Tag Archives: free will

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Finally; Winston Niles Rumfoord has put into words his new religion, one that truly can apply to one and all, uniting humankind at last.

Of course, it took a little planning for the Earth to subscribe so willingly to this new, all-encompassing religion. To attain peace on Earth, it took a lot of travelling – but being spread throughout the universe helps. Creating colonies on Mars and leading an army to annihilate and enslave all life on Earth. Ultimately it was a mass suicide, and when the last Martian ship to reach Earth, gleefully fired upon by the Earthlings, was revealed to consist of unarmed women and children, the glorious war was over. Masterminded by Rumfoord, the Martian sacrifice was needed to prolong the horror at the end of the glorious war. A perfect time to introduce his new religion.

“All was forgiven. All living things were brothers, and all dead things were even more so.” The war between Earth and Mars resulted in bringing humanity together, closer than ever before.

It had to be done. Rumfoord should know. He has seen the past and he has seen the future.

The Sirens of Titan, written in 1959 is only Vonnegut’s second novel, yet shows astounding ambition to tackle issues of free will, the purpose of human life and history and insights into the meaning of life.


Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog Kazak, have travelled through a phenomenon known as a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, located just off the planet Mars. As a consequence, Rumfoord and Kazak are spread throughout the solar system as ‘wave phenomena’, existing along a spiralling path between the Sun and Betelguese, and materialising whenever a planet crosses their path. On Earth for example, he materialises along with Kazak every 59 days in his home town of Newport, Rhode Island.

“Now, you can say your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, but the universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.” Winston Niles Rumfoord on the nature of facts and beliefs. In the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, it is not always as simple as who is right and who is wrong.

Upon entering the infundibulum Rumfoord became aware of the past and the future. Thus, when Rumfoord makes his consistent, scheduled appearances on Earth he prophesies and predicts, drawing a fanatic following and crowds that come from miles around in an attempt to witness one of Rumfoord and Kazak’s materialisations.

Malachi Constant is a billionaire playboy. Born rich with everything he ever wanted, the luckiest man on Earth. He is summoned to the Rumfoord estate, to visit and speak to Rumfoord personally; one of very few to have such an honour. Constant is told he will be sent to Mars, where he will be bred (with none other than Rumfoord’s wife, who is less than impressed by this latest prophecy), before visiting Mercury, Titan (a moon of Saturn) and finally revisiting Earth again. Clear so far?

What follows is an account of Constant’s life; a life he has no control over, where he loses his identity and memory and is forced to do terrible things. All, seemingly, to greaten the impact of Rumfoord’s new religion, The Church of God The Utterly Indifferent.

On Mars he is Unk. He is controlled by a pain-emitting antenna surgically implanted in his skull. He has no recollection of his life as Malachi Constant. He has raped Rumfoord’s wife (now known as Bea, and now similarily amnesiac like Unk/Constant) and fathered the resulting child, a German kickball prodigee named Chrono. He watches as the entire fleet of Mars launches a terribly ineffective assault on Earth, leaving thousands, almost all Martian, dead.

He is directed via spaceship to Mercury, hidden deep underground for several years with just Boaz and the harmoniums for company. Boaz used to control Unk’s mind with a device, but now they are equal and Boaz keeps his peace of mind by attending the needs of the harmoniums, simple and small, peaceful creatures that feed off vibrations.

“I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I’m doing good, and them I’m doing good for know I’m doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home.” Boaz, on Mercury and the Harmoniums.

Any clearer?

sirens of titan

Obviously I’m skimping on the plot, and I would dread to think that anyone reading this is getting the impression that I found The Sirens of Titan a confusing read and Vonnegut an unclear narrator, because that’s simply not true. It is so readable and accessible, as so much is when written by Vonnegut, even when dealing with some complex and heavy themes.

What I would say is that you are constantly waiting for some sort of payoff – an explanation to these events. This is not a complaint – the book builds slowly and there is a sense of epic expectation. I felt such sympathy for these characters, despite some obvious flaws. After all Constant was a greedy, lazy man, undeserving of his great wealth which he so gladly attributed to luck, he raped a woman and murdered his best friend Stony Stevenson. But, as he later says, I was a victim of a series of accidents. As are we all.

I felt for Rumfoord’s situation of being spread across the solar system, and I despised Constant for his air of superiority. Then I despised Rumfoord for his god-like status and omniscient arrogance and sympathised with Unk’s struggle. Constant is used superbly by Rumfoord…but then we realise Rumfoord himself is being used by a higher agent, which emphasises the lack of free will for these characters.

The final act which takes place on the titular moon of Saturn – Titan – is simply breathtakingly good fiction. We meet Salo, a stranded alien from Trafalmadore, who has been travelling the universe for millions of years with one mission and one mission only – to deliver an envelope containing a message to a worthy but unknown and unspecified destination far far away.

The subject of free will, which is a strong part of Slaughterhouse 5, definitely plays a big part here in Sirens. There are several wonderful ironies. Salo, a machine, has more free will than Rumfoord, a human who has seen the past and the future. Salo, a machine, is programmed to keep his message sealed until he reaches his goal. Yet he reveals it in order to appease a friend. What does that say of free will?

Even Rumfoord, the man who has seen the past and future, is distraught to realise that even he has been used – by a robot, sending out a distress call to its home planet, requesting a spare part for its broken down space ship. We learn that the purpose of human history was to communicate to the stranded Tralfamadorian on Titan. Monuments such as The Great Wall of China and Stonehenge were built by civilisations being controlled by messengers from Tralfamadore.  They were reassuring Salo – letting him know that help was on the way. He just needed to be patient.

The characters within the book are all so varied; the main differences are their beliefs and philosophies, none more valid than another. What does seem to be emphasised, is the meaningless of it all. The utter pointless nature that is life. But it is also reinforced that it does not matter, as long as one makes their own life have meaning in their own terms and values, which is of course different for us all.


The Sirens of Titan is an intriguing and beautiful piece of science fiction. It is transformed by its final act into a grandiose work of immense scale and immaculate ambition. I found it heartbreaking and humbling but stunningly beautiful. I apologise; I don’t think this post has done the book justice. Scattered and lacking depth, it’s taken me a few weeks to finish writing on it. I loved the book, and I hope that has reflected here as I’ve found it difficult to analyse it coherently.

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.” Bea / Mrs Beatrice Rumfoord, and her thoughts and philosophies after a tiring life of confusion and hardship.

“When you get right down to it, everybody’s having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everyone. And the hell of it is, nothing seems to help much.”

“Take care of the people, and god almighty will take care of himself.”

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

And finally some thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut himself. The above quotes I found particularly moving and informative of his own views. The turbulent events in his life that could lead him to think he was a pawn, a player in a larger plan. The atrocities at Dresden of which he witnessed first hand, blended with further personal and family tragedy. He was a victim of a series of accidents, as we all are. I see this book as an attempt to give meaning to life, to answer those questions that have plagued Vonnegut and countless others over the years, the reason of our existence, the point of it all. Slaughterhouse 5 may be Vonnegut’s most important and critically acclaimed book in his bibliography, but The Sirens of Titan is my preferred out of the two.

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” Malachi Constant, The Space Traveller, on his return from space and his thoughts on the struggle that is life.

I didn’t think I would end up finishing this book.

“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. . .Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. . .you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.”

A Clockwork Orange was written by Anthony Burgess in 1961, published in ‘62 and was famously adapted to the big screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1971, with Malcolm McDowell brilliantly portraying the sadistic Alex.

Iconic poster for the 1971 theatrical adaptation

Iconic poster for the 1971 theatrical adaptation

It’s important to know that the author, Anthony Burgess, specially created a language used by the youth in A Clockwork Orange, a dystopian crime and punishment novel. This future speak, nadsat, is like a type of cockney rhyming slang, but heavily influenced by Russian.

Burgess was allegedly a huge fan of language. My first impressions of nadsat and the use of a fictional language so established at the start of the novel was that it was a very brave, and bold move. I wonder how an initial meeting may have gone with Burgess and the prospective publishers. Because, quite frankly, I’m sure many would have laughed him out of the room. It is a difficult and at times incomprehensible start, with the first act a whirlwind of confusion and disgust.

It is jarring; every new word of this strange language drags you out of the narrative as you ask yourself, what does this mean? What are they talking about? You try to keep reading, to teach yourself to ignore the words and you can still get a grasp of where the narrative is heading and what is going on.

And then of course, there’s the violence to consider. The sadism and deprivation of Alex, his droogs, and seemingly most of the youth culture in this dystopian future is shocking. The casualness and nonchalance in Alex’s narration of street fights, theft, violence and rape is nauseating at times.

“We fillied round what was called the backtown for a bit, scaring old vecks and cheenas that were crossing the roads and zigzagging after cats and that. Then we took the road west. There wasn’t much traffic about, so I kept pushing the old noga through the floorboards near, and the Durango 95 ate up the road like spaghetti. Soon it was winter trees and dark, my brothers, with a country dark, and at one place I ran over something big with a snarling toothy rot in the head-lamps, then it screamed and squelched under and old Dim at the back near laughed his gulliver off–“Ho ho ho”–at that. Then we saw one young malchick with his sharp, lubbilubbing under a tree, so we stopped and cheered at them, then we bashed into them both with a couple of half-hearted tolchocks, making them cry, and on we went. What we were after now was the old surprise visit. That was a real kick and good for smecks and lashings of the ultra-violent.”

Despite not using explicit words like blood, murder and rape, it is still hard-hitting, and coupled with the bizarre made up wordy words, I think the way these youths have replaced words like blood and rape and now seem to use them so casually give them a disturbing undertone, as if they do not truly understand, or care, of the full ramifications, and so use this more innocent sounding dialect.

Alas, I learned to let it go and I began to pick up certain words. While difficult to comprehend initially Alex’s colloquialisms begin to form an elegance that you can’t help but admire. It’s extremely clever and well-written, and the flow of the book is aided by the readers increasing knowledge and understanding of nadsat.

A crash course for the intrigued; droogs means friends, typically a group; cal is feces, aka shit; horrorshow means good or well, chelloveck or veck means man or person, krovvy is blood; smech is to laugh; tolchock is to hit, or a beating.

The book is split into three acts.

Act I

Act I is sheer violence – an introduction to Alex and to his crimes. He and his droogs (George, Peter and Dim) stalk the streets, presenting us to a frightening future where young adults roam to do what they please seemingly unpunished. Gang fights, rape, ultra-violence. Their gang frequent Korova milk bar where they drink drug-laced milk and discuss their condemnable plans of mischief for the evening ahead. They rob a store. They mug an elderly scholar. We discover Alex has a keen interest in classical musical – listening one night on his bed he imagines a violent orgy. He is irrationally aggressive; he deems himself the leader of the group and any challenge or dissent towards him he punishes. Young girls who mock him in a record store – he takes back to his house and sexually assaults them. Dim, whom he has a particular disliking to, gets a punch in the face when he interrupts a singer’s performance which had enchanted Alex. This is where the cracks start to appear in the gang, and in this world where the youth are so distant from the rest of society in their violence and lack of empathy, Alex takes ultra-violence to another level entirely. After stealing a car and driving through the countryside, the gang break into a writer’s house, trash the house and rape his wife. Alex notices the writer, F. Alexander, is in the process of writing a book called A Clockwork Orange. Following a botched home invasion which leaves a woman dead, Alex is betrayed by his fellow droogs who leave him to be arrested by the police and carted off to prison.

Act II

The narrative jumps forward two years, and the narrative focuses on Alex’s punishment and rehabilitation. Alex has been an inmate (no 6655321) at Staja 84F for two years now. He has kept his head down, reading passages of the bible for the prison chaplain, whom sometimes allows classical music to be played during these readings. The prisons are overcrowded, and Alex shares a cell with five other inmates. When another is crammed in amongst these reprobates, tensions run high and the group beat the new inmate to death, with Alex getting the blame. The government approve a radical behavioural treatment, an aversion therapy called the Ludovico Technique to be used for the first time in order to reintroduce a reformed Alex into society. They promise within two weeks, he will be free, and no longer capable of carrying out ultra-violence and rape. Initially he can’t believe his luck, but soon it dawns on him that the Ludovico Technique is a sinister form of association. Alex is drugged and strapped down to a chair, unable to move or even look away, while ultra-violence is played on a large screen. This makes Alex feel awful, sick, weak, and soon he associates all violent thoughts with this sickness. He can no longer cause harm, use violence or even fight back to protect himself. This goes on for two weeks, Alex screaming for the imagery of beatings, murder and rape to stop. Coincidentally, towards the end of his treatment a Beethoven symphony is played over the gruesome scenes, and through association and the crippling nausea that Alex experiences he is now unable to enjoy classical music as before.

“This must be a real horrorshow film if you're so keen on my viddying it.”

“This must be a real horrorshow film if you’re so keen on my viddying it.”

As promised, after his fortnight of this aversion therapy Alex is to be introduced back into society, but not before a demonstration in front of many important members of the community. They view Alex beaten and humiliated in staged examples and applaud at the apparent curing of this formerly troublesome delinquent. However the prison chaplain warns of the morality of stripping this young man, no matter how troubled, of his free will.


Alex struggles to reapply himself to the outside world. His parents have been forced to take a lodger Joe, who berates him for the way he has lived his life and treated his poor mum and dad. With nowhere to go, and unable to take part in any of his former pastimes without insufferable pain, he seeks a way to end his life painlessly at the library. Here he encounters an elderly scholar who remembers Alex from a violent mugging years ago. He berates and beats Alex, who is rescued by the police, among them his old friend Dim. The police have begun recruiting the violent youths that Alex once shared the same bloody streets with. They take him out to the countryside, violently beat him and leave him there. Injured and dazed he is taken in by a man in a country cottage. He realises this is F. Alexander, the man whose wife Alex raped in Act I, and it turns out the wife died as a result from her injuries. F. Alexander does not recognise Alex however, as the gang wore masks during their brutal attack. Alexander aims to use Alex has a political weapon against the government, as he strongly opposes their inhumane methods on which they have imposed on Alex. But Alex mistakenly reveals his past crimes to Alexander, who has arranged to take him to his flat in town. Alex is locked in, and loud classical musical is pumped into the flat. Excruciating, Alex sees the only way to end the pain to jump out the window and kill himself.

Alex awakes in hospital, his suicide attempt failed. Government officials are keen to get him on side, and offer him a well paid job. It appears that through sleep conditioning taken place while he was in a coma from the fall, the Ludovico Technique has been reversed. He agrees to support their campaign, and while paparazzi snap his picture as the officials leave, they kindly play his favourite Mozart track and Alex daydreams about sex and violence once more, before reflecting “I was cured, all right.”

A strong statement within A Clockwork Orange is that Alex isn’t truly reformed – he has no choice in behaving. He is literally unable to be violent because of the Ludovico Technique and the horror and pain he experiences when violence is used or seen.

And the final chapter – the idea that perhaps this rebellious streak (hugely overstated in the novel but obviously not quite as extreme in reality) is in us all, and it is something we will grow out of. Alex, towards the end, is growing bored. He has a new set of droogs to go out and cause trouble with but he doesn’t have the same passion or vigour for it. He even begins to contemplate later life; a stunning devotchka to settle down with, and starting to raise a family.

“Where do I come into all of this? Am I just some animal or dog?’ And that started them off govoreeting real loud and throwing slovos at me. So I creeched louder still, creeching: ‘Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?”

The title is peculiar but begins to make a lot more sense after reading the novel. Alex is like a clockwork orange. He is a living, organic organism, like an orange, but through the Ludovico Technique he loses the ability to make choices, and his decisions and actions become automated. Living on the outside, clockwork within.

“The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities.”

So this would point to the central theme of the novel (or one of them) is that free will, or the choice to be good or bad/evil is vital in any community, and fundamental to mankind. This can lead to a more troubled state, with crime and suffering, but is this of more value than a safer, peaceful state engineered by the government and with the choices and free will of the people removed? We see how easy the Government in the novel is willing to manipulate Alex for their own gain; at first carrying out the brutal Ludovico Technique to turn him into a choice-less robot, then quick to reverse the process at the end of the novel in order to use his support and keep him onside.

I found the most interesting aspect of the novel is Alex’s demand to be given a choice, to be human, even when he knows full well that his choices lead him to lead a life that causes suffering and pain to others. Alex is being almost hypocritical, demanding a choice, and to be human, when he knows his choice will lead to him carry out inhuman, despicably evil acts that will rob others of their humanity.

Burgess seems to suggest that the evil Alex is more human than a clockwork orange, a ‘clockwork Christian’, a robot, one who does good but has no choice in it. But in a society, what is really more desirable? One who can make a choice, but opts to do bad; or one who can do only good? Rather than good vs evil, the novel discuss forced good versus involuntary evil. It’s a fascinating question, and while I can’t agree with Burgess – I also can’t see a straight answer.

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.


Slaughterhouse 5 follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII soldier who was present during the horrors of the Dresden bombing. A prisoner of war at the time, we read a rambled account of his life before, during and after this cataclysmic event. Rambled you ask? Yep. That’s because Billy Pilgrim time travels, subconsciously. This account of his life takes him from war-torn France to his eighteenth wedding anniversary, to his days in school to his enclosure at the zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, and eventually to his death. So it goes.

Not in any particular order mind you. Billy Pilgrim does not experience his life on a continuous plane, and nor does the reader. How anyone else would experience their lives, as a linear progression of events and ageing as time goes on, is declared absurd. At least, this is what Billy Pilgrim learns from the Tralfamadorians who abduct him and teach him about life, time, free will and the fourth dimension.

The Tralfamadorians are strange alien creatures. Their ideas on free-will and the fourth dimension hugely influence the Slaughterhouse 5’s unorthodox narrative. The events of the novel, zipping backwards and forwards from one of Billy Pilgrim’s life event to the next, is very much how the Tralfamadorians view time. They can see the 4th dimension, and are believers that everything that has happened, is happening or will happen, can’t be changed.

Rather than a straight line, they see time as assembled moments which can be experienced simultaneously, memories and experiences being ‘all at once’.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

The Tralfamadorian in the passage above speaks to Billy on the strange fascination that humanity has with the idea of free will. For them, and by the sounds of it all other life in the universe, all events are structured beyond the control of their participants. In other words, enjoy the ride. This applies to death too. Death is unavoidable and as such there is no fear of it. The Tralfamadorian saying “So it goes” is adopted by Billy Pilgrim and the narrator throughout the book, a casual saying that highlights the nonchalant approach to death. It is not an end, rather another moment that exists at the same time as all other moments one will experience in their life.

“Little Billy was terrified, because his father had said Billy was going to learn to swim by the method of sink-or-swim. His father was going to throw Billy into the deep end, and Billy was going to damn well swim.

It was like an execution. . . . [Billy] dimly sensed that somebody was rescuing him. Billy resented that.”

We can see why Billy Pilgrim finds it easy to believe the Tralfamadorians and refuse the notion of free will. The passage above shows that even at an early stage, Billy Pilgrim had little choice in his circumstances. He was going to learn to swim, and he had no choice in the matter. He would later be rescuing from drowning, and he had no choice in that either. Billy is slightly awkward and a very nervous individual, something which he attributes to his moving through time – he never knows which piece of his life he will have to perform next.

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”

Slaughterhouse 5 is a satirical anti-war novel, or at least that’s what it might appear to be upon first glance. Vonnegut himself was present during the Dresden atrocities, which makes the book somewhat semi-autobiographical. And so it would make sense for the novel to be anti-war. Who better to write it than Vonnegut, who was present and witness the destruction first hand? The unnamed narrator of the book, who introduces the life of Billy Pilgrim, is almost certainly a version of Vonnegut himself. And several times in the novel, he is mentioned as being present. When the American soldiers are emptying their upset stomachs into the latrines, the narrator is there with them. When the prisoners of war finally arrive in the German city of Dresden, the troops are enamoured by its beauty. The narrator pipes up, describing it as ‘Oz’. These mentions keep the book rooted in reality and make its impact more meaningful and believable.

After some time away from the novel (and a chance to let it sink in), I have more of an idea of what this book is meant to be. I’ve reached over for my copy of Slaughterhouse 5 more times than I can count in the last fortnight. Not to give it a proper re-read – not yet anyway – but I find myself skimming through random passages and chapters, much like Billy Pilgrim finds his mind scattered between his life’s timeline.

This is a book which cannot be pinned down by genre. It is a book of Billy Pilgrim’s search for a reasoning behind human suffering. Religion and patriotism don’t really cut it, and so Billy Pilgrim (either in his mind, or for real) leaves Earth for Tralfamadore, where you can experience your good memories and you can never die. Even before birth and after death you can sense something, before being swung back into a memory from within your lifetime.

Billy is indifferent to life. He ends up being in situations against his will – reinforcing the Tralfamadorian notion of fate over free will. He’s dragged to war in a position he hates:

“Billy was a chaplain’s assistant in the war. A chaplain’s assistant is customarily a figure of fun in the American Army. Billy was no exception. He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. In fact, he had no friends. He was a valet to a preacher, expected no promotions or medals, bore no arms, and had a meek faith in a loving Jesus which most soldiers found putrid.”

An uninspiring insipid existence which sums up most of Billy Pilgrim’s life. He stumbles through it. He doesn’t take action. A passenger in his own life. He rarely makes choices. The war, his marriage, even as he grows old his daughter walks all over him. He is an observer to the mindless violence and horror, which eventually drives him (or his mind) to another planet, somewhere where he can attempt to make sense of all this. But even then, he doesn’t discover any of this for himself – the Tralfamadorians teach him all he knows.

Billy manages to survive the Battle of the Bulge where stronger, fitter, better men perish. Fate? He is forced to continue through enemy lines by Roland Weary, a violent but equally inexperienced soldier with grand ideas of war and fighting and heroics. Frequently, exhausted and broken Billy tells Weary and the scouts who accompany them, “You go on. . .You guys go on without me. I’m all right.” But Weary forces him to continue.

Billy, at least later on in his life, seems to acknowledge this indifference to life, and is ashamed and embarrassed as it makes his relationship with his mother unbearable.

“Billy covered his head with his blanket again. He always covered his head when his mother came to see him in the mental ward – always got much sicker until she went away…She upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn’t really like life at all.”

Whilst reading I never had any doubt that Billy Pilgrim’s experiences on Tralfamadore were real; or at least he was convinced they were real. He speaks of the abduction very matter-of-factly

“Billy now shuffled down his upstairs hallway, knowing he was about to be kidnapped by a flying saucer…Billy was guided by dread and the lack of dread. Dread told him when to stop. Lack of it told him when to move again.”

The war plays a huge part of the novel, and obviously shook Vonnegut. War is described using particular experiences. Very little heroics, very few soldiers wanting to be where they are. And for the majority of the book, the soldiers we experienced are prisoners of war. They have no choice, no freedom, no control over their situations. War is not romanticised here, and characters in the book that do look upon it favourably, e.g. Roland Weary or Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, who tries to reason with Billy in a hospital ward they at one time share that Dresden was justified, are cast by Vonnegut as the villains of the piece.

“You were just babies in the war – like the ones upstairs! . . . But you’re not going to write it that way, are you. . . . You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

The wife of the narrator’s war comrade is furious to find out he is to be writing a book on the war and his experiences, as she thinks he will glamorise war. He does not – Slaughterhouse 5 reinforces the pointlessness of war, and the narrator even promises that he will call the book ‘The Children’s Crusade’, which is actually the subtitle to the book itself.

Vonnegut describes some moments that typify war and suffering, and certainly does not romanticise or glorify war in any way.

“Nobody talked much as the expedition crossed the moon. There was nothing appropriate to say. One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no moon men at all.”

In the aftermath of the firebombing that ravaged Dresden, Billy observes the calculated ruthlessness that has murdered a large proportion of a city. When the bombs dropped, no thought was given to who the targets would be – soldiers, women, children…or ironically, American prisoners of war.

“So Billy made a [syrup] lollipop for [Edgar Derby]. He opened the window. He stuck the lollipop into poor old Derby’s gaping mouth. A moment passed, and then Derby burst into tears.”

One of the most noble, senior officers, Edgar Derby, is reduced to tears after tasting syrup; so desperately starving he had been. To see someone that Billy Pilgrim looked up to, as a real gentleman and good guy, dehumanised as a victim of sufferable war, is significant.

“A middle-aged man and wife were crooning to the horses. They were noticing what the Americans had not noticed – that the horses’ mouths were bleeding, gashed by the bits, that the horses’ hooves were broken, so that every step meant agony, that the horses were insane with thirst. . .

Billy asked them in English what it was they wanted, and they at once scoled him in English for the condition of the horses. They made Billy get out of the wagon and come look at the horses. When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears. He hadn’t cried about anything else in the war.”

This is also extremely interesting albeit sad and tragic. Billy cries for the only time during the war. Why? Because of the condition of the horses? The horses are similar to Billy, and the rest of his imprisoned soliders. They are following orders, with no way of making sense of the destruction that surrounds them. Like Billy, they are innocent, but continue marching on, following orders that they can’t possibly understand.

So it becomes reasonable to assume that Billy Pilgrim, understandably, is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of what he has experienced in the war. Suddenly a lot of the strange observations and memories make more sense. Those terribly written but fantastical stories written by Kilmore Trout – a way of escaping reality, or to lose himself within the absurd plots.

When considering Billy’s nightmares, his kicking and screaming in his sleep while on the boxcart in Germany (resulting in the other soldiers unwilling to sleep next to him), easily startled and the flashbacks – not becoming unstuck in time, but relieving moments from the war that he cannot forget.

The prime example of these flashbacks is at his eighteenth wedding anniversary. A barbershop quartet performs for Billy and his fat wife, Valencia. A latent memory from Dresden is triggered, and the effect it has on Billy speaks for itself.

“Unexpectedly, Billy Pilgrim found himself upset by the song and the occasion. . . Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to the changing chords. His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade, and his face became grotesque, as though he really were being stretched on the torture engine called the rack.”

“‘You look so awful.’

‘Really – I’m O.K.’ And he was, too, except that he could find no explanation for why the song had affected him so grotesquely. He had supposed for years that he had no secrets from himself. Here was proof that he had a great big secret somewhere inside, and he could not imagine what it was.”

The whole space travel experience on Tralfamadore is now put into perspective. A way for Billy to deal with the horrors he has seen and can’t explain. An attempt to make sense of the senselessness of war. If we have no free will, and our actions are pre-determined, then it is hopeless attempting to explain and prevent such appalling events such as war and suffering. And so Billy Pilgrim creating a world for himself, where there is no free will, is his way of attempting to comfort himself, his existence and his peace of mind.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.”

This was my first Vonnegut experience, and I loved every word. The genre of Kurt Vonnegut, from what I’ve heard, is primarily a blend of satire and science-fiction. But I don’t recognise Slaughterhouse 5 as a science fiction book. Sure, Billy Pilgrim’s alien abduction and time spend on Tralfamadore comes straight from the world of science-fiction, and Kilmore Trout is introduced along with many of his bizarre fantasy books as a science-fiction writer. But these are fronts. Methods of escape used by the characters. Billy and his mental ward-mate Rosewater read these works of science fiction by a rather poor writer in Trout to escape a reality that they can, or no longer want to face. Billy escapes to Tralfamadore to find explanations to life, suffering, war and the atrocities he witnessed in Dresden.

Poo-tee-weet?” is the final phrase of the novel. Billy observes the charred landscape of a ruined Dresden, met with silence but for the song of birds. The question mark indicates this bird is asking a question, but as we cannot understand it and it makes no sense to us, we have no way of answering. I think Billy Pilgrim (and Kurt Vonnegut) realise that the question of war, and the atrocities come with it, also pose questions that we simply cannot answer. In which case, “Poo-tee-weet?” is as intelligible a thing to say at the end of a massacre as any spoken words we could actually understand when trying to describe the indescribable.

It’s a strange piece of work and anything but coherent. It has dark humour, a meandering plot; it’s beautiful and emotional as you might expect from someone who was present at the time. Make sure you read it before you ‘die’. So it goes.