Science fiction and ‘Slaughterhouse Five’

Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ straight after ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ gives an uncanny effect.

The surface parallels are striking. In both novels, Earthlings of humble profession and background are transported to the farthest reaches of space; time is stretched and twisted; and excitingly-named aliens and planets spin through the characters’ awareness. Earth is a very strange place indeed.

You’d think, though, that the settings and genres would push the books apart in my mind. In Adams, the Vogons have destroyed the Earth; but no-one except Arthur cares in the slightest. Billy Pilgrim on the other hand, is present in the German POW camps of 1944 and at the obliteration of Dresden by UK/US bombers in February 1945. In that bombing and subsequent firestorm about 25,000 people were killed (the novel cites the figure of 130,000, which is an earlier estimate; I don’t see the need to argue over the accuracy of that.)

Obviously different genre; wildly different reader expectations. And yet the parallels continue. Vonnegut’s dead-pan language and descriptions of unfamiliar objects in familiar terms would not be alien to Adams: Billy emerges from the safety of the slaughterhouse meat locker into a landscape covered in ‘seeming little logs lying around. These were people who had been caught in the firestorm.’ Like Dent he is seeing something entirely new and using the only language he knows.

And there’s the time travel and alien abductions.

Billy’s war worlds are interspersed with his post-war marriage, the plane crash he narrowly survives, his abduction by the Tralfamadorians, and his daughter’s berating of his erratic behaviour. The narrative switches constantly back and forth between these locations and points in time.

If we’re reductionist about it, what he is experiencing is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, whose symptoms were known when Vonnegut was writing, though the condition only received that name much later. The war experiences and plane crash are real; the alien abductions are fantasies his brain has concocted to explain away the horror of what he has felt and seen. He has no control over how he is triggered to move between them. The reader spins with him.

Arthur Dent, on the other hand, is in a straightforward fantasy novel that attempts, through its fantasy, to teach the reader something about reality.

But Vonnegut gives us Billy’s experiences as reality not as symptoms; as a result the longer I looked the harder I found it to tell the two approaches apart. Billy is a character who is deluded, and whose delusions delude the reader since Vonnegut never tells us straight out that they are delusions. Adams, meanwhile, is merely deluding the reader. Got it?

And ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide’ is comedy but has taught generations the profoundly spiritual truth that for all our self-importance we are absurdly small in an infinite universe. Whilst ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ is about the destruction of war – which it demonstrates through showing us the comedy and absurdity inherent even in tragedy.

To my surprise, the random conjunction of the two in my reading trajectory opened my eyes to why science fiction plays a role in how we understand big old Human Existence. (The nerds are onto something after all.)

Not that I’m the first to have seen that truth: Billy Pilgrim and his fellow psychiatric hospital inmates are avid readers of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout who explains their world better than they can ever do themselves. So it goes.

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