Reviewed by Ted Gioia

On January 12, 1944, German soldiers transported 150
American prisoners of war, including Private Kurt
Vonnegut, from Stalag IV-B in Mühlberg to Dresden,
thirty miles to the south.  Vonnegut had been captured
on December 19, caught behind enemy lines during the
early stages of the Battle of the Bulge.  Along with other
prisoners, he endured a forced
march of sixty miles without
food, water or sleep, then was
crowded into an unheated box-
car, where he spent the remainder
of the year, before the miserable
cargo of starved soldiers was
unloaded at Stalag IV-B on
New Year’s Day.   In Dresden,
Vonnegut would serve as part
of a work detail housed in an
abandoned slaughterhouse,
and witness the most destructive aerial bombing of
World War II.  

Between February 13 and 15, the British Royal Air Force
and the U.S. Army Air Force dropped almost four tons
of explosives on Dresden.   The city center was
destroyed and at least 25,000 people were killed.   The
scale of destruction was matched by its apparent
senselessness.  The military barracks, outside of town,
were not targeted, nor were bridges and railway stations.  
But the aerial bombing inflicted damage on 19 hospitals,
11 churches, 39 schools, 640 shops, the zoo, the opera
house and more than 100,000 residences.  Some military
targets were taken out, notably a few production
facilities, but the overall impact of this man-made
cataclysm in ending the war was negligible.  Twelve
weeks later, World War II was over in Europe, and
Soviet troops had taken control of the rubble that once
was Dresden.

The events of that period exerted a powerful, lasting
impact on Kurt Vonnegut.  His horror and disgust
were heightened by the historical accounts published
after the war, in which this unprecedented fire-bombing
was usually ignored or mentioned in passing.   "The
extent of the success had been kept a secret for many
years after the war," Vonnegut writes with sarcastic
venom in
Slaughterhouse-Five; "a secret from the American
people," he clarifies.  "It was no secret from the
Germans, of course, or from the Russians."

For years, Vonnegut mulled over possible ways of
transforming this searing first-hand experience into
fictional form.  Shortly after the war, he drew on his
POW experiences for a short story entitled "Brighten
Up!" but it was rejected by editor Charles Angoff at
American Mercury magazine, and Vonnegut turned his
attention to graduate school and newspaper work.  But
the idea continued to germinate, although a quarter of
century would elapse between the bombing of Dresden
and the publication, in 1969, of

Vonnegut addressed the main challenge of writing a
novel about the Dresden bombing in the opening
section of
Slaughterhouse-Five. His book, he admitted, was
"short and jumbled and jangled" because "there is
nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.  Everybody
is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want
anything ever again.  Everything is supposed to be very
quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the

"And what do the birds say?  All there is to say about a
massacre, things like ‘

Vonnegut took exactly that same jumble and jangle, and
tried to make a virtue of it.   He had already proven that
he knew how to construct a brilliant novel out of
fragments:  his book
Cat's Cradle (1963) consists of 127
tiny chapters that flash by like a film on fast forward.  
Now his atomistic style was matched with an ideal
subject.  A book about turning a city into a rubble
doesn't fit with a sweeping narrative of Tolstoyan
grandeur.  Instead, such a subject warrants Vonnegut's
prose, a kind of literary shrapnel that can make a biting
point in a page or a paragraph or even a sentence.  

He also brought in the birds as well. And they get the
final line in the novel, which is, appropriately,

Vonnegut drew on many elements he had already used in
previous books, even ones that might, at first glance,
seem incongruous.  In
The Sirens of Titan, he had
contrived a protagonist who could not control his
movements in time and space, and he incorporated this
same peculiar twist into his Dresden novel.  The idea of
mixing time travel into a historical novel about World
War II must stand out as one of the strangest literary
strategies of the 20th century, but Vonnegut understood
that this plot device would justify and amplify his
"jumbled and jangled" tale.  

Thus Vonnegut gives us Billy Pilgrim, who has become
"unstuck in time." Our hero "has gone to sleep a senile
widower and awakened on his wedding day.  He has
walked through a door in 1955 and come out another
one in 1941.  He has gone back through that door to
find himself in 1963. He has seen his death and birth
many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the
events in between."

What could be a more fitting symbol of the plight of a
prisoner-of-war than a person who no longer has
control over his time or space? But the conceit of a man
jumping around to different stages of his life also allows
Vonnegut to juxtapose the tragic and the trivial, the dark
and the droll, the humorous and the heartbreaking.  
Vonnegut can draw on his skill as a comic writer
without detracting from the acerbic social commentary
and macabre historical narrative that are at the core of
Slaughterhouse-Five.  Instead of detracting from his story
with the imposed sci-fi elements, our author has found a
way to accentuate the sardonic intensity of his fractured
and funny biography of Billy Pilgrim, a man whose time,
like Hamlet's, is "out of joint."

This style of juxtaposition is exemplified in the most
famous phrase from the novel: "So it goes."  Vonnegut
inserts this whenever a death occurs in his tale, and its
sense of fatalistic acceptance can be taken as either a
philosophical attitude or a parody of philosophical
attitudes.  Tragedy or comedy, take your pick.

Vonnegut never does things in moderation, even when
arguing on the side of moderation.  So in addition to
time travel, he also inserts a subplot about aliens from
the planet Tralfamadore.  And he borrows some of his
favorite characters from his other books, such as
Kilgore Trout and Eliot Rosewater, although their role
in the plot of
Slaughterhouse-Five is happenstance and
almost arbitrary.  But when you are writing a novel that
is, by intent, a "jumble and a jangle," strange cameo
appearances are to be expected.

In Dresden, Vonnegut encountered a terrible destiny.  
But he also found the core subject of his life's work.  
Even in his other stories that don't mention this searing
historical event, the bombing of a 800-year-old center of
art and culture—"possibly the world's most beautiful
city," Vonnegut wrote to his parents in his first letter
after the end of the war—lingers in the background, an
archetype evoked by other man-made catastrophes.   In
Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut finally grappled with his
big personal story in hand-to-hand combat, and though
nobody can actually subdue times past—instead, like
Billy Pilgrim, we can at best relive them from a different
perspective—the struggle produced, in this instance, one
of the great literary masterpieces of its time.  

by Kurt Vonnegut
conceptual fiction
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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