!
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck from time. One moment he’s in a WWII prison camp, and the next moment he’s on his honeymoon. An alien race that sees in four dimensions is able to help him understand what is happening to him.
Seriously, what the hell. When I read that book, it was like sitting down for an episode of MASH but someone’s changed the channel to The Twilight Zone. I had to actually look at the cover and the title page to make sure I had picked up the right book. I’m not complaining by any means (for a change). As a science fiction nerd, I prefer The Twilight Zone much to the chagrin of my roommates. My point is that a pleasant surprise can still catch a person off guard.
Usually when I hear theories about a story happening only in a character’s head or in purgatory or whatever, I just roll my eyes and ignore. The reason I don’t give such theories much consideration is because those theories don’t actually require any merit or evidence to be applied. I could pick any piece of media and it would fit. Indiana Jones is nothing more than the daydreams of a bored archeology professor. Mass Effect was the result of head trauma on Eden Prime. Maybe before depending on which backstory Commander Shephard has. Lost is…well, I could devote a website to Lost, so let’s not go there.
However, this theory actually has merit with Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim doesn’t become unstuck from time until after he receives a head injury. Furthermore, the inspirations for his possible hallucinations are found throughout the book. The aliens that abduct him physically resemble aliens from a book heard. Furthermore, the first things that they say to him mirror dialogue that he heard while a prisoner of war. Extraterrestrial hallucinations aside, whenever he is on earth, Billy wonders around as if in a daze and not usually realizing where he is. He behaves more like someone with some brain trauma rather than someone with a sound mind. I think this book is the first time I’ve encountered the “all a hallucination” theory, and it actually had some merit.
The book initially seems to have an unusual structure. Scenes that would normally be cohesive wholes are instead broken down into parts, like little snapshots of Billy’s life. Then I realized that the book is structured just like a novel that the aliens would have. To quote the book, “There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.” I like it when an author not only comes up with how an alien race would live, but also puts it into practice. It makes me appreciate their work and imagination a great deal more.
Reading this book would have been less…confusing had I expected the science fiction aspect. However, upon realizing that, yes, I had gotten the right book, I found Slaughterhouse-Five to be a very enjoyable read that was difficult to put down. Due to its nature as a WWII book and a few other scenes, it is definitely not safe for children. Nonetheless, I would recommend it to anyone high school age or older.