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It begins like this: "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come Unstuck in Time." It ends like this: "Poo-tee-weet?"
Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 masterpiece about Billy Pilgrim, a soldier who witnessed the bombing of Dresden and subsequently gets kidnapped by Tralfamadorian aliens, who can see in all four dimensions and thus see all events in their lives in no particular order. Billy becomes Unstuck in Time, marries a nice girl, experiences death for a while, befriends Kilgore Trout (Vonnegut's recurring Author Avatar in The Verse), and lives his life like most other humans -- just less chronologically. Tralfamadorians don't believe you can change anything, but that doesn't mean you can't choose to focus on a particular time, and to enjoy life the way it happens. Billy learns to accept life as well as death -- if something dies, then so it goes.
Why aliens, and why time travel? Because Vonnegut wanted to write about his experiences in World War II, but he didn't want to write a story about Big Damn Heroes. Instead, his character is simply a meek observer: Billy gets to see the war and the world from a distance, objectively, as if through the eyes of aliens.
It caused a bit of controversy when it came out, as people were unwilling to believe that "The Greatest Generation" during "The Good War" could do evil. But his story about the Bombing of Dresden in World War II is factual, as Vonnegut was there. Although there is a question about how many died; it is said that in the book he got the numbers wrong. Still, 135,000 civilians or 25,000 civilians, dead is dead. So it goes.
An intensively autobiographical novel (minus the time travel and aliens bits), Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is one of the books Vonnegut is most remembered for and contains philosophies about free will, fate, life, and death, often through the use of irony. For example, scholarly discussion usually holds that Billy and the Tralfamadorians are the examples of what is wrong and that free will, and therefore moral responsibility to try to prevent war, futile though it may seem, are the correct paths.
It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
Filmed in 1972 by George Roy Hill. Vonnegut liked it.
Tropes in this book include:
- Aliens Made Them Do It: The Tralfamadorians put Billy and porn star Montana Wildhack in a zoo together. They don't make them mate but they want them to. You put together a man and woman in a small area for the rest of their lives...
- Alternate Aesop Interpretation: In-universe, the moral of the New Testament is hypothesized as really being "Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected."
- Anachronic Order
- Apocalypse How: A Class 5 on a universal scale. Played for Laughs, mostly.
- Arc Words: "So it goes."
- Author Avatar: As mentioned above, Kilgore Trout is a recurring author avatar in many of Vonnegut's novels; however, because of the intense personal nature of the story--Vonnegut himself actually witnessed or took part in many of the book's events--the author himself is present as a character as well.
- Bizarre Sexual Dimorphism: The Tralfamadorians look like toilet plungers and have five sexes.
- More than that, the Tralfamadorians reveal to Billy that humans have many more than two sexes, its just that we can only perceive two because the others exist in the fourth dimension.
- Blessed with Suck: Billy can see his entire life at once but is unable to do anything about it.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: "So it goes."
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: The narrator is Kurt Vonnegut. At one point, when describing the bombing of Dresden, he shows a man standing in the same room as Billy Pilgrim and then writes, "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."
- Not to mention the fact that the first chapter in the book was entirely about him describing some of his life and how he came to write his "famous Dresden novel".
- Brick Joke: In the first chapter, the narrator mentions drunkenly calling up old friends with his breath stinking of mustard gas and roses. In the fourth chapter, Billy gets an anonymous call and assumes the caller is a drunk whose breath smells like mustard gas and roses.
- Child Soldiers: Mrs. O'Here more or less considers young enlisted men to be this. We get to see more literal examples from ther Germans who have a 12 year old scout and a 16 year old prison guard. The Children's Crusade is also discussed at one point.
- Dewey Defeats Truman: We get a glimpse of the "future" in which the US is divided into various sectors among other things. The year? 1978.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Edgar Derby is shot by a firing squad for stealing a teapot from the ruins of Dresden. This after he wasn't even disciplined as far as we know for telling American traitor Howard J. Campbell to go fuck himself.
- Paul Lazzaro makes a list of people he plans to have assassinated at some point in the future for even minor offenses. He mentions feeding a wire-filled steak to a dog that once bit him for the sake of revenge.
- Divided States of America: In the future, before Billy dies, he's making a speech in the balkanized United States.
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Averted. The aversion is also lampshaded in the first chapter.
- Eagle Land: Type 2, especially in the writings of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. but to a lesser extent throughout the book.
- Early-Bird Cameo: At one point, Billy Pilgrim meets Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (lead of Mother Night)
- As well as Killgore Trout and Eliot Rosewater.
- Fantastic Romance
- Foregone Conclusion: Billy knows he's going to die - in fact, he's died over and over again, but merely goes back to a time when he wasn't dead.
- The Tralfamadorians take this attitude on a universal scale as they all know a rocket test of theirs will destroy the entire universe and don't much care. They don't care because they see no point in caring. To their senses: It will happen. It is happening. It will always happen. It can not be stopped because it has always happened.
- Edgar Derby's death is brought up before he is even named or is introduced into the story.
- Humans Are Bastards: Averted. Billy suggests the Tralfamadorians and other aliens feel this way about humans since they have war. It is quickly explained that humans aren't alone in their ability to make war and that most aliens have no opinion one way or another about them.
- Humans Are Special: How much this specialness matters is arguable, but according to one Tralfamadorian, "I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe.... Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." Because of this, they're seen as idiots by the Tralfamadorians.
- Long-Lost Relative: Although they were not aware of it, Billy and a German prison guard were distant cousins.
- Long Title: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut, A Fourth-Generation German American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire-Bombing of Dresden, Germany, "The Florence of the Elbe", a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.
- Meaningful Echo: Several.
- Meaningful Name: Tralfama - dorian. Like Dorian Gray, the Tralfamadorians are able to move through time, unaffected by it.
- Mental Time Travel
- Non-Linear Character: The Tralfamadorians.
- Oh, and X Dies: The narrator wastes no opportunity to remind us that Edgar Derby is going to be executed for stealing a teapot. (When that finally happens, it's told in a by-the-way sentence that doesn't even rate a paragraph of its own.)
- The movie makes a somewhat bigger deal about it.
- The first chapter, in which Vonnegut discusses his writing of the book, has Vonnegut toying with the idea of making Edgar Derby's death the climax of the novel -- a sort of appropriately retroactive Lampshade Hanging.
- Prescience Is Predictable: Averted. Even though the Tralfamadorians and Billy see the future and are powerless to change it, they accept it gracefully.
Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy's wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference." Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.
- Quintessential British Gentleman: The British prisoners are so friendly, even the German guards like them.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Considering that Billy can see how everything ends, it's easy for him to take this view.
- Shout-Out: There are numerous shout-outs to children's stories:
- "Drink Me".
- The narrator compares Dresden, Germany to Oz when the American prisoners are first brought to the city.
- The English prisoners put on a production of "Cinderella" and at one point, Billy puts on the combat boots that substituted for Cinderella's glass slippers.
- Roland Weary refers to himself and the two scouts traveling with him as The Three Musketeers.
- Stiff Upper Lip: The English officers are pretty optimistic for being POW's.
- Time Dissonance
- Title Drop: For both titles.
- Unreliable Narrator: It is mentioned in one single line near the start of the second chapter that the story is built on what Billy Pilgrim says happened to him. After that point every event is presented in a very matter-of-fact way, but the implication is that the entire book is really based on Billy's perspective, rather than that of an omniscient narrator. Billy's unreliability is never made explicit, but is hinted at -- he's suffered PTSD, a severe head injury, and some other characters certainly think he's unreliable...
- Unstuck in Time: The Trope Namer.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There are a couple parts of the book that were based on Vonnegut's own experiences, such as the descriptions of Dresden post-bombing and Edgar Derby being executed for looting a teapot.
- World War II
- You Can't Fight Fate: One of the Tralfamadorians says, "I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe.... Only on Earth is there any talk of free will."
- Deconstructed as it's being used ironically as this mentality is held up as an example of the wrong way to cope with war trauma.
- The narrator also says that the climax will be when Edgar Derby is shot for stealing a teapot, and that is probably the textbook example of a deliberate anticlimax.
- On a more meta example, the prologue explains exactly how the book will end.
- War Is Hell: Mrs. O'Here certainly feels this way and this is proven in a surprisingly non-Anvilicious way.