Slaughterhouse-Five

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Themes and Colors
War and Death Theme Icon
Time, Time-travel, and Free Will Theme Icon
Science Fiction and Aliens Theme Icon
Money and Success Theme Icon
Witness and Truth Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Slaughterhouse-Five, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Science Fiction and Aliens Theme Icon

Vonnegut uses science fiction and aliens as means of knitting together events in Billy Pilgrim’s life, and of enabling philosophical discussions about the nature of time and death. Vonnegut was a science fiction writer early in his career, and Kilgore Trout, a character in the novel who is an obscure and crude writer of wildly imaginative science fiction, might be seen as a caricature of Vonnegut. The author comments that Rosewater and Pilgrim, ravaged by war, need the “fresh start” of science fiction in order to build a new world amidst the rubble of the old. Similarly, the Tralfamadorian aliens become a part of Pilgrim’s life and enable him to see his own mortality in a new and, ultimately, optimistic way.

Science fiction is also contrasted with the other “fictions” that characters in the novel use to live in the face of extreme violence. The Englishmen embrace Cinderella, play-acting, and fantasy in their POW camp, insulated from the horrors of war. Valencia’s ideas of domestic bliss are punctured by Billy’s plane crash and her own death by asphyxiation. The crucifixion of Jesus is reinterpreted by Kilgore Trout in order to rebuild the Christian faith on a more “persuasive” story. And the larger topic of Vietnam is described, by Vonnegut, as an exercise in political fantasy: an unjust war justified by those in power. In this sense, science fiction enables important truths about death, life, and time to be revealed, while the “real life” presented to Billy Pilgrim often involves fantasy, delusion, and fiction.

Science Fiction and Aliens ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Science Fiction and Aliens appears in each chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Science Fiction and Aliens Quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five

Below you will find the important quotes in Slaughterhouse-Five related to the theme of Science Fiction and Aliens.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most famous phrases in a novel full of famous phrases. Coming "unstuck in time" means losing the narrative order of one's life. It can be a scary process - Pilgrim himself wonders how it is possible - but it can also be a liberating one. For Pilgrim, the coming unstuck happens because of his interactions with the Tralfamadorians, who tell him of their world and their perceptions, which are not limited to the three dimensions of human perception.

Vonnegut also uses "coming unstuck" as a way of moving through the novel he has created. He does not always rely on strict narrative chronology. Instead, he purposefully disrupts this chronology - he attempts to tell Pilgrim's story, and the story of the war, and his own life's story at the same time, using whatever means are necessary, and ignoring the sequential logic of some accounts. Vonnegut does this not because he wants to confuse the reader, but because he wants to break down the reader's expectations for how time, in fiction and in life, ought to function. 

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Chapter 4 Quotes

Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.

Related Characters: Tralfamadorians (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is another take on what it means to be in, and outside of, time. For the Tralfamadorians, time appears like the side of a mountain ridge - a series of peaks and valleys, which can be traversed at will. To humans, of course, time seems unidirectional and impossible to stop. But for Billy Pilgrim, who is "unstuck," time assumes the qualities of Tralfamadorian time.

Interestingly, then, Pilgrim is "trapped" in time when speaking to the Tralfamadorians - but in a manner different from normal human "entrapment" in time. Humans are trapped in time without knowing it. They are imprisoned in a present, and can view the past and speculate on the future. But they do not have the ability to traverse these moments. Pilgrim, however, in speaking to the Tralfamadorians, is able to understand just how the "present" is like an "amber" (sticky sap) in which one is stuck - and how one might move forward or backward to different moments at will. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene . . . . 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.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker)
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

This description of Tralfamadorian fiction is, in many ways, a manifesto for Tralfamadorian time itself, and a means of understanding how Vonnegut attempts to play with time throughout Slaughterhouse-Five. If the images of the novel can be "seen at once," then they congeal, in Tralfamadorian fiction. This relates to Pilgrim's "unstuckness" in time, his ability to move from one moment to another, forward and backward, without reference to the supposed linearity of a human life.

Vonnegut is a "postmodern" novelist to the extent that he plays with notions of self-reference - instances when a novel indicates to itself and to the reader that it is in fact a novel, not "real life." That Vonnegut includes within Slaughterhouse-Five a character named Kilgore Trout, who is a writer of science fictions, points to Vonnegut's awareness that he, too, is writing a form of science fiction. Trout also stands as a slightly satirized version of a "hack" sci-fi writer, who churns out titles regularly.

And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes. So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim, Eliot Rosewater
Related Symbols: Slaughterhouse-Five
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Vonnegut makes a serious justification of the social impact of science fiction. He argues that writers like Pilgrim and Trout are invested in sci-fi not simply because it is an interesting way to think about the world and its future - although it is that, too. Vonnegut argues that science fiction can be a vehicle for social change - a way of imagining how problems might be solved, a way of constructing another universe in which humans might live.

This is another example of Vonnegut's self-reflexive commentary in Slaughterhouse-Five - his analysis of what it means to write a novel while writing a novel. Just as the novel itself is partially science fiction - and therefore concerned with creating a new world - Vonnegut's characters write novels that envision and create new worlds in which peace might be possible, in which the wars of the 20th century might be left behind. Both Vonnegut and Trout are therefore engaged in the same utopian act of writing.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Somebody behind him in the boxcar said, “Oz.” That was I. That was me. The only other city I’d ever seen was Indianapolis, Indiana.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Vonnegut writes himself directly into the novel as a character. Throughout, we have been reminded that Billy Pilgrim is not "real" in the sense of historical "reality." He is not a character one could find in a work of history, because he did not live - although Pilgrim is "real" in the sense that Vonnegut establishes and fleshes him out in the context of the novel.

But Vonnegut is real both as an author and historical person - the man who wrote the book - and as a character within it. His response to Dresden, a city he had until that point never seen, underscores his youth and inexperience, and the grandeur of a Europe he is about to witness destroyed. Characteristically, also, Vonnegut changes his own grammar, saying "That was I" and "That was me," searching for the appropriate way to convey what he had seen. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

Tralfamadorians, of course, saw that every creature and plant in the Universe is a machine. It amuses them that so many Earthlings are offended by the idea of being machines.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Tralfamadorians
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

Vonnegut argues here that, for a human, there can be no more damning fate than to be compared to a machine. Machines, by this logic, are unthinking, unfeeling. They have no souls, they are operated by others - they are robots.

But Vonnegut argues, via the Tralfamadorians, that there is more to being a machine than this. A machine is any complex system that operates in response to the world. By this definition, of course human beings are machines, along with all other living things, plants and animals alike.

There is, by this second definition, no shame at all in being compared to a machine. Indeed, for the Tralfamadorians, machine-hood is what connects people, plants, and animals - it is the glue that binds life together in the first place, both on earth and on other planets. Thus they insist that humans are machines even when humans insist they are organic matter "opposed" to machine-hood.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. It had twenty-dollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds . . . It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer. So it goes.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Kilgore Trout
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another of the metaphors Vonnegut uses to describe human behavior. Here, Vonnegut depicts the persuasive power of human greed. Humans, in this example, will always flock to the money tree - they will always be drawn to the bills that fall from it. Even though these bills will appeal to humans, they will not be distributed equally, but will instead cause the humans to fight with one another, and eventually to kill each other. But this is okay for the money tree, because the dead bodies of humans can then be used to fertilize the tree and encourage it to grow more. This continues the cycle, producing more of the tree, and more money, and more humans who wish to take that money.

Vonnegut therefore establishes a symbolic basis for the capitalist system that, in the years after the war, sweeps across the world. It is a system that makes people (superficially) happy, but also one that causes great discord and strife - the very strife that "fertilizes" the system and allows it to continue. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

Another one said that people couldn’t read well enough anymore to turn print into exciting situations in their skulls . . . .

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker)
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

Here is another one of Vonnegut's critiques of writing within the text, this one offered as a tongue-in-cheek argument for movies or radio as an alternative to the act of reading. While in the science fiction bookstore in Manhattan, Pilgrim comes across a great many science fiction novels that offer new possibilities for how the world might be, how humans might organize themselves in a society. But Pilgrim also realizes, as Vonnegut narrates, that a great many people in the United States are not interested in reading at all, or find it a chore in a world with a great many other media options.

This critique is still prevalent today, regarding different media - and Vonnegut takes pains, in the novel, to argue for just what exactly fiction can do - how it can manipulate time, moving forwards and backwards, in ways that are particular to it and less common in all but the most experimental films. In this way, fiction really is, for Vonnegut, a kind of training in new ways to see the world. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still—if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.

Related Characters: Kurt Vonnegut (speaker), Billy Pilgrim, Tralfamadorians
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

Vonnegut returns to the narrative to begin the summary section of the novel, in which he describes his relationship to some of the characters whose lives he has depicted. Vonnegut argues that Tralfamadorian time implies that all human life extends infinitely in all directions, that it can be accessed at this or that point - that any human being, in other words, is capable of becoming unstuck in time, just like Pilgrim. 

Indeed, Vonnegut has offered a world in the novel in which any reader can become unstuck right along with Pilgrim. The novel is a technology for accessing different moments, different memories. These are moments from Vonnegut's life, but the things Vonnegut describes are relatable to the context in which any given reader might live. The novel is therefore a kind of time machine in the Tralfamadorian model, showing us how humans behave at different points, shuttling constantly between them.