Thursday, October 5, 2017
Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
This book follows Billy Pilgrim, an American man who as a P.O.W. witnesses the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II. (Much like how Kurt Vonnegut himself witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden as a P.O.W. so it draws heavily on his own experiences during the war.) The plot is set off when Billy Pilgrim gets unstuck in time, and starts drifting randomly from one point of his life to the next, never knowing when or where he'll end up. The result is the book is told form Billy's perspective as he drifts through his memories. First back to the war, then to life after the war, then life before, and so on in that fashion. Billy's life is slowly unfolded for us over time and we put the mysteries of his life together.
Another major event in Billy's life is his kidnapping by the Tralfamadorians, an alien race that sees in four dimensions instead of three, which means they can see all of time at once, and look upon pleasant moments in the future or in the past as easily as we might look at a pleasant picture. Because Billy himself is unstuck in time, the Tralfamadorian understanding of time is extremely helpful for him to understand his predicament. As far as the Tralfamadorians are concerned, everything that will happen is happening now, and will always have happened. All of the universe is an inevitability, we are merely going through the motions. This helps Billy adapt because he knows he can't change the past or the future, he's travelling along a track that was laid well before.
This also means the Tralfamadorians have an interesting perspective on death. They find the act of death itself to be largely unimportant and when one of their species die they simply say ''So it goes.'' In fact, ''So it goes'' becomes a sort of mantra through the book, obsessively stated after any living thing be it plant, animal, bacteria, or human being dies. Because as far as the Tralfamadorians are concerned, at the moment of death it is certainly bad for the person in question, but they are doing quite fine at other periods in their life in the past. That person will always exist in the past and will continue existing in the past, so there's no sense in feeling upset that they're gone because a Tralfamadorian can always re-visit the times when that individual was alive. It's an interesting philosophical concept about time and death but I don't know if it works so well for humans who, of course, cannot see all of time at once.
There are a lot of things going on in this book, and I don't think I can process all of them quite adequately. In fact, I'm not sure I completely understand this book at all. But I thought it was very interesting and it at least made me think and get outside my usual comfort zone. I also thought it was very accessible and plenty of people would find it interesting. In some ways the book is so open-ended that you can take whatever you want from it and perhaps there is no one specific interpretation. Overall, I think this is a book worth checking out for yourself.