Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a fantastic book. I read this one a couple of months ago and it still ranks in my top five or so books that I’ve read about this series. Up until about a year ago, I’d never considered myself even a slight fan of science fiction. And now Lost is my favorite show ever, Inception became one of my favorite movies, and this became one of my favorite books. Apparently I need to do some soul searching to figure out what genres I actually like.

Slaughterhouse-Five is¬†referenced in – and might even serve as the inspiration for – the season four episode The Constant. In this classic episode, Desmond begins jumping back and forth through time from the effects of leaving the Island and landing on the freighter. Faraday describes Desmond as having become “unstuck in time.” This is a nod to the famous first line of Slaughterhouse-Five: “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

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Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of a young American chaplain named Billy Pilgrim serving in Germany in World War II. Billy is weak and unprepared for war. He is captured by German soldiers and sent to a Dresden POW workhouse called slaughterhouse number five, where he later experienced the infamous firebombing of the city. The slaughterhouse has a deep cellar where the POWs hide with German soldiers during the Allied raids. Thanks to the protection of the cellar, Billy is one of the few survivors of the horrific bombing.

This part is semi-autobiographical. Vonnegut actually was one of the survivors of the Dresden bombings. He notes that it took him a long time to write the book because he could not bring himself to relive the trauma. The rest of the book is (presumably) not autobiographical.

Billy lives the events of his life out of order. He bounces through time with no control and is even aware of the exact date and manner in which he dies (murder on February 13, 1976). In addition to his experiences in World War II, Billy moves back and forth between his experiences throughout the rest of his life.

He is a married optometrist in the years after the war. He hates the monotony of his life and it is hard to blame him – his life is pretty dull in these years compared to the rest of his life experiences.

In the 1960s, Billy is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. He is kept in a dome with fellow human capturee and porn star Montana Whitlock. He likes Montana more than his wife, particularly when the Tralfamadorians force the two to mate.

Traflamadorians can see in four dimensions. They see time in the same way that humans see space. Traflamadorians can see not only their own entire lives, but the whole history of the universe. Billy asks why they don’t stop the end of the universe if they know what happens. The Traflamadorians simply explain that it has always happened that way, and always will. Billy does not understand this because he cannot wrap his mind around the concept that people do not actually have free will. The Traflamadorians tell Billy that Earth is the only place in the universe that the inhabitants are even aware of the concept of free will. On every other planet, the inhabitants just accept that the past, present, and future are already set.

But what about wars and when people die, Billy wonders. There are wars on Traflamadore and Traflamadorians still die, but they don’t pay attention to any of that. They don’t look in the direction of wars; they look towards peacetime. And if they want to talk to someone who is dead, they look towards a time when that someone was alive.

Billy is fatalistic. After his time on Traflamadore, that makes sense. He no longer believes in free will and meets the deaths in his life with indifference. Each time anyone dies, Billy simply shrugs – so it goes.

In his later years, Billy travels the country giving lectures about his alien encounter. His daughter does not believe him and grows increasingly worried as he becomes more unhinged. Eventually, the day comes when Billy faces his own murder at one of his lectures. So it goes.

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The obvious parallel between Billy Pilgrim and Lost is through Desmond Hume’s journey through time in The Constant. In his first time flash, Desmond wakes up in the military like Billy. Desmond is in the Royal Scots Regiment and even has a friend named Billy.

The major difference is that bouncing through time didn’t cause increasingly violent headaches, bleeding, and death for Billy. Desmond was close to death from these headaches before he made contact with his constant (Penny) and became un-unstuck in time. Billy didn’t face the same problem as Desmond, but it’s important to note that Billy also had no constant to anchor to. He did not particularly love his wife and he viewed the rest of the people in his life as merely passing acquaintances.

When Billy first becomes unstuck in time, he sees a bright violet light. The light is reminiscent of the bright violent light that overtook the Island when Desmond turned the fail-safe key to implode the Hatch. Turning the key caused Desmond to bounce around in time. On the bright side, he saw flashes of the future and was able to save Charlie’s life four times. On the down side, he was also forced to relive his past without changing a single aspect of it.

Like Lost, the book explores fate versus free will. Billy comes to the grim conclusion that free will doesn’t exist. This sounds an awful lot like Faraday’s “whatever happened, happened” theory. Of course Faraday was only referring to the past, but if you can see the future like the Traflamadorians, then “whatever happened, happened” applies to the future as well.

Finally, the Traflamadorians theory on time reminds me of a recent theory on the Island, first enunciated by Doc Jensen on EW.com and explained more fully here. In short, the theory is this:

The Island is the main character of the show. It absorbs the memories and experiences of every person that sets foot on it. All the flashbacks from the first three seasons? That was the Island spitting those out.

In season five, Locke, Sawyer, Juliet, Miles, Faraday, and Jin are jumping through time. They come to the well and Locke climbs down to put the wheel back on its axis. When he is halfway down, the well disappears. We later see in the season six episode Across the Sea that the Man in Black helped the Roman settlers build the well around 2,000 years ago. So the Losties are now at some point in the past before Jacob sent the Man in Black into the Island’s core and turned him into the Smoke Monster.

Now, through the memories of the Losties, the Island is aware of its own future and it can’t do anything about it. Jacob and the Man in Black can’t kill each other because of a never explained rule. The theory holds that it is the Island making these rules – the Man in Black can’t kill Jacob precisely because the Island already knows that Jacob is alive 2,000 years later.

A strange theory to be sure. I’m not sure I buy it, but it does sound like the Traflamadorians and Billy’s outlook on life. They view the future as already having happened. Just like the Island, there is nothing they can do to stop it. And why would they bother? It happened. And whatever happened, happened.

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