I put this Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut on my WWII list because it kept popping up whenever I googled best World War II books. I did know that it is…unorthodox, so the alien aspect wasn’t a shock. Still…
The author opens the book, letting us know that he was at the bombing of Dresden at the end of World War II and was one of the few survivors. However, he found it difficult to write about, so he tried coming at the topic obliquely in the guise of Billy Pilgrim. Once in a while, the author makes a cameo appearance as just another POW with whom Billy crosses the paths.
The story starts with Billy “time traveling”—a series of flashbacks and flashforwards. Or rather,
“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
Through flashbacks, we learn that Billy is a POW until the end of the war (kept in an empty slaughterhouse—as chilling as that is), is hospitalized for PTSD, marries the daughter of a rich man (for certain inducements), becomes an optometrist, has two children, gets abducted by aliens, gets in a plane crash, and so it goes. But not necessarily in that order.
This book has two levels: realism and science fiction. Now, every reader will inevitably ask the questions, Did Billy really time travel? And did he really get abducted by aliens? The answers don’t really matter. The time travel was a literary tool to tell a linear story in an interesting way. It helped the reader to understand Billy’s later life decisions in context of the war. Also, the author made some fascinating points on the concept of time. If you consider Vonnegut’s idea on the inevitability of events (as in, those events always occurred and always will occur) as it involved World War II, he’s trying to reassure others—and probably most himself—that there’s nothing that could have been done to prevent the atrocities of that war.
As for the alien abduction aspect, I still don’t understand the significance. It could be that the alien understanding of time is how we learn of it because it requires an advanced understanding. It could just be that Kurt Vonnegut was trying to add a little levity, a little distance between him and the horrors of war.
I won’t quibble about the necessity of adding alien abduction to the plot; however, I do take umbrage at senseless vulgarity. I can understand why the author included rough language in the dialogue—you get vulgarity among men living and talking together; it’s inevitable. I can even understand some of the more graphic descriptions of death because he’s portraying the horror of war. However, talking about a pornographic photograph that does not move the plot along in any way or build a character just seemed like weak writing. I’m sure this will horrify all who read this.
However, it was a good book, an interesting look at the typical soldier—and Billy did symbolize any soldier with his non-existent personality—forced to participate in a war not of his choosing. You see evidence of PTSD and mental breakdowns. Also inevitable in war.
Read this book if you want a creative yet realistic retelling of World War II. The fact that it’s based firmly in reality and written by someone who was there makes the book even better.