Throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut creates an environment shaped by elements of science fiction. These elements, notably time travel and alien contact, make the novel “a science fiction that deals with the topic of free will versus fatalism,” (Isaacs 408). Throughout the novel Billy remains “unstuck in time,” seeing his whole life flash before his eyes in a random order of events (Vonnegut 15). This random order forces the reader to examine the events in the novel the same way that a Tralfamadorian would, adding to the element of science fiction. Because of the creative freedom associated with the science fiction genre, Vonnegut uses it to express a theme of fatalism in the novel and “as a way of making those ideas [presented] more palatable,” (Lundquist 616).
Science fiction offers a powerful creative license to the author. It allows him to create situations that would never occur in other genres, but still lets the reader consider even the most outrageous of events with the same seriousness associated with realistic scenarios. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy Pilgrim simultaneously teach both Billy and the reader about their radical way of perceiving time. Unlike humans who only experience life one moment at a time, Tralfamadorians see everything that occurs in the past, present, and future. Life remains static and unchanging, the events that occur cannot change. As an extreme example presented, the Tralfamadorians know how the universe will end but do nothing to stop it. Neil D. Isaacs explains that “it is important to remember that each moment ‘is structured’ the way it happens, to accept everything, and to desire nothing different,” (Isaacs 409). This fatalism traps humans into set destinies and removes the aspect of free will from their life. How can people have control if the reader already can see their fate?
A life where no free will exists scares people. Again science fiction presents this sometimes unnerving fatalistic view in a way that provides understanding. G. K. Wolfe explains, “In a context of fantasy, the idea of haphazard forces governing human life seems less frightening than when grounded in an identifiable historical context,” (Wolfe 495). From understanding the fatalism of the novel, the reader learns that “if the self-assertiveness of humanity inevitably leads to war, the alternative is a kind of sublime acceptance of everything,” (Isaacs 408). The alternative described unlocks the novel as a part of the anti-war movement of the sixties.
Vonnegut shares Billy Pilgrims experience in Dresden where the allies dropped firebombs on non-military targets killing hundreds of thousands of people. Because of this experience Vonnegut makes his central statement in the novel denouncing war. By grouping war with fatalism, the reader realizes the absurdity in the Tralfamadorian view because to accept it would also accept that war and the atrocities associated with them as inevitable. Billy reflects the “alternative” that Isaacs describes. Through his travels in time, Billy knows what will happen in every event he relives. His reluctance to change any event for better or worse adds to Vonnegut’s characterization of him as an actor playing a role in his own life.
Vonnegut extensively uses science fiction metaphors in Slaughterhouse-Five to express his fatalistic theme. This theme in turn sets up the main denunciation of war. Without the Tralfamadorians, the reader could not easily accept a fatalistic life and therefore not accept the anti-war position of the novel. Science fiction adds an invaluable depth as a tool for teaching the main focuses of the novel.
Isaacs, Neil D. “Unstuck in time: Clockwork Orange and Slaughterhouse-Five.”
Literature/Film Quarterly 1 (1973): 122-31. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 60. Detroit: Gale, 1982. 408-409.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. “The Literary Career of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.” Modern Fiction Studies
Spring (1973): 56-67. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn
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Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Fredrick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977.
Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale, 1975. 616-617.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1969.
Wolfe, G.K. “Vonnegut and the Metaphor of Science Fiction.” Journal of Popular
Culture Spring (1972): 964-69. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1975. 495.