The nineteen sixties were characterized by one word; “counterculture.” To the citizens of America, this was the mantra that carried the public towards a future that went off the beaten path. Suffering from two world wars and several economic recessions America was desperate to look toward a future where peace was a possible option. This is the world Kurt Vonnegut lived in while he wrote his World War 2 inspired classic; Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel is filled to the brim with dark humor, cynical observation, and countless allusions to sci-fi culture. Above all else, however, what this story embodies is war itself.
At first, Kurt directly addresses the audience explaining how difficult it actually was the write the novel and giving context to the main event it revolves around; the bombing of Dresden. He expresses his distaste for war but simultaneously denounces the validity of anti-war novels. This is one of the many instances of Vonnegut being contrarian to the contrarians, so to speak. While the novel was written and published during the counterculture movement Vonnegut distances himself from making any radical statements, opting for a whimsical yet realistic approach to his war novel.
I think of how useless the Dresden part of my memory has been, and yet how tempting Dresden has been to write about
He continues his almost inebriated rambling while finally coming to a conclusion about how he is going to begin and end the novel.
It begins like this: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. It ends like this: Poo-tee-weet?
The rest of the novel then focuses on our main protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, a tall slender war veteran desperately attempting to piece together his memories, while also time traveling to random moments in his life. It’s through these random bits of time travel where the audience is introduced to one of the novels core concepts: perception of time. In Billy Pilgrim’s constructed reality, time itself is not chronological but rather simultaneous.
All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist… It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
It’s this description of time that allows the novel to be told in a seemingly haphazard order. The narrator goes from describing Billy’s job as an optometrist for one moment then suddenly skips to a point in time where Billy was being held as a prisoner of war. For an average novel, this would likely be seen as a faux pas on the authors part. Having the story told so jarringly is likely to make any piece of commercial media unintelligible. However, Vonnegut masterfully uses this motif to his advantage as it reflects the confusion and utterly inexplicable nature of the war itself.
Kurt Vonnegut makes countless unrealistic references to strange things like the existence of aliens, extraterrestrial planets, time travel, and juxtaposes all of it with the very real bombing of Dresden. So in essence what we have here are these completely baseless claims about extraterrestrial life, and out of body experiences mirroring these horrific realistic accounts about the travesty of Dresden. Without having any reasonable connection to each other these two separate ideas are somehow being grouped together through the simple fact that both are incredibly controversial and ultimately meaningless.
Since their popularization during the “pulp era” in the nineteen twenties and thirties science fiction novels have carried along with them a negative stigma that has since plagued the genre as a whole. Due to the sheer oversaturation of science fiction stories being told and their often eccentric technicolor cover art, these cheaply produced pieces of fiction were not considered to have any sort of literary merit. However, Vonnegut subverts this gaudy moniker most sci-fi novels carry by creating something more than just an intriguing story. Between the cynicism and humor, the reader can understand the true effects war has on humans. How once they return their new civilian surroundings seem almost “alien.”
The bombing of Dresden has been said to have taken the lives of around 25,000 people with some conflicting accounts reaching as high as 500,000. Many of those lives were said to have been primarily women and children. Many critics of the bombing have even claimed Dresden was of little strategic significance and could have been avoided entirely. A conclusively meaningless attack lead to the tragic deaths of thousands, and all we can say was that it needed to be done. This rather indifferent reaction to mass genocide is also reflected in the way Billy himself views it.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.”
As the body count of the war continues so does the rabbit hole of unfeasibility. Billy’s strange behavior is simply a representation of what’s around him, and all things considered, he seems pretty rational. In a world where mass bombings are seen as necessary, and the countless slaughter of innocent civilians is overlooked it’s no wonder Billy believes he was abducted by aliens.
Whereas Billy represents the counterculture movement, where everyone else is wrong, and your radical ideas are the benchmark of human progression. Kurt Vonnegut himself is the one simply sitting idly by, watching the world crumble below him. He explicitly admits to being present there at the bombing and instead of trying to do something, all he can muster is a few sarcastic jabs. He’s been changed by what he’s seen, hardened by it. Even years later nothing still made sense after seeing the true horrors of it all.
Slaughterhouse-five understands that it is a bizarre, awkward package that the post office has to x-ray five times before shipping out of the country, however, the bow on top is very pretty and crafted with care. It understands that society will never understand it so it makes itself incomprehensible. It’s self-aware and silly yet thought-provoking and respectful. The world doesn’t realize how badly it needs another writer like Kurt Vonnegut. His unfortunate passing in 2007 only seems to echo the words of his writing. So it goes.