Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is about accident-prone soldier Billy Pilgrim who does not happen to like war and consistently bungles his duties. Captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, he and his comrades are kept in an abandoned slaughterhouse known as “slaughterhouse number 5”, hence the title. During the bombing of Dresden during WWII, both Billy’s fellow prisoners and the Germans hide in the cellar and manage to be some of the few who survive. Sounds OK so far but now get ready for the arrival of some sci-fi detail.
In addition, Billy is also an optometrist in a dull marriage who claims he was abducted by aliens from Trafalmadore; these aliens can see four dimensions and have witnessed their futures but are powerless to change it although they can choose to relive and reexperience specific moments continuously. These creatures, we are led to believe, exhibit Billy in a zoo with a B-list film actress Montana Wildhack selected as his “mate”. He even knows and expects when he is to die. So time travelling Billy moves forward and backward in time, while he relives occasions of his life, both real and fantasy.
The experiences Billy relives again includes being a captive zoo exhibit in Tralfamadore, Dresden during the firestorm, Germany just before his capture, his dull post-war life in USA and the moment of his murder. Billy’s death is caused by a chain reaction of events that precipitate his death. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets soldier Roland Weary, a bully who picks on Billy due to his lack of zeal about war. When they are captured, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has including his boots and gives him wooden clogs to wear. He dies of gangrene brought on by the clogs. On his deathbed, Weary convinces petty thief Paul Lazzaro that Billy is to blame; Paul vows to avenge his death by killing Billy. But while Billy knows how, when and where he will die, he can’t do anything to change his fate. He relives these experiences in fragments of bits and pieces in no particular order.
Still as protagonist Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller, who experiences random events of his life, with no idea of what part he will live again — so, his life does not end with death; he re-lives his death, before its time (just like Time Traveller’s Wife although this is more of a absurdist postmodern book rather than a romantic novel), like another experience mingled with his other experiences which seem to have a sharper edge to them in any case. While the book is interesting in its exploration of free will or lack thereof depending on how you choose to interpret the underlying message, I found that I’m one of those people pigeonhole Slaughterhouse-Five as belonging to the science fiction genre even if it’s an anti-war novel but please keep in mind I tend to hate anything that references aliens of the non-immigrant variety as much as I dislike Jane Austen. So for a different point of view, check this review out.