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Kurt Vonnegut escapes the prison of time - Part II

How fiction writers can set us free

Martin Griffiths 18 August 2013

On the clock: only imagination can fly ahead

The only way Vonnegut could write the book was to see the events through the eyes of someone else, to cover his anxiety when recalling the terrible things he had witnessed

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the conclusion of a two-part essay on Kurt Vonnegut's use of time in his fiction. Use the navigation tool above right to catch up on the first part if you missed it.

Dreams of time travel using a machine are not the only basis within fiction that writers have used to explore the concept of temporal space. One of the most interesting, if not confusing, was employed by Kurt Vonnegut in his novel Slaughterhouse 5, and he retained many of the ideas of time travel invented in this book to explore possibilities within other novels he penned. Taken as a set, these books can be seen as passing in and through each other to comprise an interlocking biography of characters mentioned from the various perspectives presented by each individual story, with Slaughterhouse 5 tying all the time-like threads together to form a whole. In this novel, no machine is used to overcome the bounds of time; the protagonist simply slips between different times in his life as easily as one can blink. The time travel in Slaughterhouse 5 is simply used as a literary method of exploring the exploits of the hero, Billy Pilgrim. The novel also questions the whole concept of time as explained by physicists during the 20th Century.

Slaughterhouse 5 is generally considered Kurt Vonnegut's masterwork; it is certainly his best known text, and captured the imagination of an entire generation upon its publication in 1969, propelling Vonnegut from science fiction underground favorite into the top ranks of late 20th century literature. Throughout this work, we encounter the characters of many of his other novels, almost as if we were experiencing chronology in a similar fashion to the aliens whose concept of time is portrayed within this book. As one reads the novel, one meets many memorable eccentrics, all of whom loom large in the Vonnegut canon: Eliot Rosewater, Howard W. Campbell and the inimitable Kilgore Trout, “the world's greatest science fiction writer”, believed by some critics to be Kurt Vonnegut's alter ego. Each of these characters have their own Vonnegut novels to inhabit, but like Billy Pilgrim traveling through time, they appear almost out of nowhere just as Billy can see different events with a twitch of his memory. We meet Eliot Rosewater in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Howard W. Campbell, who crosses Billy's path in Dresden, has his story told in Mother Night. As for Kilgore Trout, his main story is told in Breakfast Of Champions, although Kilgore Trout pops up just about everywhere in Vonnegut’s novels.

It is this quality of character repetition that makes reading Vonnegut’s novels almost a journey through time itself. His ideas of time and how it is perceived are returned to in other novels he later penned, most notably Timequake, which I shall describe below. In the meantime, an examination of Slaughterhouse 5 will set the scene for the ideas of time travel and their consequences portrayed in his other works

Vonnegut himself considered Slaughterhouse 5 to have been a work-in-progress for the 24 years prior to its publication, as it is the great anti-war novel he was determined to write, but could not bring himself to finish, partly due to a lack of interest on the part of those who also experienced the war and also because the memories of his experiences were too painful. Thereafter, the only way Vonnegut could write the book was to build a schizophrenic attitude into the main character and cover his feelings with hype, science fiction nonsense and time travel – to see the events as if through the eyes of someone else in an Alice-in-Wonderland fashion that covered his anxiety when recalling the terrible things he had witnessed.

The resulting book is the semi-autobiographical account of Vonnegut’s experience of the Dresden fire bombing in the closing year of WWII. It tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, survivor of the firestorm, who finds peace of mind after being kidnapped by an alien race known as the Tralfamadorians (which we also come across in Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan) and through them learns that the secret of life is to live only in the happy moments. Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the almost mythical journey of our own lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to acknowledge – that death is all around, and comes to us all in various guises, that life is hard and filled with disappointments. This and other works impinge upon spiritual and religious concepts regarding predestination, immortality and the meaning of life. Billy Pilgrim finds meaning via traveling through time to the best moments of life, and accepting, as the Tralfamadorians do, that death and destruction are merely small parts in an endless stream of time. Therein lies the key to understanding the concept of time proposed by Vonnegut. His aliens consider time in a particular way:

All moments, past, present and future always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments of time in just the same way as we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. They can see how permanent all of these moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them…
(Slaughterhouse 5 Vonnegut Vintage Press 1989:19)

Billy Pilgrim’s predicament includes suffering as a prisoner of war; his eyewitness account of the inhuman destruction of a city that was unimportant and undefended; his life as an optometrist and marriage to an unmarriageable daughter of a wealthy optometrist, thus securing his financial future; and his adventures after being abducted by the Trafamadorians who exhibit him in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. To make his captivity pleasant, the Tralfamadorians have also abducted a mate for him – a porn star named Montana Wildhack with whom he has a child, and together they learn to live out their captivity in philosophical contentment, occasionally wandering back to the past or future in Tralfamadorian fashion.

Billy is kidnapped when he is 44 years of age, but due to the concept of absolute time, all his life has already been mapped out, and Billy simply has to wander through it picking out the best parts. This ability has a dreamlike quality, one that we may wish we could emulate, spending our lives under the blazing noon of pleasant memories without having the anguish of suffering pain, depression, frustration and anger.

Writers have used time travel as a device for many different purposes: to explore mankind’s past or future, to comprehend what the past was like, or to meet important people. To see new technologies and sciences of the future and laud the capabilities of mankind. Vonnegut does none of this. In a brave break with SF time travel tradition, he uses the idea of time travel to accomplish personal happiness – he, in the form of Billy Pilgrim, travels through time for selfish reasons, and alludes to the narcissist in all of us – all we would be interested in if we had the possibility of time travel is to enjoy ourselves to the best of our abilities – tp live in the best years of our lives.

This in itself, I feel, is a fascinating idea that does not detract from the humanist approach of Wells or other writers with regard to time travel. It simply acknowledges the human spirit and attitude of us all – we are slaves of our inward desires – and we all wish for a measure of happiness, security and comfort. Vonnegut brings these qualities out brilliantly in Pilgrim’s personality, and also teaches us that we will be happy if, like the Tralfamadorians, we forget the concept of time travel as a means of altering human progress, but instead transcend time, which we can do nothing about, by accepting the good along with the bad – a concept encapsulated in the often-repeated phrase the Tralfamadorians use to explain terrible events – So it Goes.

It is the freedom to slip between different moments of time and see his life from the viewpoint of the Tralfamadorians that make Billy’s life bearable. It is also an instrument Vonnegut uses to include the characters we have described above fit into his other novels.

Reading Vonnegut is almost like becoming familiar with a family over a period of years. You get to know the main players and his novels become an almost continuous theme on these persons. It’s almost like meeting a member of that family after not encountering them for some time: one simply picks up where you left that character in the last instance. This in some respects mirrors the Tralfamadorian concept of time – we can regard each moment we meet these characters as already constructed in absolute time – or as the Tralfamadorians tell Billy:

Time can be likened to a fly trapped in amber – we see each moment in time as if it is frozen – it has always occurred and always will occur. All time is all time, it does not change or lend itself to explanations – it simply is. Take it moment by moment and you will find that we are all bugs in amber…
(Slaughterhouse 5 Vonnegut 1989:62)

Vonnegut also touches upon the theme of immortality. One of the underlying reasons why people in SF travel through time is not only to see different events in time or foretell the future, but to stretch their allotted span of life, and to seemingly live for eternity. In the Tralfamadorian viewpoint of time, everything and everyone is immortal because they are alive somewhere in time. As Billy Pilgrim informs us:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies, he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. When the Tralfamadorians look at a dead person, they merely think that he is not doing very well at that particular moment, so they pick other moments in which to see him alive and well…
(Slaughterhouse 5 Vonnegut 1989:19)

This is a comforting vision that is the closest to mainstream religious ideals that Vonnegut ever gets. One of the undercurrents in many of his works is this loss of belief and his comical examination of the failure of religion to address the concerns of modern man. The twin motifs of religion and time travel come together in The Sirens of Titan, where a new religion – the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent – makes humanity responsible for its actions rather than blaming everything on the concept of an absent supernatural being.

In Sirens, the anti-hero Winston Niles Rumford is caught in a time travel loop called a chronosynclastic infundibulum. Every 59 days he visits earth with the realization that all time is absolute and laid out – unalterable by any man. Rumford uses this to his advantage as he can see the future and makes predictions based on what he can see. Again the fixed and absolute nature of time is addressed here – why pray to god if everything is foreordained and will come to pass anyway? Rumford realizes that he must force mankind to accept the future for what it is, not what they would want it to be.

In this state of time travel Rumford comes across a visitor from Tralfamadore who is trapped on Saturn’s moon Titan awaiting a crucial part to repair his ship. Once again we see the dreamlike quality of time and character emerge in Vonnegut’s world, a world that deliberately uses weird time travel methods to examine the human condition.

This weirdness is played out well in the novel Timequake, in which the entire universe jumps backwards ten years, from 2001 to 1991 and then begins to move forward again. Rather than allow people the chance to correct the mistakes they made, everyone is forced to relive those ten years exactly as they had lived them the first time through – a Tralfamadorian motif of fixed time.

Timequake is a metafictional account of Vonnegut's attempts to write the original version of this novel, which Vonnegut struggled with for almost ten years. Vonnegut's memories of his family and friends is interspersed with the story of the old science fiction author, Kilgore Trout, who has lived through the ten year re-run and is now coming to terms with the return, as Trout calls it, of free will.

Timequake is an interesting book that covers familiar themes that are also encompassed in Slaughterhouse 5, such as family life, traditional values and small-town America. In Timequake, Vonnegut turns his attention to the rise of technology while lamenting the decline of moral virtues, reading, family-life and ties to a single area – a love of the homestead. Family is obviously an important anchor for Vonnegut, one that is serialized in Slaughterhouse 5 with Billy Pilgrim’s wife and children on Earth, and his relationship with Montana Wildhack on Tralfamadore. Through Timequake, he keeps track of a wide variety of siblings, uncles, children, wives and ex-wives, etc, all with the dreamlike quality of time we see used in Slaughterhouse 5. He generally has good family relationships and is also a successful writer while his alter ego, Kilgore Trout, is an unsuccessful author and has no family. When Trout does gain some success in Timequake after the rerun has concluded, he has also gained a family of sorts in the kind of paradox that reality prohibits but Vonnegut’s doctrines of time and spirituality allow.

His works, from Slaughterhouse 5, The Sirens of Titan to Timequake, use the trappings of science fiction as a framework for his satire. They serve to put his characters into strange situations, whether a zoo on Tralfamadore or the rerun of a timequake or a chronosynchlastic infundibulum, allowing the foibles of human existence to show through – the very reason why time travel in SF literature was invented. By creating impossible or absurd situations, Vonnegut pressures us to consider the idea of time as a means to happiness, the march of personal progress from angles not conceived of before. The message is simple: live for today, rely upon yourself and accept things as they are – there is no other reality.