Tralfamadorian Fatalism

by Chet

Undeniably, Slaughterhouse Five is one of my all time favorite books. People who know me can attest to this based on my willingness to read it more than once. The list of books which I am happy to read again, or stories I want to wander back through is a very short list. Vonnegut’s tale of Billy Pilgrim’s time stumbling and space adventures is one I will never grow tired of.

Slaughterhouse-Five is acknowledge as not only one of the best science fiction books ever written, but also as one the very best books written full stop. I first picked it up a couple of years ago intrigued by those facts. I like at least trying to read the books that are considered to be the epitome of human genius, and I always love a good sci-fi read. Top it all off with a dose of war fiction, and I am set. Oh! I nearly forgot. It’s also listed on the ALA‘s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1900 – 1999. Who doesn’t read banned books?

The novel is primarily set everywhere, and by everywhere I mean the European front of World War II, Billy’s home after the war, and Tralfamadore. The narrator relates the story to us as Billy was prone to experience his life. This nonlinear style makes for a story that is sometimes inconveniently interrupted, but then again we aren’t unstuck in time as Billy was. Imagine how difficult this was for him to deal with.

Allow me to explain what is meant when it is said that Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time. Generally Billy lives life as we all do. He wakes up in the morning, accomplishes some tasks, then sleeps at night. However, at any point in Billy’s day, he may find himself at any other time in his life. He has no control of his time travel, and no one else seems to notice.

My copy at home is a pocket-sized paperback, and it is one of the few books I’ve ever marked in. Most of my markings are with regard to statements the Narrator makes within the first chapter. After that one I usually consume the rest of the book so quickly I forget to take notes. Here are some of my highlighted pieces:

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

There was nothing I could do about it. As an Earthling, I had to believe whatever clocks said— and calendars.

And finally, my favorite.

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

There is much and more to be said about Slaughterhouse-Five. Themes in the book range from a rather fatalist outlook on life to persistence and existence of wars and glaciers. I had a conversation about another book with a friend recently. I was having a rough time getting through that book despite numerous recommendations. He said to me,

“If you want to read a book, and be able to think about what happened in it long after you’re done, then finish this.”

This is something that should be applied to Slaughterhouse-Five. Taken at face value it is a science fiction novel about an accidental time traveler. If one were to start searching, or thinking more deeply about it you could discover ways to question how you live and experience life on Earth. Give it a try.

Have you read Slaughterhouse-Five? What did you think? Love it or hate it, I want to know.