At the center of this blackly humorous work of science fiction about time travel and interplanetary travel is a deadly serious novel about the wastes of war. Billy is one of the only survivors of one of the most destructive acts of World War II. A city of no apparent military value, Dresden was bombed in order to bring Germany to its knees and thus to hasten the end of the war. Billy’s experiences in Dresden have an almost surreal but intense mix of pathos and trivia: a middle-aged German couple in the rubble of the city berate Billy for mistreating a horse, and his friend Edgar Derby is executed for stealing a teapot.
Billy’s psychological response to the devastation he has been part of is the novel itself, an escape through time and space. The Tralfamadorians provide Billy with the deterministic view of life he needs. Because every moment, past, present, and future, has always existed and always will exist, people can escape to a good moment in the past, present, or future. When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, “all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.” Such a relativistic philosophy—the Tralfamadorians say free will exists nowhere in the universe except on Earth— allows Billy to live in a world of which he has lost the essential meaning.
He does not live happily. Billy is “unenthusiastic about living” in the present of 1968, Vonnegut writes, and he bursts into unexplained bouts of weeping, clearly an early victim of delayed stress syndrome. The weeping is shown as connected to Dresden through various images. The novel is held together not by any linear plot line but by these recurring images (such as spoons, the colors orange and black, and dogs barking) and phrases (particularly the Tralfamadorian “So it goes” whenever death is mentioned). The cause of Billy’s autistic present lies in his horrific past.
The larger meaning of the novel applies to the late 1960’s, as Vonnegut makes clear in his frame. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., recently have been murdered, Vonnegut writes in the last chapter, “And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam.” Americans have a choice, Vonnegut says: They can walk through history like the zombie Billy, or they can make it their own.
The novel thus takes science fiction to a deeper level. It is Vonnegut’s personal exorcism for his participation in World War II and a novel he tried to write for twenty-five years. It is also another contemporary example, like the novels of E. L. Doctorow, of the interactions of fiction and history. Finally, it is an excellent example of one brand of metafiction that emerged in the 1960’s as writers played with the conventions of the novel and added black humor, the artifacts of popular culture, and themselves.