Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a genre-crossing novel that’s one banner story inside a story, which, in turn, has other stories, in the fashion of a nesting matryoshka doll.
Its hero, a man named Billy Pilgrim, is a soldier and a prisoner of war, who’d come “unstuck in time.” At its core, it’s about the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by British and American air forces in February, 1945, only a few months before the end of World War II.
In constructing Pilgrim’s journey through this world, Vonnegut employs the science-fictional element of time travel. But it’s not time-travel in its popular package. No one gets to hop onto a fantastic machine or disappear in a swirling, psychedelic, whirlpool, or that he walks through a star-shaped gate.
Pilgrim shuttles back and forth along the time continuum—but without the aid of a time machine. He has vivid memories of his past as well as of his future and he can toggle among many moments, anytime.
His peaceful ambles reveal the nature of time. He subscribes to the “eternalist” concept of time that places the past, the present, and future, on an equal footing, rather than attach weight to the present alone. Aptly, the three tenses are captured by trifocal eyewear, worn by him.
Perhaps because he’s privy to his own future trajectory, where he’s a well-heeled optometrist, he takes adversity in his stride, knowing that a person, who’s in an unpleasant, unhappy condition in one slice of the clock, is fine in plenty of others.
Somewhere along his path, much after his safe return from incarceration in a hog barn, he gets kidnapped by friendly extraterrestrials and is taken away in a flying saucer to Tralfamadore, where he’s displayed naked in a geodesic dome in an alien zoo.
These creatures, who looked like green plungers, experienced time radically differently than us.
The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are and they can look at any moment that interests them.
All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
Vonnegut writes in the frontispiece that this work is narrated in the literary form of the Tralfamadorians, whose tales aren’t written in a linear form, but are organized such that there’s “no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. It’s simply of collection of many moments, seen all at one time.”
The paperback, though, is finite. In closing, Vonnegut walks around a Möbius strip. His future self, from 1967, meets his fictional alter ego, Pilgrim, in the past, in an inn, outside Dresden, now rubbled by bombardment.