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Slaughterhouse 5: The Anatomy of a Genre-Bending Dystopian Novel

Updated: Feb 12, 2019

Kurt Vonnegut is known for his eccentric and darkly satirical style; however, nothing can prepare you for this novel. A strange blend of fact, fiction, an unreliable narrator and highly imaginative descriptions give a painfully striking depiction of World War II. Like many people of his generation, Vonnegut describes the war and, in particular, the bombing of Dresden as one of the most important events of his lifetime, which is also the cornerstone of the protagonist’s life; the event which starts to blur the line between reality and imagination. The novel follows the life of optometrist Billy Pilgrim, as he recalls his wartime experience and attempts to write “his famous book on Dresden”. The non-linear narrative jumps from the bombing of Dresden to Billy’s experience (when he is captured by aliens) and the effects of war on the people who were deployed in Europe.

Billy serves as a chaplain’s assistant during the war, and is captured by the Germans. The weak, inexperienced and fatalistic soldier is transported to an unused slaughterhouse (Slaughterhouse 5) near Dresden. During his imprisonment Pilgrim becomes ‘unstuck in time’ and guides us through his life in fractured and sometimes unexplainable episodes. Billy survives one of the most tragic and unheard-of massacres of WWII, the firebombing of Dresden, after being hidden in a cellar by the guards. After being discharged, the character is taken to a mental hospital due to his post-traumatic stress. It is there where Vonnegut begins to weave in some of the more outlandish elements of the story. The soldier is introduced to science fiction by one of the hospital’s patients, which lays the foundation for his later extraterrestrial experiences. The protagonist is abducted by Tralfamadorians (extraterrestrial beings) and placed in a zoo. The creatures are extremely fatalistic and see death as inconsequential due to their ability to see their whole existence all at once, focusing on specific moments of their choice. After returning to his normal life, Billy is put in a nursing home by his daughter but insists on telling the world the truth about what happened to him.

Slaughter-House 5 is much more than a science-fiction novel; it’s a living, breathing, account of the impact the war had on Vonnegut’s generation. The author has an extraordinary ability to introduce elements to the readers' minds which will be later manifested in the text, adding to the theme of non-linear time. Not only that, but, Vonnegut even predicted Reagan’s presidency, (something completely anachronistic and extremely fitting due to Billy’s jumps in time) through a sticker on the Pilgrim family’s car. This is especially surprising as it happened several years after the author’s death. The ingenious mix of inter-planetary travel, jumps in time, humour, and dramatic descriptions of the war rightfully place it as one of the best science fiction novels ever written.

By Angélica O Year 11

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