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Slaughter House-Five


Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughter House-Five
average rating is 3 out of 5

Dystopia, Science Fiction, War

R. Alex Jenkins

Thought provoking and historically important, Slaughterhouse Five is unusual and contains mind-bending concepts and dry humor, but deep down it's an underwhelming and mildly disappointing read. One day I'll wake up and realize my foolishness, but only 3 stars from me for now.

The Dresden bombings were horrific and wiped out the city and its population over two successive nights of RAF and USAF sorties dropping waves and waves of explosive and incendiary bombs to rip open buildings and fry up the exposed innards nice and good, but if you’re looking for a historically accurate or in-depth description of these events this is not the book for you. Dresden is lightly touched on, although WW2 plays a healthy part. It's mildly disappointing for lack of serious facts or eye-opening revelations. Fifty years ago, Dresden was brushed under the carpet by the military, but today it's fully documented and open knowledge.

Slaughterhouse Five is a bizarre mix of cynicism, satyr and comedy. Imagine watching Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and expecting a serious war movie? It would seriously do your head in. That’s one of my main issues with this book, how to categorize it? Dystopia? War? Sci-fi? Comedy? It doesn’t really fit anywhere. Call that brilliance if you like.

There is a very clever stuck-in-time scene where a bombing run goes backward, planes get repaired instead of being shot down, and bomb-making materials get put back into the ground as minerals. It’s beautifully imagined, but mostly, second hand and unimportant as conceptual sci-fi. The Tralfamadorian aliens - the main sci-fi element - grant time-travelling powers but only exist in the background as an excuse for zipping around all over the place. When you die you are only dead for that one moment in time, not forever, enabling you to go back and forth to any point in life. This effectively makes you immortal within a restricted timespan. The secret is never to time travel beyond the point you die, or before the day you were born, technically living forever. This works well as a narrative, but not so much as descriptive sci-fi, including where the aliens come from, who they are and why they intervene in our lives. hence my struggles with Kurt Vonnegut's choice of time travel in place of science and realistic fact.

You can't pigeonhole a book and say this is what I'm going to get from it. But tags like slaughter, war and dystopia are misleading. There is scant horror.

Maybe I also struggled because I’m not that intellectual and when I pick up a book on Vietnam or medieval battles I want action, blood and guts, suffering and realism, burning bodies and screaming flesh, instead of time-warping to get away from it. Or maybe I need to get a greater sense of humor?

I also struggled with my preconceived definition of dystopia - aliens invade and we learn to survive or beat them - but Slaughterhouse Five is way too schizophrenic as it constantly time warps around, more like psychological brain-scrubbing than physical dystopia. In retrospect it's almost brilliant, but in practice way too untethered for genre classification.

The sense of teetering on the edge of sanity is fun, as well as occasional camaraderie hidden behind madness and unexpected humor buried in sadness. For now, I need to work out Kurt Vonnegut the writer before coming back for Cat’s Cradle or Breakfast of Champions, with an open mind and less scrambled brain. And so it goes.

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