March 2019 marks the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Vonnegut’s most powerful novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade, A Duty-Dance With Death.
Published 50 years ago this month, on March 31st 1969, Vonnegut’s science fiction-infused anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five became his first bestseller and made the 47-year old writer a celebrity.
The story centres on Billy Pilgrim, an American optometrist who, during WWII, is held as a prisoner of war in Dresden where he survives the 1945 Allied bombing of the city. Plagued by post-traumatic stress, the experience comes to have a lasting effect on his post-war life, creating an apparent break in the space-time continuum which causes Pilgrim to re-live events both past and future.
Pilgrim becomes a fatalist, though not a defeatist, because he has seen when, how, and where he will die. In his travels through time, he is eventually captured by the alien Tralfamadorians who exist in all times simultaneously and place him in a zoo with a Hollywood starlet.
Through his conversations with the alien species, Pilgrim becomes accustomed a new viewpoint concerning fate and free will. The mindset of the Tralfamadorian is not one in which either fate or free will exist, as they explain: “All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.” After visiting 31 planets, the Tralfamadorians report that the concept of free will exists solely on planet Earth.
Vonnegut, himself, was deployed to fight in World War II and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was interned in Dresden and managed to survive the Allied bombing of the city by taking refuge in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse in which he was imprisoned.
The New York Times said of the work: “Kurt Vonnegut knows all the tricks of the writing game. So he has not even tried to describe the bombing. Instead he has written around it in a highly imaginative, often funny, nearly psychedelic story. The story is sandwiched between an autobiographical introduction and epilogue”.
Upon publication, Slaughterhouse-Five remained on the New York Times bestseller list for sixteen weeks, and in 1970 was nominated for Best Novel Nebula and Hugo Awards, which it lost both to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.
The book has been the subject of many attempts of censorship due to its overall irreverent tone, purportedly obscene content, and use of profane language. In the United States, it has at times been banned from literature classes and school libraries and became the sixty-seventh entry to the American Library Association’s list of the “Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999”.
Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007 at the age of 84, yet his literary reputation lives on…not only with the longstanding acclaim of his masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five, but with the enduring popularity of his many other genius novels including Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Galápagos among others.