First thing first: this is no science fiction book. It’s a book about human life, war and the non-existence of free will. The time travel elements are a metaphorical narrative device to convey a sense of being mentally disoriented, among other things. The science fiction elements are metaphorical as well, and the book explicitly talks about SF in that regard. So, I would rather qualify this book as a novel in the grotesque tradition. All this doesn’t mean a SF fan shouldn’t read this short, quick book, because, well, you should. Slaughterhouse – Five is brilliant. It remains very fresh & crisp, it’s creative, poetic and captivating, contains highly imaginative imagery, and makes very, very sharp and deep observations about, well, a lot of things.
Vonnegut manages to both convey feelings of dread, meaninglessness and cynicism, and at the same time keep up the wonderous joy of life via a healthy dose of absurdism and lightheartedness. While the book certainly has a message and Vonnegut is very open about his viewpoints, he doesn’t fall in the trap of making his Dresden book a moral sermon. It doesn’t try to be serious, it just presents things as they are. In that way, it had the same feel as the 3 war books from the 40ies and early 50ies by famous Belgian writer and Nobelprice contender Louis Paul Boon – masterpieces as well (all three translated in English as My Little War, Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren).
Let me end with a quote by one of the book’s aliens, describing their literature to the protagonist. Obviously, the quote is meta, but not annoyingly so, since it’s so brutally honest and upfront about it.
There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no cause, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.
Needless to say, I believe Kurt Vonnegut succeeded splendidly by the standards of his own mission statement.
PS – I wouldn’t call this an anti-war book at all. By Vonnegut’s own admission, he could have just as well written an anti-glacier book.