‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ by Kurt Vonnegut is easily comparable to ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller: both deal with atrocities and absurdities in World War II, both look through the eyes of every-men characters, both employ humour to convey their messages. But whereas ‘Catch-22’ focused intensely on character and had very little actual plot to speak of, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is almost entirely plot and the characters are almost tangential. Vonnegut also readily admits this: “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.”
It’s really nothing to complain about though because the plot is packed with interesting ideas, concepts about the nature of time, and messages about fatalism and free will (or lack thereof). The story concerns Billy Pilgrim, a person ‘unstuck’ in time who floats about between his life after the war, his days as a young POW, and his alien abduction. The aliens are massively important to the central idea because they view time differently from humans and it’s this fourth-dimensionality that gives the philosophical ideas in such an interesting manner. The plot ultimately comes across as tremendously well thought-out.
The novel is often accused of being quietist and while it’s understandable, I don’t think it’s quite fair. The aliens, Tralfamadorians, view time as a fixed construct analogous to a mountain range: while humans wander the peaks and troughs, they are able to view the whole structure at one time. Time is completely passive rather than active and everything can always be said to exist. Death (a major theme of the book) is not the end because the person is still alive in past times which are immutable. This is the alien’s view but I don’t think it’s necessarily what we’re supposed to take away from the book. Maybe human nature does make certain events inevitable and maybe time is fixed; maybe wars are “as easy to stop as glaciers”; in that sense resignation seems the only option. But it’s not. If, at the end of life, we skip about through our life like Billy Pilgrim or experience it all again like in Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, then surely it is incumbent upon us to lean our attitudes towards the positive in every single moment of our lives. At the end in Dresden, Billy claims that the happiest moment of his life was sunning himself in a wagon in the ravages of that burned city: he took happiness where he could find it even though the world died around him. Because he knew everything was inevitable he was more able to take comfort in the fleeting moments of joy that came his way. Some may call it quietist, I call it existential.
It’s a fine book; shorter and not as good a literary work as ‘Catch-22’ but ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is suffused with more interesting science-fictional and philosophical concepts. To me at least it also expresses a more optimistic view of life than the pessimism and all-encompassing bureaucracy that permeates Heller’s masterpiece. While ‘Catch-22’ said that “Man is matter” and we’re all going to die after a life of annoyance and difficulty, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ says that we might as well enjoy the ride while it lasts and not allow ourselves to become too enslaved by time and space.
So it goes.