Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death is a 1969 novel by best-selling author Kurt Vonnegut. His most popular work and widely regarded as a classic, it combines science fiction elements with an analysis of the human condition from an uncommon perspective, using time travel as a plot device and the bombing of Dresden in World War II, which Vonnegut witnessed, as a starting point.
At the time of the book's release, the Dresden bombing was not a widely known historical event and rarely discussed by veterans and historians, despite the fact that the bombing resulted in roughly the same number of deaths as the detonation of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, Japan. The book helped to increase world awareness of the massacre and led to a reevaluation of the attack's justification.
A motion picture of the same title was made in 1972. The film was directed by George Roy Hill and starred Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, and Valerie Perrine.
American soldier Billy Pilgrim is captured by German soldiers and is forced to live in a makeshift prison. Pilgrim has become "unstuck in time" and randomly visits different parts of his life. Pilgrim, at some point, is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore who see in four dimensions, the fourth dimension being time, which allows them to examine any moment in time that they wish. Apparently, Tralfamadorians exist somehow in a reality which features a system other than linear time. While on Tralfamadore, Billy is exhibited in a zoo, naked. Eventually the Tralfamadorians give him a companion, a pornographic film star from earth named Montana Wildhack. The book examines many events in Billy's life, including his death, the death of his wife, and the infamous bombing of Dresden, the inspiration for the book. The novel uses certain phrases repetitively, such as "so it goes"—which, used whenever death or dying is mentioned (be it a man, an animal, or the bubbles in champagne), serves to downplay mortality, making it routine and even humorous—and "mustard gas and roses", to denote the horrible odor of a rotting corpse or a drunk's breath.
Possible explanation for time travel
While time travel lends itself to the science fiction aspect of the story, it has been suggested that what Vonnegut had Billy Pilgrim experience is akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (still generally referred to as 'shell shock' at the time of writing). After intense stress during a situation such as combat, the extreme stress can put a major strain on the person and disrupt normal mental function, with symptoms including hallucinations and flashbacks.
Since Billy Pilgrim actually travels beyond the end of his own life, and is able to predict the time of his own death, the device—if so intended—is probably not intended to be taken literally. But random time travel as a metaphor for Billy Pilgrim's fractured state of mind seems a reasonable explanation.
Like many of Vonnegut's books, certain characters from other stories make notable appearances in order to bring his novels together. Three are Eliot Rosewater of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kilgore Trout the fictional, eccentric science fiction author, and Howard W. Campbell, Jr. of Mother Night. (See also fictional crossover.)
- Slaughterhouse-Five, ISBN 0440180295
- Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World by Jerome Klinkowitz, ISBN 0-8057-9410-7
- Modern Critical Interpretations: Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five edited by Harold Bloom, ISBN 0-7910-5925-1